Thursday, October 13, 2011
Alexis Smith had a rare opportunity to stretch her acting muscles in “The Constant Nymph” (1943), discussed here in Monday’s post. She remains for me a mystery, a particularly interesting actress both for her ability, which I suspect was far greater than she was usually allowed to demonstrate; and especially for that very fact that she wasn’t allowed to demonstrate it very often.
Odd, when you consider she was plucked out of college to be fashioned into “The Dynamite Girl” by Warner Bros., subjected to the usual flurry of sexy publicity photos, and was soon paired with greats such as Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Clark Gable, and Fredric March. (We’ve covered “Conflict” -1945 here, and “Any Number Can Play” - 1949, here.)
Despite easily being able, whether the material was good or not, to shine in her roles, sometimes steal scenes outright just by the force of her own splendid magnetism, she was often relegated to parts where she played little more than a type: a clothes horse, an ice princess, an elegant but haughty love interest.
In the 1950s, when her contract at Warners ended, she had fewer roles if a bit more variety in them. Also, time was catching up and she endured a series of those older repressed woman roles, the typical leavings of that era for aging actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Aging? She was only in her 30s at the time.
So, what seems strange about her career is not so much missed opportunities of roles she never got, but that she was chronically under-used. The characters she played never went far enough or deep enough. It takes a special kind of actress to enhance what is not on the page.
“Here Comes the Groom” (1951), discussed here, where, as a second lead, she plays the awkward, lovelorn goof, too gangly and socially inept to get out of her own way. It’s as if she’s making fun of her earlier ice maiden roles. Bing Crosby teaches her how to be a hot tomato.
At one point he asks her why she wears ugly, sensible shoes.
“Because I’m too tall, if you must know!” she blurts out with building hysteria, which is endearing, as if it is her most embarrassing secret.
It seems too simple, but I can’t help wondering if that was it all along. In a 1980 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she noted that, "At the time, only cute little girls did musicals…It doesn't work out so badly now, but when you're 5 feet 9 in high school, you'd give anything to be a cute little girl."
Did her height set her off as patrician and aloof, and austere? Did her striking appearance make her a square peg?
What a waste.
Now the calendar pages flip furiously and we jump a few decades into the future. Have a look here at this cover from Time Magazine, May 3, 1971. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
(Wipes her glasses on her shirt tail. Hums the first two acts of the score of “Rigoletto”. Sharpens a couple of pencils.)
Back? Good. You have to pull that screen door or it won’t shut.
That’s Alexis, at 50 years old, svelte, sexy, and doing a chorus girl’s high kick in the Broadway show “Follies” at the Winter Garden. Resurrecting a wobbly career that had died and given up the ghost. So people thought.
The cover of Time.
It’s been called the biggest career comeback ever. (Here’s the lead the article by Peter De Vries.)
“Follies”, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, was a remarkable production for many reasons. Since I’m not sure how many theatre buffs read this blog, I’ll just say it was a groundbreaker and leave it at that. It is a complex show, where several aging “Follies” stars must revisit the aspirations, and mistakes, of their former selves (which are moving about the stage like ghosts). Alexis, similarly, may have been working out a lot of demons about her real former film career while on this gig.
This gig, for which Alexis Smith won the Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical.
Best actress in a musical. Hear that, Jack Warner?
Author Ted Chapin, who wrote “Everything Was Possible - The Birth of the Musical ‘Follies’” (Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2003), mentions Alexis Smith being overheard during rehearsal after reading another publicity article where she was inevitably and tiresomely pronounced “tall and striking”.
“She remarked: ‘I wish I could someday play someone short and fat.’” (pp. 56-57)
And here she is below, the tall girl, doing her big, flashy number from “Follies” in her now iconic red dress. Just having a clip, any clip, from a Broadway show is a treasure because it’s so rare, especially in those days when people didn't have cell phones and tiny video recorders to sneak into the mezzanine and secretly tape stuff.
Michael Bennett’s choreography from this show is fantastic (of course it was, it was by Michael Bennett), and you get a hint of it here, the inventive placement of male chorus dancers with their backs to the audience, navigating a multilevel raked set. It’s not the best quality video or audio, but heaven bless the person who cleaned it up and shared it. Note how the tempo picks up as the song moves along. By the end of the song, the pace is frenetic. Alexis doesn’t miss a beat.
She’s 50 years old. She’s hustling like a 20-year-old theatre gypsy.
Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, and Errol Flynn are dead. Cary Grant’s retired.
She’s not being dubbed with someone else’s voice, like she was in “San Antonio” (1945).
She is not wearing a body mic.
The director/producer was looking for old movie queen has-beens (Yvonne De Carlo also had a memorable minor role in the show) to push the drama and the pathos, and the angst of aging. What better people to illustrate faded dreams than by using performers whose careers were long behind them and never did live up to their potential?
The tall girl shoved it all down their throats.
Remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page and mute the music so you can hear the video.
After many script changes in the out of town tryouts, she was given this new number to learn at the 11th hour. Again, here from Ted Chapin’s book: “Alexis Smith was quietly working away. No one was aware of it, but she was working harder and pushing herself further than anyone else.” (p.63)
When given the football, she surprised everyone.
“…For the cold, regal woman who spit out acid remarks all night long to emerge in red fringe, revealing a terrific pair of legs, and dance up a storm -- well, that was revelatory. And it had turned out that Alexis was also a really good actress, well able to get laughs, be hard-edged when called upon…when it came to pure showbiz, it was the sexy movie lady in the red dress who won the day -- and stole the show.” (p.283).
Here’s another clip, a song from that same show, but performed 14 years later in 1985 as part of the “Best of Broadway” TV special from the PBS “Great Performances” series. She was 63 years old here, still spitting her character’s protective sarcasm borne of years of hurtful neglect. I expect she knew something about that, professionally speaking. There is a live studio audience, but since this is set up specifically for TV, she must obviously play to the cameras as well. Look how pointedly she hits her marks. That’s a movie star.
And a Broadway star. She did some other shows. In 1979, the year after studio head Jack Warner died, she won another Tony nomination for her role in the musical “Platinum.”
With the passing years she seemed to grow into that patrician elegance that the Warner Bros. studio decided she should have had at 20. It came more naturally to her now. She had fun with it sometimes, in regional theater, a few more films and TV guest spots. She was nominated for an Emmy for a guest role in 1990 on the NBC series “Cheers”. She was 69 years old.
She was said to be well-liked by movie crews back in the day, was a hard worker, and fanatically took lessons on various subjects most of her life, a disciplined, intelligent woman who followed her curiosity with passion. In middle age, she was still taking singing and dancing lessons.
She once famously remarked that she never watched her movies on TV because they weren’t that good when they were made and probably would not have improved with time. Still, she made her characters as interesting as she could from whatever lofty perspective she had on life at 22, at 30, at 39, at 69…
I suspect she always had; but we were allowed only glimpses -- if someone passed her the football.