Monday, September 24, 2012

Victor Jory - On Stage and Screen




In the summer of 1952 Victor Jory toured the eastern summer theatre circuit with Alexis Smith in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives”. The sophisticate role was a natural for Miss Smith, who was typecast as such by Hollywood since her film career began some 12 years previously. But it was an even more natural fit for Victor Jory, who had a much longer film career, and a much, much longer stage career. Hollywood had already typecast Jory as a scruffy villain. On stage, he was urbane, witty, and devilishly charming. His second home on stage is proof that not all Hollywood character actors are what they seem.

This is my entry into the “What A Character” blogathon, sponsored by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula's Cinema Club, and Once Upon a Screen. Running from September 22nd through the 24th, favorite character actors take center stage.

From the Boston Daily Globe August 12, 1952: “The Boston Summer Theatre may be air-cooled but it sizzled last night with the heat engendered by Victor Jory kissing decorative Alexis Smith in that famous second act of “Private Lives”…I never saw…quite as much vigor and passion as Miss Smith and Mr. Jory, who seemed to enjoy every second of the sophisticated romp…The dialogue is light, witty and thoroughly naughty; the acting should be on the same order. And Miss Smith and Mr. Jory live up to audience expectations. It was a wonderful evening and the audience was capacity.”

Alexis Smith had minimal stage experience when she was in college, but Victor Jory had played stock theatre everywhere from his early apprenticeship at the Pasadena Playhouse to stages across the continent and as far as Australia. He played Shakespeare, Ibsen, Moliere, and Shaw. He wrote plays, and directed.

A year later, Miss Smith and Mr. Jory took another summer tour, this time with “Bell, Book and Candle.” From the Boston Daily Globe, June 28, 1953, Alexis credits Victor Jory, who directed, for teaching her stagecraft: “I can’t believe that anyone in the whole world could have taught me as much as Victor has about my job. Working with him is better than any training school of the theatre you ever heard of. Mr. Jory has a vast amount of experience and he is willing to share it. Some actors are reticent when it comes to giving newcomers tricks of the trade. Victor is generous and kind. He has taught me all I know about legitimate theatre.”

When she first met Jory, she had a different impression. This was on the set of her film “South of St. Louis” (1949), which we discussed here. Jory played a nasty villain. She thought him a “rather horrible person” who was, “dirty, bewhiskered and wearing baggy pants.”

This had become Jory’s fate by the 1940s. Syndicated Hollywood columnist Bob Thomas visited the set of “South of St. Louis”, as picked up by the St. Petersburg, Florida Evening Independent June 14, 1948:

“Victor Jory, the mug they love to slug, was being pummeled by Joel McCrea when I visited the “South of St. Louis” set. The poor guy was being bounced all over the barroom…”

In his acting career, Jory noted in that article he had broken his collarbone twice, five ribs, a thumb and a toe, received numerous cuts and bruises. In private life, he was much better able to handle Joel McCrea or anybody else. A champion amateur boxer, (and a champion wrestler as well as boxer while in the U.S. Coast Guard) he held his own both in the ring, and out of it when provoked.

It had been, first, a hardscrabble childhood. He was born in Alaska and spent his babyhood in the Yukon where his parents had attempted, unsuccessfully, to try their luck during the Gold Rush. They separated at his birth (though Jory’s birthday is always listed as November 1902, there is some information supplied by his daughter, Jean Jory Anderson on a website dedicated to Jory family genealogy that her father was actually born the following April 1903, with some speculation as to his natural father). His mother was a newspaperwoman, and she and her son scraped by financially for many years.

They came back to the US and he spent his childhood in Oregon and California, and then to Vancouver, where he juggled both acting and boxing.

In an article by Nancy Anderson in the Oxnard, California Press-Courier from March 13, 1977, Jory recalled, “I did both, because my mother and I were very poor and we needed all the money I could earn.”

The boxing matches started at 7:30 in the evening, and the theater curtain rose at 8:30. It was a tight squeeze.

“I could get $7.50 a week fighting in Vancouver. Then I could run over to the theater and do my walk-on and get another $1.50 a night.”

It was with another stock company in Denver that he met his future wife, actress Jean Inness. They eloped and were married 50 years until her death in 1978. They appeared together on stage on many occasions.

His first crack at Hollywood came in 1930. In the early years he had a few opportunities to play the romantic lead, such as in “Party Wire” (1935) with Jean Arthur. Here is a smooth-faced, handsome Victor Jory saving the day when his lady friend is threatened by vicious gossip.

He played Lamont Cranston in “The Shadow” serial, but hero roles were for the most part denied him. We are fortunate to have “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935), which we discussed here, as an example of Jory’s Shakespearean talents. He is the masterful Oberon, King of the Fairies in one of Hollywood’s unusual forays into an artistic film rather than a purely commercial one. His voice is perfect for Shakespeare, with precise intonation and resonant pitch such as actors develop only with stage experience.

Probably he is best remembered as Jonas Wilkerson, the smarmy overseer in “Gone With the Wind” (1939), a brief role that carried him into film villainy for at least a couple of decades.

A film he did later in his career, “The Miracle Worker” (1962) moves him from villain to just bombastic curmudgeon in the role of Captain Keller, the father of Helen Keller. He is marvelous in the role, and though a foil for the new teacher, Annie Sullivan, played by Anne Bancroft, we become sympathetic with this blustering, aging ex-Confederate officer largely through Jory’s heartfelt performance.

We see his difficult relationship with his grown son by a former marriage. His tenderness with his new young wife, played by Inga Swenson. In this screen cap, we see her horror and his intensity as they suddenly discover their infant daughter Helen can neither see, nor hear them. He shouts, shrieks into her face and claps his hands to make noise, but the baby does not respond.

Later in the movie, we see his weariness, his suspicion of Annie Sullivan’s methods, his disdain for her strong personality. Finally, we see his awe, his heartbreaking sense of wonder when the child Helen, played by Patty Duke, learns to communicate. He was not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, but he should have been.

Reminiscing on his career with Gary Luhr of the Bowling Green, Kentucky Daily News, May 4, 1971, Jory recalled some 140 films under his belt, 480 stage shows at that time, 500 TV shows, and 200 radio programs. He also wrote a travel column. His passions were fishing, and collecting recipes. Jory was a gourmet cook. One wonders if Alexis Smith, who later became a gourmet cook and voracious collector of recipes herself, was as inspired by Victor Jory in cooking as she was in theatre.

At the time of that article, Jory and his wife were living in Louisville, Kentucky, where they performed in several shows at the Louisville Actors Theatre. Their son, Jon, was the producing director of that prestigious regional theater for over three decades. There are three performance spaces at the Louisville Actors Theatre. The smallest, opened in April 1973, is named the Victor Jory Theatre.

Though Alexis Smith’s first unpleasant memory of Victor Jory was as a filthy saddle tramp in “South of St. Louis”, they both did actually appear in “Lady with Red Hair” (1940) some nine years earlier. He had a small role in this Miriam Hopkins and Claude Rains feature, and Alexis had an uncredited walk-on as Girl at Wedding. It is possible they never met. Coincidentally, her future husband, Craig Stevens, also had an uncredited walk-on. Not so coincidentally, Bess Flowers showed up, too. What were you expecting?

After “South of St. Louis”, Alexis and Victor Jory worked on one more film together, “Cave of Outlaws” (1951). He’s still a villain here, but considerably cleaned up, a man of wealth and power.  He vies with Macdonald Carey for the love of the typically cool and aloof Alexis.  He gets beaten up again.

It was on the set of “Cave of Outlaws” where she and Victor got to know each other better. They talked of theatre, of his experience in it, and her desire to pursue it. They formed the plan of working together. In the following year, they found themselves in an unexpected hit in “Private Lives”.

The next year, they met with further success in “Bell, Book and Candle”. Their performances were sold out, largely on the strength of their previous hit.  From the Lewiston (Maine) Evening Journal, July 3, 1953. Smith and Jory “broke all attendance records at the same theater last year with their presentation of ‘Private Lives’.” They had opened their tour of “Bell, Book and Candle” in Ogunquit, Maine at the famed Ogunquit Playhouse “to the pleasure of all that saw them there.”

Hollywood was entering a precarious period in the early 1950s. Between the studios cutting back on productions, the court-mandated breaking up of movie theater properties, the competition from television, and the Communist witch hunts going on in the industry, actors were being booted out from the system or else voluntarily fleeing for work on the stage or television. It was, not so coincidentally, one of the most celebrated periods of summer theatre, a time when great names and great plays were brought together, and the stage flourished.

Hollywood columnist Bob Thomas noted the loss of acting jobs in the film industry, syndicated in the Waycross (Georgia) Journal-Herald, September 18, 1953. The article’s ominous headline:

Situation Looks

Grim for Persons

Seeking Film Jobs

He interviewed actor William Holden, who at that time was Vice President of the Screen Actors Guild. Mr. Holden noted that MGM was planning to produce 18 films that year, compared to 40 or 50 films per year done in the past. Paramount was slotted to make 12 movies, and Fox was also slated to make only 12. TV became a haven for struggling actors, not just new actors, but the old character actors who could comfortably fit into several movies a year, even if they grumbled about being typecast as the maid or the heavy. At least they had work. Now, there was little to go around.

Victor Jory already had that problem licked. He was a working actor. The stage was his second home.

Holden noted, “The stage offers a lot more work, particularly in summer theatre. Alexis Smith and Victor Jory just came back from a long tour and made a lot of money.”

To moviegoers, Jory may have been the smarmy Jonas Wilkerson, or the grimy saddle tramp, but to stage audiences he was the witty and urbane sophisticate. The playboy. He was Henry VIII. He was a character actor in that he could play anybody.  Tennessee Williams' "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof".  Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman".  Roles of depth and substance, and fine writing that was worthy of his talent.  On stage, he was the star.

Please have a look at the other blogs participating in the What A Character blogathon.

Stop by my New England Travels blog tomorrow for a bit more on Victor Jory’s and Alexis Smith’s New England summer theatre tours.



22 comments:

Moira Finnie said...

How great it is to see someone giving a nod to Victor Jory in this marathon (which I knew nothing about, having been offline).

One of the films that Jory appeared in during the early '30s when he still hoped to break through into leading man roles was a heckuva melodrama set in the Sahara, "The Devil's in Love (1933-William Dieterle). He played a medico with a past hiding out in the Foreign Legion and Loretta Young was an innocent young woman he becomes involved with during the film, (though off-screen, Young reportedly was definitely not enamored of her co-star--she had hoped for Gary Cooper).

Despite the hackneyed storyline, this film revealed a different Jory to me, one capable of pulling off an occasional love scene and a gift for portraying a particularly anguished soul. It also featured Bela Lugosi as a suave French prosecutor in an early attempt to escape his ghoulish typecasting.

Your blog also made me recall an interview with James Garner when he expressed his deep admiration for Jory, who was a bit of a mentor for the movie star and appeared with him on The Rockford Files near the end of his life.

Thanks for writing about this fine character actor whose range was much broader than movie audiences knew.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Moira. I've not seen "The Devil's in Love", but I'll keep watch. I'm glad to hear of James Garner's admiration for Jory. That's sweet. I really respect actors who do theatre, as the demands are so great. Jory had enormous talent, and was apparently so well-rounded in his career and in his life that he deserves to be remembered.

Chess Key said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chess Key said...

I really enjoyed this information on Victor Jory. In the movies I have seen with him, he has been a side character, so it is good to read about him in a different light.

As a Literature and Film student, it is refreshing to find out about his theater side and his roles in Shakespeare plays.

The quotes from reviews were a very good input in the post. It really gave me a feel for how people viewed him in theater back then. I only wish I could see him on stage now!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Chess Key. Your courses as a Literature & Film student must be interesting. I wish I could have seen Victor Jory on stage, too.

Irish Jayhawk said...

What a great piece on Victor Jory! I had no idea of all his many contributions on both stage and screen. When I think of him, I think of the diversity of his roles from GONE WITH THE WIND to THE MIRACLE WORKER and the scruffy western roles too. It was fascinating to also discover his early personal story with your post. Thanks again for contributing to our lil blogathon!...Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled aka @IrishJayhawk66

Kevin Deany said...

Love Victor Jory, and especially loved the background on his life. I guess it's true what they say, the actors who play the bad guys on screen are often the nicest and most considerate off screen.

Many, many years ago (OK, decades), I attended CCD classes at the local Catholic church and one afternoon they showed a black and white education short about Father Damien and Molokai. Victor Jory was in the cast and I recognized him, mainly from his turn in "Dodge City", which I had just seen. Plus, I'm sure I recognized him from other things.

I don't know if this was a short or an old TV show. It was black and white, that's all I remember. Anyway, when the movie was over the teacher wanted to know what we thought. I raised my hand and said I recognized one of the actors, the ringleader of the people who wanted to kick Fr. Damien off the island. It was Victor Jory. I remember the other kids giving me the oddest looks and the teacher glaring at me. Apparently, not the type of discussion he wanted.

I later learned to keep my mouth shut for awhile about such things, such as the time (at regular school) we watched yet another educational short that had a score by Elmer Bernstein. I kept my mouth shut that time. But I was pretty excited.

Despite all the times I've seen Victor Jory, I will always remember him as one of the bad guys in "Dodge City", and in that Fr. Damien short.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you Kellee and Kevin.

Kevin, I loved the story about your CCD film buff experience. Now, if I had been your teacher, I'd have given you a star for the day. That's pretty keen actor spotting.

tonyarice said...

I must admit that I was only familiar with Victor Jory's work in GWTW and The Miracle Worker. This is exceptional insight and I'm looking forward to seeing his work with Alexis Smith. Oh, how great it would be to see some type of clip of his stage presence! He sounds mesmerizing! Definitely looking forward to your post tomorrow!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, tonyarice, and thank you. Unfortunately, his screen encounters with Alexis are not as exciting as they must have been on stage. I would love to see something of his stage work, too. Thanks again.

Caftan Woman said...

I suspected the commanding Victor Jory was a well-rounded stage star, especially when watching "A Midsummer Night's Dream", but what a thrill to learn the details of his worthy career.

Congratulations on a thoroughly marvelous article.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, CW. Any guy who's the Light-Heavyweight Champion of British Columbia must be pretty swell.

silverscreenings said...

Wow! I had NO IDEA he had made so many movies & stage appearances. What a prolific career! Thanks for writing about him - I really knew nothing about his life.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

It's been a great blogathon. There are so many wonderful characters actors the other bloggers have covered about whom I knew little or nothing about, too.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Superb profile of a great character actor (my favorite role being an unexpected one in THE MIRACLE WORKER). I lived near Louisville for many years and remember seeing his photo in the Center for the Performing Arts.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you very much. I love his work in "The Miracle Worker", too. Wish I could have seen him on stage.

The Gal Herself said...

"The mug they love to slug." LOVE THAT LINE! And it seems true, whether "they" happens to be Vivien Leigh or Andrew Prine, Victor Jory's characters did seem to have a gift for getting under his co-stars' skins. This was a lovely recap of the career of a resourceful and talented working actor.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Herself. Thanks very much. Victor Jory won plenty of fights in real life, but I wonder if he ever won any in the movies? The mug they love to slug, indeed.

Yvette said...

I love Victor Jory. I remember some of the movies you mention in your wonderful post, Jacqueline. He must have been mesmerizing on stage.

He had a particularly unique way of speaking - can't call it an impediment, it was just something oddly unique. Do you know what I mean?

I remember him as the 'mesmerizer' (literally) in CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO.
He was wonderful.

I haven't seen THE MIRACLE WORKER in ages, maybe it's time for a re-watch. It was such a riveting film.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Yvette, so glad to hear from another Victor Jory fan. He did have a distinctive speaking voice. They had voices then.

Vienna said...

Thanks for great tribute to Victor Jory whom I like, especially in a couple of films where he isn't the villain!
In FIGHTING MAN OF THE PLAINS, Victor does his best to help Randolph Scott and becomes a good friend to Scott's character. Such a contrast to Victor's usual roles.
I also liked him in a little B, THE UNKNOWN GUEST where he is the leading man
I had no idea Victor and Alexis Smith did two plays together - thanks for the information. Oh to have seen them!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Vienna. I love how everyone keeps contributing these titles of Victor Jory movies. I'm going to have quite a list of choices to blog about someday.

I wish I could have seen Victor and Alexis on stage, too. It's amazing how many Hollywood stars worked in summer theatre in the 1950s.