Thursday, January 30, 2014

Kismet - 1955

Kismet (1955), a lush and lavish musical, carries the tarnished reputation of being made by a director who hated the project, who disliked most of his cast, and couldn’t wait to get it over with, yet I think this truly lovely spectacle deserves a better legacy.  It succeeds despite the spite of its director, the poor box office showing, and the decades of dismissal by critics who, perhaps, were more than unduly influenced by director Vincente Minnelli’s disdain.

It was shot between May and July 1955 (a few additional retakes were done in early August by Stanley Donen), when Ann Blyth was 26 years old and pregnant with her second child.  It would be her last movie musical, and the one that truly allowed her to unleash her magnificent trained lyric soprano voice to its fullest advantage.  It gave her signature tunes to sing in concert for the rest of her life.

She started her film career in musicals at the age of 15 when Universal plunked her in four in a row “Mickey-and-Judy” type shows, only in this case it was Ann and Donald O’Connor.  They were light, teenage peppy, and a little goofy, a pleasant introduction for Ann to filmmaking and a pleasant introduction for the audience to this bright new talent.  (We’ll talk about them in a later post).  After her unexpected casting in Mildred Pierce when she was 16, Ann’s film career took a sharp turn for the dramatic, and it was some time before she had an opportunity to do a musical again.  She wanted to do drama; she wanted to do musicals.  She just didn’t want to do either exclusively.  Studios, however, wanted to “brand” their actors and seldom allowed a variety of challenges.

When Ann Blyth came to MGM, she hoped to finally have a go at some big-budget musicals for which that studio was famous, and though The Great Caruso, The Student Prince, and Rose Marie each gave her a whack at the famous Freed Unit at MGM, Kismet was the most fulfilling of the promise of her talent.  The Student Prince and Rose Marie, though colorful, were, by 1950s standards, pretty worn material and neither did that well at the box office.  Kismet, however, had just come off a very splashy and successful Broadway run, closing only a few weeks before this film went into production.  Its tunes were based mostly on the work of Aleksandr Borodin, and the song “Strangers in Paradise” was already a huge hit and had become solidly a part of the pop canon.
A magazine poll chose Ann and Gordon McRae for the leads in Oklahoma, but the female lead went to Shirley Jones, and with musicals on the decline, Kismet must have seemed like a great break.  It was a rollicking fable in the style of the tales of Scherazade, a world of Persian opulence and color, and vivid characters from all walks of life.

Ann plays Marsinah, the daughter of a poor street poet played by Howard Keel in a delightfully exuberant performance as a charming con man who must deal with the trappings of fate or “kismet” in which his fortunes rise and fall, and rise and fall, and rise, in the course of one day.
Sexy Dolores Gray plays Lalume, the bored wife of the Wazir, who is the chief of police in Bagdad.  She and Howard Keel team up to deal with the obstacles to their happiness and exploit the luck that happens their way.  They are two of a kind, and Miss Gray matches Mr. Keel’s sly opportunism, and street smarts.  Both throw themselves into their numbers with a very sexy silliness.

Sebastian Cabot is the evil Wazir.  I like him in this role.  He is the villain, but not the mustache-twirling kind.  His blasé self-interest is drôle and even his abject cruelty one can smile at because in his own snide way he's as over the top as Howard Keel—and Keel could find himself just as blissfully uncaring for all but his own purse as the Wazir, except he has a conscience and a daughter he loves.
Vic Damone plays the Caliph, the ruler of all this Mesopotamian menagerie, a young man who just came to the throne and is determined to be a fair and just ruler.  His chief charm, along with his boldly sensual singing voice, is his being helpless in a world of commoners.  He falls in love with Ann Blyth.  With a knowing sense of fun learned from her father, she teases Mr. Damone about his stiff manner and lack of a sense of humor.  He’s the Persian Mr. Darcy and she is the sensible and mocking Elizabeth Bennett of the Fertile Crescent.  I wish the movie could spend more time with their romance, but the story is really about Howard Keel.
Their scenes, courtly and romantic, shy and tempered by protocol, balance out the lusty abandon of the Dolores Gray and Howard Keel scenes.  The young folks, one poor and one magnificently rich and lord of all the land, are equal in their restrictions of behavior that society has placed on them.  The middle aged Miss Gray and Mr. Keel, scoundrels and scamps both, are free to indulge themselves in carefully choreographed lust, plan their scams, and monkey with other people’s lives.
Monty Woolley, as the Caliph’s servant and advisor, rounds out the cast.  I think my favorite moment is when he tells a whirling dervish, “Oh, STOP IT!”  This was Mr. Woolley’s last film.  He wears his turban, and of course his beard, well.

I love how the whirling dervish behind Howard Keel, while Keel is singing “Fate,” slows his spinning to correspond with the rhythm of the music.

I understand Barrie Chase is somewhere in the crowd as a dancer, but you’ll have to point her out to me, because I don’t see her.

The story, originally based on a play by Edward Knoblock from 1911, had gone through a few other film incarnations, including the most recent one in 1944 with Ronald Colman, Joy Page, and Marlene Dietrich.  We’ll have to talk about that one sometime.  The story transports well to the world of musical theatre, and on Broadway won a slew of Tonys, including for lead Alfred Drake.

Producer Arthur Freed tapped Vincente Minnelli to direct, dangling in front of him the carrot of allowing him to make the project that had long caught his eye, the life of artist Vincent van Gogh—and what became Lust for Life pulled Mr. Minnelli’s interest away, if there had been any to begin with, for Kismet.

According to biographer Emanuel Levy, Minnelli worked on the Kismet set design but left the staging of musical numbers to what was done on Broadway.  “Bored, restless, displeased with the cast, and already preoccupied with Lust for Life, Minnelli paid more attention to the décor than to the performers, most of whom he disliked.”  He apparently directed most of his disdain toward Vic Damone, on whom he came down hard and humiliated through most of the shooting, episodes which Mr. Damone describes in his memoir, Singing Was the Easy Part.  Mike Mazurki, who plays the Wazir's underling, offered to punch Mr. Minnelli for him more than once.

Usually meticulous about camera composition, this time around he printed first or second takes in a rush to get through the job, and “the timetable was too tight to afford rehearsals with the actors, who were soon exhausted by the pace.”

The movie I think has been lost in the Technicolor fifties among an embarras de richesses of other big musicals, to the lore of Mr. Minnelli’s disinterest, and the tepid audience response when it was released.  Most classic film fans, however, know that many movies are eventually redeemed by time and taken to the hearts of the faithful upon reassessment.  Reassessing this one, here’s a few scenes to consider:
The “Strangers in Paradise” number.  Vic Damone has followed Ann to the walled garden of a small house.  She is trespassing, but he thinks she is the well-do young woman of the house and he falls in love with her.  He doesn’t tell her he’s the Caliph; he lets her think he is a gardener. 
He is dressed in colors making him a part of the garden—sand and bright green, and she is in yellow, like the flowers dotting the foreground in this scene.  He is the plant; she the flower.  They are both organic to the place, they belong here. 
Note the staging, how they stand in tableau in the arches, how they part, she slightly above him on steps as his adored one on a pedestal, with a peacock between them. 
Next, as the song, which is their courtship, progresses, they stand together with another peacock unfurling his magnificent white fan of tail feathers. 
Finally, they come together in a section of the garden with red flowers, the color of romance, when their passion culminates in a kiss and a promise.  Interestingly, they step back away from us to kiss.  I’m not sure if it was to get their full forms in view—as mentioned in other posts, CinemaScope did not work really well with close-ups, so it may have been to pull them apart from each other and us.  Minnelli makes CinemaScope work really well for this picture with gracefully framed shots.

Ann promises to meet Vic here at moonrise.  It’s a lovely scene, and my only fault with it is dissolving too quickly when we really want to linger on her watching him leave.  I think it's one of the most graceful and elegant scenes ever filmed in CinemaScope.

When the movie starts, the setting is just the opposite of this elegant world of romance.  Ann and Howard Keel awaken in a stable with no food and one piece of a blanket for her.  Their morning prayer is less reverent than it is desperate, and we hear Mr. Keel’s voice wearily asking that his daughter may eat today and wear shoes. 
Ann is hungry, but sprightly and full of hope, energy and gaiety.  Her voice is high and girlish; it drops when she is romanced by Mr. Damone to compliment the sudden sophistication that the pretty new yellow clothes have given her.

Before this scene, she steals an armload of oranges in the marketplace.  You may recognize the orange seller, played by Jameel Farah, AKA Jamie Farr, AKA Corporal Klinger on M*A*S*H.

Another scene, spectacular by any standards, is the “Night of My Nights” procession where Vic Damone, now not disguising that he is the Caliph, rides with his household staff back to the garden at nightfall where he hopes to reunite with Ann Blyth, reveal who he is, and take her for his bride.  The reflection of the procession in the water is stunning.

If this is Vincente Minnelli on a bad day, it’s pretty fabulous.

Through twists and turns in the plot, which I won’t go into detail, Howard Keel convinces the nasty Sebastian Cabot that he has magic powers, which he will work to Mr. Cabot’s advantage if Cabot bestows riches and a royal title on him (while Keel romances his wife, Dolores Gray, behind his back).  But Keel’s kismet changes from moment to moment, and he must go into hiding, dragging Ann from the garden where she is waiting for Vic Damone, making her miss her appointment with destiny.
Another terrific scene where, high on the walls of the Wazir’s palace, Ann, broken-hearted, sings “This is My Beloved” in an unconscious duet with Vic Damone, who sings from his palace, also brooding on the crescent moon sailing in the velvet sky, of his love for her.

A little suspense is added during Keel’s number “The Olive Tree”, as he tries to convince Ann that taking chances is what makes life worth living and that only a fool settles for just what’s in front of him—we see the royal procession, or the tail end of it, moving outside the stable. 
You want to say, “Turn around!  It’s Vic Damone!  He wants to marry you and you’re listening to Howard Keel singing about fools sitting beneath an olive tree!  Turn around!”  Too late.  They’re gone, and Ann thinks she will never see her love, the gardener, again.

Of course, she will, but not before an attempted murder, her father being threatened with execution, and her forced marriage to Sebastian Cabot.
It was a quite a 24 hours.

The movie is visually satisfying as a long drink in the desert, with judicious use of color that evokes an oil painting.  The base color is sand and ivory, and here and there, dotted with brilliant colors, but never overpowering.  The movie, with its fable storyline is purely a pop-up book, but visually is never garish.  Here a man’s turquoise-colored turban, a red fez, a woman’s green scarf, another woman draped in pink. 

When Howard Keel sings philosophically about fate, we see a man shoot past from the bottom of the screen with a gold band around his turban that catches our eye and we follow it to the top of the frame.  The oranges in the market place, the black leather armor of Sebastian Cabot’s guards.

The golden costume of Dolores Gray and her white and tan Afghan dogs who behave very well and appear to enjoy lounging with her. 
The red Asian acrobat costumes of the three prospective brides from Abbaboo, who spring like jack-in-a-box figures from a kind of enclosure and decide they do not like Bagdad, until two shirtless men in lime green pants dance to a little Persian jazz, and they join in a fury of Mesopotamian bebop. A couple moves look straight out of Guys and Dolls.  It’s all about color, and if there is any message, it’s that our eyes are captives to the beauty around us.  Director Minnelli distracts and entertains us the same way we distract a baby with a colorful rattle. He may have wanted to film a movie about Vincent Van Gogh, but Kismet is where we really see, and are made to feel, an appreciation for the subtle lift to the senses and to the heart by judicious use of color.
Which brings us to Ann’s most famous number, “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” a slow waltz-tune during which she changes from a ragged street urchin to desirable woman.  A bolt of yellow cloth is chucked across the screen and she catches it, like grabbing the brass ring. 

A bevy of marketplace salesladies hoist the cloth and dress Ann behind it in a flowing costume of the same color. 

Her hair, free from the dirty scarf she had worn, suddenly looks as if she’s been to the hairdresser.
Could she ever imagine, lip-synching that lovely tune to the playback of her lovely voice on the faux Persian soundstage, that she’d still be singing it in concert decades later? 

With filming over, Ann awaited the birth of her child at the end of the year and filled up the time with vocal training.  Working with singing teachers had long been part of her regimen away from the camera.  She even confessed of her hope one day of singing Puccini.  She would eventually perform in The King and I and The Sound of Music and all the really big musicals, but in a more challenging venue than a Hollywood set.  She performed them live on stage.  Down the road, we’ll discuss her long career in musical theatre.
Kismet, despite the tepid original reception, despite Vincente Minnelli’s disdain is a feast for the eyes, embroidered with rich and lovely music, and his cast was better than he knew. 

Have a look here at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings for Laura’s exciting experience watching Kismet at the TCM Festival with Ann Blyth in person to introduce the film.

And have a look here for a terrific post from Cameron Howard at TheBlonde at the Film blog on Kismet and some fabulous screen captures.

Come back next Thursday when we drop back ten years earlier, to 1945, and Ann’s fledging career shoots into orbit with…wait for it...Mildred Pierce.


Damone, Vic.  Singing Was the Easy Part (NY: St. Martin's Press, 2009) pp. 154-157.

The Deseret News, June 30, 1954, syndicated article by Sheilah Graham, p A7.

Levy, Emanuel.  Vincente Minnelli – Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2009), p. 267.

The Southeast Missourian, August 8, 1955, syndicated article by Erskine Johnson, p. 4.
UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Studio One - "The Angelic Avengers" - 1948

Today we enter the theatre of the imagination, in which sighs, slaps, kisses, moans, and the dramatic escape by dark of night are no less real because we cannot see them.  Pretend you have at least a glowing radio dial to look at.
What a funny irony that the Internet, and digital technology, CDs, MP3, etc., has made old time radio more accessible now than it had been in the long decades since radio was the primary source of entertainment.  It always puzzled and annoyed me that most biographies of film stars of Hollywood’s heyday give short shrift to their work on radio.  I imagine that perhaps besides the challenge of describing a radio performance, these recordings were just too inaccessible for biographers back in the day, and perhaps they assumed there would be little interest. 
Today we discuss what I think was Ann Blyth’s best radio production and performance.
Between films Ann Blyth was hardly at a loss for activity, certainly not in the period from 1948 to 1952 when she made most of her films.  When Mr.Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), discussed in this previous post, wrapped, and when the studio wasn’t filling her days with publicity chores, there were radio gigs—which also helped publicize the latest or soon-to-be-filmed movie.  In April 1948 she performed on radio in the Radio Readers Digest program "...from the glittering heart of Broadway..." in  “We Shook the Family Tree,” a light comedy about a young girl heading to New York for a writing career.  A month later in May, Ann performed in the Studio One production of “The Angelic Avengers”.   Both shows were produced in New York City.  She apparently bolted for the train right after "The Angelic Avengers" concluded at 10:00 p.m., if The Film Daily, published two days later, hot on her trail, is to be believed:

Ann, you’ll remember from our intro post to this series here, cut her teeth on radio.  It was an intimate medium, where the audience participated with their imaginations, and it took a lot of imagination from the sound engineers – who were the set decorators of our minds – to paint the scene for us.  The actors, unlike stage or screen actors, couldn’t play to the audience (even for a live radio audience) or the camera.  They had to, in a sense, perform for themselves.  Like a child deep in play, talking to himself in his room.
Some great screen actors were rather mediocre on radio, because they had not learned this technique, or else had not learned the technique of channeling dramatic action through only their voices.  Barbara Stanwyck, who did a lot of radio, comes to mind.  She was certainly a powerful screen actress, but most of her ability to move an audience was done with her transcendent face.  Her voice was ever Brooklyn, no matter the character she played, and I think she was less effective on radio.  If we couldn’t see her, we couldn’t sense the depth of emotion.  The same with someone like Gary Cooper, whose entire screen emoting was through his exquisitely transparent face.  His voice, however, that hesitant, monosyllabic stumbling which was so charming on screen, was ineffective on radio. 
Humphrey Bogart, oddly enough, despite his trademark unchanging menacing lisp, did well on radio.  He had learned to purr with seduction, to hiss with menace, to pull syllables from deep in his throat and scatter them to the mic with finesse and masterful emotion.  I suspect his stage training might have helped with this, but I don’t know.  His radio performances, including his series Bold Venture, and a turn as Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV are memorable.
Ann Blyth, as we mentioned in our last post on Wagon Train in “The Jenny Tannen Story,” had a terrific way of using her voice so that she sounded quite different in many of her films, but in her case I would suggest this came from her long training (from the time she was six years old) in radio.
In 1948, she appeared on radio at least six times that I know of, and each performance is different, and so is her voice.  Just to take a few examples, in the above-mentioned comedy for Radio Reader’s Digest, you would not know it was Ann Blyth at all.  She plays a frenetic college girl, silly and flighty, chirping innocent mistakes in a breathy voice, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think the voice was a young Dorothy McGuire, in a role similar to Claudia, which we discussed in this previous post here.
Later on in the year, Ann played in the radio version of “Another Part of the Forest” for Lux Radio Theater, where she speaks, as she did in the movie, with a confident and authoritative southern accent, also speaking in a lower register, like an artist dabbling in a darker color.  She would also perform in a radio version of “State Fair” for the Hallmark program, (and she would play the role again for General Electric Theater in 1953), and also in the Suspense program in an episode called “Muddy Track” where she is a desperate and duplicitous young woman on the seedy side of town.  Just in this one year, you couldn’t ask for more variety of her work, or variety of challenges. 
The variety of challenges is another reason, as we mentioned in a previous post about movie stars on radio, is why screen actors enjoyed performing on radio, for here they could perform without fear of being typecast.  They were given opportunities to play roles the studio would never give them (like Bogart playing Shakespeare).
In movies, Eve Arden was the reliable supporting player.  On radio, she was the star.
Here in “The Angelic Avengers” is where we get to discover the full measure of Ann Blyth’s voice as a powerful, yet subtle, instrument in creating character.  She’s using an English accent here, sounding very natural and comfortable in it, and never once dropping it.  For those unfamiliar with old radio shows, this is a good introduction because unlike a lot of old time radio (or OTR for you fans), this Studio One episode is practically pristine in quality.  No pops or crackles, or poorly recorded, or poorly preserved audio this time around—it’s clear and sharp and lets us appreciate the excellence of production values that went into this great radio series.
Studio One would move to television in 1950 as one of the best anthology shows of the early days of TV.  We mentioned one episode with a young Grace Kelly here.  No wonder it was so good on TV; it had a great start as one of the best drama programs in radio.  Produced and directed by Fletcher Markle, who came to CBS from Canada and the CBC, Studio One dramatized great literary classics, and featured top Hollywood stars.  It was the Masterpiece Theatre of its day.
“The Angelic Avengers” is a gothic suspense tale, but interestingly, moved to the pantheon of the Studio One classics despite its being a very new book.  It was published only two years before, in 1946, written by Danish author Karen von Blizen-Finecke, who also used the pen names of Isak Dinesen, and in the case of this book, Pierre Andrézel.  She is familiar probably to most American audiences through the autobiographical Out of Africa, which was made into the 1985 film of the same name starring Meryl Streep as the author.
The story is Victorian Gothic, set in 1840, and yet there is an overlay draping its sentimental verbiage and innocent illusions with a very modern fable.  The two young women, destitute in a cold and friendless London, the kindly older couple who take them in as their protectors is meant as an allegory of the forlorn Denmark being put under the “protection” of the Third Reich during World War II, and suffering both the fear of discipline by its “protectors” and the ignominy of remaining untouched while the rest of Europe suffered.
It’s a subtle correlation, and made more plain in the novel than on radio, where the radio version is played strictly for the Dickensian melodrama.
Ann Blyth is Lucan Bellenden, a girl in her teens or just out of them, who has no family.  She works as a governess, but flees from her wealthy employer’s home in the dead of night because “…the master, whom I had respected as a father made me…(she pauses here with delectable insinuation)…unworthy proposals.  Now I am leaving it all behind, hoping the night and the speed of the stagecoach will wipe out his words.” 

We hear the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones.  The sound effects are tremendous in this show.  Every sound, from rising crowd conversation to a silver tinkling bell over the door of shop, to silence broken by a light knock is made sensuous.
Best to listen to this on a CD in your car on a long, rainy drive.
Lucan takes refuge with a friend, Zosine, but Zosine is also out on the streets because her father’s fortune is lost to debts.  She is a flighty, flirtatious girl, good-hearted but undisciplined.  She is played by Margaret Phillips, who came to the US from the UK in 1939 and most recently had appeared on Broadway in Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest as the young Birdie. 
They apply to an employment service, and are taken in by a stroke of good fortune by a retired minister and his wife.  The couple lost their only daughter and now devote their home to helping friendless young girls.  They take the girls to their home in France, called Sainte-Barbe, and everything seems rosy at first.
The wonderful Everett Sloane, one of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater gang, plays the Reverend Pennhallow, and his vocal characterizations and changes in mood are nimble and evocative.  Sarah Burton is the cloying, raspy Mrs. Pennhallow.  All the cast, including a large group of extras, all sound like a Masterpiece Theatre ensemble group.
When the girls go to a country fair, the Reverend advises them, “As you go among strangers, a demure bearing and virtue of the heart are your greatest shields.”
The question is, what is evil, and do we know when we see it?  What happens when we realize it too late?  Are we accomplices by not recognizing it sooner?
I won’t go play-by-play on the plot because it is a mystery, but evil soon surfaces and the girls are in danger.  It’s an obviously abbreviated version of the novel, but it stands well on its own. The novel goes into more detail about the evils faced by the girls (which includes the discovery of homeless girls being sold into prostitution), but the radio version is powerful no less for tossing clues our way and leaving the rest to our imaginations.

At the beginning of the program, Ann Blyth is introduced as “a new and swiftly rising star.”  (On Radio Reader's Digest the announcer calls her "one of Hollywood's brilliant and engaging young actresses.") It is a thrilling performance just for her vocal technique in breathing, articulation, and yet having it sound so natural.  There are tears and smiles in her voice, and there is the growing horror of psychological drama.  She’s letter perfect and never drops a line.  Even fellow Broadway vet Sarah Burton stumbles a couple times.  Ann's character is open-hearted, kind, humble, and courageous.  Glossy, artificial, venial Veda Pierce is completely gone as if she never was.
This was a live show, with a full orchestra playing an original score written for this program, composed and conducted by Alexander Samler.
At the end of the program, we have the plug for the studio that announces that Ann Blyth is currently co-starred in Another Part of the Forest.  Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid hadn’t been released yet, and in that overlapping of the Hollywood assembly line, she would be off to Utah in a few weeks to start filming her first western, Red Canyon.  Another character, another voice.
Come back next Thursday when we take a look at the lush and lovely Kismet (1955) which would be Ann Blyth’s last movie musical, the one that gave her signature tunes and a colorful showcase for her lyric soprano.

“The Angelic Avengers” is in public domain.  To listen to the program here on the Internet Archive, scroll down to the title and download to your computer or just play it while we’re sitting here.  I’ll go make tea.


Andrézel, Pierre.  The Angelic Avengers (NY: Random House, 1978).

The Film Daily, May 27, 1948, p. 2.

The Internet Archive website.

UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.


On another note, unrelated, this is to announce I have another speaking engagement February 4th at the Storrs Library, Longmeadow, Mass. on my book States of Mind: New England, where I'll be showing a PowerPoint presentation of photos from the book.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Wagon Train - "The Jenny Tannen Story" & This is Your Life - 1959

It is delightful to be reminded that even on the small screen, in a written-to-formula family-friendly 1950s western—there can be great performances.

“The Jenny Tannen Story” was the first of five episodes in which Ann Blyth appeared on the TV Western Wagon Train.  Here she plays two roles: a cold, aloof middle-aged woman and the spirited estranged daughter who crosses the continent to meet her.  There’s a lot in this episode for Ann to do, including sing, and it’s easy to see why she chose this script among previous others for this show that she’d refused.  Though her last movie, The Helen Morgan Story (1957), was released about a year and a half before this Wagon Train episode was filmed, she apparently felt no need to rush into any project, but continued to be choosy about her properties. 

She also had her third baby in the meantime, so she was a bit busy.

Long post.  Please do not read this on your iPads while you are driving.

She could not have known then that The Helen Morgan Story would be the last film she’d ever make—she certainly intended to make more—but at this time there coincidentally occurred an interesting period of reflection on her career in April 1959 when she was in the middle of filming this Wagon Train episode.  She was 30 years old, had made 32 films, worked since she was six years old, and already had a handful of guest appearances under her belt in the new medium of television.  She was about to have another TV appearance, unwittingly, as the honoree/victim of This is Your Life.

What must it be like for a mere 30-year old to look back upon her life and career, when one is normally just beginning?  That alone is a poignant irony, as if foreshadowing the end of her film career.

Presented April 1, 1959, host Ralph Edwards surprised Ann at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Los Angeles where she had expected to film a TV plea for the hospital’s annual fund drive.  The Ralph Edwards stunt was really supposed to have occurred a week earlier, but Ann foiled Mr. Edward’s program by getting sick.

Part of the notoriety of This is Your Life was the surprise element.  Just about all the honorees were surprised; most were gracious about it, but not everyone was happy to be center stage in what many critics believed to be a maudlin circus and an invasion of privacy.  Some actually did enjoy the experience.  I don’t know where Ann Blyth fits in that mob, but it’s funny that she managed to trip up snoopy Ralph Edwards and put a lot of people to a lot of trouble when a virus laid her low.

She began filming “The Jenny Tannen Story” on March 24th, and the next day got sick.  Considering it was a wagon train in the nineteenth century, she’s lucky it didn’t turn out to be cholera or typhoid or the ague. 

Ralph Edwards scrambled to show a repeat on TV that he had in the can and put off the Ann Blyth episode, stalling her husband, who was in on the surprise, and all the guests who were supposed to show up and recall Ann’s life, which included some relatives who’d come over from Ireland.  This included a bagpipe-playing uncle, who disturbed the other guests at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with his constant practicing, in his room and in the lobby.  If you think bagpipes are loud in a parade, you should hear them in the next room.

“His incessant practicing kept the hostelry’s complaint desk busy for a whole week,” reported syndicated columnist Hal Humphrey.

According to a syndicated article by Buck Herzog, “It was rather a hectic week for people around Hollywood.”

Possibly nobody was more nerve-wracked than Ann’s husband, Dr. James McNulty, whose job was to fetch her from her long day at the studio and her covered wagon and deliver her to St. Joseph’s on time, still keeping it a secret.  She had volunteered to help many charities—even as a very young woman she was noted for devoting a huge part of her life to benefits—so one more request was not unusual, but she was bushed.  Her energy was low after a five-day virus, and she likely wanted to save herself for tomorrow's shoot.

According to Mr. Humphrey, Dr. McNulty pushed her, “You can’t let the Sisters down.  They’re expecting you.”

To which she is reported as replying, “Will they put that on my epitaph?”  Her sense of duty prevailed, and when she arrived and was shocked by Ralph Edwards and that bloody album in his arm, “My mouth fell open and stayed there.”

This was April 1st.  Unfortunately, I’ve not seen the episode, but the This is Your Life official website lists the following guests:

Dennis Day, who was her brother-in-law (we’ll get back to Mr. Day down the road).  Mrs. Gertrude Gonzales was a childhood friend who reported on the occasion when Ann was severely injured in the toboggan accident, which we discussed here in our intro post.  Gladys Hoene was her teacher at the Universal school, whom we also discussed in our intro post.  David Immerman was an artist who revealed a portrait of Ann and her (at the time) three children, and the children were also presented on the show.  Teresa Lynch, her cousin from Ireland who at the time was helping to care for Ann's children, and Miss Lynch’s father, Thomas Dill Lynch, who was the notorious bagpipe player from Ireland.  Dressed in his kilt, he played on the show.

Madge Tucker Miller was the producer of Coast to Coast on a Bus, the radio show which gave Ann her start, and which we discussed in our intro post.  Ann’s beloved Uncle Pat and Aunt Catherine (Cis) Tobin, who came to live with her after the death of her mother, also mentioned in the intro post, were guests.  The party was rounded out by Ann’s longtime pal, fellow actress Jane Withers.

I don’t know how long they kept her up that night with all the hoopla, but the next day she was back at work on Wagon Train.  The Hal Humphrey article noted that she wanted to work more often, but that she was careful about her scripts.

“I don’t want to be just part of the background.  I want something to do.”  She remarked that she liked “The Jenny Tannen Story” script because it gave her more substance, “When Louis B. Mayer ran things at MGM, he saw to it that the scripts were tailored more for women.  But now movies and TV turn out mostly stories about men.”

It would be a complaint voiced by many actresses over the next few decades.

But “The Jenny Tannen Story” is hers from fade in to fade out.  It was the final episode of season two, broadcast June 24, 1959.

We begin with a weird and ominous prologue.  We hear Ann’s trained lyric soprano soaring on the last line of “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls”, and see a lady performer on stage in a long shot, thrilling a packed San Francisco concert hall.  She is Jenny Tannen.  Next, we see Ann Blyth as Jenny from the back, standing atop a staircase, the toast of the town, with a champagne glass extended, returning a toast to her gentlemen admirers.  Too tipsy, or a sudden spell, she tumbles down the staircase.  Unconscious at the bottom, face-down, we see a man attempting to help her, and we see the dark blood when he pulls his hand away from her hidden face.  She has fallen on the champagne glass.

(By the way, I don’t know if this was used on purpose by the writer of the episode, Kathleen Hite, who had numerous TV credits to her name, including several Gunsmoke and The Waltons episodes, but there’s an old theatre superstition about the song, “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” which is from the opera The Bohemian Girl, written in 1843 by William Michael Balfe, lyrics by Alfred Bunn.  It is bad luck to sing this song in a theater unless you’re presenting it in that opera.  Poor Jenny Tannen was singing it alone as a concert piece.  She should have known better.  Fool.)

Cut to ten years later, and the wagon train, led by Major Ward Bond, stops at a watering hole.  There, we are greeted by another lilting song about “The Good Old Golden West” in the less operatic but still fulsome soprano of a playful young woman cheerfully drawing water by a river where the wagon train has stopped to rest.  Ann plays a double role as Phoebe, who is on her own, crossing the country to get to San Francisco to find her mother, Jenny Tannen, whom she has never seen.  She’s working as a “hired girl” for a family, earning her passage.  She’s the picture of loveliness, happy, optimistic, unafraid, and with that kerchief on her head, she looks like Cinderella.  You expect woodland creatures to come up to her and do her chores.

Phoebe has some bad luck, too, right off the bat, when she tumbles from the wagon and conks her head on a rock.  Ward Bond, the wagon master, rushes over, and in a nice reprise of grim images, we see blood from the back on her head smeared on his dirty old leather gauntlet.

Because she has nobody to look after her, and because he’s the star, Ward Bond takes her to a doctor in a nearby town.  She’s conscious, but suffering headaches and her vision is blurry.  Blackouts come and go.  Doc tells Ward Bond that there’s pressure in her skull and she’s going to go blind pretty soon.

Mr. Bond, and Gabby Hayes School of Sidekicks graduate Frank McGrath leave the wagon train and take Phoebe to San Francisco pronto so she can see her mother while she can still see.  Nobody’s told Phoebe about the diagnosis.

Ward Bond has a little trouble locating the now reclusive Jenny Tannen in the big city—she’s removed herself from society after her tumble down the stairs ten years ago—but he finally locates her big old Victorian house here on the back lot.  (We must have seen this house in dozens of other shows and movies, but I’m drawing a blank right now.  Let me know if you recognize it.) 

The wonderful character actor Ian Wolfe plays the properly dismissive butler whom Ward Bond manhandles to get in to see Jenny.  Jenny, holding court by herself in a dim parlor, consents to see him.  If only to save the butler’s life.

Now, this scene that plays out between Jenny Tannen and Ward Bond is, I’m sure, why Ann Blyth took this gig.  It’s terrific.  The writing is crisp and biting.  Brava, Kathleen Hite, also director Christian Nyby for setting up some intriguing shots and knowing when to let it play.

As Jenny Tannen, Ann is suspicious, sarcastic, cold and bitter, and deeply controlled.  Her hair is piled on her head and tinged with gray, the picture of an independent nineteenth century woman of a certain age, who has created walls around herself.  It is interesting that her daughter is meant to be perhaps in her late teens or early twenties and Ann Blyth, at 30 years old in real life, is smack between the ages of the fictional characters she plays.  The reach in either direction is easy for her.  The daughter’s voice is high and soft; the mother’s falls at a lower register, with a dry rustiness to it that suggests a person who does not converse much.  In manner and speech, you can easily believe them to be two different actresses.

I think it was your friend and mine Laura of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings last year in a post comment who remarked that Ann Blyth’s voice changes from movie to movie.  It has since occurred to me that, apart from her radio training, perhaps in the same way a trained singer is able to change keys while singing, so she might also be able to change the key of her speaking voice.  It’s not something I think we run into that much with classic film stars, who were utilized by their respective studios to promote the brand of their own stardom, largely through gimmick.  Barbara Stanwyck, or Bette Davis, or Humphrey Bogart, for instance, or Katharine Hepburn—you can close your eyes while the movie is on and still know who the actors and actresses are.  You can’t, necessarily, with Ann Blyth.  Here she has three distinct voices: Phoebe, Jenny, and Jenny as a younger woman.

Ward Bond, pleased as punch that he found Phoebe’s mother, is abashed when she displays disinterest.  She refuses to see her daughter.  She sits in profile in the dim room, rolling her glance at him out of one stern eye. 

“I have only the barest recollection of having been a mother.”  She married young, unhappily, and ran away from her severe and controlling husband shortly after the child was born.  “Please, Major, please don’t ask me to manufacture an emotion I can’t feel.”

Her control is paramount to the power of the scene.  She never teeters into mawkish or overblown emotionality.  She keeps herself tightly reigned in, and we can easily believe that this is a woman who recalls her pregnancy and former life—and having abandoned her daughter—with complete disgust.

“We were very poor when we married, but that would have been bearable if there had been any love in our marriage.”  She throws him a dagger of a look, “There was none.”  She speaks these lines as one sickened.  Kathleen Hite must have pleased to hear her lines nailed with such eloquent matter-of-fact distaste. 

Ann seethes, throwing Ward Bond’s own shock in his face, “When I could feel no more shame of wanting a little joy in life, I left him and the child I had not wanted to bear him.”  Her voice rises and falls, grows threatening, taunting, and confessional.

Ward, exasperated because he wants his happy ending and he wants it now, blurts out to her that her daughter is going blind.  Jenny remains adamant that she will not see her, but in a businesslike way offers money and to put her in touch with doctors.  Her only bit of drama, a slice of her former showmanship, is to part the drapes and let a shaft of light in so that Ward Bond, and we, can see her facial scars.  This is what happens when you fall face downward on a champagne glass.  She does not want pity, her voice is sarcastic.  “I think we can spare Phoebe the sight of her mother.” 

Back at the hotel, Frank McGrath has decided Phoebe needs a night on the town, so he and Ward go out to buy her a gown.  Reminds me of when Henry Higgins and Col. Pickering are dressing Eliza Doolittle.  Ward is decidedly awkward about all this fashion stuff, but Frank has exquisite taste.  When next we see Phoebe resplendent in her gown, sophisticated with bare shoulders and her hair up, she is the belle of the ball.  Ward Bond and Miss Blyth waltz, while Ann sings “Tomorrow is Just a Day Away” (which your friend and mine, Caftan Woman can sing just as well, I’m sure.)

Ward Bond and Frank McGrath are wearing tuxes.  They clean up good.

Ward Bond has decided he’s not going to tell Phoebe he met her mother, but somebody in the ballroom remarks on the similarity between mother and daughter, and tells Phoebe where to find Jenny Tannen.  Cat’s out of the bag now.

By the time Ann and Ward are at the great lady’s house once more, awaiting the crusty butler to open the door, Ann’s not feeling too well.  Her eyesight’s fading fast, and it’s just occurred to her that maybe mom doesn’t want to see her and this was a dumb idea.  When she blacks out again, Ward has to carry her in and set her down on the sofa in the dim parlor.  When she comes to, she’s blind.  She was never told that it was going to come to this, but now she knows, and she’s panicking.

I really like Ward Bond in this episode, his craggy tenderness for the young woman, his fatherly gentleness with her.  Navigating this girl’s illness and her reunion with her mother has been worse on his nerves than any danger he’s faced in the Wild West.

Ward calms her down as her mother steps into the room.  Perceiving the situation, Jenny feels bold enough to risk a glance over the back of the sofa to look at her daughter.  We have a convenient placement of objects and furniture in the room to allow for both to be in the shot, but by now, we may very well have forgotten it’s the same actress.  The gimmick isn’t important to the story.

Phoebe’s heart sinks when she realizes the game is really up.  She never should have tried to see her mother, and she’s never going to see her anyway.  “I guess she just doesn’t love me, Major.  She never did.  I guess I had to come and be in her house to face up to it.  It’s better that I found out before I saw her, don’t you think?”  She’s is equally afraid of being a burden as she is afraid of how she will manage alone now that she is blind.

The real drama comes from her mother though, staring blankly at the girl with only the slightest flicker of emotion across her stony expression.  She’s coming face to face with the past she tried to run away from, and its horror crumbles into dust before her.  The bitterness and disgust of a loveless marriage, a pregnancy and child she did not want, are gone.  All that remains of what was so horrible in her memory is just a helpless young woman who is a complete stranger to her.

There is no hearts-and-flowers burst of love for the girl—something much more intriguing and realistic—a sense of relief in letting go of the past, and a clean slate with curiosity for the future that this girl may represent for her.

Jenny could have extended a hand to her—she’s close enough now to touch her and make her presence known—but resists, partly in caution, but also as if respecting the girl’s pride to not be pitied for her blindness even as her own pride would not let the world see her facial scars.

Their ultimate happy reunion—and of course there’s going to be one—happens at the hospital after the inevitable successful operation, for which Phoebe’s head did not need to be shaved and she requires no bandages.  Only once do we have a Patty Duke Show split-screen effect at the end, and I suspect this was due more to an obligatory demonstration, and reminder to the audience, that they were watching one actress in two roles.

The end seems a bit of an anticlimax, and ironically, might have been more powerful with a less immediate acceptance of each other.  Still, their reunion is what Ward Bond wants and so do we.  We may guess what mother and daughter have to look forward to now they have become a family.  What would Ann Blyth have to look forward to in her career now that This is Your Life decided she had reached a plateau at only 30 years old?

Having made her last movie, unknown to anyone at that time, a sort of plateau was reached, ironically and regrettably.

We will move ahead to what happened beyond this plateau--plenty did, an entirely new facet of her career, in fact--but not yet.  Come back next Thursday when we jump back to the spring of 1948: 19-year-old Ann demonstrates her versatility of voice performing in a stellar example of radio drama at its finest—Studio One and a gothic tale of suspense in “The Angelic Avengers”.

This Wagon Train episode of "The Jenny Tannen Story" may still be up at YouTube in two parts.  Part one is here.

James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter 1965), p. 134.
Milwaukee Sentinel, syndicated article by Buck Herzog, April 21, 1959.

Opie, Iona and Moria Tatem, eds. A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 397.
Radford, Edwin and Mona August Radford.  The Encyclopedia of Superstitions (NY: Metro Books) p. 241

This is Your Life Official Website.

Toledo Blade, syndicated article by Hal Humphrey, June 22, 1959.

UPDATE:  This series of blog posts about Ann Blyth's career is now a book, ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -- with more material and over 275 photographs, available in eBook and paperback.  To order from Amazon, follow this link.  To order a signed copy from the author, please email me at for details.