Thursday, October 13, 2011

Alexis Smith

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.)

Both 5'9", Charles Boyer and Alexis Smith see eye-to-eye in "The Constant Nymph" even if their characters do not.

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.

But, despite sometimes having very little to work with, she made the most of them. In “The Young Philadelphians” (1959), she plays the lonely, stifled trophy wife of an elderly man. Paul Newman is his young assistant. From the moment they meet, Alexis and Mr. Newman are intrigued by each other, leading to, but not quite reaching, a love affair. Though Paul Newman is quite good in this movie, (actually so is Robert Vaughn in a minor role), much of the drama is pretty flat. Alexis Smith stole the film, what few minutes she had in it, and would have been a far more exciting partner for Newman than the rather predictable debutante played by Barbara Rush.

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.

One of my favorite roles of hers is in “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?

In the 1946 “Night and Day”, which attempted, sort of, to present the life of Broadway composer Cole Porter, a cast including Eve Arden, Mary Martin, Jane Wyman, and Ginny Simms belted out a smashing array of Cole Porter hits. Alexis Smith played Mrs. Porter. Everybody with a studio tour pass that day got to sing and perform in this movie. Including Monty Woolley, gosh-all-hemlock. Not Alexis. She spent the entire movie smiling encouragingly at Cary Grant from the audience while he avoided her for his work.

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.

Now then…

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.

Did not do her own singing in "San Antonio". 

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.

Then her natural evolution into a grand dame, in a small role in “The Age of Innocence” (1993). A graceful and dignified curtain call for her, it was released to theaters a few months after her death. She left behind her husband of 49 years, fellow actor Craig Stevens, best remembered for his “Peter Gunn” TV series, and with whom she sometimes appeared in stock.

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.

Probably was also not responsible for this hat with the bobbing cherries on top from "San Antonio".

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…

At 5-foot-9.

The Time Magazine article from 1971 mentioned above noted that she had, “unbeatable, unbeatable cool.”

I suspect she always had; but we were allowed only glimpses -- if someone passed her the football.


LucieWickfield said...

Wow. What a wonderful summery of Alexis Smith's shamefully under-recognized talent! I always loved her stately, goddess-like appearance. Do you think she would have been more appreciated nowadays? Somehow, I don't think she would've been the Alexis we all know and love.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Lucie. I don't know how she would fare in the business these days, but it would be interesting to know what kind of roles she'd like to play, if she could take any role she wanted.

Yvette said...

Love, love, LOVE this post, Jacqueline. Wait, have I said that before?

Of course. Can't help it. :)

Alexis was probably too patrician and perhaps, too chiseled, for the films of the earlier era she was working in. I also think she may have reminded studio execs of the aloof girl that got away.

And thanks for reminding me of THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS, I haven't seen that in so long. She was wonderful in it. I, too, thought Newman should have wound up with her.

I'm wondering if Alexis wouldn't have been wonderful in THE MALTESE FALCON. But maybe she would have been too young.

Both Mary Astor and Alexis had the curse (?!) of looking like something they probably weren't.

They both had an icy coolness about them that might possibly have daunted film makers. They didn't bother to look for the fire simmering beneath.

Great post, J.

Loved the links, too. :)
She was fabulous!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, my friend. I like this bit:

"I also think she may have reminded studio execs of the aloof girl that got away."

Could be. I also wonder if they paired her with Errol Flynn so often because he was 6'2", and so many of the Warner male stars were shorter men (Cagney, Bogie, etc.)

Interesting observation about Mary Astor, too. You may have something there.

ClassicBecky said...

Jacqueline, this is certainly one of my favorite of your articles. I ADORE Broadway, musicals and plays, and love to read anything I can about it. What a treat to get to see a real number from Follies. I've always wished soneone had had the foresight to film Ethel Merman in Gypsy, or the original King and I with Gertrude Lawrence, so many treasures that we will never get to see. Alexis was wonderful! I wish I had legs that good -- it's funny that she wanted to be short and cute, because I was and I always wanted to be taller with long legs! I guess we all want what's different from us!

She was so beautiful and always the ice queen...the few times her real personality got to peek through, you could see she wasn't really that way. You made some very astute observations about her career and her feelings. And I agree -- as a Flynn fan, I've seen San Antonio several times, and I always laugh at that cherry hat..I too have wondered if she felt stupid wearing that thing.

Really excellent post, Jacqueline, for many reasons. Thanks for the wonderful clips (I loved the TV clip too...she was indeed the consummate professional, and funny!)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Yay, I'm glad to hear from another theatre nut. The reason, I guess, for not filming shows is the whole who gets paid and who does not, and copyrights and such. I wish, however, there could be some agreement to film a show and just archive it, have it available for musuem showing or something like that. Just for historical purposes.

There are some other clips of "Follies" stuff put together on YouTube. Rehearsal footage. Fabulous. It has something of a cult status among fans.

Yeah, that hat in "San Antonio" is something, isn't it? I find those cherries mesmerizing. They bounce a little every time she moves her head.

Thanks so much, Becky.

Laura said...

An outstanding piece, Jacqueline! I look forward to watching these clips later today after I finish work. (You were my lunch break!)

If you've not yet come across it, there's a very nice chapter on Alexis in THE WOMEN OF WARNER BROS. by Daniel Bubbeo. Recommended.

When I saw SAN ANTONIO I was fascinated by how beautifully the cherries showed up on DVD -- I almost felt like I could reach through the screen and touch them, the picture was so beautiful. I guess that distracted me from the silliness of her wearing a mini-Carmen Miranda hat! :)

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Laura. I've not been able to get my hands on that book by Daniel Bubbeo yet, but I hope to someday, if only for the chapter on Alexis Smith.

I really couldn't concentrate on the rest of that movie after that hat with the cherries showed up. It had me in its evil power.

Thanks for stopping by on your lunch break. See you after work.

Caftan Woman said...

The clips were a real treat, but only because they were enhanced by your wonderful insights on the lovely Alexis. I always come up with the word "adorable" when I think about her and Franchot Tone in "Here Comes the Groom".

H'm, can you tell me what binds the three "Follies" co-stars Dorothy Collins, Yvonne De Carlo and Alexis Smith?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, CW.

Adorable is a good word, she was adorable in "Here Comes the Groom". I wish she'd done more comedy.

"H'm, can you tell me what binds the three "Follies" co-stars Dorothy Collins, Yvonne De Carlo and Alexis Smith?"

Other than I think they all made their Broadway debut in that show, I can't think what. Tell me, tell me, tell me.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Wait a minute. Were they all Canadian?

Caftan Woman said...


Talented Canucks who took cross border shopping to the next level.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I knew there was a reason I liked them.

Grand Old Movies said...

Wonderful review on Alexis Smith and her career! Her movie roles seem to have been limited by studio typecasting, because of her looks. (Wonder why she didn't try Broadway sooner?) It's good to know that she had a fabulous second act in her life - thanks for such a great post.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you very much. It is gratifying to see that she did have such a "fabulous second act in her life".

I'm not sure if she was exactly typecast or if they just didn't know what to do with her. I'm not sure she was assertive enough to fight for roles the way Bette Davis or Olivia de Haviland did. Of course, they had much more clout in the studio than Alexis. Complaining might not have gotten her anywhere.

Kevin Deany said...

That was a great post. I liked her dancing in "Thank Your Lucky Stars" and always wondered why Warners didn'tput her in more musicals.

I've seen "San Antonio" several times and never noticed that hat. I'll be sure to look for it next time.

Jacqueline, your section on her "Follies" comeback was sensationsl.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Kevin. "Thank Your Lucky Stars" was on TCM recently and my recording got messed up in the middle of it. So annoying.

Definitely look for the hat with the cherries next time you see "San Antonio". It's a wonder she didn't get shot by the bad guys, she made a great target.

Alexis's "Follies" comeback was sensational.

SPEEDbit said...

Thanks Jacqueline for the great post! Alexis was indeed Canadian. She was born Gladys Smith in Penticton, British Columbia, she was raised in Los Angeles. Keep blogging! We really enjoyed this one!

The Lady Eve said...

Jacqueline - I'll admit going in that I never quite got Alexis Smith in the films of her earlier career. After reading your great & detailed post I'm inclined to blame that on Warner Bros.

Smith's later career - especially the Sondheim and Scorsese credits - seems to tell the real story her talent/potential. Kudos to the tall girl...

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Lady Eve. The studio system launched and maintained some wonderful acting careers. For others, the studio was a more of a restraint. I think the bit players and character actors made out the best.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I should have responded to the comment by SPEEDbit earlier, but I got sidetracked. In fact, Alexis' real name was not Gladys. That has been repeated in several Internet sites, but it is wrong. Her real name was Margaret Alexis FitzSimmons Smith. Her two middle names were from her parents: Alexis was meant to be a derivation of her father's name, Alexander. FitzSimmons, I believe, was her mother's maiden name.

When the studio wanted to change her name, "Margaret Smith" to something more glamorous, she refused to change her surname, and compromised by using her middle name, Alexis.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Okay. I don't mean to beat a dead horse, but errors make me grind my teeth, especially when they are mine. I suggested in the last comment that Alexis Smith dropped her first name, "Margaret" (once again, Margaret Alexis Fitzsimmons Smith is the full name), upon starting her film career. That's what it sounds like. This is not the case. Though Margaret was indeed her first name, her parents called her Alexis from childhood. I refer you to the June/July 1970 edition of "Films in Review" magazine where Alexis is interviewed by Lennard DeCarl.

Anonymous said...

Fab post especially about Follies. Loved that rare clip from the show, Lucy and Jessie.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Vienna. So glad that even a few small clips were recorded from the show. Quite a performance.

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