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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.”
“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:
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.
“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.
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?
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:
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.