Sunday, June 29, 2014

MGM Blogathon - Mrs. Miniver Re-post

I was invited by Constance and Diana Metzinger of Silver Scenes, who are hosting the MGM Blogathon this weekend, to re-post my 2010 essay on Mrs. Miniver.  I'm happy to do so and take part in this great blogathon.  For more on MGM by the other blogs taking part, please have a look here.

It originally ran as a series of World War II home front movies.

Mrs. Miniver (1942) has an aura of greatness, or infamy, about it among classic film critics, perhaps rather in the same way its star, Greer Garson, remains a symbol of MGM royalty so long accepted that a second look seems irrelevant. It’s just an item in a curio cabinet of ephemera from a more glossy if naïve era.

This is due largely to the moniker of wartime propaganda pasted on this film, (covered in this earlier post), and partly due to the “glossy” aspect of this film. The movie, based on the series of stories, afterwards published in book form, by Jan Struther, tells of a British upper middle class family coping with the early days of World War II. We mentioned in the intro to this series that war stories that focus on the home front are in some ways more revealing of the greater struggles of mankind than battle films.

Mrs. Miniver is a perfect example of this. We are shown a western democracy/constitutional monarchy about to be threatened with invasion by the armed forces of a fascist dictatorship. We see the before, and the during, but we do not know the eventual outcome because that hasn’t happened yet, and that provides the greatest suspense to the film. It is current events.

The problem, as some critics see it, is the “glossy.” The movie was made in the studio and on the back lot. The film depicts an American romantic notion of British decency, honor, and pluck. It is current events, certainly, but it is not documentary. One wonders what the film would have looked like if it were a British production. Less glossy? More true? Closer to the book?

Possibly they would have never dreamed of filming it. Maybe they didn’t need to make a movie of it, but in a funny way from our safe distance across “the pond,” maybe we did.

If the movie seems ersatz in many respects, it was still lauded by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the greatest motivator of U.S. aid to the British. More on that later, and on how this quite excellent film got hog-tied by its political usefulness.

Though this blog, and repeatedly in this series on “war stories,” you will be reminded that there is historical context to old movies that shouldn’t be discounted, this is a movie that, conversely, transcends needing to know every detail of those days, because the movie’s charm, as well as the formidable Greer Garson’s charm, lies in its winsome grace.

Directed by William Wyler, this is a film that is saved by Wyler’s easy touch. Another director might go for broke in the decent British people vs. Nazi monsters setting, and then the film would really have little left to it but forced propaganda strung along a weak storyline. Mr. Wyler creates images that are magical in their simplicity, and doesn’t lean too heavily on a linear storyline, probably because he did not have an ending to the story. We wouldn’t know the end for some years.

I’ll not go into this movie scene by scene (I’m afraid you’re going to get quite enough of that in our next post in this series about The More the Merrier). Instead, just a few highlights.

We see first the quiet orderliness of their lives in this English village on the back lot. Mrs. Miniver shops in town for a hat, and the local train station manager, played by Henry Travers, has named for her a rose he is growing in competition. A leisurely scene (fortunately, they are all leisurely scenes) when he takes her into his office and tells her about it, and I love the way we see his reflection in the mirror seeming to mimic Greer Garson’s enjoyment of the rose’s scent.

She heads home to a cozy Hollywood/British suburban house. Walter Pidgeon buys a new used car, and struggles with the decision. His small daughter Judy hammers on the piano during her lesson. His small son Toby lugs a cat around. Toby was played by Christopher Severn, who had a few uncredited roles after this, but Mrs. Miniver was the highlight of his brief career, where he left an indelible impression in a few key scenes.

Oldest boy Vin, played by Richard Ney, arrives home from university, and blathers on about new philosophies. As they drive home from the station in the new used car, I love the way Walter Pidgeon rolls his eyes and nods his head sarcastically in response to his son’s self-centered philosophical rants. Richard Ney is at an age when young men discover the world, but when such immense knowledge is still not quite useful without maturity. He’s a decent kid; he’s just got some growing up to do.

His impatient, “What IS it, Gladys?” to the maid trying to interrupt with a message shows he’s not quite so sensitive to the working class as he likes to believe. It’s a nice touch on Wyler’s part.

When Teresa Wright visits and debates with Mr. Ney about the realities of having a social conscience in the British class system, I love the looks that Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon exchange. We see they are a well-married couple who are able to telegraph to each other wordlessly their amusement, and fascination, watching their son on that awkward road to manhood.

He will grow up sooner than they realize, with the first flush of romance with the sweet, ultra-decent Teresa Wright. A superior young actress nominated for Academy Awards for each of the first few movies she ever made (she would be nominated this year both for Best Actress in Pride of the Yankees and Best Supporting for Mrs. Miniver. She won in this latter category), Miss Wright adds a gentle poignancy to the role of the sole heir of Lady Belham, an aristocratic dragon played with her usual indignant aplomb by the Dame May Whitty.

Teresa Wright is also pretty much the only person in the movie who, when paired in a scene with Richard Ney, does not make him look goofy. Mr. Wyler is said to have auditioned a handful of men for the role of Vincent Miniver, and wanted a goofy looking kid. He chose young Mr. Ney as the goofiest of the lot.

So, while Ney stammers and declares his thoughts and feelings to the room, Miss Wright by virtue of her serenity seems to bring his character down to earth and makes you believe this young fellow is a really nice guy who could make something of himself.

The other maturing influence to come his way is the war.

We break into the war with a sudden announcement in church, and the congregation, as well as the audience, needs a moment to figure out what this all means.

A nice moment, and we all know Wyler’s films are full of them, of Richard Ney squishing little Christopher Severn against the pew in front of them as he strains to get a look at Teresa Wright over in her family pew. Poor Toby really gets pushed around in church, including by mother Geer Garson when she plants her hand on his head that has popped up over the head-bowed genuflecting of others. She pushes him down to a more referent posture. He bobs up again like a cork on the water. A couple of other “moments” follow in this church scene, when Christopher Severn as Toby asks loudly, “Are we going to be bombed?” Toby has the comical habit common to little kids of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place.

He is not afraid of the war, only curious. His curiosity also leads him to bang loudly the iron door knocker as his family leaves the church, disrupting conversations and startling everybody. In an interview done I believe in the 1980s (which might still be up on YouTube), Greer Garson mentions that Christopher had whapped this door knocker on the first take. He was not told to do this; he was just fidgety and playing. Director Wyler liked it, and repeated the scene several more takes (as was his habit), hoping the little boy would do it again. However (as also was his habit), he never told the boy to do it. He wanted it to be natural. After many takes of not doing it, finally, the little guy did it again, of his own accord, and that’s the take we see in the film.

Which makes me think that the scene when the Miniver’s maid, Gladys, serving in the dining room and wailing over her boyfriend about to leave for the Army, makes Christopher laugh with her boo-hooing is another of those spontaneous moments. His burst of chuckle is so natural that it does not seem forced or planned. Also, look at Greer Garson’s expression when he does it. For a moment it looks like she’s going to crack up, then quickly she puts on her disapproving mother expression.

Wyler eases us into this family’s war experiences so smoothly and under such “normal” circumstances that we find ourselves sharing their growing anxieties rather than simply observing them. Their grown son announces he will join the RAF, and Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon exchange another glance, like throwing a dart, that conveys their fear and their equal determination to say nothing. After Ney has left the room, their only commiseration is Greer’s, “Isn’t he very young?”

“Yes. He’s young.” Walter Pidgeon speaks with resignation, finality, and without a trace of comfort.

This sets us up for what is one of the most shocking switcheroos in the movies. We are reminded in different scenes that Richard Ney is young and that time is precious. He may die in the war. He and Teresa Wright marry because the war will soon drive them apart. Miss Wright is grimly prepared, as her grandma, Dame May Whitty was, to live the rest of her life as a widow if only she gets to live life to its fullest in the meantime. Richard Ney’s pilot officer’s uniform is his death sentence.

But Teresa Wright is one with the Nazi tracer bullets in her body. Greer Garson drags her home in the blackout, leaves her sprawled on the floor while she tries to get help, and her young daughter-in-law dies, as Greer holds her and chokes, “Oh, God…oh, God.” It’s a powerful scene because of Garson, and because of its unexpectedness.

So much else in the before this was cute, from the first air raid drill when Toby wanted to know if the war was over when the all-clear siren sounded, and heartily shouts, “Good!” when he is told it is just the first day. Cute with Mr. Foley, the blackout warden and local grocer pushing sardines on everybody. Cute that the village flower show must continue, and that our gentle Henry Travers wins the top prize. Cute that Dame May gets a standing ovation from her villagers for being a good egg and giving it to him despite her immense pride.

Teresa Wright’s death is telling us to grow up. Life isn’t all about flower shows and shopping for new hats, not anymore it isn’t.

But we have a warning before the death of Teresa Wright’s character on all this intrigue with wartime, and how it becomes, as we might say today, “the new normal” when the Minivers and their two youngest children take to the backyard bomb shelter. (Called Anderson shelters.) We get a taste of the Hollywood-cum-British stiff upper lip when Walter Pidgeon admires the barrage in the distance and then asks if his laundry has come back. We get it when Greer Garson reads Alice in Wonderland to the kids by lantern light, and knits, and Mr. Pidgeon shows off the toxic gas detector on the roof of the shelter, like a man proud of his new stereo system. It’s a little surreal to us, and nothing’s even happened yet.

In a few moments, a series of bombs that shake the shelter and plunge it into darkness, a breathless scene with very little dialogue terrorizes the Minivers and terrorizes us. It’s capped, beautifully, by Toby’s, now earnestly scared, wail, “They nearly killed us this time, didn’t they?”

By the time the film ends, we are left with half their house bombed to rubble, Teresa Wright’s corpse laid out in an upstairs bedroom, the villagers gathered in the bombed-out church whose roof is exposed to the sky. We are told several villagers were killed in the raid, including our Henry Travers.

We see that Richard Ney, now a morose widower, has lost any chance of ever being young again.

Then the vicar gives us the Wilcoxon Speech. How could we not buy bonds and send aid to Britain after all this?

The Wilcoxon Speech, as mentioned in this previous post, was hammered out at the last minute by Wyler and Henry Wilcoxon, who played the vicar. The speech was praised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ordered it printed in pamphlet form and scattered over Europe. This began the political usefulness of Mrs. Miniver, and perhaps locked it forever into a movie called “propaganda”, a message movie to show what William Wyler felt was the urgency of the war in Europe and what it might mean for Americans.

Wyler, as evidenced by this passionate movie, took the Nazis personally. When his movie swept the Academy Awards, he wasn’t there. He had already enlisted. When he returned from war, his next film was The Best Years of our Lives (1946). I’ve always felt that Best Years was, though certainly not a sequel, nevertheless the ending to the story began in Mrs. Miniver. The beginning of the war in 1939, and then the aftermath, and the link between two allied nations.

There are only two scenes which I think Wyler could have done better in this movie, and they overlap. One is the scene about Walter Pidgeon helping out at Dunkirk. At the Battle of Dunkirk, on the coast of France, the Germans had trapped Allied forces. The only hope of escape was by sea, and thousands of British, French, Belgian, Polish, and Dutch troops were rescued under heavy fire by the British Navy, and by civilians who were called upon to volunteer in small craft to scoop up as many men as they could and bring them back across the Channel to England. It took nine days. The evacuation was a remarkable event that could have been given more attention, but perhaps that would not be sticking to the home front parameters of the film.

Sticking to the home front parameters is what made the other weak scene in the film probably something that could have been left out entirely. This is when Greer Garson captures the wounded Nazi pilot. Invasion was a real threat, not an imagined one, but I don’t think this film really needed a Nazi to show us that threat, or to show Mrs. Miniver with her British pluck capturing him.

The only part of this scene I find interesting is that Helmut Dantine, who plays the German flyer, is about the same age as her boy Richard Ney, and when he discovers she has taken his gun, the sick look of hopelessness makes him seem less monstrous and more human. Perhaps Wyler wants us to look in the face of the enemy and see he’s not so tough. But the movie doesn’t really need this scene. It’s like Mrs. Miniver jumped the shark.

One British wartime experience not seen in the film (obviously, it wasn’t in the book, either, but then most of this film wasn’t in the book), was the evacuation of thousands of children from the London area to other parts of Great Britain, and to the U.S. Toby and his sister Judy being sent to America for the duration certainly would have made a dramatic episode.

What we today need to remember about this movie is that all these events, the air raids, Dunkirk, etc., were all familiar tales to the Americans, still safely guarded by two oceans at this time. We had listened to Edward R. Murrow’s impassioned broadcasts from London, where he described these events (with a command of language far greater than most television commentators you will hear today), and so this movie represented a reenactment of what we already knew. It was fascinating to see it dramatized above the radio transmissions and newspaper headlines.

We also need to remember, as far as the accusation of propaganda element goes, that the U.S. was extremely isolationist before our entry into World War II. We tend to remember only the gung-ho, self-sacrificing era after we got into the war. Until December 7th, as a nation we were anything but.

Director William Wyler had to fight MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer even to show a Nazi in this film, as Mayer was reluctant to show Germans as an enemy when we were not yet at war with them. Most studio owners (apart from the always daring Warner Bros.), preferred not to alienate a huge and profitable market in Germany. Studio owners of Jewish heritage were also loathe to appear to be war mongering, and possibly call down the wrath of middle America.

They had reason to fear. Almost immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, conservative Republican congressmen accused President Roosevelt of orchestrating the disaster so that the U.S. would enter the war. If these powerful men, so sick with hatred for FDR, could pull that hideous accusation out of a hat, what could they do to a group of Jewish businessmen, whose religion automatically made them scapegoats?

Even a centrist, or a progressive Republican like Senator Gerald Nye (R-North Dakota), who had supported FDR’s “New Deal” programs, could form the America First Committee. Strongly anti-war, though he did not outright accuse FDR of being responsible for Pearl Harbor, he did insist that our entering the war because of it was a maneuver by Roosevelt to placate British national interests, of being a pawn of Great Britain. Many average citizens of similar viewpoint would agree that Mrs. Miniver was a message Hollywood was ramming down our throats.

We finally did enter the war against Germany and Italy, of course, but only after they declared war on us first.

All this was in background, behind the scrim, above the Fresnels, beyond the soundstage while Mrs. Miniver was being filmed. No wonder it was labeled with a propaganda badge, since it was created in a tense political environment.

When shooting began in the autumn of 1941, the U.S. was still at peace. By the time the picture was released, peacetime was only a memory, and Greer Garson became not only a symbol of British pluck to Americans, but an example of how brave we could be ourselves, should we ever find Nazis in our kitchen. One wonders would the film have been half so successful were we still at peace?

Along with the propaganda tag, other aftermaths stuck like flypaper to this film. Greer Garson, who really wanted to do comedy, was stuck with being The Queen of MGM for several years in dramatic, patrician roles.

She and Water Pidgeon, in this their second film together, were locked in the public’s mind, and the studio’s filming schedule, as a team for several more movies.

Greer Garson, soon after this movie was filmed, married Richard Ney, who played her son in the movie, which is pretty much all a lot of people can think about today when they see them together in the film. The marriage was short-lived.

In 1992, when unable to attend the opening of the new Greer Garson Theatre in her then home state of Texas, the British Ambassador to the U.S. sent a bouquet of flowers to Miss Garson along with a message from Queen Elizabeth II. Her Majesty wanted Greer’s theater patrons to know, “She is remembered with particular affection for her role in the classic wartime film Mrs. Miniver” which along with her philanthropy over the years “have made her an outstanding ambassador for Anglo-American friendship.”

To be still called a symbol of U.S.-British friendship at 88 years old, long after the war and that movie is an interesting legacy. Author Michael Troyan noted the above quote in his biography of Greer Garson, A Rose for Mrs. Miniver - The Life of Greer Garson (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 1999). He also notes that a year later in July 1993, Queen Elizabeth II made Greer an Honorary (because she had been a US citizen since the early 1950s) Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for “improving relations between England and the United States” as well as for her philanthropic and conservation activities.  Still and forever a symbol of the alliance between two nations.

Mrs. Miniver ended up following Greer Garson the rest of her life.

Mr. Troyan also quotes Teresa Wright on the movie Mrs. Miniver, and we’ll give her the last word:

“We all felt, and sought to convey, the profound determination that dramatized those days. It was a picture produced in the shadow of headlines, and those of us who appeared in it never forgot it.”


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The World In His Arms - 1952

The World in His Arms (1952) is unabashedly, unexpectedly sensual, often boisterous and sometimes savage, but over all, romantic.  It manages to be all this without really teasing the Production Code, which is the miracle of it.  The movie stands on all familiar conventions of adventure stories and of romance stories--in this case, the romantic triangle.  But in this film, the triangle is made up of two leads with exciting screen chemistry--and their director, whose thumbprint is on every frame, bringing the characters close to us, keeping it intimate.

It is, on its surface, a swashbuckling sea picture—and indeed, its seagoing action scenes, including a race between two schooners, is among the most thrilling and best ever filmed—but director Raoul Walsh’s creative rendering makes this movie appeal to both fans of action/adventure movies and fans of romance stories.  His celebrated skill in framing shots and selective editing-as-you-go filmmaking makes this a fast-paced movie where no sensation lingers too long, but where one experience after another hits us like a fresh and stinging and exhilarating sea spray.  Like any good storyteller, he knew what buttons to push.

Ann Blyth was 23 years old when she appeared in this film as an escaping Russian countess—escape sets the scene for many Walsh movies.  Handsome Gregory Peck is a New England sea captain, a rascal transplanted to the Pacific coast where he runs between Alaska, where he and his crew harvest seal pelts, and San Francisco, where he sells them and spends his money on saloon girls like Andrea King, whom we saw as Ann’s human rival in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), discussed here.  Miss King seems to have recovered from being bitten in the leg by Ann in that film, because she walks okay and even dances a little.

But we don’t see too much of the saloon gals, for very soon Ann Blyth invades Mr. Peck’s manly world of fistfights and clubbing seals as a damsel in distress, escaping from a forced marriage to Carl Esmond, whom we saw here as the Nazi head officer in Resisting Enemy Interrogation (1944).  Even though he’s a Russian Prince, he’s still a Nazi here, calculating, viciously cruel, and unable to rid himself of his Prussian bearing and German accent.

Raoul Walsh’s damsels in distress are never really so helpless that they don’t take an active part in their own salvation.  Ann’s Countess Marina has strong survival instincts, brains, courage, and a sense of responsibility to her few faithful retainers.  She goes after Gregory Peck as the best hope for her to get herself and her staff to Sitka, Alaska (which I think was not called Sitka, but New Archangel at this time period) and the Russian colony headed by her uncle, played by Sig Ruman, who we last saw here in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  Also unable to handle a Russian accent, and cozy enough to resemble a figure from an operetta, Mr. Ruman is not her best choice for refuge, as we will see.  Carl Esmond has everybody in his power. 

Mr. Peck has an adversarial relationship with the Russians.  He is their chief competitor in the sealing business, and they regard him as a pirate encroaching on their territory in Alaska waters.  The movie takes place in 1850, when the Russians had already had a strong foothold in Alaska for more than a century.  Though Peck has no love for the Russians, Miss Blyth, at first pretending to be one of Andrea King’s saloon girls to attract him, soon becomes his whole world as he loses his heart, and nearly loses his ship and his life. 

About the only thing bogging this film down a little is the sporadic brawling that seems to start with little provocation.  Peck and his men become more interesting when their bravado, and their enjoyment of a good fight, is directed to a sense of purpose—the final rescue scene is quite exciting.

John McIntire, who keeps popping up as a favorite in this series on Ann Blyth, is Gregory Peck’s right-hand man, wry, comic, Bible-quoting, with Shakespearian delivery.  At one point he whacks Gregory Peck on the skull with a belaying pin, purely in the name of friendship.  It's a guy thing.

Bill Radovich is Ogeechuck, a barrel-chested native, chief pilot, and a cross between a barroom bouncer and Curly Howard. 

Anthony Quinn plays the captain of a rival schooner, a loud, boisterous thief who steals cargo, shanghais crews, whose playful exchanges with Peck sometimes end up with one or both of them getting hit on the head with a belaying pin.  It is such an obnoxious character, one can imagine Quinn might have had a lot of fun playing him.

Eugenie Leontovich has a small role as Ann’s chaperone and lady in waiting, and has the distinction of speaking with the most authentic Russian accent in this film.  No wonder, this esteemed stage actress grew up in Imperial Russia and escaped the Revolution when she fled to Paris.  Other members of her family, loyal to the Czar, were not so lucky.  She has a cute bit when, appalled by the odor of Bill Radovich, who has a habit of keeping fish in the hood and pockets of his coat, and whom she is constantly shooing away, turns up as her hero at the end of the movie.  He and the rest of Gregory Peck’s men disguise themselves as Russian Orthodox priests during an attempt to rescue Ann Blyth.  Madame Leontovich recognizes Mr. Radovich by his smell, is greatly relieved that help is at hand, and there is a twinkle in her eye when he winks at her.

Gregory Gay is Ann's loyal adviser and trustee, who is terrorized by teasing saloon girls.

Hans Conreid stands out as a harried hotelier who must endure the chaos Gregory Peck’s gang brings to his fancy hotel.

A few favorite scenes:  The schooner race between rivals Peck and Quinn, with fabulous cinematography by Russell Metty.  Rear screen projection is used sparingly, most of this is the real thing and it feels like we’re on board.

Ann Blyth, the well-bred and refined countess, educated in London and Paris, tries to copy the showy dress and common manners of the saloon girls because she thinks that’s the kind of woman Gregory Peck wants.  She never throws herself at him, rather merely dangles herself in his presence.  The throwing goes to Anthony Quinn, who picks her up roughly and smothers her with unwelcome kisses, and when Peck demands her release, Quinn tosses Miss Blyth to him.

Catch her expression when she lands in Peck’s arms.  Her surprise and discomfort has melted into coy pleasure. 

The scene on the hill above San Francisco, after they have spent an evening on the town together, and he loosens her hair from its tight bun.  Hairdo undoing may be an image corresponding to a woman’s undoing, but it’s also one of the most romantic gestures in storytelling.  You may already know she’s standing on a box for their kissing scene.  Ann frequently had to stand on a box for romantic scenes as many of her partners were quite tall.  She might not have had a career without that box.

Another sublimely romantic scene is when Gregory Peck takes her aboard his moored ship to show her around.  The ship is called The Pilgrim of Salem.  He is originally from Salem, Massachusetts, though his friends and enemies alike here on the Barbary Coast call him The Boston Man.

She puts her hands on the ship’s wheel and says, "She's lovely." 

He puts his hands atop hers, “And she always obeys me.”

“Perhaps because she likes the touch of your hand,” she replies, looking down with satisfaction at his hand covering hers. 

“She ought to; I’m in love with her.”

Modern films with love scenes showing two people writhing in bed are not more erotic than this scene under the night stars, so astonishing in its simplicity and effectiveness.

Most especially lending a mood of almost unbearable longing is the theme song, composed by longtime Universal Studio score composer Frank Skinner that sounds like an old Russian folk tune, sweeping and mournful and heartbreakingly beautiful.  It serves as the leitmotif of the film that resurrects the lovers’ passion in pivotal moments, and conjures the pain of hoping against all hope.

In one scene, Mr. Peck takes Miss Blyth to a restaurant run by Russian ex-pats, where she requests the song from a strolling violinist and hums to it, explaining its words.  She gets to speak a little Russian in the movie.  In the Cold War environment in which this film was made (more on that in a bit), there is a romantic nostalgia for the Imperialist Russia, yet equating the harshness of the regime to modern Soviet totalitarianism.  They are the villains, until they join the Americans and become “good Yankees” themselves.  They are all a microcosm of the world on this coast.  The Aleut native, McIntire the Nova Scotian, Peck the New Englander, Quinn is Portuguese, and Irish, Chinese, and Russians abound. 

In this movie, Peck has a business maneuver afoot to buy Russian Alaska for several millions, exploit its riches and boot out Russian control.  That would happen 17 years after this movie takes place, with or without Gregory Peck.  We may muse that when the movie was released in 1952, Alaska was still a territory, it's riches still barely exploited, and was not a state until 1959.

Peck’s seal harvesting business, incidentally, is strangely handled in this movie.  The scenes with the seals on the beach is rear-screen projection, and no clubbing of the seals is actually seen.  John McIntire gives a young seaman a lesson on conservation—the Russians are decimating the seal population by not carefully culling the herds of only the “bachelors” and instead taking all the female seals and cubs.  We see the men of the schooner land on the beach and herd seals, clubs in hand.  Next, we see them back on board, neatly stacking the skinned pelts.  The brutality of the killing is never seen.  I’m not sure if Raoul Walsh pulled a punch here, or if the studio just got squeamish.  It’s as if the seals, like in a cartoon, just unzipped their pelts, relieved to be rid of the hot fur coat, and walked away.

The romance between Peck and Ann Blyth really is a threesome, for we sense the strong presence of director Raoul Walsh in their scenes.  Despite his lusty testosterone-driven fights with belaying pins (I gotta get me one of them, so handy), his scenes with Ann Blyth are delicate and deep.  This shot of her bridal bouquet held at her waist as she, reluctant and heartbroken, is dressing for her marriage to Carl Esmond (she agrees to marry him to save Peck and his crew) is surprising.  A close-up on the flowers at her corseted waist, then pulled back to see the whole dress.  There is a feminine sensibility to this scene that I find touching, though I wonder if Mr. Walsh would balk at that.

In no scenes is she “taken” by Gregory Peck in abrupt embraces or rough kisses as we might see in other films where the damsel in distress is really just a prop, despite Peck's attitude of wild and lusty freedom to do pretty much what he wants.  Their attraction is mutual and they woo each other with patience and determination. There are too many obstacles for them to simply fall in love.  One senses the director’s appreciation not simply for Marina's sensuality, but for the actress playing her, perhaps expressed as well here by columnist Gene Handsaker who was allowed to watch a bit of the filming:

“Lord, what an actress!” the carpenter beside me breathed almost reverently.  We’d just watched Ann Blyth, as a Russian countess of long ago, burst into a dungeon full of chained men.
She rushes up to Gregory Peck, one of the prisoners, and swears that she still loves him.  She embraces him.  Her face is away from the camera, but there are tears, real tears, in her eyes.

Then she gets good news that will free Peck.  Annie rushes back up the dungeon steps, her back to the camera.  But from where the carpenter and I are watching, we can see her grinning excitedly at this wholly imaginary good news.

All of a sudden I remember a definition I once heard: Good acting is not acting at all.  It’s being…

The director often accused by actors of being difficult to work for was remembered more kindly by Ann Blyth in her interview with Eddie Muller (who called her remarks “generous”) on stage at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in 2006, the transcript of which is quoted at The Evening Class blog (see below).

He was just a wonderful character, a devil-may-care kind of fellow.  He knew what he wanted and he was very short in his direction and if he didn't get it he'd just say, "Cut, let's try that again."  There wasn't too much "do it again."  He just had a wonderful way of getting the work done.  No fuss about it.

This estimation of Walsh may be more than just being “generous” or her customary habit of not badmouthing coworkers, but we could assume reflected her own serious approach to her work before the camera.  In a radio interview with host Casper Citron at WOR in New York City, November 1992, Ann noted:

I think you can work a scene to death.  I really do think that sometimes the first or second take …if you’ve rehearsed well and if the people you’re working with interact well with you, it seems to me that you should be able to do pretty much all that you can do, certainly within four takes—because they’re going to be covered from different angles as well.  So, you really do get other chances…Indeed, if an actor doesn’t come well-prepared, then I think many times it doesn’t matter who the director is.

…You have to know pretty much how you want to approach a role, and certainly to have input from a good director is most important. But you have to be prepared.

…I’ve always felt strongly about the roles that I’ve done and I’ve always felt that when I went to the set that I was going to be so prepared so that whatever the director decided to do, I would certainly have a say in how to approach a role.

There were other elements that might have given Walsh and Ann common ground: they were both Irish Catholics and both native New Yorkers.  Bryan Forbes, who plays the young seaman recalled in Raoul Walsh: the True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director by Marilyn Ann Moss that Walsh--the buddy of such tough guys as Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, James Cagney, and John Wayne--put a fine box on the set of TheWorld in His Arms.  “Anyone who swore in …the demure Ann Blyth’s presence…had to put money in it.”

One scene which shows Walsh’ judiciousness is when Gregory Peck is captured by Carl Desmond, who orders him to be whipped.  Peck’s shirt is torn open at the back, and the resident torturer (every bad guy has one), starts the job of whipping Peck, but the camera quickly shifts to Ann Blyth’s reaction.  Obviously, Mr. Peck is not really going to be tortured on camera; that is not possible, so the best option to show the cruelty of the moment is to show the reaction of one who is our proxy in the experience.  Ann’s tragic face is enough to make us feel the horror because she feels it.  We don’t really need to see Peck flayed alive.

This is a primary difference in the approach of drama between theatre and film.  Theatre is unselfconscious about using illusion to tell the story, whereas filmmakers are more self conscious about illusion and prefer to straightjacket the audience’s experience in what has come to be accepted as “reality,” though there is nothing real about film reality.  Here Walsh relies with admirable confidence on Ann’s ability to carry the message of the scene without needing to resort to the sadistic and, in the end, unrealistic, image of Peck bleeding, flinching and wincing over an experience that is not really happening.

The last scene in the film is one of its most passionate, where Ann stands at the ship’s wheel, steering the sleek schooner into the twilight while Gregory Peck stands behind her, his hands covering hers.  Anthony Quinn is about to ask for his cut of Alaska, but John McIntire wisely says that Peck is not interested in Alaska at the moment, "not while he has the world in his arms.”  And we see that Ann Blyth is not just a damsel in distress or prop, but a fellow adventurer, and a woman deserving to be his whole world.

Raoul Walsh is in the scene too.  He frames them against the darkening sky, with the wind billowing against the long elaborate skirt of the wedding dress for her aborted wedding to the bad guy.  That heartbreaking, gorgeous Russian theme song swoops down upon us, sad and lovely and ecstatic.  They are more than smiling, they are grinning, all alone in each other’s company despite having a ship full of his crew, Anthony Quinn and his crew, Ann’s faithful servants, and a seal named Louise. 

Ann says something. We can’t hear because that gorgeous music is making us tear up, and Peck leans in close to her, because, apparently, he didn't hear it either.  She repeats, and he laughs, and she laughs.  It is a joyous moment showing their enjoyment of each other, and so much more sensuous than the clichéd fadeout kiss.

It looks quite impromptu and natural.  She could have said, “You’re on my foot,” or “I brought a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.”  We don’t know, and it’s best left to our imagination.

I cannot believe that glorious tune was not released as a single, with lyrics.

In July 1952 The World in His Arms had its premiere at several military bases in Alaska, the outpost where the Cold War brought nuclear adversaries toe to toe.  Ann toured at these bases making personal appearances and performing.

At one base, two shows were scheduled, but not all the servicemen could be accommodated, so a third show, beginning at midnight, was held for them.  According to Kaspar Monahan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the performers…

…proceeded to put on their best performance of this tour….But the next day, Ann Blyth and her fellow performers were so tired they could hardly walk to the mess hall for their breakfast.

Alice Hughes of the Reading Eagle reported that the press and entertainers traveled by military transport planes from base to base, and that, “We were given instructions on how to put on the harness and the folded parachute in case of a need to jump.”  The group of 75 including 23 entertainers, included Joyce Holden, Jeanne Cooper, Lori Nelson, Claudette Thornton, Audrey Goetz, male crooner Robert Monnet, comic Buddy Hackett, and Palmer Lee and Kathleen Hughes, both of whom we last saw with Ann in Sally and St. Anne, discussed here.

The bases ranged from the far-flung desolate Adak Island to the Arctic Circle.  “Annie, as we came to call Miss Blyth,” reported Howard Pearson for the Deseret News Magazine (Salt Lake City) sang for audiences ranging from 30 men to over 4,000. 

Clyde Gilmour of the Vancouver Sun was disposed to forgive her for not dishing gossip on the folks back in Hollywood. 

…her guileless and sunny honesty and her lack of theatrical razzle-dazzle are almost legendary in a profession that includes more than its share of strutting poseurs and egomaniacs…has been mesmerizing everybody right and left with her radiant smile and her mellow Irish voice.

Ann Blyth had hoped upon her return to Hollywood to begin The Student Prince in a greatly anticipated rematch with Mario Lanza, with whom she had starred in The Great Caruso, but this was not to be—at least not yet, and not with Mario Lanza.  More on that next month.

Have look here for other reviews of The World in His Arms I've enjoyed very much by our friends Laura of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings and Kevin Deany of Kevin’s Movie Corner.

The movie is fortunately available on DVD, in a transfer really stunning for it's gorgeous colors and sharp cinematography.  Really a beautiful, beautiful-looking film.

The World in His Arms was one of the last films she made under her seven-year contract for Universal-International.  Come back next Thursday when we turn back the clock to 1944, when a 15-year-old Ann Blyth made her first two movies under that contract, Chip off the Old Block and The Merry Monahans.

This year-long series on Ann Blyth’s career has reached the halfway point.  I’ve enjoyed working on these posts more than I can tell you.  Several of you have asked about the possibility of turning this series into a book.  I’ve decided to proceed with that, to be available sometime next year.

Diana and Constance Metzinger over at Silver Scenes are hosting an MGM Blogathon June 26-29, and have graciously asked me to re-post my essay on Mrs. Miniver.  That will be up this Sunday, the 29th.

See you next Thursday for more Ann Blyth.


Daytona Beach Morning Journal November 9, 1951, syndicated column by Gene Handsaker.

Deseret News Magazine, (Salt Lake City) August 31, 1952, pp. 16-17, article by Howard Pearson.

Moss, Marilyn Ann.  Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director (University Press of Kentucky, 2011).

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 2, 1952, p. 16, “Time Hangs Heavy for Servicement on Bleak Adak Island.”

Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle, June 28, 1952, article by Alice Hughes, p. 5.

The Spokesman Review (Idaho), May 30, 1952, p. 3.

St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press, December 16, 1951, syndicated column by Louella Parsons, p. 4D.

WOR (New York City) radio interview with Ann Blyth, Bill Hayes, and host Casper Citron, November 14, 1992.  
THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

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

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "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.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ann Blyth's TV Appearances -- 1950s and 1960s

Television would come to have the strongest impact on popular history and cultural memory in the United States among all media in the twentieth century.  Though Ann Blyth did less television than radio or stage work, nevertheless her varied sporadic appearances through four decades included something like 20 featured guest roles in dramas and comedies, but an additional 80 or so appearances in talk shows, panel shows, musical variety, game shows, telethon spots,(not including commercials) etc., that allowed her to sing or otherwise publicize either her current professional projects, or involvement in charities.  TV became the place for getting the word out, for reminding the public, and the producers, one was still in the game.

Ann Blyth was still in the game after her last film was released in 1957, but on her own terms around the needs of her family, and appeared in a wide range of shows and genres that illustrated the growing force and changing nature of television.  TV would provide the widest range of employment opportunities for actors and writers, though still, paradoxically, make obsolete what was popular in one year by the crushing steamroll effect of a constant search for the new fad. 

We’ll cover the 1950s and 1960s today, time enough for TV to burst on the scene with enthusiasm, a certain idealism and naiveté, then to slide into a routine maturity by the end of the 1960s that strove less for innovation and drifted into clichéd scenarios before the 1970s and 1980s ramped up the energy again with shows exploring controversial subject matter, and technology allowing shows to leave the confinement of the studio.

Ann Blyth made a few early forays into taped, syndicated television programs such as Christopher Closeup, a Catholic show on which she would make many appearances over the years, and The Ken Murray Show in 1952, on which she made a cameo along with Lorraine Day, and Les Paul and Mary Ford.  Her real splash into the new medium came with a live dramatization of “A Place in the Sun” on Lux Video Theater in January 1954.  It was a risky, but wonderfully exciting way to establish her presence in the new medium.

Ann was 25 years old, married less than a year, and expecting her first child in June.  Her role was the part that Elizabeth Taylor played in the 1951 film.  Interestingly, the critics were dismissive of the challenge of live TV, in an era when many shows were performed live, and more focused on how much better the show would have been had it not been done live.

Columnist John Crosby felt that since the story had to be cut to under an hour, it was considerably watered down, though marveled that time was the only element to be restricted, as this was “one of the most lavish and expensive in the history of live television.  Produced in CBS’ Television City in Hollywood, it boasted 67 actors with 17 sets which is about three times as many as those used in most TV dramas.  Even the climactic scene when the rowboat tips over in a mountain lake was done live by some sort of camera trickery.”  But he adds, “which, frankly, wasn’t very convincing.”

It’s encouraging that television, in such a few short years, has taken such vast strides in overcoming the physical limitations of live staging.  I just hope, though, that the producers don’t get so wrapped up in technical perfection, don’t get so immersed in the scenery, that they ignore the writers and the actors, something which is quite likely to happen in Hollywood.

An interesting and rather prescient observation.  He nearly forgot to mention the actors himself, but noted that John Derek, who played the Montgomery Clift role, was “stone-faced” and that Ann Blyth “was very pretty and fashionably husky-voiced and breathless.”  The cast included Raymond Burr, Marilyn Erskine played the doomed girl, and, to move the plot along, narrated by Ronald Reagan, who as we saw in last week’s post, would reunite with Ann in the next decade on Wagon Train.

Syndicated columnist Erskine Johnson railed at the technological glitches in the program, feeling that the show:

…was another great argument for telefilm.  Stars Ann Blyth, John Derek and Marilyn Erskine did their best, but a cast of unseen technicians changed the title to “A Noise in the Studio.”
There was a man’s shadow bigger than King Kong on a mansion exterior; voices behind intimate scenes; more shadows; a meaningless shot of a stage curtain; a flash of Ronald Reagan caught off guard before a commercial, and constant behind the camera noise that sounded like the story was being acted out in a pool hall.

From a starring dramatic role, Ann deftly switched to the actor’s alternate use for TV: self promotion.  She had garnered a spot on the Academy Awards telecast in March 1954, singing the nominated song “Secret Love,” her pregnancy at the time generating discussion if not controversy, which we discussed in this previous post.

By the end of that year, having delivered her child, did more film work, was a hit singing in Las Vegas, which we also discussed in the above post, Ann proved herself as versatile as she was busy.  She continued a very hectic year with an appearance on her brother-in-law’s TV show.  He was Dennis Day.
Long a fixture on Jack Benny’s radio show, Mr. Day also had his own radio show, and branched out into TV with a kind of situation-variety on NBC.  He plays himself, and Ann plays herself, as his real-life sister-in-law.  Her husband, his brother, Dr. James McNulty, makes a cameo.  The plot of this episode has Dennis causing problems when trying to finagle them into vacationing in Sun Valley, unaware they each have alternate, and conflicting, vacation plans.  Interestingly, a young Johnny Carson has a minor uncredited role as an expectant father.  Don’t know if this episode is preserved in any form.

Guest singing through the decade occurred on Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, and Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Sometimes, as in the case of one Perry Como Show appearance, she had to work around her pregnancies.  She had to cancel her October 1957 stint on this show as she was expecting her third child (her baby daughter was born in December), and her doctor advised that working on the show would be too exciting—to which at least one critic did not miss the comic beat and responded, “Perry Como?  Exciting?”

One of the loveliest examples of her TV work occurred on the Bell Telephone Hour in 1959, one of those magnificent showcases of art and culture we rarely see on TV anymore except maybe occasionally during PBS pledge breaks.  This episode featured a varied collection of artists on the American music scene including soprano Eileen Farrell, violinist Isaac Stern, and jazz pianist Joe Bushkin.  Ann Blyth and Howard Keel, whom we discussed  in Kismet here (We'll get to Rose Marie next month), appeared together in a skit that was a tribute to musical theatre.  They played a romantic couple separated, then reunited, told through songs taken from musicals.  This was also an early color program—still in an era when most people did not have color TVs.  

The skit takes place on a minimalist set.  First Howard Keel sings “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma, surrounded by townspeople who are also the resident troupe of dancers.  Along with actors and writers, early TV gave a lot of work to a lot of dancers.  They are in a small town, but in Mr. Keel’s self-satisfied baritone rejoicing, he does not see trouble on the horizon.  His best girl, Ann Blyth, is headed to the big city, writing him a note to break off with him, singing “Deep in My Heart” from The Student Prince.  Crushed, he grips the letter singing, “This Nearly Was Mine,” from South Pacific.  Next we see Ann, forlorn in her rooming house wistfully gazing at her love’s photo and singing, “Someone to Watch Over Me” from Oh, Kay! The chorus and “S’Wonderful” telescopes time, and we have Howard Keel waiting at the train depot for Ann’s return, where they joyously reunite with “They Say that Falling in Love is Wonderful” from Annie Get Your Gun.  Lifting these songs from different musicals is a neat way of creating this microcosm musical show and is a great example of how musicals move the plot along through song. 

What I especially like in this sequence is that it was done live, and so this is a great opportunity, for those of us who have never enjoyed it, to see Ann Blyth as she would have performed in her musical stage shows.  We see her musical range (including the final hat tip of the high C she nails at the end), her meticulous control and really impressive vocal power.  This is not pre-recorded and pre-mixed singing (though the show was obviously filmed).  Most happily, itis actually available on DVD.  It was put out on a collection of Howard Keel’s Bell Telephone Hour appearances by VAI, here at this website.

Adrian M. Slifka editor for the Youngstown Vindicator noted that this “colorcast” was an “impeccable production with something for every musical taste….the 15-minute opening segment, in which Howard Keel and Ann Blyth sang tunes from hit musicals, got the program off to a solid start.

This was one of the most beautiful colorcasts I have seen in recent weeks.  All of the settings and costumes for the Keel-Blyth duet contributed to an eye-appealing panorama of sparkling pastels.”

This was one of the finest TV hours of music and song this year.  I hope you didn’t miss it.”

We’ve noted in various previous posts that the western series Wagon Train afforded Ann Blyth several opportunities for performing drama and comedy, and I’ve covered those shows separately because they allowed the guest to really star, while the regulars took supporting roles in many episodes.  Unfortunately, neither westerns nor musical variety of this nature have a place on television today (except for “reality” style singing and dance contests).  If the above reviewer for “A Place in the Sun” was worried about the diminishing importance of actors and writers on TV, he may have indeed predicted the era of reality television.

We mentioned in this earlier post on “The Year Joan Crawford Won the Oscar” that Ann Blyth turned down the opportunity to join the cast of Saints and Sinners as a regular.  A few years earlier in 1957, it was reported that Earl Holliman and Ann were considered for a new TV series based on Claudia and David, a film we covered here.  Other opportunities came along for series work, but Ann was wary to accept them and to have to commit herself to the long hours for months on end, which would have seriously eroded her time with her family.

Another type of program that seems to have gone the way of westerns and musical variety is the anthology show.  One of the most famous, The Twilight Zone, featured a wide array of stars in intense dramas.  Many of you have commented on the Ann Blyth episode, which I won’t cover today, but rest assured, it’s on the docket for this October.

Another anthology show was The June Allyson Show-DuPont Show, which one reviewer lauded “has become gutsy” with new episodes such as “Suspected,”  broadcast December 28, 1959, in which, according to the Pittsburgh Press, “Ann Blyth, a public stenographer, is in a hotel room, evading the clutches of an amorous business man.  She runs away but leaves some incriminating evidence…when the man is stabbed…and a drunken witness swears Ann was the girl who cut up the man.  Well-done. There are good scenes of Ann in jail, facing the prospects of a lifelong lease…” 

The Milwaukee Sentinel, however, felt that “sweet little Ann Blyth seems completely miscast.”  See our previous post on “What’s a Nice Girl Like Ann Blyth Doing in a Place Like this?

“Your previewer found himself kind of wishing she’d been found guilty.”

Wittily dissing the star is a critic’s best tool to avoid working hard at actually writing analytically.  But as for his revealing the outcome of the story—hah, and you thought I give out spoilers.

By the next decade, TV had settled into a smooth pattern of following trends rather than setting them, and stars who adapted were the ones to survive, at least until the next big fad.  Ann’s career had shifted to stage musicals by the 1960s, so television was less a substitute for film work than it was a change of pace from her singing roles. 

She made two appearances on the whimsical detective series Burke’s Law starring Gene Barry. Both are fun and utterly goofy sides of sweet little Ann Blyth that should make any future critic dispense with typecasting her in their reviews.

In the “Who Killed Andy Zygmunt?” episode broadcast March 13, 1964, which satirizes the world of modern art and pokes fun at avant garde artists—one such artist has been murdered—Ann plays another beatnik style artist whose specialty is spray painting her live models with different colors and having them roll around on a canvas spread on the floor.   She is a suspect in the murder, and replies to the investigator, “Hey, man, can’t you see I’m busy working here? wouldn’t have buzzed Toulouse-Lautrec when he was fast sketching the lovely Jane Avril?” She grins at the detective, “Your perceptivity just knocks me out, soldier.”

We learn she is a junkie, hooked on previously prescribed painkillers.  To keep herself supplied, she forges doctors’ signatures on prescription cards.  The victim knew this and was blackmailing her.  However, Ann is not the only suspect, and collection of similar kooks includes Aldo Ray as a dog groomer, MacDonald Carey, Jack Weston, and Tab Hunter all as free-spirited weirdos who could have murdered the dead man.  Gene Barry, star of the show, will tell us who did it after the last commercial.

In the show’s second season, Ann returns in “Who Killed Mother Goose”, broadcast January 13, 1965, playing a children’s TV show host, a cheesy, super-cheerful story-telling Miss Muffet type, who, once the cameras stop rolling, deflates into a bitter, sarcastic, hard-as-nails ex-B-movie actress who’s clinging to her job like grim death. She's not at all sorry that Mother Goose, a rival children’s book author, soon to host her own show, has been murdered.

Ann has an alcoholic elf as her sidekick, who gets a face full of black power explosions whenever he misbehaves.  It’s like all the Simpsons episodes of Krusty the Klown that ever were.

Gene Barry enters her TV studio and questions her while the "magic cartoon" is rolling:

“Would you like to see my magic badge?”

“I guess you’re here about Mother Goose?”

“Yeah, somebody closed the book on her.”

“I’m glad the old witch is dead.  Somebody finally handed her a poisoned apple.”  She invites the detective for a magic martini.

This unabashedly playful episode with its black humor also features Lola Albright, George Hamilton as a very convincing beatnik poet, Jan Murray, and a delightfully obtuse Walter Pidgeon.  Burke's Law can be seen sometimes in re-runs, and the first season is available on DVD.

Ann’s 1960s TV appearances concluded with a very different detective series and a much more dour and traditional role.  In The Name of the Game, episode titled “Swingers Only,” broadcast January 10, 1969, Ann plays the hurt wife of a sports writer who’s been cheating on her.  He is played by Robert Lansing, who appeared with Ann in the above-mentioned Saints and Sinners episode.  His girlfriend on the side has been murdered, and he is a prime suspect.  His friend, magazine editor, Robert Stack, tries to ferret out the story and the real murderer.  

Also along as Mr. Stack’s assistant is a young Ben Murphy, who later played Ann's husband on the Murder She Wrote episode we discussed here.

Jack Klugman also appears in this episode, and Ann will reunite with him in two future episodes of Klugman’s Quincy M.E. series in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Robert Lansing’s portrayal “Maybe I’m just a middle-aged sports writer trying to be young again,” is sullen, self-pitying, and not terribly sympathetic.  Her scene with him at a park above Los Angeles, where they arrive after miles and miles of silence on the entangled freeways, reminds me, with their positioning around a tree, of the final scene of Our Very Own (1950), discussed here, where she seals her happy future with Farley Granger.  The difference here being the tree is an obstacle to the couple’s physical togetherness, and the scene with its cold and bitter dialogue leaves us without much hope for their relationship.

“Dear God, it makes me sick to admit it, but I do want to know why,” she says of his affair.

More appealing is Ann’s scene with Robert Stack, also outdoors in a park, but the natural setting here, with her son playing close by, is gentler, warmer, and could even be romantic if Stack’s character were not already married.  His close attention to her seems not only the sign of a good investigator, but also carries a wistful feeling of longing.

He gets to the bottom of the case, and though there are many action scenes, both Robert Lansing, as a prisoner in jail, and Ann Blyth, as the wife who must deal with her husband’s philandering, are passive roles.  She complains to Robert Stack of her husband, “When I look at him all I see is failure, mine.”

It is interesting that his response is more feminist than hers, “If you’re going to break with him, okay.  But don’t pack his guilt and call it yours.”  The Name of the Game in can still be seen in re-runs.

Four years earlier, Ann appeared on an episode of the Kraft Suspense Theater called “Jungle of Fear,” broadcast April 22, 1965.  It is a departure from the hipper Burke’s Law and The Name of the Game, and even the reviewer felt bound to point out it was “Crammed with familiar gimmicks, clichés, etc., but an effective suspense story nonetheless…you’ll probably enjoy this one if you can forgive it for being old fashioned.”

This was long before the 1970s era of nostalgia-themed shows.  Spies, swingers, and social causes and all things mod were the engine that drove 1960s television. “Jungle of Fear” is pleasingly quaint, a wild west story not in the wild west without any Wild,Wild West gadgets.  The time is 1850 and the place is Panama.  Robert Fuller, who we last saw with Ann in the Wagon Train episode of “The Fort Pierce Story,” noted above, plays a saloon keeper and maker of deals in this jungle outpost populated by people traveling to California in the backwash of the gold rush.  This was before the Panama Canal was built, of course, so if they wanted to avoid a long sea voyage around South America, the next best option was to cross over land at the isthmus, where it would still take five days to journey through treacherous territory jealously guarded by Indians, and then take a clipper on the Pacific side of Panama to California.

It’s all very similar in feeling to Casablanca and Rick’s café.  Robert Fuller spars with the territory’s authority figure, played by Robert Loggia, and must deal with all kinds of people coming to his gambling parlor and saloon to arrange passage for them.  Most are escaping something.

Ann Blyth is a widow with a young boy.  She and her son are Chinese, and they are headed back to China because her son is the new emperor upon the death of her husband.  Tailing her is a suave and sinister Richard Anderson, with whom Ann appeared in The Student Prince, which we’ll get to next month.  He is an American mercenary, hired by usurpers to the throne to kill the boy.

The role allows Ann a character part, utilizing her skill with accents—her speech is simple, not heavily stereotyped, but with precise and careful intonation suggesting an educated noblewoman who has been in the U.S. many years supervising the American education of her son.  Her small, delicate steps carry the suggestion of foot binding typical of an upper class Chinese woman of that period.

She appeals to Robert Fuller to help her get back to China, and Mr. Fuller engages in knife fights, fistfights, shell games about where to hide her and the kid, and finally, a suspenseful showdown on a rope bridge over a muddy jungle river.

For me, nothing says adventure in a jungle like a rope bridge.  (“Oh, a rope bridge!” the blogger claps her hands like a happy little girl.  I would like one for Christmas.)

There is also a brief moment of romance when Robert Fuller reminds Ann with a kiss that she is not only the young emperor’s regent, she is “also a woman.”

In the last scene where she is boarding the clipper to take her and her son away to their home in China, she has changed from peasant clothing to her court finery, and the headpiece reminds me of her garb in The Golden Horde (1951).  We’ll get to that down the road.  The "Jungle of Fear" episode of Kraft Suspense Theater is, I think, still up on YouTube.

The final shot of the great sailing ship is a perfect segue into our post next week, also featuring escaping royalty, sailing ships, and the year of 1850—The World in His Arms (1952), as sensual and romantic a movie you will ever see that also happens to have seal clubbing in it.  That’s hard to do, really.

See you next Thursday, same time, same blog.

Now roll credits, and a word from our sponsor.

Austin Daily Herald, October 26, 1957.

Deseret (Salt Lake City) News, January 28, 1954, p. 4C.

Miami News, September 17, 1957, p. 5B, column by Hedda Hopper.

Milwaukee Sentinel, December 28, 1959, p. 8.

Park City Daily News (Bowling Green, KY), November 4, 1957.

Pittsburgh Press, December 27, 1959, p. 35.

Portsmouth (Ohio) Times, March 4, 1959 p. 8.

The Spencer (Iowa) Daily Reporter, February 9, 1954, p. 3.

St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press, April 22, 1965, p. 6C.

St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, February 5, 1954, p. 40, column by John Crosby.

Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator – March 5, 1959
THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

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

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "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.

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