Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ann Blyth - Two Stage Dramas

Author's collection.

Two stage dramas, seventeen years apart in Ann Blyth’s career, tell of her acting range and of how she mined opportunities for a variety of work.  One occurred in 1950 when she was well established in her film career and a star just shy of her 22nd birthday.  The second occurred a decade after her last film, when, though still a working actress on TV guest roles and in summer musical theatre around the country, she was considered, at 38, to be flying under the radar for her absence on the big screen.

The first play: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California, in August, 1950.  The second: Frederick Mott’s thriller Wait Until Dark at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago, 1967.

With her latest film released, Our Very Own (1950), which we covered here, the year 1950 brought new adventures, and challenges, for Ann Blyth that gave her a break from her film work.  One of these was her first time singing at the Academy Awards, which we'll cover in a future post.  Another was a week’s engagement at the La Jolla Playhouse, founded by actors Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer, which we talked about here in this previous post.

It had been seven years since Ann had trod the boards, having come to Hollywood via the national touring company in Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, in the role of Babette, which Ann originated on Broadway.  We discussed that in our intro post to this series on Ann Blyth’s career here.  Ann was a child of 12 when she won her role in that prestigious play. 

Though Hollywood scavenged a lot of actors from the theater, the seven-year contract rarely released them back to that other world.  The La Jolla Playhouse, with its limited summertime schedule, offered a chance for stage-starved actors to put a toehold back in that other world, if only briefly.

Photo Modern Screen, November, 1950 (public domain)
Mel Ferrer, Millard Mitchell, Ann Blyth, Marshall Thompson

Our Town featured Millard Mitchell as the stage manager, with Ann as Emily, opposite Marshall Thompson as George.  Beulah Bondi as Ann’s mother, and Edgar Buchanan rounded out the top-notch cast of Hollywood escapees.  Mel Ferrer directed the show, performed at the La Jolla High School Auditorium.  Also in the cast were O.Z. Whitehead, Esther Somers, Raymond Greenleaf, Clarence Straight, Jay Barney, Frank Conlan, Elizabeth Slifer, and Ricky Barber.

In a review by Katherine Von Blon for the Los Angeles Times, the scene where Ann as Emily returns as a ghost to relive a happy birthday morning from her past is described as “almost unbearably moving.”

Exquisite Ann Blyth demonstrated rare and sensitive gifts as an actress.  There were few dry eyes in the house when she made the speech ending with “goodbye world.”

The show was “truly an unforgettable experience.”

But, of course, the stage world is ethereal, and so we may not forget, but we move on with only memories—and a few reviews and a tattered, yellowed program—to document the event.

Have a look at a few production photos of Our Town rehearsal here at the Mel Ferrer website.

At the end of the run, Ann returned to Hollywood, and was loaned out to MGM for The Great Caruso, which began her participation in MGM’s screen musical golden age.  We’ll talk about that film down the road.

By 1967, when Ann performed in the Chicago production of the Broadway hit Wait Until Dark, she had not made a film in a decade, and her stage work that had come to replace film as her main acting endeavor was devoted to popular musicals, allowing her, at last, to use her beautiful, trained, singing voice in a wide range of musicals that she never got to do on film.  But she was still receptive to a good dramatic role, and the part of Suzy, the blind woman at the mercy of a gang of drug dealers was an exceptionally meaty role.  It is emotionally draining, and physically challenging, and most actresses who’ve tackled the role get bruised and bumped up in the fight scene.

Production photo, credit unknown at this time.

I’ve always thought that the climactic scene where the villain opens the refrigerator door, casting a beam of light across a darkened stage to find his victim, who has been hiding from him, one of the most chilling sights in theatre.  So simply done, no theatrical razzle-dazzle, yet so creepy.

“Creepy” was the watchword of Thomas Willis’ review of Wait Until Dark in the Chicago Tribune.  Mr. Willis, longtime arts and music critic for the Tribune, labels not only the gang of drug dealers as creepy, but also the husband of the blind woman for his “deliberate lack of sympathy” for his wife’s blindness in forcing her to be more independent.  He calls Ann Blyth “the most believable” in her role and also finds it creepy she is able to compensate for her character’s blindness by distinguishing people around her by their footsteps, yet still has trouble navigating her own apartment.

Miss Blyth is beautiful as ever, but somewhat stiff in characterization of the girl not yet accustomed to sightlessness.

With that typically bored and blasé tone of many critics, he notes that the rest of the "uniformly capable" cast, “measure up," with most of his review describing the plot of the story, rather than commenting specifically on the acting or technical elements.

Wait Until Dark played for five weeks.  James Tolkan played the sinister Harry Rote.  Donald Buka and Val Bisoglie were the thugs-as-chumps, with Michael Ebert as her husband.  Sheryl Mandel was Gloria, the little girl upstairs who proves to be an ally.

Six bucks for the orchestra.  (The blogger heaves a big sigh.)

Later on in this same year that Ann performed in Wait Until Dark, 1967, she went back to musical theatre in The King and I in St. Louis, and then right into Carnival in Salt Lake City, where the Deseret News called her a “petite star of all five mediums,” recounting her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), which we discussed here, and then reminds us, “After that, she was one of the brightest stars of the movie world.  She has also starred in television, on the stage, and in nightclubs.”

It sounds like an obituary.  Just rounding 39 years old, and the press was reminding readers who she was.  But these musicals, though “off the radar” by standards that judged film to be the most important reflection of popular culture, yet offered her creative challenges, the ability to flex muscles, and, most especially, starring roles.  We’ll cover those in a later post.

We mentioned last week in a post on three of her radio performances that though while Ann Blyth is primarily remembered for her films, she made only 32 of them.  She performed as many as 400 times on radio.

But she acted on stage probably at least 700 times over the course of more than 40 years, not including her singing concerts, which extended her career another couple of decades. 

Her first stage appearance in Chicago was in 1942, (twenty-five years before Wait Until Dark) the year she turned 14, on the road show of Watch on the Rhine, which played at the Grand Opera House on Clark Street.

The year before, 1941, the show was still on Broadway, and Ann recalled for Modern Screen magazine in an article from 1953 a funny, but uncomfortable stage memory from that show:

What I remember particularly is the second act when I was supposed to be on stage and cook some potato pancakes (really flat bran muffins) for Lucile Watson.  One night I was so busy chatting with someone offstage that I missed my cue and Miss Watson had to improvise.  She walked right to the stage entrance where I was dreaming and said, “Where is Babette?  Oh, there you are!  (Looking at me so sharply that I woke up and realized what I had done).  I was wondering where my potato pancakes were!”  I ran on stage with them.  But when the act was over, I burst into tears that lasted all through the intermission, and I’m still embarrassed about it.

Missing a cue at 13 is even more terrifying than being attacked with a trick knife in Wait Until Dark at 38.

Still, that 13-year old leaves a small but special footprint -- it is common that when a playscript is published, the names of the original cast are included.  When you order a Watch on the Rhine actor's script today from its current publisher, Dramatists Play Service, this will greet you in the opening pages:

Come back next week when Ann rides TV's Wagon Train once more in 1963, as a tragic frontier officer’s wife who drowns her anguish in alcohol.  Ronald Reagan co-stars in one of his last acting roles.

Chicago Tribune. "Wait Until Dark' at the Studebaker Tomorrow", May 14, 1967, p. E13;  "Wait Until Dark Simulates Terror" by Thomas Willis, May 16, 1967, p. B3.

Deseret News (Salt Lake City) August 26, 1967, p.10A, “Ann Blyth to Star in Carnival at Valley Music.”

Hellman, Lillian.  Watch on the Rhine. (Dramatists Play Service).

Janesville Daily Gazette (Janesville, Wisconsin), May 15, 1967.

Modern Screen. “Take My Word for It” star column by Ann Blyth, January 1953, p. 69.

Modern Screen, November 1950, “Ann Blyth’s Story” by Cynthia Willet, p. 88.

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.


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I remember seeing your original post about the La Jolla Playhouse. The cast lists on their history page are fascinating—like casts of movies-that-never-were. But if I had to pick just one production off that list, it'd be Ann Blyth and Marshall Thompson in Our Town. I'll bet they were adorable in the soda-fountain scene. (I'm assuming that scene is in the play? It's on my summer reading list, but so far I've only seen the movie.)

There's a couple teeny-tiny stills from the play here, though the date on the page is incorrect.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Elisabeth, I agree, I would love to have seen this production. My immense joy at finding these tidbits is equal to my sorrow at knowing I can never see the play as it was performed. Thanks so much for including the link to those production stills.

The movie OUR TOWN has a different ending than the play, and I guess that's all I'll say about that. Definitely read the play as a beautiful piece of literature -- that also makes it the perfect play to perform. If you ever get a chance to see OUR TOWN on stage, do it. Even if it is just a high school production, it doesn't matter -- the script, the simplicity of the story makes it transcendent to even the most simple venues and the most inexperienced actors. I've read where it is the most performed play in the world, if only for the ease of its production requirements, and the universality of its message.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Oh, and yes, the soda fountain scene is in the play.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Yes, I did know about the different ending. I'm looking forward to reading the play even more now after your praise of it.

Moira Finnie said...

Ah, if only we could revisit the times you describe, but like a party, the festivities are "melted into air, into thin air," I would particularly love to have seen Ann Blyth as Emily in "Our Town" and that superb character actor, Millard Mitchell, would have been an even better choice for the stage manager role than the man who created the role, Frank Craven.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Moira. Yes, I really like Millard Mitchell, and can imagine he was probably great in this. I wonder if they bothered with New England accents?

ClassicBecky said...

How I wish I could have seen Our Town and Wait Until Dark with Ann. I'm with you about the scene in Wait Until Dark with the refrigerator light -- very chilling. I haven't commented on all of them, but I have been following your tributes to Ann, and they are wonderful.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Becky. So good to hear from you again. I wish I could have seen those two productions, too, especially at $6 for orchestra seats.

Caftan Woman said...

Heaven knows I love "my" movies, but the idea of these wonderful stage productions makes me ache that we don't have the chance to see them. I love the photos from the rehearsal (my favourite word - rehearsal) that show the joy of collaboration.

PS: I was looking through some old papers and programs and found ticket stubs for "The Odd Couple" with Tony and Jack. $5 for mezzanine. Sigh.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

You echo my sentiments exactly, CW. Now, why would rehearsal be your favorite word, I wonder?

Odd Couple, Tony and Jack, five bucks. Wow. I'm there.

Anonymous said...

Great to hear more of Ann's stage appearances. Oh to have heard her glorious voice in person in one of her stage musical roles.
It's amazing that she did hundreds of radio shows.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Vienna, I'm with you. I wish I could hear her sing in person. As for a book...I'm exploring possibilities about how I can get additional source material, photo rights, etc. Unfortunately, I have a lot on my plate, and I'd like to do it as well as I can. I can hardly believe we're nearly six months into this year-long series. I feel like I've just begun, as if I haven't even scratched the surface.


We love Ann Blythe in Top O' The Morning with Bing Crosby - and especially Barry Fitzgerald. Good movie.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Michaelspappy. I like that movie too.

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