Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ann Blyth - Teen Years in Hollywood

Ann Blyth was a teenager from 1941 to 1948.  To spend most of one’s teen years during World War II was the defining experience of her generation.

To one blossoming in one’s career while at the same time coming of age, this era must have been an added adventure and source of excitement, and anxiety.  She did not know the tragedy of war firsthand, but she knew tragedy. 

Long post ahead.  Get cozy.

The war was pervasive.  Even in the enviably safe United States, the war reached everybody on some level.  For a young person, it must have seemed as if the war had always been, just as growing up in the Depression had been all they knew.  No one navigated the perils of these events alone; all society were touched in some way, some more than others, but the experience was universal.  To a child, with no long past to make comparisons, it must have all seemed...normal.  Perhaps this added to the resiliency of that generation.

Ann Blyth was certainly resilient.  She was a baby when the Great Depression began and a mere child of six when she got her first job on radio during its worst years.  She had just turned 11 when World War II began in 1939, and two years later, in 1941, she was chosen as part of the original cast of Watch on the Rhine on Broadway, which we discussed here in our intro post to this series.

According to a girls’ magazine article of a few years later, Calling All Girls, in a piece probably not a little built-up by the Universal publicity department:

She was lavishly praised in all the reviews.  A huge party was given in her honor at the Astor Theater, where the orchestra played her favorite selections.  Her room was heaped with flowers.  Congratulations arrived in a steady stream of telegrams.  This moment of triumph was the culmination of a long apprenticeship in radio acting and solid practice on her own.  Luck had little to do with it, though—just to be on the safe side—Ann had gone on the stage that opening night with a rabbit’s foot and a four-leaf clover in her pocket and a horseshoe in her dressing room!

Times Square.  The Astor Hotel is middle right.  1938, NYC Archives

It sounds like a movie. 

She might not have understood much of the political intrigue, at 12 years old, of playwright Lillian Hellman’s story of one American family visited by fascism and the cost of fighting it in their own living room, but the play must have become somehow more real for her, certainly for the grownups, on December 7, 1941 when fighting fascism was no longer an ideal or a theory for Americans; it became necessity.  It was the news of the day. 

That day, Ann was 13 years old, her teen years begun at the then height of her achievements as a child actress, while the world spiraled to its worst years of horror.  It was not the best of timing, perhaps, but the strange crisscrossed trajectory would lead her to fame as a movie star before she turned 20 years old in seven years’ time.

The Broadway run of Watch on the Rhine concluded in February 1942, and then she joined the national touring company only two days after the closing – it was on to Philadelphia.  In March, they played the Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of the New England tour.  Later it was out to the Midwest and the Cass Theatre in Detroit in April, and the Davidson Theater in Milwaukee by May, and the Grand Opera House in Chicago that month.  She traveled with the company, and with her mother, by train to big city theaters where the play enjoyed enormous success, including a command performance for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a visit to the White House. 

She was earning a living and supporting her mother and building a career, like a grownup, but she was still child and childhood was still an even bigger reality.  There were two boys in the cast as well, who played her brothers.  She recalled in an interview for the Easton, Pennsylvania Express-Times in 2000:

“You’d think it would be fun, not having to go to school, but it didn’t work that way.  We had to do our homework every day, and it was mailed back to our teachers.”

She turned 14 the summer of 1942.  When they played the Biltmore Theater in Los Angeles, she was noticed by Universal director Henry Koster and producer Joe Pasternak.  They invited her for a screen test, and later signed her to a seven-year film contract, to take effect when the play’s run concluded.  By 1943, she and her mother said goodbye to home and family in the New York area and settled in an apartment at the Highland Towers near Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.  LA was a company town, booming in the 1940s, equally committed to the war effort and its own bottom line in fantasy-making and dream-spinning, and would be her whole world.  It was both a career and an education.

Ann responded in a radio interview in 1992 about whether she felt a seven-year contract was a  kind of bondage:

“I didn’t feel that way about it.  I know I’ve heard and read a lot of stories about people who felt that, indeed, it was a sort of bondage.  It was a wonderful place for me to be, maybe because of the temperament, but as I look back on it now, it was the best way for me to be at a studio.”

She recalled for syndicated columnist Vernon Scott in 1976:

“Universal was a second home to me,” she said, “I went to school there and made my movie debut with Donald O’Connor in Chip off the Old Block.

It was a beautiful place then, full of lawns, trees, and cottages.  I thought of it as a sort of college campus.”

We discussed her first two films, Chip off the Old Block, and The Merry Monahans in this previous post.  These movies, along with two others we’ll discuss down the road, were all released in 1944, pushed through quickly so the studio could use Donald O’Connor as much as possible before he was drafted into the army—another reality of the day for teens.

Ann played a patriotic teen in Chip off the Old Block who wants to throw away a show biz career in order to devote herself to war work.  Ann, in real life under the auspices of the studio, was able to do both, volunteering at the famed Stage Door Canteen in Hollywood, and performing in shows for servicemen at Camp Pendleton, California, where in July 1944 she was proclaimed Sweetheart of the Regiment of a Marine Corps unit just back from horrific fighting on Tarawa. She received award certificates for her volunteer activities from the Hollywood Canteen, the War Activities Committee, and the U.S. Army.  

She affirmed for the above-mentioned radio interview that working at a Hollywood studio did not mean an end to schooling:

“Even though you find yourself in Hollywood, you still have to go to school.  Oh, they’re very strict about that.  I know when I was very young, other young people would say, ‘Oh, that must be so easy.’  But, really not so easy.  Here you find yourself doing a very dramatic scene and 15 minutes later, you’re back in your dressing room doing algebra.  And, it was far from easy, but it was a wonderful education in a way, because there were very few of us in class.  When you weren’t doing a movie, you really attended a small, little schoolhouse on the lot, and it was a lovely experience.”

We discussed in a previous post her teacher Mrs. Gladys Hoene, who noted in a 1955 article that Donald O’Connor and Ann Blyth were among her favorite pupils.

Ann would turn 16 in the summer of 1944, when her first four films, all light teen musicals for Universal, were released.  She began to experience the dubious honor of capturing the notice of fan magazines for the first time and to deal with one of the most trying, yet necessary, aspects of a performing career—publicity. 

The above-mentioned article in Calling All Girls published July-August 1944 was one of the first of these forays into building up her stardom.

One quality of Ann’s which always astonishes the veteran picture people who work with her on the set is her unusual coolness in front of the camera.  Crises in production which send experienced players and staff personnel into tantrums leave her completely unruffled.  Charles Lamont, director of The Merry Monahans…says she is the most poised and composed young actress he has ever encountered…she has yet to forget or bungle a single line of dialogue in her cinema career.  She has never spoiled a scene by nervousness.

These early interviews, in deference to her still being a young teen, were light pieces on her favorite school subjects, the names of pets, her favorite actresses and actors (Merle Oberon, and Paul Lukas, who played her father in Watch on the Rhine.)  Later, when she began to date, the scrutiny would be more personal and presumptuous.  Of that period, Ann would comment:

“This is a phase of your life—even if you’re in pictures—that’s quite private and special.  Not that you’re unwilling to share a certain amount, but only so much.”

For now, despite the evidence of many unhappy childhoods experienced by studio contract players, for Ann Blyth, it was a marvelous adventure and a happy period.  She responded to The Hollywood Reporter interviewer Scott Feinberg in 2013:

“It was like finding gold all over again in California.  For me, it was a wonderful studio because it wasn’t a big studio…and you felt, the people that I met in publicity, others, certainly the gaffers, the grips, became friends.  It was like the same people were on all of the movies I did, and I felt cared about and cared for.”

For the Bay Area Reporter in 2006 she remarked,

“I felt very protected.  But it wasn’t good for everyone.”

She would need this support from her studio and her colleagues when two shocking events seriously threatened her.  As we discussed in the intro post, one was the spine fracture she suffered while tobogganing in April 1945.  What might have been a fatal accident soon became instead anybody’s guess as to whether she would walk again.

It was certainly speculated by many that her career was over.

A few days later, President Roosevelt died.  Having been in office four terms, he was the only president young people ever knew through the course of their lives.  Ann had met him at a dinner at the White House.  Time seemed to move too slowly in the Great Depression.  Now it was moving too fast.

Except for Ann Blyth.  Ann spent several months in a body cast, on which, when the first danger was over, she collected the autographs of friends.  She was bedridden for much of the rest of the year, celebrated her 17th birthday in this manner. 

It was the summer the war ended.  What was a tumultuous series of events for billions of people was perhaps more quietly noted in her hospital room when Germany surrendered, and later in her bedroom in the apartment she shared with her mother when Japan surrendered. 

Like most women of her generation, she would marry a veteran.  She would not meet him for another several years.  In the meantime, Dr. James McNulty was a medical officer in the U.S. Navy from 1941 through 1949.  He served as a battalion aid surgeon with the 26th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division on Iwo Jima.  He also served in Sasebo, Japan, and Peleliu, Palau, and with the Pioneer Regiment, 6th Marine Division in Tsingtao, China.

Ann managed to attend the premiere of Mildred Pierce, (which we discussed here) her breakout movie and what would be one of the most important films of her career.  According to an article in Modern Screen:

…she had to see that triumph lumpily in her cast with the biggest dress she owned—a corduroy jumper—squeezed over it.

When the body cast was removed, she was put into a removable back brace that extended from her neck to her lower back and wore that for several more months until the spring of 1946.

Oscar night: Joan Crawford at home, Ann, and director Michael Curtiz.

During this period, as noted in the intro post, she attended the Academy Awards in March 1946 wearing a gown the studio made specifically to cover her back brace.  She was a Best Supporting Actress nominee. The honor, and her own determination to recover, saved her career.

She also reached another personal triumph, the one most teens look forward to: her high school diploma.  Her teacher from Universal, Mrs. Hoene, came to her apartment three times a week to tutor her. Though studio minors were taught at the schoolhouse on the lot, they submitted to testing by the local Los Angeles school system, and took part in the formal graduation ceremony at University High School.  Ann graduated high school in a wheelchair.

Ann wrote in an article for Modern Screen in 1949:

…it was more difficult to study at home with only the aid of my teacher, Mrs. Hoene, and my mother, than it might have been in a classroom full of happy schoolmates, but the trials and tribulations of that year did help me mature.  I was lucky enough to be able to join my classmates at their graduation exercises.  Because I had been confined to my apartment for so long, that event meant far more to me...

Mrs. Hoene remained a good friend, and appeared as a guest on the This is Your Life episode that celebrated Ann Blyth in 1959, as we noted in this previous post.

The high school diploma, framed, would decorate a wall at home, along with autographed photos of movie stars.  Unlike most teens with similar bedroom decor, she knew these movie stars personally. She had worked with them.

The worst event came hard on the heels of her recovery from her back injury.  Ann’s mother died, as we discussed in the intro post, just before Ann’s 18th birthday. 

One does not recover from a loss such as this in a matter of weeks or months, particularly when she was so close to her mother, but she had a source of strength in the religious faith in which she had been brought up, and support from an aunt and uncle who moved out to California to share her life and make a home together.  Toward the end of the following year, 1947, Ann and her aunt and uncle moved to a new home in nearby Toluca Lake, the first house she had ever lived in.  She was nineteen, and her teen years would come to an end in a world very different—indeed, unrecognizable—from the one in which they began.

Another driving force getting her through the tough times was her career, to which she returned at Universal, and on loan-out to other studios in the next few very busy years.  She also enjoyed friendships with other young actors and actresses who made up a community of their own.

Joan Leslie and Jane Withers became important and life-long friends.  Jane Withers recalled in author Daniel Bubbeo’s The Women of Warner Brothers:

“There was a regular group of us, Ann (Blyth), Diana Lynn and Joan, who would get together and go to the movies…since I had a convertible, I would drive everyone.  We’d get some fast food and take it with us to the theater.  We’d usually call the manager ahead of time to let him know we were coming.  The balconies would be closed off for other people, and when we would get there, they’d open it up for us and we could eat by ourselves.  It was just a lot of fun.”

Years later, Jane Withers and Joan Leslie would be two of her bridesmaids.  Others were Marjorie Zimmer, Peggy Kelley, Betty Lynn, and Ann's stand-in, Alice Krasiva.  Her cousin, Betty Lynch, was her maid of honor.

Roddy McDowall’s home was a regular hangout for movie teens.  Jane Powell, another long-time friend, noted in her memoir, The Girl Next Door and How She Grew:

Every Sunday, Roddy’s house was a gathering place for all us Hollywood kids.  His mother, Wynn, liked and wanted her children – Roddy and Virginia – close to her, so she would invite all their friends, her friends, every Sunday – it was a big open house.  Everyone, it seemed, was there – Ricardo Montalban, Elizabeth Taylor, Darryl Hickman, Ann Blyth.  People came and went all afternoon; we’d swim, play badminton, dance to records, have dinner, go home about nine or ten o’clock.

Roddy McDowall and Ann became lifelong friends, and dated for a while during the period of time when fan magazines were chasing her every move.  For one, Screenland, Roddy, likely with the help of the publicity department, wrote an article about Ann and how he had come to know her as a guest at one of his Sunday parties.

She was at the house most of the day and I thought was one of the sweetest and nicest people I’d ever met.  I’d say that gentility was the right term to use to describe her.

He goes on to describe, or to attempt to describe, her personality for a readership, but more for the press that had since her coming of age regarded Ann as an enigma.

When you take her to a party, as I have on several occasions, she really can throw you.  To begin with, and not many know this about her, she is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.  She’s a tremendous story-teller and when she gets started on one of dialect stories you laugh so hard you almost fall on your face.  I’ve never ceased to be amazed at how quickly she changes when she’s being the comedienne.

Ann really loves parties—especially if charades is the game of the evening.

She also liked roller coasters.

When they met up for a date in New York City, she took him, with a New Yorker’s savvy and sense of humor, to the Automat for dinner.  

McDowall also notes, as others have:

She simply does not like to talk about herself.

That is perhaps her most unusual characteristic—her reserve.  She’s a great introvert.  It’s as though there was a wall around her.  Maybe you’d call it self-sufficiency, but I really don’t know.  It does seem, however, that she lives a good deal within herself.

Roddy McDowall, among his many accomplishments, was also an excellent photographer who published several volumes of his photographs.  In Double Exposure: Take Four, he includes a portrait photo he took of Ann Blyth.  It’s in black and white, taken in the early 1990s when Ann was in her early sixties and remarkably lovely, and the pose and facial expression—serene, enigmatic, with a touch of humor in her soft eyes—is strikingly similar to the cast head shot of her when she started in Watch on the Rhine in 1941, which you see in our intro post.  The photo is accompanied by a quote from Jane Withers, in part, “She radiates beauty from within in everything she ever does.” 

Despite her reputation for being reserved and enigmatic, in the contemplative setting in the pages of this book, she is clearly supported by the understanding of two loving friends who had known her since they were all teens together in a special place at a special time.

She made 12 films in her teen years, including her most important dramatic roles: Mildred Pierce, Swell Guy (discussed here), A Woman’s Vengeance (discussed here), and Another Part of the Forest (discussed here).  One-third of all the movies Ann Blyth made in her career were made when she was still a teenager.

Mark Hellinger, who produced Swell Guy, said of Ann, “Outside, she’s as untouched as a convent girl—and inside, she’s as wise as a woman of 50.”

On his blog Last One on the Bus, blogger Tom Gilfroy writes about growing up in the 1940s in the Sunland neighborhood of Los Angeles, where one day at Lancaster Lake a couple of scenes were shot for Mildred Pierce.  He was a boy when Ann noticed him and his friends watching.

I remember thinking how friendly she was when she made it a point to come over to tell us what a nice little town we lived in and how great it must be for kids to grow up in Sunland…In reality, taking the time to say “hello” to scruffy, barefoot, local kids was perfectly consistent with Ms. Blythe’s [sic] wholesome and friendly reputation.

In 2009, Ann and an assortment of former Hollywood teens got together at the annual Thalians Ball in Los Angeles. The Thalians, an organization of actors, have worked since the 1950s to raise money in support of children with mental health problems.  On this particular gala, the theme was a salute to the troops, in a little retro World War II USO setting.  Ann sang at the gala as one of several former USO performers.  A different honoree is chosen each year at these events and that year, the man of the hour was Mickey Rooney.  She had met Mickey Rooney early in her career, playing opposite him when she was 19 years old in Killer McCoy (1947).

Come back next Friday when we talk about Killer McCoy as part of the getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken& Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club taking place throughout the month of September.

The Bay Area Reporter, “The Real Veda Pierce: a Serene Ann Blyth,” by Tavo Amador, July 20, 2006.

Bubbeo, Daniel.  The Women of Warner Brothers (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2002), p. 146.

Calling All Girls, July-August 1944, “Blyth Actress” by Jean Brownlee, pp.7-8.

The Hollywood Reporter video interview by Scott Feinberg, April 2013.

Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2007, James Vincent McNulty obituary.

McDowall, Roddy.  Double Exposure, Take Four. (NY: William Morrow and Company, 1993).

The Milwaukee Journal January 27, 1976, syndicated article by Vernon Scott, green sheet p. 1.

Modern Screen, December 1949, article by Kirtley Baskette; October 1950,  “The Faith My Mother Taught Me” by Ann Blyth, p. 71; October 1955, article by Ida Zeitlin.

Powell, Jane.  The Girl Next Door and How She Grew (NY: William Morrow and Company, 1988) p.92.

Screenland, March 1951, “What I Know About Ann Blyth” by Roddy McDowall; February 1953, p. 66.

Victoria (Texas) Advocate, June 25, 1953, "Ann Blyth Weds Saturday; Cardinal to Perform Rites," p. 8.

WOR radio interview with Casper Citron, NYC, November 14, 1992. 

As  most of you probably know by now, this year's TCM Classic Cruise will set sail (proverbially) in October, and one of the celebrity guests is Ann Blyth.

TCM has just published the itinerary for the cruise.  Ann will be doing a couple hour-long conversation sessions, and will also be on hand for a screening of Mildred Pierce.

Have a look here for the rest of the schedule and events with the other celebrity guests. Unfortunately, the cruise is booked, so if' you're late, you can try for the waiting list.

I, sadly, am unable to attend this cruise, but if any reader is going,  I invite you (beg you) to share your experiences and/or photos relating to Miss Blyth on this blog as part of our year-long series on her career.  I'd really appreciate your perspective on the event, to be our eyes and ears.  Thanks.

 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.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.

TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
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.


A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.


Kevin Deany said...

Thanks to your articles, the more I read about Ann Blyth the more I like her. I've always liked her, but now even more so.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Me, too, Kevin.

Caftan Woman said...

Sign me up with Kevin as someone who's affection for Ms. Blyth has grown greatly throughout this year at "Another Old Movie Blog".

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I'm very pleased, CW. She deserves it.

Related Products