Thursday, February 25, 2016

Loretta Young and The NEW Loretta Young Show - 1962-63

Today we’re going to talk about a TV show and its star.  The New Loretta Young Show (aka Christine’s Children) ran a single season, 1962-63.  It is a striking example of Loretta Young’s abilities both as an actress and as the CEO of her personal brand.  Few have displayed such a canny mastery in the managing of one’s career.

Reinventing oneself is probably one of the greatest assets to a long career and one of the most difficult to achieve. In the acting profession, where reputation is based on roles already played, it is especially confounding. Loretta Young’s career is remarkable. Longevity is only a part of her unique place in Hollywood.  This woman of sizzling Pre-Code films, polished 1930s dramas, an Oscar® for a comedy, and a long-running television anthology show, The Loretta Young Show, in the 1950s, was able to effectively change with the style of the current era and for what was suitable for her as she aged.

The New Loretta Young Show is unlike any other 1960s era family sitcom.  It is imaginative, gutsy, intense, and most refreshingly absent of trite templates of sitcoms before and since.  It is, most especially, a tribute to Loretta Young as an actress and a businesswoman in an industry famous for tossing out female stars once they hit a certain age.

Though I was familiar with her first series that ran for eight years from 1953 to 1961, I knew nothing about this second series until Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover posted her impressions of the show and interviewed one of its cast members, Beverly Washburn, in May 2015. That interview is here.

Beverly Washburn, whom we’ve mentioned from time to time in her various childhood roles, including here in Here Comes the Groom (1951) and Old Yeller (1957), is one of my favorite child actresses.  In The New Loretta Young Show, she plays the 15-year-old daughter of Loretta Young.  Loretta plays a widow with seven children.  Celia Kaye plays college student Marnie, twins Dirk and Dack Rambo play her 17-year old sons Peter and Paul, Carol Sydes plays the hyperkinetic Binkie, then Beverly Washburn as the sensitive, intellectual and shy Vickie; followed by Sandy Descher as 13 year-old Judy, and little Tracy Stratford as the youngest, six-year-old Maria.

I was, frankly, astounded by the show’s excellence – in terms of bold story ideas, scripts, acting, and directing.  Much of it looks like film cinematography – not the usual two-camera setup of sitcoms of the period.  In style and theme, many episodes really packed a punch.

The pilot episode – innovatively funny – introduces the cast and show by way of a live TV interview program such as was popular in that era with Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now and Charles Collingwood's Person to Person.  The living room is a mass of chaos with cameramen and this family standing in each other’s way, not knowing what to do, giving the most funny, off beat answers, looking for all like reality television.  Someone’s head in profile pops up in front of the camera, getting in the way.  The old town mayor, a feisty ancient Yankee, keeps getting his rehearsed speech interrupted.  From the start, Beverly Washburn stands out in a funny double take when the harried announcer, played by Ted Knight (later famous for playing anchorman Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) calls her name and she jerks her body with shock, as if wishing the floor would open up and swallow her.  She effectively, and without a word, establishes her character in only a moment. 

Here Loretta Young sets up the show by explaining her attitude toward her children and her role as a mother.  She does not believe in togetherness, which shocks and agitates the announcer, but rather she promotes individuality, confessing that her family do not always like each other.  It’s a breath of fresh air.

Throughout the series, an episode or two will focus on one of the children, but always in relation to how the other family members fit in with that character’s life.  As a twin myself, I can state that I like the depiction of the twin sons and their obvious bond with each other as blessedly positive.  The Rambo boys, and some of the other kids who were new to acting, are used very intelligently, according to their abilities and bringing them along carefully in the series.  It must have been a great learning environment for them.

Some of their experiences are harrowing.

The littlest one, Maria, wisely used sparingly, avoiding clich├ęd cuteness, has a strong episode towards the end of the season when she is nearly kidnapped in a bizarre and tense episode when a psychotic stranger enters the house, thinking the little girl is his deceased daughter, whose death he never accepted.  A nail biting episode.  What makes it especially poignant is that when this man tells her he is her father, she is enchanted, because her father died before she could form any memory of him.  She is the only one of the kids who cannot remember her father.

Another episode where Beverly Washburn, (unlike some of the other kids, a veteran actress of many years) wanting life experience as a budding writer, detours from her New York City trip to the eye doctor to investigate Greenwich Village and a beatnik coffee house.  But what we might expect to be a funny episode full of humorous oddballs turns quickly sinister as she is unwittingly involved in a drug deal, and is arrested for passing marijuana.  She spends the night in jail with a couple of hard customers not very much older than she, living desperate lives.  One is a streetwalker—not the kind with the funny quip and the heart of gold, but a tough young girl who makes no disguise of her trade and throws it in Beverly’s face. 

Drugs and prostitution on an early 1960s sitcom?  This show is unique not only for its subject matter for a situation comedy, but for the intelligent, sensitive, and classy way it tackles these subjects and these characters.  The topics are not tackled for shock appeal, but as real-life news encroaching upon this suburban family.

Most especially classy, forthright, and intriguing is how Loretta pursues not only a writing career, but a romance with a New York magazine publisher.

Their relationship is developed slowly, leaving no room for the audience to take them for granted, to assume where it’s going.  We really don’t know.  He could be written out next week.  He has to get used to the kids.  They have to get used to him.   But mostly, it's about the relationship between him and Loretta and their adult romance.  Toward the end of the series, his ulcer, due to stress from his job – a plot device introduced in the first few episodes  – ruptures.  Loretta finds him on the floor, passed out, blood dripping from his mouth. He is rushed to the hospital, and she pretends to be his wife so she can be at his bedside.  The doctors wink at it.  He is in critical condition and suffers a kind of stroke so that his speech is impaired.  She knows he has finally come out his coma because there are tears in his eyes, he is crying.  We see his agony and hers.  She takes him home after his release from the hospital to care for him, scandalizing the neighbors.

This is new for a sitcom.

She smokes.  She drinks.  After a particularly bad day, she confesses to her gentleman friend of not liking her children at that moment, ready to scream if they call, “Mom!” one more time.  Their romance is sensual.  They kiss, not a chaste peck on the cheek, but deeply and passionately.  They cuddle and they ache to be alone, and they leave the kids to fend for themselves more than once to accomplish this. Loretta can barely keep her hands off him.

A 1960s sitcom.  You won’t see this on Donna Reed or Leave It to Beaver, none of the shows whose living rooms we came to know as well as our own.

But the 1960s is the real-life background.  There are references to the space race, and they mention it is 1962.  The littlest girl announces she is Caroline Kennedy, at the latest in her game of changing her name.  Loretta spoofs Mrs. Kennedy’s White House Tour television special in the pilot.  It’s a period full of optimism and energy, and we can see it in this show.

Usually on sitcoms of the era, even today, we see a cast positioned precisely around a set the way a little kid might place dolls in a dollhouse – carefully, consciously, serving a purpose to the plot.  The New Loretta Young Show has a casual feel, the characters are randomly everywhere, though this is obviously skillfully orchestrated.  It’s only meant to look casual.  We see her and the kids in the kitchen one chaotic morning, then the camera pulls back and we see what we did not expect – her love, Paul Belzer, the gruff, man’s man editor, sitting off in the distance in the living room, reading the newspaper by himself.  The shot tells us he has spent the night.  He is not quite part of the family yet (though he sleeps in the boys’ room when he stays overnight), and we wonder how they will bridge the gap between them.  I really like James Philbrook in this role.  He is as strong and interesting an individual as she is.

And I like his young assistant at the magazine, played by Allen Emerson, his hard New York accent, with his goatee, very 1962, like Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary.  He is the image of urban and hip, but with the hint of stickball in his speech.

Another surprising episode where she invites her love’s boss to dinner could have ended up the typical 1950s-60s blustering boss charmed by a home-cooked meal routine.  Instead, it’s a riveting drama where the big cheese, played by Leif Erikson, is an ass, so overbearing and mean, that his longsuffering wife has become an alcoholic.  Loretta, displaying compassion for her, sneaks vodka to her to steady herself under the evening’s onslaught of dinner conversation.  The boss is bullying to Paul, and their combative relationship will continue for many episodes, reaching a crisis point toward the end of the season.  Loretta mouths off to the boss, putting Paul’s job on the line.  There is no happy resolution. The evening ends with bitterness.  It’s actually unpleasant listening to this blowhard trample over everybody in the dining room.  One marvels at the emotional intensity for the viewer, who cannot help but be engaged in this train wreck of a dinner party.

Another, much softer, example of quite unexpected realism in the show is the way Beverly Washburn, after a discussion with her mother as the camera follows them through the hallway, gets ready for bed and casually kneels before it, making the sign of the cross.  Her sister in the next bed, already half asleep, stirs, emits an inelegant muffled grunt, and rolls over.  The prayer is not the focus of the scene, she’s not praying for anything special.  It’s just nighttime and she’s got curlers in her hair, and it’s just what she does. 

I have to say, as a Catholic, I was blown away by that.  Usually prayer in movies and TV shows is reserved for crisis, and is played up as a melodramatic moment.  Usually, Catholics are depicted as jovial priests or ditsy nuns.  The quiet, pleasant normality of this scene is charming.  (I can remember a documentary about The Nat King Cole Show, and an African American woman, recalling the moment decades later in a TV interview, said she called up her friends with the alarm, “Hey!  There’s a Negro on TV!”  I actually hollered, to myself, when I saw the scene, “A Catholic on TV!”  And not a caricature of one.)

Later in the season, we see a snippet of a Catholic wedding ceremony held in an actual Catholic church—though obviously not a High Mass.  Even many Catholics flicking the TV dial might not sit still for that.

Also of note, in the very first episode when Loretta is being interviewed by Ted Knight, he asks about the piano in the room and wants to know who plays it.  Dumbfounded, she answers nobody.  (As if to say, "Why would anybody want to play a piano?  It's not to play, it's just to have.") It is a comic moment, but then we perceive that perhaps her late husband played the piano. She speaks lovingly of him, of a piece of furniture he made, and of his work as a writer.  Much later in the series, we see her new love, Paul Belzer, sit casually at the piano and begin to play it, as if it has been waiting for him all this time.  A wonderful, subtle image of a man coming into a family that will be his, that he has a place here, that he is successfully taking the place of another.  The continuity between the episodes is very skillfully done.

Loretta also has a terrifically natural way of interacting with the kids.  She grabs them, tickles them, kisses their faces, their necks, touches them while speaking to them.  Running her hand through their hair. They flop on her on the couch, and hang on her. They appear to have a comfortable physical relationship with her.  It all looks quite real.  She nags at one girl for constantly talking too fast and mumbling her words. The girl rolls her eyes at her mother, sighing, slumping, and fidgeting, forgetting what she was about to say.  Loretta throws water in her son’s face to wake him up in the wee hours. She does not mince words when they mess up, but she is always supportive.  When she has a meltdown over her romance, she cries in bed and her oldest daughter—who transforms from college kid to new woman friend—cuddles her and comforts her in a fascinating role reversal.

Loretta is also generous as a star, focusing the camera and the attention on her young cast mates when they are in a pivotal scene. In one episode where Beverly Washburn dissolves into tears, Loretta lets her have the scene entirely. She embraces Beverly, but keeps her back to the camera so Beverly can play out her pain in the scene as the more important person in it.  That is generosity, and also shows confidence in herself and in Beverly as a fellow professional.

Loretta Young created this character and supervised every detail of the show including the children who played her kids, the scripts, the costumes, hair and makeup—we must assume director Norman Foster at least took charge of the camera work.  It’s a great accomplishment and a splendid example of an actress of many talents, able and willing to take charge of her career in a way that allowed her to remain producing excellent work when other careers floundered according to the whims of the studio, the public, and the changing times.

Speaking of changing times, I wish this series had lasted longer.  I can only imagine the depth of story angles, the sparks as those kids came of age in the 1960s.  War, civil rights, the generation gap, I know this show would have tackled all of it.  Maybe even the ghastly and tragic assassination that happened some months after the show ended.  Sometimes we hear of something being ahead of its time.  I suppose The New Loretta Young Show was, but it was also a beautiful artifact of its time, and a woman changing and growing with the times—both the character and the intuitive actress playing her. 

In recent years, Loretta Young’s Pre-Code films have gotten long overdue attention, and a lot of raised eyebrows for their sauciness.  I hope this show gets a second look as well.  In its quiet own way, it is equally daring.  It is available on DVD, a four-disc set, including interviews with cast members.

I’d like to thank Kay Noske for blogging about the show last year, or I might never have known about it.  Next week, I’ll be posting an interview with Kay as the third entry in my year-long monthly series on the current state of the classic film fan.  Here’s what we discussed about The New Loretta Young Show:

JTL:  You have called Loretta Young your muse.   One thing I thought I’d bring up is her commanding presence in that show. It speaks a lot to the self-confidence of style.  She seems to project someone who is so totally comfortable in her own skin in a way that is elegant and “old world” and yet rivetingly modern.  There is a great strength and power in her television character that is natural and comfortable.  (Modern female characters, even the strong ones playing cops or doctors or superheroes, are usually riddled with angst.  I suppose a reflection of our times.)

KN:  I have to pause here…you said a MOUTHFUL here, Jacqueline. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why these women do NOT inspire me, but bingo, you nailed it! How can anyone be inspired by angst? Existentialism and I have never been compatible.

JTL:  Though she opens and closes the episodes with a “thought for the day”, a kind of moral to the story, she does not really lecture the kids during the show, which is refreshing.  The family has its adventure, or crisis for the episode, and any lesson the kids, and the audience, takes from it is by her example, how she faces crisis.  She simply is; her dress, her appearance, her behavior, and how she expresses herself.  Someone else’s example is the most compelling incentive we have for change in our own lives, including for self-improvement. 

KN:  EXACTLY! If we can see that someone else did it, so can we. (Unless you’re angst-y, then you assume that no matter how many others did it, you’ll be the pitiful exception to the rule. Groan!). Loretta’s fully in control of her image, her persona, and her expression. She knows what she wants, knows what’s right and knows exactly how she will present it. Since I have a similar iron-clad belief in the power of a single-minded heart, I love her for showing me how it’s done! Her strength comes from an unshakable belief that she’s RIGHT about things, that there is a right and wrong way to live, that mistakes can be corrected, that people are typically GOOD, that God’s in His heaven, and that He is a loving, good force in the lives of everyday people. That’s unstoppable in my book. I love that she uses little quotes to reinforce her position. She was/is a product of her zeitgeist, I think, too, in that she was raised in a world that believed in right and wrong. Today, the arrow simply spins in the compass and signals confusion. For Loretta, her show was a chance to express her faith in what was good and right. That’s what I believe, so, naturally, I love seeing this most elegant, warm, and lovely expression of a powerful, strong, yet utterly feminine woman.  


Come back Thursday for our visit with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover, and our discussion on the current state of the classic film fan, TCM, and how her interest and expertise in image consulting has its roots in classic Hollywood.


 "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.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.


My new syndicated column SILVER SCREEN, GOLDEN YEARS, on classic film is up at Go60  or check with your local paper.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The 22nd Academy Awards - March 1950

In this Academy Awards season, let's turn back the clock to March 23,1950 and the Pantages Theater for the best in 1949 films.  Hosted by Paul Douglas, with radio commentary from Ronald Reagan and Eve Arden, you can see segments of the award ceremony here on YouTube
Unfortunately, the delightful performances of the nominated Best Songs is not included in these clips -- but you can hear them in the entire show as it was broadcast on radio at the Internet Archive site.  Among the performers singing are Ann Blyth, Ricardo Montalban, Gene Autry, and others. (Ann Blyth sings "My Foolish Heart" at about 25:10 into Part 1.)


It was the year Olivia De Havilland won for The Heiress, which we discussed here.  Recall the elegance of dress, of manners, and of speech.  The disgust and repugnance that the modern ceremonies engender can be forgotten under the spell of old Hollywood glamour.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Alexis Smith and Craig Stevens

Alexis Smith and Craig Stevens were married in a wedding ceremony scene at the end of their first film together, Steel Against the Sky (1941).  Their careers were just beginning on the Warner Bros. lot, and each had only played in bit parts or walk-ons up until that time.

They were married again in their next film together, The Doughgirls (1944). She played an ex-hoofer and he played a Navy airman during the war in this raucous comedy (which we really have to cover someday).  In real life, she actually was an ex-hoofer of sorts, having made her professional debut at thirteen years old as a ballet dancer at the Hollywood Bowl.  In real life, he was in the Army Air Corps, stationed in Hollywood with the First Motion Picture Film Unit making training films, which we covered in this previous post.  

By this time, in real life, they were dating.  He had just been discharged from the service, and they were actually preparing for their wedding the following month after this film wrapped.

Alexis and Craig with Dane Clark and Robert Alda

“That was one role I enjoyed playing,” Alexis commented in an interview for syndicated columnist Erskine Johnson, “We went into a clinch and I didn’t care if the director ever yelled ‘cut’.”  It was also a relief that Craig was one of her few male co-stars taller than she.  “It’s a good thing that I fell in love with a tall man.” 

“I have been in love with her ever since we appeared together in Dive Bomber,” Craig told columnist Louella Parsons in 1942.

The third time’s the charm, as they say, when their next wedding ceremony, their third, was for real.  Alexis and Craig were married before some 300 guests in a Presbyterian ceremony at the Church of the Recessional in Glendale, California, in 1944 (after Craig had asked the old-fashioned Alexis’ parents for their permission).  Errol Flynn, one of the friends of the bride, warned him to be good to her.

Today we mark Valentine’s Day upcoming this weekend with a look at one of Hollywood’s most enduring working marriages.  There were other notable long-lived marriages in Hollywood, of course, but few where both partners were actors in careers remarkable for their independence and longevity. Their tandem careers sometimes intertwined, but they allowed each other the freedom of independence when it came to acting gigs. 

They first met when they appeared in the movie Dive Bomber, 1941, which we discussed here, but had no scenes together.  In this movie, she was Errol Flynn’s sweetie.  (See this previous post on her friendship with Errol Flynn here.)  In Steel Against the Sky, like their characters, they began to date. They also appeared, though not in the same scene, in Hollywood Canteen (1944) as themselves.  Alexis is chatted up by a star-struck Dane Clark, and Craig is on KP duty, picking up trays.

Craig and Alexis also worked many times together on stage.  Their stage plays included touring in Cactus Flower; Mary, Mary; Any Wednesday; The King of Hearts, and the musical Plain and Fancy throughout the 1960s.  They were part of a troupe of Hollywood actors at a command performance in London for King George VI and Queen Mary in 1947. 

In the early 1950s, when the studio system collapsed, Craig Stevens’ film career, in which he tended to play second leads or supporting roles, came to an end.  He looked for stage work in New York and there were reports the couple had separated.  However, great things were ahead of him as he garnered the lead in the landmark television detective series Peter Gunn, for which he was nominated for an Emmy®.  He got that role through a chance meeting with writer/producer Blake Edwards, who met Craig when Craig visited his wife on the set her film This Happy Feeling (1958), which we covered in this post.  For several years, with Peter Gunn, with another series filmed in England, and with his Broadway debut in the musical Here’s Love (based on Miracle on 34th Street), Craig enjoyed enormous success and fame, and it was during this period that Alexis took a hiatus from her career and took a back seat to Craig’s. 

His hobby was woodworking, and he made much of their furniture.  She learned to become a gourmet cook. They appeared as guests on TV’s Person to Person, interviewed by Charles Collingwood in May 1960.

By the mid-sixties, she was ready to plunge back into the act, and worked with Craig on the above-mentioned plays, touring all over the country.  (One of those gigs, a summer theater atop Mt. Tom in Holyoke, Massachusetts, was called the Mt. Tom Playhouse.  I’m currently writing a book on the history of theatre on Mt. Tom. You’ll hear more about that bye and bye.)

Alexis noted of working together, “He’s a joy to work with, but particularly in theater when you share a stage, you wind up being together 24 hours a day.  I don’t think that allows either of you to bring anything fresh to a marriage.  When you’re on separate projects, each of you meets new people and has different things to talk about.  That seems to work for us, at least.” 

In, 1978, in answer to yet another question on how their marriage lasted, Craig remarked, “We are lucky.  We are both understanding people.  We have been separated a lot (due to theatre engagements), but we understand that and have grown together, rather than apart, as happens to some people.” 

They also played together on television in an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D., as a husband and wife in 1971, and rejoined the good doctor for a TV-movie based on the show in 1988.

Also in 1971, she had won the coveted role in Steven Sondheim’s Follies, which we mentioned in this previous post.  Craig was there in her dressing room on opening night, helping her to remain calm and focused.  She won the Tony® Award. 

She was also surprised by Ralph Edwards and the This is Your Life show for an episode on her life and career.  Her favorite guest—and conspirator to give Ralph Edwards the inside dope on her—her husband, Craig.  She wagged a finger at him as he marched out from the wings, laughing at her, wagging a finger back at her, teasingly, as the riveting theme music from Peter Gunn ushered him onstage.  In her official bio in the program for Follies, she calls her husband “her favorite leading man.”

Craig did a number of television guest appearances and starred in some short-lived series, and Alexis wanted nothing more than for him to win an Emmy.®

They both sailed on The Love Boat, and appeared in the French film La Truite in 1982, though they did not have a scene together.  Their careers sometimes separated them for days or weeks at a time, but they found it brought a sense of re-discovery and appreciation for each other. 

Photos of them as a couple through the years (and I wish I could post them, but I don’t have publishing rights) show the class and polish of their movie star years in their youth remained through middle age and into their senior years.  The camera captures them in evening clothes, her furs, his tux, her blonde hair is colored, his goes gray, but they remain trim and aging gracefully, a class act always at a play opening night, a gallery opening, a movie premiere, or just on the town going to a restaurant.

In 1982, they appeared in the walk-on menagerie of Hollywood celebrities in the television special, Night of 1,000 Stars.

Alexis died in June 1993, the day after her 72nd birthday, of brain cancer, with Craig at her bedside.  They were married 49 years.

In Women of Warner Brothers. (McFarland, 2002) by Daniel Bubbeo, the author interviewed Mr. Stevens about his late wife’s career and their life together.  He recalled of Alexis’ role on Broadway, “I said to her, ‘The luckiest thing they ever did was get you.’”

He felt the same.  Craig Stevens died before the book was published.  It is poignant that what was probably his last interview was his wife and their life together.

Truly blessed are they who find their soul mates, doubly so if they can share not only their lives, but their life’s work.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all who enjoy a good love story.
Shots from the short Alice in Movieland (1940), with special thanks to Elizabeth from the David Bruce Appreciation Society blog for pointing it out to me.

Bubbeo, Daniel, The Women of Warner Brothers (North Carolina: McFarland, p. 222)

(Milwaukee Journal July 7, 1945, p. 11 - “Tall Alexis Smith Plays Role, Mrs. Cole Porter, in Composer’s Biography” syndicated by Erskine Johnson; November 26, 1947, p. 12.)

(Pittsburg Press, December 17, 1978, “Cool Alexis in Command”, by Ed Blank, Press Drama Editor.)

(St. Petersburg Times, August 24, 1942, p 10; St. Petersburg, Florida Times, June 28, 1976 “Old Image Hasn’t Held Actor Back From New Roles,” by Marian Coe, p. 3D.)

"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.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.


My new syndicated column SILVER SCREEN, GOLDEN YEARS, on classic film is up at Go60  or check with your local paper.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Helen Twelvetrees - A New Biography by Cliff Aliperti

HelenTwelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films by Cliff Aliperti, is a new book on the career of an actress whose reputation after death slipped into a puzzling state of a punch line.  She deserves better, and Mr. Aliperti has championed the cause of Miss Twelvetrees’ career—remembered, and for the right reasons.

This post is part 2 of 12 of my monthly series this year on the current state of the classic film fan.  (Part 1, "A Classic Film Manifesto" is here.)  With self-publishing and with small publishers like Bear Manor Books and others, there seems to be a new trend in writing film star biographies: one, exploring the lives and careers of lesser-known actors rather than the mega-stars; and two, writing about them in a scholarly and less sensationalist manner than what is usually published by large commercial publishing houses.  We’ll discuss that issue more in later posts, but Cliff’s book is a prime example of a classic film fan taking the reins to produce a scholarly study of a neglected figure from the Golden Age of classic films in a way that I feel is refreshing, infinitely helpful to fans and students of old movies.  It fills a void left by large commercial publishing companies that seem more interested in books of a topical or salacious or controversial nature.

In an interview for this post, Cliff remarks:

I like it—I’d like to be part of it. Some of the major Golden Age stars could still use a modern biography because previous efforts have been in that sensationalist manner you mentioned, but many of them have been done to death. Maybe I’m selling myself short, but I’ve always operated under the assumption that no one really needs me to write about Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, or stars of their ilk, the legends. That said, I’ve covered aspects of these stars—my post about Gable and the undershirt still draws traffic—and I do cover some of their movies, though I’m more attracted by the obscurities. I’ve even considered doing a book about Gable’s movies from the thirties, but cutting it off just before GWTW. Still, there was no Helen Twelvetrees biography, and it took quite an effort to piece together enough information to create one. Even then, only half of the book is straight biography; the other half takes a look at each of her 32 films, the wide majority of which nobody has bothered with either. Does everybody deserve a book? Well, no, there’s a line to be drawn, but the ease and cost of getting something to market today means that a much wider net can be cast.

To be sure, there were elements in Helen Twelvetrees’ life that could be viewed as sensational and could fit the bill for someone wanting to treat the subject salaciously, but Cliff demonstrates laudable restraint and respect for Helen.  He examines both her life and career with an intellectual curiosity and a sensitivity that this actress needs to be really understood.

Twelvetrees, that unusual moniker, was her first husband’s surname, which she kept after their divorce. Jurgens was her own surname. Cliff explains in his book:

 To revert to Helen Jurgens could only cause confusion. Plus the Twelvetrees name has a strong resonance that makes it stick once you hear it. It’s memorable and all at once a bit exotic while still sounding familiar. Even today, people who aren’t classic film fans often recognize the name. They just have no idea who it belonged to.

I had never thought about that before, but I immediately recalled what I think was my introduction to her: a gag line by announcer Gary Owens on the old Laugh-In TV show when I was a child.  I didn’t know who she was, but I assumed (and I can’t tell you why) that she was an old movie star.  I must have been in first grade at the time, but I knew enough to surmise this.  I don’t know how many times he made the reference in a joke, but it evidently made a strong impression on me.  Years later as an adult, I came across a novelty LP of Laugh-In audio episode clips, and wouldn’t you know, a Helen Twelvetrees remark was on it.

Cast regular Joanne Worley sang a brief takeoff on “Havah Nagilah,” and Gary Owens chimed in from the “radio studio” set:  “That, of course, was the delightful Helen Twelvetrees, and turning another musical page in our album of memories, here is the delightful Lamont Cranston.”

It only took me a few more years, probably by the age of ten or twelve, to discover who Lamont Cranston was.

The biography is thoughtful, detailed, and Cliff shows here, as he does regularly in his blog, Immoral Ephemera, his familiarity with lesser-known stars, character actors, and the studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  He utilizes many reviews and newspaper articles of the day to form the foundation of his perspective on Helen Twelvetrees’ career. In the book, Cliff describes Helen’s film persona:

It didn’t matter what studio Helen was working for, or who was her boss, during her peak years she was almost exclusively cast in films calling for her heart to be broken. But there’s always a touch of Brooklyn tinging her voice that makes her seem not quite as fragile as first suspected…The little helpless girl usually managed to roar loudly before her films ended, finding peace, redemption, or sometimes just settling on the right man.

Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue is divided into two parts: a biography of her life and career, and second, a synopses of her thirty-two films, some of which are “lost” or otherwise not available for viewing.

Helen was named as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1929, in the impressive company of Jean Arthur and Loretta Young, among others. The peak of her film career was Millie (1931), which Cliff describes:

Millie provides Helen Twelvetrees with a showcase the likes of which she never enjoyed before or since. Variety drew attention to her surprising versatility stating, “she takes in all angles of a part that calls for a dozen different moods and situations during the 15 years or so this picture passes through.” Beyond Madame X and all the mother-love, despite the decorum demanded, even by a looser set of censors, Millie somehow emerges as the biography of a woman’s sex life, from maidenhood through numerous disappointing partners, who never manage to tame her. Millie isn’t unique, but it isn’t easy, and Helen handled every bit of nuance required through Millie’s turbulent years.

Helen’s real-life party-girl image when first arriving in Hollywood, her being bounced from the Fox studio to Pathe, then on to RKO, where a few prime roles were lost to other actresses, such as the young Katharine Hepburn and Constance Bennett reveals a not untypical story of poor timing or bad luck. The inevitable slide to obscurity began with a supporting role to ZaSu Pitts, who had once played her maid in an earlier film. 

Helen moved on to vaudeville and summer stock.  Her only Broadway appearance in 1941 was a flop, but she went back to touring in stock, toured with the USO during the war, and interestingly, touched something in her own soul, certainly touched her audience, with a stint as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Her rendering of the fey character was considered deeply moving.

Helen Twelvetrees died in 1958 at fifty years old of suicide, having endured more disappointment than success in her career, several marriages, and alcoholism.

Then came, oddly, the jokes.  Cliff writes:

Before the 1950s were out, columnist Earl Wilson asked Groucho Marx who would play him if his recently published biography, Groucho and Me, were ever adapted to film: “Duke Wayne, of course—or Helen Twelvetrees,” Groucho quipped. Maybe he hadn’t heard, Helen was dead. Her name continued as a punch line, often associated with Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and even generic Fidos and Rovers, who no doubt sought relief in pastures dotted by a dozen trees. Nobody talked about her films.

Cliff does a great job disseminating the trail of this curiosity, and his empathy for Helen Twelvetrees is very gratifyingly apparent.

But now, a new interest in Helen seems to be growing for this lovely actress.   This book is a welcome addition to that second look at the unknown actress with the well-known name. 

One of my favorite passages:

The individual and her work are often positioned in the most fascinating time and place. She was in Brooklyn just ahead of Ebbets Field, and around New York City while the twenties roared. She came to Hollywood with sound, and peaked while the studios shuffled in response to the Great Depression. She made her first television appearance before many even owned a set to watch, and chipped in the World War II effort through benefit appearances and USO performances. Whether it was theater, vaudeville, radio, or TV, she kept busy long after everybody thought she was done. She conquered Hollywood before it slapped back, and still had the drive to reach Broadway more than a decade after she had abandoned the theater for movie fame…

I’d like to thank Cliff especially for participating in an interview with me for this post.  Here is more of our discussion:

JTL:  I was surprised at the rediscovery of Helen Twelvetrees in the plays, scripts that have been written in recent years.  Were you surprised by that?  What do you make of that?

CA:  It’s a strange rediscovery in that, with exceptions, it lacks substance insofar as telling us about Helen Twelvetrees. She’s usually mentioned not so much for who she was or what she did, but as something distant or forgotten except for the pretty label. The Twelvetrees name has an exotic resonance that naturally attracts people to her once it gets into their ear. She married the name, a blessing and a curse, but no doubt far more effective than Helen Jurgens, the name she was born with, when it comes to being remembered in any light. The name worked its magic on me too, but was reinforced by what I saw on the screen, a distinctive beauty possessed with unexpected levels of talent.

JTL:  I sense in this book, and always in your blog, a love of research, for the gumshoe detective work of a non-fiction writer, the puzzle that comes together only a bit at a time.  Can you describe your research for this book, the trails that you had to follow, the challenges you encountered?

CA:  Research included far more genealogy than I anticipated, a lot of old newspapers and magazines, including several paid sources: my credit cards are nowhere near as fond of Helen as I still am! Piles and piles of books, which were largely disappointing for either a complete lack of or totally superficial information. That’s part of what kept me digging. She began to feel like a taboo subject. Sometimes it felt like she was deliberately being scrubbed from film history. I mean, I know she’s not considered a major star, but she was a star. And a top shelf one for a few years that happen to coincide with my favorite film era.

The biggest challenges wound up split between dead ends and, believe it or not, the obvious. Figuring out when her mother died drove me crazy and the information was under my nose the entire time. My mistake came in brushing off one record, the key one it turned out, that placed her in a city I hadn’t bumped into before and had her living into her late nineties. I found it too early, and so I ignored the obvious. I eventually had a “Eureka” moment after I (finally!) decided to look into Helen’s brother. That’s when that unfamiliar city rang a bell and I shot back to Helen’s mother and tied it all together. All of that for a date I mention once towards the end of the biographical portion of the book—but I needed that date!

One bit of new information I never could completely resolve was discovery of a fourth husband (Helen’s third). I never could find a marriage record, and that bugs me. What I did find was the pair living together on the 1940 census with Helen using this man’s last name and, one of my favorite items, a letter Helen wrote to columnist Dorothy Kilgallen that Kilgallen published in her column in full. In the letter, which is a lot of fun because it drips with sarcasm, Helen outright says that she’s married—not that she was ever hiding the fact. The other gossip columnists dropped several references to her and this uncharted husband, but later histories missed it, and so Helen’s established biographies only list her other three husbands.

JTL:  What factors went into your decision to choose Helen as a subject for a book?

CA:  It began on my site. I had posted a few reviews of her movies on the site and included just a brief bit of biography in one of those. Then along came CMBA’s Forgotten Stars blogathon. I’d been wanting to expand upon the short bio in my Panama Flo review since I’d first posted it early in 2013. So for the Forgotten Stars blogathon I had planned slightly longer, but by no means exhaustive, biographical post, but, again, those movies sucked me in. I wound up covering 15 or so of her films in capsule review before I even got to her biography in a second post. The research for each of those posts got me started and kept me going: I finally posted what I had on the site, but there were too many open ends for me to stop. Plus, Helen had gotten under my skin: I liked her, and I wanted to know more.

JTL:  What did you most enjoy writing about or gave you the most satisfaction in discovering?

CA:  This goes for almost anybody I write about, but I really love piecing together as much as I can about a star before they became big. In the case of Helen Twelvetrees, even her youth provided me with some fun because she grew up in Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle has a great online archive. It’s not as though little Helen Jurgens was mentioned in there all that much, but the paper allowed me to get a grasp on life in Brooklyn at a very different time.

This is contradictory to how I began my answer, but I also enjoyed the few later published interviews I found with her. In general such later newspaper pieces are much more honest than the fan magazine fluff from when someone was at their peak. You can usually hear the difference in their voices when comparing such pieces and in Helen’s case I got a big kick out of how she presented herself after Hollywood. I found a few goodies featuring Helen from the 1940s and ‘50s that were a big help in piecing together who she was-or at least how I perceived her-and what she was up to. It was satisfying to discover her career didn’t just end after Hollywood.

Finally, for personal reasons, I got a big kick out an obituary (boy, does that sound morbid!) that I found for her father. Helen was already gone, but her parents eventually moved one town away from where I live, something I had no idea about until I was researching for the book. Helen’s father died in the local hospital, the same hospital where I was born, putting an unexpected local twist on what I was doing.

JTL:  What is the relationship between your collectibles business and your classic film writing?  Does it provide you with inspiration, or research materials?  Where, for you, does the merchandise end and the historical artifact begin?

CA:  Mostly illustrative at this point. Some items that pass through here are used in posts on my site. I like to think they add a little extra flavor. There was a time when I was more knowledgeable about the collectibles than the old movies though and some of my earliest blog postings developed simply because I wanted to know more behind the faces pictured on old trading cards and photos. I wouldn’t have predicted it, but at this point, despite how I’ve tried, the collectibles and the writing are practically two independent activities.

JTL:  What would you like to add or express here about your book, or about Helen?

CA:  I know Helen Twelvetrees is considered an obscure topic, so for anyone undecided, but tempted, by the book I recommend watching Millie.

Millie is Helen’s most versatile performance, made during her absolute peak, and has lots of other familiar faces in it to distract you along the way (Just don’t let Joan Blondell distract you too much!). Best of all, it’s easy to find. Millie is public domain, so you can view it online free of charge in several places (Youtube, Internet Archive) and it’s also one of the better DVDs I’ve seen in terms of quality from Alpha Video, who price it around six or seven dollars. I stress Millie because most of Helen’s movies are hard to find and you’re probably not going to think too much of her if you start with The Painted Desert ! (A tempting lure because of co-star Clark Gable. Don’t do it.) After Millie, make your way to State’s Attorney, where she turns in a fine leading lady performance opposite John Barrymore. It gets trickier from there, but the web will help you out and my book will point you to the titles worth searching for.

At this point two of my favorite Helen Twelvetrees movies, both very hard to find, are One Hour Late and Unmarried: I like One Hour Late because Helen shows a flare for comedy, a rarity for her in Hollywood, who preferred to give her something to cry about, but what she spent most of her time performing on stage in the 1940s and so presumably what she enjoyed most. Unmarried is her last film, and that’s a shame because she gives one of her best performances in it. It really leaves you wondering what she could have done if her movie career had continued.


Cliff Aliperti’s excellent book, Helen Twelvetrees: Perfect Ingenue is available here in eBook and print through Amazon.

You can watch Millie here on YouTube.  

Next month, part 3 of 12 of this year-long series on the current state of the classic film fan will feature a visit with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover.  Kay’s image consulting business and expertise in fashion dovetail with her blog and her appreciation of classic films.  She also introduces classic films at the Dryden Theater of Rochester, New York—making her presentations dressed meticulously in outfits suggestive of the film.  I’m looking forward to Kay’s input on how her love of classic films fits in with so many areas of her professional and private life, and her take on the current state of the classic film fan.  Join us Thursday, March 3rd for that post.

Next week, a special look ahead to Valentine's Day with the unique marriage of Alexis Smith and Craig Stevens.  See you  next Thursday.

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