Fact or Fiction: The curse James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder

The moody young star took the cinema by storm.

Actor James Dean won over audiences as misunderstood teens in the films “East of Eden” (1955) and “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955).

Actor James Dean in a publicity still for "Rebel Without a Cause."

Actor James Dean in a publicity still for “Rebel Without a Cause.”

But after only a short time in the spotlight, Dean was dead at age 24; killed in a car accident on Sept. 30, 1955, in his brand new 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, nicknamed “The Little Bastard.”

Dean had just finished up filming his third and final film, “Giant,” the epic based on Edna Ferber’s book and co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.

Dean purchased the Spyder on September 21 for $6,900 from Competition Motors in Hollywood and traded in his Speedster 356. The Porsche included an entirely hand-built, air-cooled engine, according to “James Dean” by George Perry.

Several of his friends, including actress Ursula Andress, refused to ride in the car. When Dean drove the Porsche on the Warner Brothers studio lot on September 23, director George Stevens told Dean that he would kill someone if Dean drove the vehicle on the lot again.

“You can never drive this car on the lot again. You’re gonna kill a carpenter or an actor or somebody,” Perry quoted Stevens. It was the last time Stevens saw Dean.

Dean the morning of his fatal crash.

Dean the morning of his fatal crash.

Actor Alec Guiness also supposedly told Dean on September 23 that he would be dead within a week if he continued to drive the Porsche.

Dean only owned the “Little Bastard” for a little over a week before his death.

The Porche 550 was the first purpose-built race car produced by Porsche. Dean bought the 55th of 90 Spyders made from the factory, according to “History’s Greatest Automotive Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed” by Matt Stone.

Dean decided to race the Spyder in Salinas. Originally the car was going to be towed by a Ford station wagon, but in a last minute decision, Dean decided to drive the Porsche convertible to Salinas, Perry wrote.

The wrecked remains of James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder at the site of the accident. The 24-year-old film star was killed on the evening of September 30th when his car collided with a college student's automobile at an intersection 28 miles east of Paso Robles, California.

The wrecked remains of James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder at the site of the accident. The 24-year-old film star was killed on the evening of September 30th when his car collided with a college student’s automobile at an intersection 28 miles east of Paso Robles, California.

At 5:45 p.m. on September 30, Dean collided with a Ford coupe driven by college student Donald Turnupseed at an intersection 28 miles east of Paso Robles, CA.

The cast of “Giant” was gathered to watch the dailies of their filming when Stevens received the call about Dean’s death. Actress Elizabeth Taylor threw up in her dressing room and was so grief stricken that she had to be hospitalized, Perry wrote.

Dean’s Porsche flipped and he sustained a broken neck along with external and internal injuries, according to the inquest on Oct. 11, 1955.

Police at the scene said speed was not involved and it was impossible for Dean to avoid the crash, according to Perry’s book.

Since September 1955, many rumors have surfaced of the supposed “cursed” wrecked remains of Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder.

Car designer George Barris is said to have purchased the remains of “The Little Bastard” for $2,500. Barris is the source of several of the “curses.”

“Everything that car has touched has turned to tragedy,” Barris is quoted in Stone’s book. “

Some of the curse stories include:

-After the totaled Porche was purchased, Barris said the vehicle slipped off the trailer and broke a mechanic’s leg.

-Barris said he sold parts from the Porsche to Beverly Hills doctor Troy McHenry and Burbank doctor William Eschrid. The two men were racing against one another in separate vehicles that both had parts from the Porsche 550. McHenry lost control of the car, hit a tree and was killed. Eschrid, who was driving with Dean’s engine, was also injured in a wreck during the race.
This story seems to be true based on an Oct. 24, 1956, article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle. After the accident, Eschrid is quoted as saying he is not superstitious about using Dean’s engine and parts.

-Barris had two tires from the 550 and sold them. The tires apparently both blew out simultaneously causing the new tire owner’s car to run off the road.

-Barris kept the Porsche and two people tried to steal parts. Barris said one of the suspect’s arms was torn open trying to steal the steering wheel and the other was injured trying to remove the bloodstained tartan seat.

-In 1959, the “Little Bastard” was put on display by the California Highway Patrol for a safety exhibit. Supposedly, the patrol garage that housed the Porsche caught on fire, according to “The Death of James Dean” by Warren Newton Beath.

-Again, supposedly the Porsche Spyder was being transported when the driver of the truck lost control. The driver apparently fell out of the truck and was crushed by the Porsche when it fell off the back. The car also fell off vehicles during other transports.

Then, in 1960, the 1955 Porsche Spyder “disappeared into thin air” after an exhibit in Miami, according to Barris in his 1974 book “Cars of the Stars.”

While the various curses are interesting, I’m inclined to think that many of them are made up stories. The only one that is true and has credible documentation is the death and injuries of McHenry and Eschrid.

However, the mystery and myths that still revolve around James Dean even today show his effect on pop culture and influence in film history.

What do you think? Do you believe the curse? Comment below.

Actor James Dean gives a thumbs-up sign from his Porsche 550 Spyder, the Little Bastard, while parked on Vine Street in Hollywood. Dean, who had taken up racing the year before, owned the car only nine days when he lost his life in a fatal highway accident while driving the Porsche to a Salinas race.

Actor James Dean gives a thumbs-up sign from his Porsche 550 Spyder, the Little Bastard, while parked on Vine Street in Hollywood. Dean, who had taken up racing the year before, owned the car only nine days when he lost his life in a fatal highway accident while driving the Porsche to a Salinas race.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at@HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

About these ads

Baby Take a Bow: Remembering Shirley Temple

shirleyWhen I was in fourth grade I cut six inches off my long hair.

I was doing a book report on Shirley Temple and wanted short, curly hair like America’s Sweetheart for my presentation.

In 2000, before Internet shopping was common place, my parents searched all over to get me a Shirley Temple doll for Christmas. They eventually found one from a store in Connecticut.

Later as a high school senior I even dressed up as Shirley Temple for Halloween.

While my classic film love escalated to obsession in 2004, Temple was my first favorite movie star.

The first movie I saw with Shirley Temple was “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ (1938). It was a Christmas gift from my Grandmother. I was hooked as Temple sang about wearing an old straw hat, a pair of overalls and a worn out pair of shoes.

Years after she brought happiness to Americans during the Great Depression in the 1930s, the curly headed child star was still influencing and bringing happiness to a young girl in South Carolina.

The dimple faced, curly topped child star was the top box office draw of the 1930s.
The story told is that Temple was discovered in her dance class at age 3, hiding under a piano.

Shirley Temple dressed as Marlene Dietrich in the Baby Burlesk short "Kid N Hollywood."

Shirley Temple dressed as Marlene Dietrich in the Baby Burlesk short “Kid N Hollywood.”

From 1932 until 1933, many of her films were shorts. Some were called Baby Burlesks, involving child actors like Temple dressing up like popular stars such as Mae West and Marlene Dietrich.

With her 56 pin-curls and song-and-dance films, President Franklin Roosevelt once said the United States couldn’t have made it through the Depression without her.

She also saved 20th Century Fox studio from bankruptcy, according to her obituary in the Los Angles Times.

She made 40 movies before she turned 12, and eight of those were in 1934.

Temple was the first child star to carry a full weight picture on her own; not as a secondary actor, according to Dickie Moore’s book “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (and don’t have sex or take the car). Her co-stars included top Hollywood names such as Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea, Alice Faye, Adolphe Monjou, Victor McLaglen and Lionel Barrymore.

She loved dancing with her friend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and was didn’t understand why he was treated differently because he was black.

Shirley with J. Edgar Hoover in 1938.

Shirley with J. Edgar Hoover in 1938.

She met important figures such as President Franklin Roosevelt, head of FBI J. Edgar Hoover and Amelia Earhart.

Temple knew her lines and everyone else’s, frequently correcting the adult actors to their chagrin.

“She was a nice kid, with a really wonderful mother and father. We all liked her,” said actress Alice Faye who starred in “Poor Little Rich Girl” (1936) with Temple. “But she was brilliant. She knew everyone’s dialogue and, if you forgot a line, she gave it to you. We all hated her for that.”

Because of Temple, other parents hoped to get their children in films, so their children would be the breadwinners while the parents couldn’t find work during the Depression.

Temple was treated like a princess. She had a bowling alley and a life sized play house in her backyard.

Shirley with top stars Carole Lombard and Gary Cooper in "Now and Forever" (1934)

Shirley with top stars Carole Lombard and Gary Cooper in “Now and Forever” (1934)

However, even Hollywood’s greatest star faced difficulties.

Temple’s father had a hard time finding work, because employers assumed he had enough money because of Shirley’s films, according Moore’s book.

Temple was isolated from the other children. Many parents of child stars did this, because they didn’t want their children fraternizing with a child who may be competing for the same role.

However, publicity departments made it look like Temple had lots of friends. Each year she would have three birthday parties: one with other child actors, one on set with the crew and one with her family.

Shirley Temple cutting the cake at her birthday party in 1935.

Shirley Temple cutting the cake at her birthday party in 1935.

“The parties were endless…Fox would have one for a large number of people I didn’t know, a lot of children I’d never seen in my life and would never see again,” Temple told Moore. “And I was the hostess. It was kind of strange. I figured it was part of my job.”

Moore said Temple was sweet; the real problem was her stage mother Gertrude Temple. Gertrude was responsible for making sure Temple had the maximum amount of screen time. This included demanding a touching scene with child star Sybil Jason being cut from “Blue Bird” (1940).

Temple also faced the same fate as child star Jackie Coogan: her parents spent all of her money.

After marrying Charles Black, the couple looked at her finances that much of her money had been spent to support her family-what was left belonged to her parents. There should have been $356,000 in her account, but her father, George, disobeyed court orders and kept the money, according to BBC.

Shirley Temple with Monty Wooley and Soda the dog in my favorite movie, "Since You Went Away"

Shirley Temple with Monty Wooley and Soda the dog in my favorite movie, “Since You Went Away”

The transition from child star to teenager was difficult for Temple as it is with other stars.
However, Temple starred in several charming films as a teenager such as “Kathleen” (1941), “That Hagen Girl” (1947) and my all-time favorite film “Since You Went Away” (1944).

Though I was sad when I heard the news of Shirley Temple’s death at age 85 on February 10, I remembered she had a long life.

After leaving her film career behind at age 22, Temple went into politics.

In 1968, she was a delegate to the United Nations and in 1974 was an ambassador to Ghana, according to Temple’s USA Today obituary.

After divorcing John Agar, her husband of five years, Temple was married to Charles Black for 55 years until his death in 2005.

Actress Shirley Temple and her husband, Charles G. Black at the Stork Club in 1953.

Actress Shirley Temple and her husband, Charles G. Black at the Stork Club in 1953.

She said in her autobiography that in her adult life, the child actress seems more like a dream or a younger sister to her.

Though she is gone, Temple will continue to bring happiness to film fans as she has continued to do for the last 80 years.

Added bonus: Me in high school as Shirley with "Juliet"

Added bonus: Me in high school as Shirley with “Juliet”

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

Classics in the Carolinas: Remembering Alicia Rhett, India Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind”

COH Alicia Rhett2

Leslie Howard with his on-screen sister Alicia Rhett.
(Scanned from “The Filming of Gone with the Wind”)

She was a true Southern lady.

Alicia Rhett was discovered on George Cukor’s Southern search for Scarlett O’Hara for the epic film “Gone with the Wind” (1939).

Rhett was cast as Ashley Wilkes’ sister, India Wilkes, in one of the biggest films of all time.

But Rhett’s art was more important to her than stardom.

“I enjoyed it (filming) immensely. I had the time of my life there (California). But when the film ended, I was happy to come home (to Charleston),” Rhett said in an interview in “The Rise of Charleston” by W. Thomas McQueene. “I liked to paint. It was what made me most happy. I really wasn’t interested in making more movies. I was interested in my art.”

Rhett was born in 1915 in Savannah, GA.   After her father was killed in World War I, her family moved to Charleston, SC, according to McQueene’s book.

Casting the role of Scarlett O’Hara for the 1939 movie wasn’t an easy. Hundreds of actresses were considered. Director George Cukor made a trip through Southern states, believing an unknown actress may be the answer to their problem.

Director George Cukor with interviews actresses to play the role of "Scarlet O'Hara": Louisa Robert, Atlanta; Susan Fallingant, Atlanta; Alicia Rhett, Charleston. (Scanned from "The Pictorial History of Gone with the Wind")

Director George Cukor with interviews actresses to play the role of “Scarlet O’Hara”: Louisa Robert, Atlanta; Susan Fallingant, Atlanta; Alicia Rhett, Charleston.
(Scanned from “The Pictorial History of Gone with the Wind”)

Hundreds of Southern women auditioned for the role of Scarlett, Melanie and Mammy, but only six women were considered for follow up auditions, according to “The Art of Gone with the Wind: The Making of a Legend,” by Judy Cameron and Paul J. Christman.

The auditions took place in 1937 in New York and the only Southerners who won roles were Alicia Rhett from Charleston, Mary Anderson who was cast as Maybelle Merriwether from Birmingham, AL and Marcella Martin of Shreveport, LA who was cast as Cathleen Calvert. Martin’s lines were dubbed because her accent wasn’t considered Southern enough, according to the Cameron and Christmas book.

“Alicia Rhett was an amateur actress. This young woman was so good,” Ann Rutherford is quoted by Cameron and Christman. Rutherford played the role of Careen, Scarlett’s younger sister. “She wasn’t Scarlett but Selznick cast her as India Wilkes. And she was excellent.”

During the filming of "Gone with the Wind," Alicia Rhett made sketches between takes. Here with Evelyn Keyes and Ann Rutherford. (Scanned from "The Filming of Gone with the Wind" by Herb Bridges)

During the filming of “Gone with the Wind,” Alicia Rhett made sketches between takes. Here with Evelyn Keyes and Ann Rutherford.
(Scanned from “The Filming of Gone with the Wind” by Herb Bridges)

The character of India Wilkes is the sister of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and sister-in-law of Melanie Wilkes (Olivia De Havilland). In the film, India hates Scarlett O’Hara, because Scarlett marries the man India is in love with, Charles Hamilton. India never marries and Scarlett refers to her as an “old maid.”

Rhett was acting when Cukor found her in Charleston.

She was performing in the Oscar Wilde play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” at the Dock Street Theater. Her performance in the Wilde play had “style and élan,” said “Pictorial History of Gone with the Wind” by Gerald Gardner and Harriet Modell Gardner.

COH alicia rhett

Alicia Rhett visits with Mrs. John Woodbury from Louiseville, KY. Woodbury was the past-president-general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Daughters dropped by to visit the filming of the Civil War film.
(Scanned from The Filming of Gone with the Wind by Herb Bridges)

“Gone with the Wind” novel author Margaret Mitchell liked Rhett for her name, according to the Gardner book.

As Rhett performed in the epic Technicolor film about the Civil War and the Reconstruction of the South, Rhett had her own family Civil War history.

Her great-grandfather was Robert Barnwell Rhett, a secessionist politician from South Carolina, according to “A Short History of Charleston” by Robert S. Rosen.

Robert Rhett became a member of the South Carolina legislature in 1826 and resigned from the United States Senate in 1852 when South Carolina seceded from the Union.

Though she was an unknown actress, Rhett enjoyed the company of her A-list co-stars.

She said Leslie Howard, who played her on-screen brother Ashley Wilkes, was “delightful” and Clark Gable, who played Rhett Butler was “charming,” she said in an interview with McQueene.

Rhett (bottom right) in a scene with Marjorie Reynolds, Evelyn Keyes and Olivia De Havilland.

Rhett (bottom right) in a scene with Marjorie Reynolds, Evelyn Keyes and Olivia De Havilland.

Rhett kept in touch with her on-screen sister-in-law Olivia De Havilland, who played Melanie Wilkes, for many years after filming. And she said Vivien Leigh was “just as pretty in person as she was on-screen,” McQueen quoted her.

But she returned to South Carolina after filming to embrace her first love: art.

Alicia Rhett who played India Wilkes, sister of Ashley Wilkes, in "Gone with the Wind" (1939)

Alicia Rhett who played India Wilkes, sister of Ashley Wilkes, in “Gone with the Wind” (1939)

Rhett went on to be one of the most important artists in Charleston, specializing in children’s portraits and also having her work hung in the president’s office at The Citadel.

Rhett passed away on January 4, 2014 at the age of 98. She was the oldest surviving member of “Gone with the Wind.”

Still living from the cast includes Olivia De Havilland, Mickey Kuhn who played Beau Wilkes and Mary Anderson.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

Woman of a Thousand Faces: Remembering Eleanor Parker

Eleanor Parker as the Baroness in "Sound of Music" (1965).

Eleanor Parker as the Baroness in “Sound of Music” (1965).

Today’s audiences know her as the Baroness; the mean blond who was Julie Andrews’ romantic rival in “The Sound of Music” (1965).

Though her role in the 1965 musical is memorable, the talents of Eleanor Parker are so much more than that.

Parker started out at Warner Brothers studios in the early 1940s. She was fresh faced, pretty and red-headed.

Born in Ohio, Parker moved to Hollywood in 1942 and was discovered while sitting in the audience at the Pasadena Community Playhouse by a Warner Brothers talent scout, according to Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen.

Parker’s first role was in 1941, a deleted scene in the Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland film “They Died With Their Boots On.” This role was followed by short films, bit parts and B-movies. One of these early jobs included a voice on a record to a soldier husband in the Cary Grant war film, “Destination Tokyo” (1943).

Eleanor Parker in the 1940s

Eleanor Parker in the 1940s

But her first major role with Warner Brothers was alongside John Garfield, Sydney Greenstreet and Paul Henried in “Between Two Worlds” (1944). The all-star cast is on a boat in the afterlife; waiting to see if they will go to heaven or hell.

Her next major role came in the romantic World War II drama, “The Very Thought Of You” (1944) with Dennis Morgan as her romantic co-star. Beulah Bondi and Henry Travers as Parker’s parents, who vehemently disapprove of her romance and eventual marriage to a soldier.

Parker showed her versatility as an actress from films like “Pride of the Marines” (1945), a drama about disabled war veterans co-starring John Garfield, to “Never Say Goodbye” (1946), a comedic romp set around Christmas with Errol Flynn.

She displays her acting abilities best in one of her top, and possibly most disturbing, roles in the prison drama “Caged!” (1950). Parker goes into jail as a naïve and innocent young woman and leaves hardened and cold. One horrifying scene includes Parker’s head getting shaved as a punishment. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in “Caged” but lost to Judy Holliday for “Born Yesterday.”

A year later she was getting drunk on tequila and flirting with Fred MacMurray in the comedy “Millionaire For Christy” (1951).

It’s no wonder that Eleanor Parker has been dubbed “Woman of a Thousand Faces.”

John Garfield, Clark Gable, Stewart Granger, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart are just a few of the top leading men she acted with.

“You didn’t go to her films to see Miss Parker being Miss Parker in a different dress and locale,” wrote Doug McClelland in his book “Eleanor Parker: Woman of a Thousand Faces.” “You went to see what person she had created on film.”

Parker helps husband John Garfield adjust to living life without sight in "Pride of the Marines" (1945). (LIFE)

Parker helps husband John Garfield adjust to living life without sight in “Pride of the Marines” (1945). (LIFE)

Parker was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress two other times:

-“Detective Story” (1951) –Parker plays the wife of Kirk Douglas who was involved with and got pregnant from a racketeer before their marriage.

-“Interrupted Melody” (1956) –the biographical film about Australian opera singer Marjorie Lawrence who becomes paralyzed due to polio.

She also played a woman with multiple personality disorder in “Lizzie” (1957), the same year Joanne Woodward played a similar role in “The Three Faces Of Eve.” It was Woodward who won the Oscar that year.

In a 1988 interview, she said she was a character actress. That her roles were too diverse that her own personality never “emerged on screen,” according to an article from USA Today.

In her private life, she was shy and collected classical records, according to an April 30, 1945, LIFE article, “Eleanor Parker: Actress plays ‘Of Human Bondage,’ role that made Bette Davis famous.”

McClelland’s book suggests one reason Parker is forgotten today is because of her quiet, private life.

“I’ve prided myself on not dreaming up tales to see my name in print,” McClelland quotes her as saying in an interview.

Some of my personal favorite films of Parker’s include: “The Voice of the Turtle” (1947), “Woman in White” (1948), “Never Say Goodbye” (1946), “The Very Thought of You” (1945), “Pride of the Marines” (1945) and “Valley of the Kings” (1954).

Parker plays a fiesty female in "Scaramouche" (1952)

Parker plays a fiesty female in “Scaramouche” (1952)

Eleanor Parker is one of those actresses that lights up the screen and makes the movie. The only films I remember not enjoying of Parker’s were the Rudolph Valentino biopic “Valentino” (1951) and “The Oscar” (1966). Neither of the films were bad because of Parker, but bad script writing.

Parker passed away today at the age of 91 due to complications from pneumonia, according to the Associated Press.

“Eleanor Parker was and is one of the most beautiful ladies I have ever known,” said “Sound of Music” co-star Christopher Plummer in Parker’s USA Today obituary. “Both as a person and as a beauty. I hardly believe the sad news for I was sure she was enchanted and would live forever.”

Goodbye to one of Warner Brothers’ brightest and most talented stars. “The Very Thought of You” will always make your fans smile.

Turner Classic Movies will be honoring Eleanor Parker on Tuesday, Dec. 17 (ET):
6 a.m. – The Very Thought of You (1944)
7:45 a.m. – Of Human Bondage (1946)
9:45 a.m – The Woman in White (1948)
11:45 p.m. – Caged (1950)
1:30 p.m. – Scaramouche (1952)
3:30 p.m. – Interrupted Melody (1955)
5:15 p.m. – Home from the Hill (1960)

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

The All-American Aphrodite: Remembering Esther Williams

My cinema relationship with Esther Williams helped shape my film interests.

I didn’t full watch any of her films until 2003 when my film appetite craved musicals.

A swimming scene from "This Time for Keeps"

A swimming scene from “This Time for Keeps”

As I gorged on her candy-colored, aqua musical extravaganzas, I couldn’t wait until I could see another film. Each of her musicals brings back memories of spending weekends endlessly watching her movies.

When I was 15 I read her autobiography, “The Million Dollar Mermaid.” It’s my favorite film autobiography that I’ve read so far.

When I was 17, I bought one of her Esther Williams bathing suits.

Williams inspired me to practice swimming strokes and try to learn how to swim (I failed swimming lessons when I was five years old. How embarrassing).

I remember in 2004 when she was highlighted during TCM’s August Summer under the Stars series. I wasn’t looking forward to going back to school in August but my excitement of Esther Williams’ day out-weighed my dread.

Esther Williams and frequent co-star Van Johnson in "Easy to Wed"

Esther Williams and frequent co-star Van Johnson in “Easy to Wed” dressed for the number “Bonecu de Pixe.” Carmen Miranda helped them with the Portuguese lyrics.

But it’s not just how she affected my every day actions, but my film knowledge that makes her important to me.

To date, I have seen all but two of Esther Williams’ films: “A Raw Wind in Eden” and “The Big Show.”

Esther Williams’s films are a textbook example of the mid-1940s to early 1950s MGM musicals: brightly colored, beautiful clothing and lavish musical numbers that may include Williams swimming, Xavier Cugat and his band shaking maracas or opera singer Lauritz Melchior belting a tune.

Her films also introduced me to my biggest film crush- Van Johnson.

Something I have always found appealing about Williams is that she is very attainable.

Her beauty is natural and girl-next-door like and her figure is athletic, rather than actress anorexic. In her 1996 Private Screenings Interview with Robert Osborne, she said becoming a star was all an accident.

Her stardom was a “consolation prize” when all she had wanted was an Olympic gold medal for swimming.

Williams qualified for the 1940 Olympics, which were canceled when Poland was invaded by Hitler. She felt her career as a swimmer was over when the Olympics were canceled and she didn’t receive a swimming scholarship to the University of Southern California, she wrote in her autobiography.

The road to stardom

With Mickey Rooney in "Andy Hardy's Double Life"

With Mickey Rooney in “Andy Hardy’s Double Life”

She took a job at I. Magnum department store until producer Billy Rose called her at the store asking if she wanted to audition for the Aquacade- a show of music, dancing and swimming in San Francisco.

“You swim very fast,” Billy Rose said when she auditioned.

“That’s what I do, Mr. Rose,” Williams said. “I’m a sprint swimmer. The U.S. 100-meter freestyle champion.”

“I don’t want fast,” he said. “I want pretty.”

Williams swam with Johnny Weissmuller, Olympic swimmer turned actor, and had to escape from him after every performance, because he would try to get her out of her swim suit. The Aquacade was not a happy experience. Because of that she repeatedly told MGM that she wasn’t interested in a film career, she said in her autobiography.

“If my experience at the Aquacade with the dingy dressing room and the grabby hands was any indication, they could keep their stardom,” she wrote.  “I had a husband, a career at I. Magnin to look forward to, a whole new life. That would be enough for me.”

Williams was doubtful of the success of swimming musicals. She told producer Jack Cummings that they would make one swimming musical and never make another.

Hollywood’s mermaid

In 1947 in Biscayne Key, south of Miami, Fla., while on location.

In 1947 in Biscayne Key, south of Miami, Fla., while on location.

MGM was looking for an American Aphrodite-a tall, wholesome American girl and that was Williams.

Once Williams signed with MGM in 1940, she was molded from an athlete into a starlet- taken to speech coaches, movement coaches, acting coaches and singing coaches. She wrote she had a nagging suspicion she didn’t belong at MGM.

Something that cemented this was how Williams and acting coach Lillian Burns butt heads.

At five-foot-eight-inches, Williams wasn’t your average petite actress.

“Even though Lana Turner, Donna Reed, Debbie Reynolds and Janet Leigh swore by her, Lillian Burns and I were a mismatch,” Williams wrote. “I knew instinctively that a five-foot-eight-inch girl could not behave like a feisty, indignant little poodle with quick, jerky movements.”

Clark Gable was the first to call Williams a mermaid.

Lana Turner married Artie Shaw without consulting Louis B. Mayer and as punishment, Williams was told to make a screen test with Gable for the film “Somewhere I’ll Find You.”

Gable brought his wife Carole Lombard to the screen test and unexpectedly kissed a very nervous Williams three times-catching her off guard and ruining the screen test.

IMG_20130607_174538_044

As they left he said to Lombard, “Well, baby, I told you I was gonna kiss me a mermaid today.”

After the screen test, Williams went on to film “The Double Life of Andy Hardy” (1942) and caught everyone’s attention as she languidly swam through the water.

Then Williams swam her way to stardom with Technicolor swimming musicals such as “Bathing Beauty,” “Thrill of a Romance” and “Easy to Wed.”

Swimming musicals presented challenges for makeup and wardrobe departments. A thick cream based makeup was “slathered” on to Williams head to foot. Hairdressers used a mixture of warm baby oil and Vaseline to keep her hair in place.

“I always thought there was a little too much glee on their faces when I arrived for my morning sessions,” she wrote. “They smeared this gooey mess that looked suitable for lubricating cars into my hair and made tiny braids all over my head…By the time I made it out of hair and makeup, I was as waterproof as a mallard.”

From all the swimming scenes, Williams once broke her back and busted her ear drums countless times. She was also pregnant in two of her films: Pagan Love Song and Easy to Love.

The end of stardom

But after over 10 years of success, MGM started to change as new MGM production head Dore Schary began to “kill off what was left of MGM glamour.”

Lana Turner and Esther Williams were named has-beens by Time magazine in 1955 and Clark Gable, Van Johnson and Greer Garson were leaving MGM.

The last straw for Williams was when she was called to play the Norma Shearer role in a remake of “The Women” called “The Opposite Sex.”

“There was nothing wrong with the group of actresses chosen, but they were certainly second string compared to the originals,” she wrote. “The studio was also going to add men to the plot, an unfortunate decision since the most intriguing thing about The Women was that it was a magnificent film without men.”

Williams refused to do the picture and realized Schary was feeding her lousy scripts to force her to leave MGM.

Williams redid her dressing room to suit a star like Grace Kelly who was up-and-coming at MGM, packed her bathing suits and wax gardenias she wore in her hair in films and drove out of MGM one night without saying goodbye to anyone but the man at the gate.

Much loved star

Williams looks over a Cole of California bathing suit. She allowed the company to use her name for a bathing suit line in 1951. (LIFE/Edward Clark)

Williams looks over a Cole of California bathing suit. She allowed the company to use her name for a bathing suit line in 1951. (LIFE/Edward Clark)

But even after her career ended, Williams wasn’t a has-been star. She was a successful business woman, with her line of Esther Williams bathing suits, and helped bring synchronized swimming to the summer Olympics.

My favorite Esther Williams films are “Duchess of Idaho,” “Thrill of Romance” and “Easy to Wed”- a remake of “Libeled Lady,” this is one remake I enjoy.

Williams always makes me happy. Her smile is genuine and watching her swim through the water can soothe a worried soul.

“My life as a child, woman, lover, wife and mother-has been more than public events. Some of it has been lived on the heights of personal happiness and passion. Some of it has been filled with terrible conflict and anguish,” Williams wrote. “Yet somehow I kept my head above the water. I relied on the discipline, character and strength that I had started to develop as a little girl in her first swimming pool in southwest Los Angeles. With sufficient endurance and courage, we all can achieve some kind of victory of our lives.”

Rest in peace, Esther Williams. Thank you for bringing my family and your fans so much happiness.

Esther Williams in Swimming Pool

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page for the latest updates or follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet.

For the Love of Deanna: Remembering Deanna Durbin

Deanna Durbin in "I'll Be Yours" (1947)

Deanna Durbin in “I’ll Be Yours” (1947)

The first time saw Deanna Durbin was on the front of a DVD case.

The DVDs that introduced me to Deanna

The DVDs that introduced me to Deanna

I was 14 and gazed at this pretty, young lady happily looking back at me on the front of the “Deanna Durbin: Sweetheart Pack.”

Though I had no idea who Durbin was, I bought the DVDs.

The first film I watched was “Three Smart Girls” (1936) and immediately fell in love with Durbin’s smile, singing voice and charm.

Through the years, I’ve tried to watch as many musicals as possible- now up to 470 movie musicals-and Durbin’s films have been some of my favorite.

Debuting in films at age 15, Durbin’s popularity pulled Universal Studios out of bankruptcy, won her a Juvenile Oscar in 1938 and made her one of the top paid women in the United States.

Her popularity was world wide with fans such as Winston Churchill and Anne Frank. She influenced fashion in “Nice Girl” (1941) with a white organdy, ruffled dress, according to USA Today.

LIFE photo of Durbin

1938 LIFE magazine photo of Durbin

She was considered for the role of Dorthy in “Wizard of Oz” (1939) (as was Shirley Temple) and to be the voice of Snow White in the 1937 Walt Disney cartoon. However her voice was considered too mature at 14.

Similar to fellow child star Shirley Temple, Durbin had dolls and other merchandise created in her likeness. Today, it’s difficult to find a Deanna Durbin doll under $200.

After her first on-screen kiss with Robert Stack in “First Love” (1939) she transitioned into teen and adult roles with leading men such as Joseph Cotton, Gene Kelly and Tom Drake.

But after 21 films and at the height of her popularity, Durbin left films and lived the remainder of her life in France.

“I hated being in a fishbowl,” she was quoted as saying in her New York Times obituary.

Long after she had left films, her influence and sunny disposition continued to spread, this time to fans like myself. Durbin quickly became one of my favorite movie stars and singers as I worked my way through her films. In 2005, she was kind enough to respond to a fan letter with an autograph and even paying for postage from France.

Durbin in color

Durbin in color

My favorite Deanna Durbin films include “The Amazing Mrs. Holliday” (1943) where she plays a missionary caring for World War II orphans, and “It Started With Eve” (1941). Though Durbin has great chemistry with “Eve” leading man Robert Cummings, she has even more impressive chemistry with Charles Laughton. The rumba scene with Laughton is one of my favorite comedic scenes of the English actor.

My favorite songs of Durbin’s include “Amapola” and “Les Filles de Cadiz.”

It was announced Tuesday that Durbin passed away at the age of 91.

Though she is gone, she will forever be singing in our hearts.

Rest in peace, Deanna.

Autograph she sent to me in 2005

Autograph she sent to me in 2005

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page for the latest updates.

“Now it’s time to say goodbye”: Remembering Annette Funicello

Just thinking about her makes me smile.

annette funicello 2

Annette Funicello

Annette Funicello has always been a source of happiness in my household. Her films, the Annette mystery book series, her music- she has always been a favorite of the Pickens’ family.

Though I didn’t grow up in the 1960s, I grew up with Annette. My mom was a huge fan so I was introduced to “The Shaggy Dog” (1959) and “Babes in Toyland” (1961) at a young age.

“I had Annette books, coloring books and paper dolls growing up,” my mom, Lisa Pickens, said. “I really liked her a lot. Since she was only in movies while she was young, we didn’t see her age. There was something special about Annette.”

Annette was an original Mousketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club. She autographed a photo for me in 2008

Annette was an original Mousketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club. She autographed a photo for me in 2008

Even in the past two years, summer afternoons were spent downloading her songs on iTunes and watching old Mickey Mouse Club episodes and the Annette series. In the serial Annette was a “country cousin” who moves to the city to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle.

“Throughout all the years we were friends she never changed from that sweet person who cared so much about others,” said Mousketeeer Sharon Baird, on the Official Disney Fan Club. “She always had time for everyone; family, friends and fans alike. It’s no wonder she was America’s sweetheart.”

In the 1950s, Annette Funicello stood out as a Mousketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club. Her background was Italian and she looked different than the other, Anglo-Saxon children.

She even suggested that she change her last name to “something more American,” but Walt Disney disagreed, saying her own name made her more unique, according to IMDB.

And her uniqueness is what made her the most popular of the original Mousketeers.

“The Disney studio wasn’t like other studios. It was just like home – it always had a small-town, family atmosphere,” she said.
Along with The Mickey Mouse Club, Annette starred in Disney films such as “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” (1964) and “Babes in Toyland.”

Her fame brought her to recording career, with records like “Hawiaannette,” “Itallianette” and “Danceannette,” but Miss Funicello didn’t think she could sing.

“The Sherman Brothers wrote a song for me for the Annette series called ‘How Will I Know My Love,’” she said in an interview. “They told me we have to put this on a single. People are writing us like crazy wanting to buy it. I told them I don’t sing. And they said, ‘Well I’m signing you to a recording contact, young lady.’ And I said yes sir, and that’s what started my singing career.”

Composer Tutti Camarata was the one who created “The Annette Sound.” This is where she would sing the song once. She then would listen to the song with headphones, while trying to sing along as exact as she could, she said.

“It gave me that larger sound that I needed, because my voice is very small with a range of about of three notes,” she laughed. “It worked. I think my favorite song was ‘Pineapple Princess.’ I was lucky enough to have five songs that made the Top 10.”

Stevie Wonder, early in his career, with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in "Muscle Beach"

Stevie Wonder, early in his career, with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in “Muscle Beach”

Annette was also one of the first performers to sing with the Beach Boys as they were growing in fame.

“I really shouldn’t put down my singing career, because I’m so appreciative of everything that came my way,” she said.

In interviews and in her autobiography “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” Annette seems like somebody you would run in to at the store. Annette was sweet and down to Earth, making her more relatable for her fans.

With Tommy Sands in "Babes in Toyland"

With Tommy Sands in “Babes in Toyland”

Even while she was in movies, her father still worked at a gas station, and Annette wasn’t allowed to date until she was 16, according to her New York Times obituary.

In real life, she stayed friends with fellow teen stars Frankie Avalon, Shelley Fabres and fellow Mousketeers Doreen Tracey and Cheryl Holdridge, who passed away in 2009. She was good friends with Jimmy Dodd from the Mickey Mouse Club until his death in 1964.

While she was 21-years-old and still under contract at Disney, she was approached about roles in beach films. Walt Disney approved Annette doing the films as long as she didn’t show her belly button in bathing suits, according to the New York Times.

These films included the silly, but fun, “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965) and “Beach Party (1963).

Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in "Beach Party"

Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in “Beach Party”

Annette retired from films, only making a few appearances, after she married her first husband in 1965 to raise her family.

“She was always there for car pools, Hot Dog Day and the P.T.A,” her daughter said in 1994.

After they divorced, she remarried in 1986 to Glen Holt. They remained married until she passed away.

Annette returned for a few appearances in the 1980s including “Back to the Beach” (1987) with Frankie Avalon, and an appearance on the TV Show “Full House” where Michelle pronounced her last name as “Funny-Jello.”

It was in 1987, she learned she had Multiple Sclerosis and established the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases.

Miss Funicello passed away today at the age of 70, and the world seems a little dimmer.

“Everyone who knew Annette, loved and respected her,” said Walt Disney’s daughter Diane Miller.  “She was one of the loveliest people I’ve ever known, and was always so kind to everyone. She was also the consummate professional and had such great loyalty to my father. Annette will always be very special to me.”

Rest in peace, Annette. You will always remain in our hearts as you chant “Meeska-Mooska-Mouseketeer” and surf the beaches of California.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page for the latest updates.

Metropolitan Opera singer dies at age 99

Actress, opera singer Rise Stevens in 1941

Actress, opera singer Rise Stevens in 1941

A Kennedy Center Honoree, 351 performances at the Metropolitan Opera House and handful of Hollywood films.

Opera singer and actress Risë Stevens had an impressive resume, including a 62 year marriage.

The singer who performed “Carmen” 124 times passed away March 20 at the age of 99.

Stevens with Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby in Going My Way, 1944

Stevens with Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby in Going My Way, 1944

She is best known in the opera world for being a successful operatic singer on the stage. However, classic film fans will recognize her from her role in the Bing Crosby film “Going My Way” (1944).

In the film, Stevens plays an old girlfriend of Crosby, who is now a Catholic priest, Father O’Malley. After he turned to life as a priest Stevens becomes a successful singer and performs selections from “Carmen” in the movie. Stevens helps save the church from financial troubles by performing a piece of music written by Father O’Malley, “Going My Way.”

“I probably would never have reached that vast public had I not done films,” said Stevens. “At least, I won a lot of people over to opera.”

Stevens’s first film was in 1941 with fellow opera singer, Nelson Eddy in “The Chocolate Soldier.”

Rise Stevens and Nelson Eddy in The Chocolate Soldier, 1941

Rise Stevens and Nelson Eddy in The Chocolate Soldier, 1941

“He really could have had an operatic career, but he just made too much money, too soft and too easy,” she said.

But her career is much vaster than a few Hollywood films.

Stevens performed with the Metropolitan Opera from 1938 until 1961, leaving the opera while she still had her voice, according to her obituary in the Miami Herald.

“It always bothered me, these great singers when I heard them again and again, remembering how magnificent they sounded once and no more,” she said.

Born in New York, she sang on the “Children’s Hour” radio show when she was a little girl. She later studied at Julliard. When she was invited to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, she declined. She said she wasn’t ready and made her formal debut in Europe, according to her New York Times obituary.

“I had a good career,” she is quoted in her Miami Herald obituary. “Now the joy is in watching the young musicians grow, mature, and perhaps become successes.”

Rest in peace to one of America’s best singers: Rise Stevens.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page 

His father called him Dobe: Remembering Harry Carey, Jr.

The heavens gained several stars this year as classic film stars passed away in 2012.

Since Comet Over Hollywood did not give several of them the full attention they deserved, the first month of 2013 will be dedicated to some of the notable celebrities who left us. This is the last of Comet’s 2012 rememberances.

Harry Carey, Jr.

Harry Carey, Jr.

He could be seen frequently along side John Wayne, and his father nicknamed him Dobe for his red hair that resembled adobe soil.

Along with actors Paul Fix, Ward Bond and Mildred Natwick, Harry Carey, Jr. was a staple in John Ford westerns.

Following in the footsteps of his character actor father, Harry Carey, Carey Jr. usually seemed to play a baby faced innocent in westerns.

Coming from the acting family, Carey, Jr. appeared with his father in “Red River” and with his mother, Olive Carey in “The Searchers” and “Two Rode Together.

Three of his first movies starred John Wayne: “Red River” (1948), “3 Godfathers” (1949) and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949).

But Carey, Jr. wasn’t just a character actor in John Ford’s films but also was close friends with Ford and John Wayne.

“I loved Duke and he loved me,” Carey said in an interview with in 2009 for the book Duke, We’re Glad We Knew You. “The thing is, I don’t think he ever forgave me for being the son of Harry Carey. Harry Carey was his absolute hero.”

 John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., Ben Johnson, John Agar and George O'Brien on the set of "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon".

John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., Ben Johnson, John Agar and George O’Brien on the set of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”.

TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Legends – John Ford (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon / Three Godfathers / Cheyenne Autumn / Wagon Master)

Carey, Jr. even married within the John Ford stock company, marrying Paul Fix’s daughter, Marilyn from 1944 until his death at the age of 91 on Dec. 27, 2012.

Though Carey, Jr. usually didn’t have  a large role, he always added something special to his films, whether it be a comedic moment or an emotional scene.

Out of all of the John Ford stock players, he was one of my favorites.

“My journey has been that of a character actor,” the New York Times quoted from Carey’s autobiography. “I’ve worked with the great and the not-so-great. But mostly I’ve worked with men and women who loved their profession, and who like me, had kids to raise and houses to pay for.”

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page 

“How’d you get to be so cute”: Remembering Phyllis Thaxter

The heavens gained several stars this year as classic film stars passed away in 2012.

Since Comet Over Hollywood did not give several of them the full attention they deserved, the first few days of 2013 will be dedicated to some of the notable celebrities who left us.

Eyes twinkling and bright smile.

The first time I was introduced to MGM actress Phyllis Thaxter was as she played Van Johnson’s wife in the World War II film “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944).

“How did you get to be so cute?” Van Johnson asked in the film.

“I had to be if I was going to get such a good-looking fella,” she said.

Spencer Tracy, Phyllis Thaxter and Van Johnson in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo."

Spencer Tracy, Phyllis Thaxter and Van Johnson in “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”

“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” the story of Doolittle’s raid on Japan, was Thaxter’s first and probably best role.

Thaxter’s acting career started on Broadway, and she was signed to MGM in 1944. The actress was the daughter of a Shakespearean actress and Supreme Court justice, according to a Hollywood Reporter article.

Many of the sweet and petite actress’s roles were as wives and mothers, such as Ronald Reagan wife in “She’s Working Her Way Through College,” Margaret O’Brien’s pregnant mother in “Tenth Avenue Angel” and a single mother who becomes Gene Kelly’s love interest in “Living in a Big Way.”

In the early 1950s, Thaxter left MGM and signed with Warner Brothers, but her contract was terminated in 1952.

The stumble in her career wasn’t her choice.

Thaxter in 1945

Thaxter in 1945

In 1952, Thaxter was swimming in Portland, Maine while visiting family. She found she lost strength in her legs, and her brother rescued her. Thaxter had polio, according to a New York Times article.

She was put in an iron lung while pregnant, because the lung needed for breathing was weakened, according to the article.

But Thaxter overcame the disease, only suffering from pain in her feet due to nerve problems that her daughter said she never complained about.

Thaxter’s career continued with television work until 1978, when she played the role of Ma Kent in “Superman,” the role most remember her for today.

“I worked harder on that film than anything I’d done; I couldn’t be bad,” Thaxter said.

Though she wasn’t a glamour girl, Thaxter’s daughter Skye, said her mother discussed some of her romances with leading men, saying she had a “hell of a good time.”

“ Mother and Montgomery Clift were very much in love,” Skye Aubrey said in a New York Times article. “They talked about getting married. They were planning on it. Then he found out he was gay.”

Phyllis Thaxter passed away on Aug. 14, 2012, at the age of 92.

Though she isn’t as well known today, she has always left an inexplicable impression on me, and I will go out of my way to see her films.

Maybe it’s because she was “so cute.”

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page