“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.”

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The years Margaret O’Brien ruined Christmas

Though some people find 1940s child actress Margaret O’Brien cute and spunky, I think she is a nuisance. Particularly at Christmas time.

1940s child actress, Margaret O'Brien

1940s child actress, Margaret O’Brien

From attacking snowmen to nearly killing her pregnant mother, O’Brien can really put a damper on the Christmas season.

Her brattiness particularly shines through in two Christmas films “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) and “Tenth Avenue Angel” (1948):

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944):

“Meet Me in St. Louis,” a personal favorite, is simply the story of a family, set in the early 1900s when the World’s Fair is coming to St. Louis. The family has four daughters: Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien)

Though Garland is the true star of this film, O’Brien steals several scenes by simply being a brat.

I’m fairly convinced that Tootie manipulates her family by being an obnoxious brat and turning on the waterworks in order to get what she wants.

O'Brien as Tootie telling lies to Mary Astor, playing her mother-saying that John Truitt tried to kill her on Halloween.

O’Brien as Tootie telling lies to Mary Astor, playing her mother-saying that John Truitt tried to kill her on Halloween.

At the start of the film, Tootie tells the iceman (Chill Wills) that her doll has “four fatal disease” and how she will bury  her and have a funeral for a perfectly good doll (maybe this is just a ploy to get new toys?).

At Halloween she really is a little hellion. She throws flour in the face of an unsuspecting neighbor and shouts “I hate you!”-part of a turn-of-the-century Halloween tradition that we never should bring back.

Still on Halloween, she nearly turns her sister Esther (Judy Garland) against her boyfriend John Truitt (Tom Drake).

Tootie and Agnes stuff a dress and put it on the trolley tracks. John Truitt drags Agnes and Tootie out of the way so they don’t get hurt or caught by police. As a result, Tootie splits her lip and loses a tooth.

She is carried into the house sobbing and saying, “John Truitt tried to kill me!” prompting Esther to go next door and beat him up.  Her family comforts Tootie by letting her wear one of Esther’s nightgowns and giving her a gigantic piece of cake (has anyone else noticed cake in classic films is HUGE?). Even after her mother (Mary Astor) discovers Tootie was lying, they let her keep the cake and nightgown, because she was a “good girl when the doctor was there.”

But the real clincher is the Christmas scene.

O'Brien attacking snowmen early Christmas morning (screencapped by me)

O’Brien attacking snowmen early Christmas morning (screencapped by me)

Understandably, Tootie is upset about leaving their home in St. Louis to move to New York.  Esther comforts her younger sister by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Does this calm the child down? No! Inexplicably, she runs outside in the snow after midnight, starts attacking snowmen they worked so hard to build earlier that day.

Because of Tootie’s crazed snowman moment, father (Leon Ames) changes his life plans to make his family happy, again Tootie getting her way.

Tenth Avenue Angel (1948):

In “Tenth Avenue Angel,” O’Brien plays Flavia; a little girl who lives with her pregnant mother Helen (Phyllis Thaxter) and Aunt Susan (Angela Lansbury).

Steve and Flavia wait to see if a cow will kneel for baby Jesus on Christmas morning. (screencapped by me)

Steve and Flavia wait to see if a cow will kneel for baby Jesus on Christmas morning. (screencapped by me)

Flavia was told that Susan’s boyfriend Steve (George Murphy) has been on a trip around the world but really he has been in jail.

Other harmless white lies and old wives tales are told to Flavia such as mice turn into money, cats all have nine lives and wishes on stars come true. When Flavia finds out none of these are true- including that Steve really didn’t travel around the world- she is sent over the edge.

“If it isn’t the truth then it’s a lie, isn’t it,” she says to her pregnant, bed-ridden mother. “I don’t know who to believe or what to believe. Everybody lies to me.”

In a Margaret O’Brien moment of hysterics complete with sobbing, she runs out of the apartment with mother running behind her, who falls down the stairs and becomes ill…basically because of Flavia.

However, regardless of her bratty moment, Flavia finds a miracle in order to save her mother.

And the cow kneels. This scene is utterly ridiculous. (screencapped by me)

And the cow kneels. This scene is utterly ridiculous. (screencapped by me)

The movie ends ridiculously with Flavia and Steve waiting at the stroke of midnight on Christmas morning to see if a cow will kneel to honor the newborn king-another old wives tale her mother told her.

If the cow kneels, it will be a miracle to make her mother better and will restore Flavia’s faith in her family. Lo and behold, the cow kneels and everyone lives happily ever after.

To review:

Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh because I’m simply not a fan of Margaret O’Brien. I’m not sure if O’Brien is the brat or if it’s the characters, but regardless I can’t take the sobbing and would be really angry if a hysterical little girl knocked down my snowman.

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Forgotten holiday films I even forgot

Errol Flynn as you have never seen him before

A couple of days ago, I enlightened you with some Christmas movies you may have forgotten. With a couple of days left to spare before the 25th (Where did the season go?) here are a few Christmas movies I even forgot in my last post.

I hope you have time to fit them in before the holiday season ends-Christmas officially ends on January 5 with the 12 days of Christmas- or remember the films for next year. Enjoy!

All Mine to Give (1957): This is a Christmas movie, but it’s a real downer. Jo (Glynis Johns) and Robert (Cameron Mitchell) raise a large family, and then they both tragically die. The kids (including Patty McCormack of “The Bad Seed”) try to continue living together, but the town threatens to split them up. However, they somehow are able to fight the greedy townsfolk and stay together. To review: This isn’t a particularly happy Christmas movie, and I only really thought it was okay. But it reminds us that family is important and shouldn’t be seperated.

Never Say Goodbye(1946): Not your typical Christmas film, but you see Errol Flynn dressed up like Santa Claus!  Phil (Errol) and Ellen (Eleanor Parker) Gayley are divorced. Their daughter Flip (Patti Brady) and Phil aren’t very happy about the divorce and hope to win Ellen back from her new boyfriend, Rex (Donald Woods).  All of this takes place during Christmas as Phil and Rex both dress up like Santa and a comedic mix-up occurs. To review: A cute movie that really takes place during Christmas by chance, but still shows the importance of family. This is actually one of my favorite Errol Flynn movies, because we get to see him in a comedic, husband type role in New York, rather than a swashbuckling role in Spain.

Doris Day, Gordon McCrea, Rosemary DeCamp and Leon Ames in “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”

On Moonlight Bay (1951)/ By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953):

I put these two films together since they are similar and the second is the sequel to the first. In a nutshell: tomboy Margie Winfield (Doris Day) falls in love with idealistic Bill Sherman (Gordon McCrea) and her parents -mostly her father-disapprove. In the midst of both of these movies, there is Christmas. Margie breaks her leg and can’t go to the Christmas dance with Bill in “On Moonlight Bay“. Margie still manages to limp out on the porch and sing “Merry Christmas to All” with carolers.  In “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,”  Bill meets the family at a skating pond and surprises Margie and finally decides to marry her after bickering throughout the movie. To review: These are both similar to “Meet Me in St. Louis”: it takes you through a year of a family during the turn of the century and manages to fit in Christmas.  Like the others, this is a  really fun, happy family film.  “On Moonlight Bay” and “Silvery Moon” are probably my favorite Doris films. I have always enjoyed her and Gordon MacRea in films together.

Susan Slept Here (1954): Juvinile delinquent Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) is sent to spend the holidays with screenwriter Mark Christopher (Dick Powell) so he can study a delinquent for a script he’s writing. Lots of comedic events ensue, and the much older Christopher falls in love with the very young Landis. To review: This is a pretty well known Christmas movie, but I feel like it gets over looked as we grab for “Holiday Inn” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Though Powell is 28 years older than Reynolds, its a very cute movie and worth looking into. Also keep an eye out for a much older Glenda Farrel. She is still as beautiful and funny as she was in the 1930s.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960): The Robinson family shipwrecks on a tropical island on their way to New Guinea.  Mom (Dorothy McGuire), Dad (John Mills), Fritz (James MacArthur), Ernst (Tommy Kirk) and Frances (Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran) learn how to live life on an island away from civilized Switzerland. This includes catching baby elephants, fighting off pirates (played by Sessue Hayakawa) and even celebrating Christmas. Surprisingly, yes, this movie does have Christmas in it. Fritz and Ernst return on Christmas to the treehouse after exploring the island for several months. They bring back Roberta (Janet Munro), a girl they rescued from pirates, and fight over who gets to dance with her during the Christmas celebration. To review: Sure they are in the tropics, but they find time to celebrate Christmas. Even if they didn’t, it’s still a really nice family film, and my roommate, Sybil, and her family watch it every Christmas.

Margaret O’Brien crying in Tenth Avenue Angel (1948)

Tenth Avenue Angel (1948):

If you have ever had an urge to see Margaret O’Brien cry, here is your chance. Flavia (O’Brien) feels like everyone is lying to her. Her mother (Phyllis Thaxter) has told her old wives tales that aren’t true. Some of these are that mice turn into money, so that Flavia wouldn’t be afraid of mice (I have never heard, this have you?) and that cows kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve for Jesus. Flavia also finds out that her friend Steve (George Murphey) really didn’t travel around the world, but was in jail. After having a temper tantrum and potentially risking her pregnant mother’s life, Flavia realizes Christmas miracles do come true when she sees a cow kneeling for the Savior and her mother lives. To review: Parts of this movie are fine, but when Margaret starts shedding those tears start getting a bucket to bail out the water. I really like George Murphy, Phyllis Thaxter and Angela Lansbury in this movie, but O’Brien was also getting a little too old to play a six year old girl, when she was really 11.  

Happy holidays! Be sure to check back from one more special holiday post on Christmas day!

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Take my pulse, Lew Ayres: Medicine in Old Movies

One summer Turner Classic Movies showed almost all of the 15 “Dr. Kildare” movies from the 1930s and 1940s…and of course I had my mother tape every single one. So for a a couple of weeks my family sat down and fell in love with Dr. Kildare (Lew Ayres), Mary Lamount (Laraine Day), Nurse Molly Byrd (Alma Kruger), Hospital Admin Dr. Carew (Walter Kingsford) and of course Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore).

Each movie was cute, somewhat suspenseful and always had a bit of comic relief from Dr. Gillespie-who was wheel chair bound due to Barrymore’s arthritis.

The most interesting thing about the Dr. Kildare series is seeing how much medicine has changed. Part of me is thankful to live in contemporary time with up to date medical technology, but I still want to live in the 1940s.

1940

It is also interesting to see the way they cure some of the medical cases. For example, in “Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case” (1940), a man is found on the street who was seemingly out of his mind. As it turns out the man had schizophrenia and they cured it. (Also notice how they pronounce the word in old movies: Ski-zo-FREE-nia)

Yes that’s right. Dr. Kildare cured schizophrenia. Amazing since even today it is incurable. The man was unconscious and given a shot that makes him go back to a “primate state and go through the stages of man until he is himself again.” And it works. The man is better, finds his wife (he also had a case of amnesia) and lives happily ever after.

However, the Dr. Kildare series isn’t the only movie that suggests schizophrenia can be cured. In the film “Bewitched” (1945), sweet Phyllis Thaxter has a voice inside of her head telling her murderous things such as to kill her fiancé. At the end of the movie, her psychiatrist helps her see which personality wins out.  She is cured and back to normal.

Moving away from schizophrenia, in “The People vs. Dr. Kildare,” Dr. Kildare performs an emergency surgery on ice skater Bonita Granville at the scene of a bad car accident. Granville then finds that she can’t walk (though her leg healed properly) and sues Dr. Kildare.  I may not be a med student, but I find it questionable that Kildare performed the surgery outside in an area that was not sanitary.

I will say I appreciate the bluntness of Dr. Gillespie. Doctors would be sued if they talked to their patients the way Gillespie barks at his, but they are usually cured and he gets the point across.

Here is an example of Dr. Gillespie’s doctor tactics:
Dr. Gillespie: Well, Mr. Ingersoll, good morning, and how are you feeling today?
Patient, Rufus Ingersoll: Never felt better in my life!
Dr. Gillespie: Oh ho, that’s fine. That’s fine…because your system’s in a state of collapse. Sit down before you fall down!

“Emergency”-My favorite TV show

Though the medical practices of Dr. Kildare might seem archaic by today’s standards, they certainly seemed up to date for the standards of the 1940s. The doctors were in New York City -not the country doctor seen in many other movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Actually, the medical practices you see 30 years later in the television show “Emergency!” (1972 to 1979) aren’t much different. Nurse Dixie McCall, Doctor Bracket and Doctor Early seem like they are the only employees at Rampart General Hospital. My family and I always joke that those three doctors were the only doctors in the hospital because they did it all: Deliver babies, perform surgery and general practice.

Regardless of the questionable terminology and medical methods of the “Dr. Kildare” series, don’t let it turn you off. After watching all 15 movies, you will feel like Laraine Day, Nat Pendleton, Lew Ayres and Marie Blake are part of your family.

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