Carroll Baker: An interview on “Baby Doll” and Hollywood’s studio days

Carroll Baker will be attending a screening of “Baby Doll” (1956) this weekend, Saturday, Aug. 17, in Winston-Salem, NC through the RiverRun Retro film series. Following the film, Ms. Baker will be interviewed by film historian Foster Hirsch. Learn more about how to get tickets.

Today, Ms. Baker is retired from films and is now an author. Her fourth book, Who Killed Big Al?, was published this May.

I interviewed Ms. Baker on the phone about her career and upcoming appearance:

Comet Over Hollywood:
Have you ever done anything with River Run Film before?

Carroll Baker:
My daughter has. Um, she, she does the short films with her students. She’s an acting teacher. She went to the festival (River Run International Film Festival) last year, and I think she’ll go again this year. Then Rob came to New York. And then he came up with this incredible thing of doing, uh, and evening with just me. They do wonderful stuff. So the screening will be of “Baby Doll” and then Foster Hirsch, a film historian, will interview me, and we will talk about my new book, “Who Killed Big Al?”

Comet Over Hollywood:
I had some questions about your career that I was going to ask. So we’ll start kind of at the beginning of it all. What made you get into acting? What interested you about the craft?

Actress Carroll Baker in the 1950s

Carroll Baker:
Well, you know, this is a long story. My mother and father had divorced, and I was living with my father in Pennsylvania. We didn’t have very much money. And when I graduated from high school, I was working in a factory. All my girlfriends had gone to university. The boy I was in love with went to university. And, and I said to myself, “I’m just not going to be stuck in this small town working in a factory.”

Because of my mother, I had taken dancing lessons. So when I was off work, I would go to our attic, which had a wooden floor. I used to tap, tap, tap and follow Ann Miller’s routines. So then my mother said, “Well, why don’t you come for a while and stay in Florida with me?” Well, that was terrific, because in Florida they have every conceivable club, like the Lions Club. And I got my first engagement there dancing. I earned $20. I kept getting dancing engagements and went to beauty contests.

We went to Daytona Beach and there was an International Convention of Magicians. There was this one magician, named Burling Hull and he called himself the Great Volta. So He was retired, and he didn’t have an assistant. He said, “I’m inventing acts now, and I’ve invented an act that’s just for a woman. It’s the magic jewel act.” So I went to stay with he and his wife and practiced really hard. And learned how to do this magic act. And this ties me into North Carolina! I was booked on Kemp Time, which was one of the last vestiges of vaudeville. It was a western show. Everybody famous you could think of was in it, like Elvis Presley. Virginia Mayo did her act with Pansy the Horse.

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Saying goodbye to Doris Day

On the first day of eighth grade in 2002, I was a changed girl.

I was sporting contact lenses after wearing glasses for years, and I had a new favorite actress that changed my life over the summer: Doris Day.

I excitedly asked my friends as we walked through the halls if they had seen “Pillow Talk” (1959). Only one friend, Chelsey, had but most hadn’t. I think this is when I started to realize I was different from the other middle school kids … but I didn’t care.

Doris continued to affect my day-to-day life. I sought out her movies, and I saw the majority of them when she was the Turner Classic Movies Star of the Month in January 2003. “Romance on the High Seas,” “It Happened to Jane” and “On Moonlight Bay” became some of my favorite films. I listened to her music and tried to sing like her, and checked her autobiography out from the library. I even tried to mimic her behavior in films, such as wanting to learn how to play the ukulele like she does in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” (1960).

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“The next 58 years will be a breeze”: An interview with RiverRun Master of Cinema awardees Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin

The RiverRun International Film Festival has been held since 1998. Originally held in Brevard, NC, the festival now takes place in Winston-Salem. Held this year from April 4 – 14, 2019, the festival is screening 172 films from 47 countries—71 features and 101 shorts.

Each year, a pillar in the film industry is recognized with the Master of Cinema award. This year, that award goes to husband and wife Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, and film producer and head of Orion pictures Mike Medavoy.

Prentiss and Benjamin have been married for 58 years. Paula Prentiss is best known for her 1960s and 1970s roles including “Where the Boys Are” (1960), “The Honeymoon Machine” (1961) and “What’s New Pussycat” (1965). She co-starred with Jim Hutton in three films. Her film “Man’s Favorite Sport?” (1964) with Rock Hudson will screen at the festival. Richard Benjamin both acts and directs. His directorial debut was the Peter O’Toole film “My Favorite Year” and he also directed “The Money Pit” (1986) and “Mermaids” (1990). His acting roles include “Goodbye, Christopher Columbus” (1969) and “The Sunshine Boys” (1975), which is screening at the festival. The two acted together on the TV show “He and She” as well as “Catch-22” (1970), “Saturday the 14th” (1981), and the Broadway play “The Norman Conquests” (1975).

I had the opportunity to interview actress Paula Prentiss and actor/director Richard Benjamin via phone on Sunday, April 7:

Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin in the 1960s

Comet Over Hollywood: Tell me about how you two met.

Richard Benjamin: We met at Northwestern University. Paula had transferred from Randolph-Macon College. And Paula had transferred from Randolph-Macon. She was a year ahead of me and I came from New York, New York City, and that’s where we met. And the first second I saw her, I thought, that’s it for me, so … I don’t know how long it took her to feel the same way exactly, you can ask her, but I knew that was it.

Paula Prentiss: Well let me see. I was at a women’s college beforehand and the dating that we had was off to other universities. I was at Randolph–Macon Women’s College, I went to the University of Virginia, went to Yale one time. But I thought to myself, I have to find some guy that I really like. These individual dating trips are a little … I don’t know what I thought. But anyway, that’s one of the reasons I transferred from Randolph–Macon Women’s College.

And when I saw Dick … He was very cute. Tall and thin and stuff like that, and I thought, I didn’t know much about acting, but he was supposed to be a director so perhaps this will work. I tried out for a play, even though I was very inexperienced in acting, and he liked me. So then when we had rehearsals, we were left alone in the rehearsal room…

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Who is “A Star is Born” about?

What Hollywood figures inspired the characters in “A Star is Born”?

When I started out this post, I was ready with a relatively simple answer.  In an April 2018 interview with William Wellman, Jr., at the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, he listed one couple. But the more I researched, the more complex this answer became.

Since the first studios were built in Hollywood, the lives and deaths of film stars were as dramatic as the roles they played on the screens. Their tragic lives and deaths inspired “What Price Hollywood?” (1932) – the unofficial precursor to “A Star is Born” —and the 1937 film “A Star Is Born” starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March.”

John McCormick and Colleen Moore

Colleen Moore and John McCormick

Colleen Moore was one of the influences for “What Price Hollywood?” (1932), according to the book “The Bennetts: An Acting Family” by Brian Kellow. Moore was married to First National Pictures producer John McCormick. McCormick was responsible for Moore cutting her hair into a sleek bob for the flapper look. The actress and producer were married in 1923, collaborated on 20 films together and made millions of dollars. Business-wise, it was a successful match. But as Moore became even more famous, her husband’s alcoholism deepened and she covered up for him when he was hospitalized or at the studio. Moore divorced McCormick in 1930.

John Bowers and Marguerite De La Motte in a publicity photo for Daughters Who Pay (1925)

John Bowers and Marguerite De La Motte:

Silent film actor John Bowers started in films in 1914 and was in 95 films from 1914 to 1931. Marguerite De La Motte, who started in films in 1916, was a frequent co-star of Bowers’s. They first co-starred in the film “Desire” (1923) and were in a total of 12 films together from 1923 to 1927. John Bowers and Marguerite De La Motte were married in 1924. But when sound entered in films, Bowers’s film career ended. De La Motte was also in a few talking pictures, though she only appeared in five films from 1930 to 1942. Bowers began to have a drinking problem after his career ended, according to the website Silents are Golden, and the couple separated. Director Henry Hathaway remembered Bowers begging for a job, and Hathaway invited Bowers to dinner. When Bowers left, he said, “Well, this is the last time you’ll ever see me. You’ll have a real life picture. I’m going to jump overboard.”

On Nov. 13, 1936, John Bowers rented a boat, sailed it out into the Pacific Ocean and drowned. Police found his body floating near Las Flores, according to the book “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940” by Victoria Wilson. William Wellman, Jr., son of William Wellman who directed “A Star is Born” (1937), said Norman Maine was based on the marriage, career, and death of John Bowers, though Wellman was two weeks into shooting the film when Bowers died, according to Wilson’s book.

Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Faye

Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck:

Barbara Stanwyck biographer Victoria Wilson writes that the Vicki Lester and Norman Maine acting marriage was based on Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck during their marriage from 1928 to 1935.

When they were first married, Stanwyck was not acting in films, and Frank Fay was a famous vaudeville star and already acting in films. By 1935 when they divorced, Stanwyck’s star was rising, and Fay helped guide her success: from convincing Harry Cohn to hire her for “Mexicali Rose” to giving her screen test to director Frank Capra. Capra then made Stanwyck a star by casting her in four of his films, according to Wilson’s book. While Stanwyck’s films were successful, Fay’s failed, and he began to drink. Stanwyck tried to help him with his career and would appear with him on stage. They divorced due to his abuse and alcoholism. Barbara Stanwyck also did not attend the premiere of “A Star is Born” (1937).

John Barrymore

John Barrymore

Of any actor, John Barrymore has the most parallels to Norman Maine, the once famous matinee idol who fell into alcohlism as his career declined. John Barrymore was one of the top stars of stage and screen of the 1920s and 1930s, but drinking was his downfall. He became unreliable, and his roles became fewer and lacked prestige as the years wore on and he drank more. In his last film, “Playmates” (1941), co-starring comedic big band leader Kay Kyser, Barrymore’s character is a has-been who drinks too much. The fact that his life became a punchline in an RKO musical comedy is depressing. John Barrymore went to a sanitarium for a rest cure and director George Cukor visited him with a possible role, just like Oliver Niles does for Norman Maine. And like Maine, Barrymore turned down the role because it was too small, according to Wilson’s book. David O. Selznick even wanted John Barrymore for the role of Norman Maine in “A Star is Born” (1937), but at this point Barrymore had a hard time remembering his lines. John Barrymore died in 1942 at age 60 from pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver.

 

Marshall Neilan

Marshall Neilan

Director Marshall Neilan is cited as an inspiration for Lowell Sherman’s director character of Max Carey in “What Price Hollywood?” (1932), who drinks too much and commits suicide at the end of the film, according to Kellow’s book. From 1913 to 1937, Neilan directed 107 films, but his work slowed after the dawn of sound due to his alcoholism. Neilan has a small role in the 1937 version of “A Star is Born” when Norman (Fredric March) goes to the race track after being released from the sanitarium. Neilan died in 1958 of throat cancer.

 

Tom Forman

Tom Forman

Another inspiration for Max Carey in “What Price Hollywood” (1932) is director Tom Forman. Author Adela Rogers St. Johns based her story “The Truth About Hollywood” on Forman. Forman directed successful films in Hollywood such as “Shadows” (1922) and “The Virginian” (1923). However, his career took a turn and Forman was left with low-budget directing projects. On Nov. 7, 1926, Forman shot himself through the heart and died at the age of 33. In the film “What Price Hollywood,” Max Carey dies in the same manner.

 

John Gilbert and Virginia Bruce

William Wellman’s son, William Wellman, Jr., wrote in the book “Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel,” that John Gilbert and the decline of his career was another inspiration for his father’s Norman Maine in “A Star is Born” (1937). John Gilbert was one of the top stars of the silent era, and his alcoholism was part of his downfall — similar to John Barrymore. However, his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain says “A Star is Born” is not based on her father in her 1985 book, “Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of Legendary Silent Screen Star John Gilbert.” But Gilbert being an inspiration for Norman Maine would make sense, particularly, because he was married to up-and-coming starlet Virginia Bruce from 1932 to 1934. Bruce was gaining popularity while Gilbert was practically a has-been. Gilbert’s last film was in 1934, and he died in 1936 at age 38 of a heart attack.

B.P. Schulberg

B.P. Schulberg

B. P. Schulberg, film pioneer and studio executive, was the inspiration for studio head, Oliver Niles, according to the book “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck” by Victoria Wilson. Niles is played by Adolphe Menjou in the 1937 version and Charles Bickford in the 1954 version

Russell Birdwell

Russell Birdwell

Russell Birdwell was the model of ruthless publicity agent Matt Libby, according to Victoria Wilson’s book. Libby is played by Lionel Stander in the 1937 version and Jack Carson in the 1954 version. One of Birdwell’s publicity stunts included hiring an actress in 1927 to dress in all black and lay flowers on the tomb of Rudolph Valentino on the first anniversary of his death, known as “The Woman in Black.”

Other nods to real life:

  • Vicki Lester’s closing line of “I am Mrs. Norman Maine” was inspired by Dorothy Davenport who was billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid after her husband, actor Wallace Reid, died in 1923. Reid died due to complications from his addiction to morphine. This is the last line in both the 1937 and 1954 version.
  • The funeral scenes in the 1937 and 1954 versions are said to be inspired by Irving Thalberg’s funeral and the response the crowd had to his widow, Norma Shearer. A Sept. 16, 1936, newspaper said 1,500 attended Thalberg’s funeral.

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

Hollywood stars who married royalty, nobility

With the royal wedding happening this weekend, much ado has been made about Meghan Markle being an actress and marrying into royalty.

Of course, she isn’t the only actor or actress to marry into royalty or nobility. Well cited examples include Grace Kelly marrying Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, making Grace Kelly a princess. The two were married from 1956 unti her death in 1982. And there was Rita Hayworth, who became a princess when she married Prince Aly Khan, who were married in 1949 and divorced in 1953.

But I started wondering was there anyone else? I found a few other actors who were married to royalty or nobility, though some titles have been up for debate:

Actor Donald Cook (unable to find a photo together with wife)

Donald Cook and Princess Gioia Tasca di Cuto (1937 to 1961): Actor Donald Cook was married to Princess Giovanna Mastro – Giovanni Tasca Di Cuto from 1937 until Cook’s death in 1961. I can find little on Princess Giovnna, except that the two lived in Long Island in the 1940s and also had a home in Connecticut. An April 1971 newspaper called Gioia Cook the great-granddaughter of Prince Niccolo of Sicily. According to a 1966 newspaper, calls Gioia a “former” royal and calls her Gioia Cook. It seems Donald Cook did not take up a title as other stars did. After Donald Cook’s death, Gioia owned a restaurant called Leopard.

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The Man Who was Almost Bond: John Gavin

Actor John Gavin

From Cary Grant to Rod Taylor, we have heard of many actors that were considered to play Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

And one came closer than others: John Gavin.

John Gavin, who passed away Feb. 9, 2018, is not an actor as well-known as Grant or Sean Connery, but he was a handsome leading man throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He retired from acting in the 1980s and went on to become the United States Ambassador to Mexico during the Reagan administration. Today, Gavin is best known for his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) and Lana Turner’s love interest in “Imitation of Life” (1959).

Gavin was considered for the role of James Bond after George Lazenby refused to continue playing the character after the film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969).

In an interview at the 2015 Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, Lazenby said he got bad advice and was told to quit the role, because Bond films were going to lose popularity with changing times.

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Lizabeth Scott Sings!

Lizabeth Scott, “The Threat”

She usually played a mysterious blond that was up to no good. Actress Lizabeth Scott, known for her husky voice and sleek, straight blond hair was often a woman with a secret in 1940s and 1950s film noirs.

Publicity departments of the golden era of Hollywood often saddled their actors with nicknames: from the It Girl (Clara Bow), the Oomph Girl (Ann Sheridan) to the Lavender Blonde (Kim Novak).

Scott was nicknamed “The Threat,” as she was threatening to “The Body (Marie MacDonald), “The Voice” (Frank Sinatra), and “The Look” (Lauren Bacall).

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