The story of Tommy Kirk

Tommy Kirk in “Old Yeller”

You may have seen him turning into a sheepdog on “The Shaggy Dog,” tragically killing his dog in “Old Yeller” or as the know-it-all brother in “Swiss Family Robinson.”

Life for fresh faced, slightly goofy Tommy Kirk seemed sunny in those 1950s movies at Walt Disney Studios. He was one of the studio’s top stars and even was part of the Mickey Mouse Club in the “Hardy Boy” series with Tim Considine. He was wholesome, clean cut and quirky-things that easily won over Disney audiences.

But as Kirk grew out of those kid roles in the early 1960s, life started to drastically change. Like most child stars, the transition from family movies to teen movies can be difficult. Studios and audiences don’t like you because you aren’t as cute and are going through the awkward years of growing up. However, it’s harder for a child star when they are gay.

It was becoming apparent that adult Tommy Kirk was gay and this didn’t fit into Walt Disney’s family friendly, perfect studio.

Tommy Kirk and Tim Considine in Mickey Mouse Club’s “Hardy Boys”

“Even more than MGM, Disney [in the early 1960s] was the most conservative studio in town. They were growing aware. They weren’t stupid. They could add two and two, and I think they were beginning to suspect my homosexuality,” Kirk said. “I noticed people in certain quarters were getting less and less friendly. In 1963 Disney didn’t renew my option and let me go. But Walt let me return to do the final Merlin Jones movie, ‘The Monkey’s Uncle,’ because those were moneymakers for the studio.” (Taken from IMDB)

Kirk said his teen years were a very unhappy time for him.  He had also been marked as box office poison after movies like “Village of Giants” (1965) and “Mars Needs Women” (1967).  Kirk’s career could have been saved by a potential role in “The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965) with John Wayne. Unfortunately, he went to a party where people were smoking marijuana. The party was busted, Kirk was arrested and newspapers printed “Ex- Disney Child Star Arrested for Pot.” He was fired from the film.

Not only was his career floundering, but once he accepted he was gay, he had no way to meet people or express himself.

“I knew I was gay, but I had no outlet for my feelings. It was very hard to meet people and, at that time, there was no place to go to socialize,” Kirk said. “It wasn’t until the early sixties that I began to hear of places where gays congregated. When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to change. I didn’t know what the consequences would be, but I had the definite feeling that it was going to wreck my Disney career and maybe my whole acting career.

Eventually, I became involved with somebody and I was fired. Disney was a family film studio and I was supposed to be their young, leading man. After they found out I was involved with someone, that was the end of Disney.” (Taken from IMDB)

Though Kirk’s acting career went into the mid and late 1960s when codes and morals were beginning to loosen, there was no way for him to portray a gay man on screen as some actors in the pre-code 1920s and 1930s had the freedom to do.

Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello. The two starred in several films together including “Pajama Party”

Quite on the opposite side, Kirk was in highly heterosexual all-American teenage romance beach films.  In “Pajama Party” (1964) with Annette Funicello, Kirk plays a Martian that doesn’t understand romance or how to woo women. Funicello’s character teaches the Martian-named Go Go- how to show affection in order to make her boyfriend jealous. Teaching Kirk how to romance a woman in a film almost makes me wonder if it was a jab at him.

Kirk quit acting by the early 1970s, saying that he got sick of it and stopped. He now runs a carpet and upholstery cleaning business, according to IMDB.

For a child star who struggled so much, Tommy Kirk is really forgotten today. Books like “Screen World Presents: Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors” mentions in the last few sentences about his career, “It was not until years later that Kirk was fired after word got out about his homosexuality.”

Other books like “Queering Teen Culture” by Jeffery Dennis don’t discuss the hurt or ruin that Kirk experienced. The book mainly seems to focus on the silly roles he was in and how overly sexual the males were in beach movies.

For somebody that stared in most of the live action Disney classics, you don’t hear anything about him. I wonder if it has to do with Disney still trying to keep appearances.

From interviews I’ve seen in recent years, Tommy Kirk seems to be bitter from the experience. I can’t say that I blame him.

It’s heartbreaking that such a bright young Disney star fell down so hard.

This is part of the “Queer Blogathon” hosted by Garbo Laughs

This is for the Queer Blog-a-thon hosted by Garbo Laughs. The blog-a-thon focuses on portrayals of gays, lesbians, trans-gender in classic film for LBGT month.

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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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My childhood crush: RIP James MacArthur

RIP James MacArthur

Long before I ever sighed for Van Johnson, swooned over Joseph Cotton or dreamed of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., there was James MacArthur.

I was probably five or six years old and my family was watching one of our favorite movies “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960).  Even as a child, I recognized his very attractive looks.  I didn’t really understand when my mom told me that MacArthur was now old, when in the movie he looked so young. Did that mean I couldn’t marry him when I grew up?

Right now I am in total shock.  Just an hour ago, I was shopping in TJ Maxx when my mom texted me the bad news: that James MacArthur was dead at 72.  My first childhood crush-and my mother’s childhood crush- was gone!

Admittedly, I haven’t seen many of his films.  My favorites that I have seen are “The Interns” (1962), “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960) and “Spencer’s Mountain” (1963) -though I was jealous of every girl he ended up with in the movie.  I will say I tried to watch his first feature film “The Young Stranger” (1957), but was so angered by the stupidity of his parents and other adults in that movie I had to stop. I’ve always wanted to see the Hayley Mills and James MacArthur movie “The Truth About Spring” (1965) but unfortunately I’ve never been able to find it.

Mother and son, Helen Hayes and James MacArthur

I sometimes forget that James MacArthur is the adopted son of “the first lady of the theater,” Helen Hayes. He was even the god-son of Lillian Gish, talk about one lucky adopted child.

Its so heartwarming to me to see them in pictures or films together.  In one obituary I read today, he said his favorite episode of  “Hawaii Five-O” was in 1975 when Hayes guest starred as Danno’s Aunt Clara, an old woman on vacation in Hawaii.  In the show Aunt Clara helped the detectives solve the murder (how cute!).

You will be missed James MacArthur.  I will forever think of you as the young man  in “Swiss Family Robinson.”  Below is my favorite part from the movie. I’ll miss and always have a crush on your, Fritz.

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