Happy 113th Birthday, Joan Crawford!
The intrepid Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur 113 years ago (or thereabouts, there’s some debate about the correct year) today in San Antonio, Texas. Here are 10 JC Did-You-Knows:
- Crawford’s parents separated when she was very young and by her teens, she’d had three different stepfathers.
- After working a number of menial jobs as a young women, Crawford began to take advantage of her skills as a dancer, winning a number of dance competitions and earning a living as a hoofer first in the Midwest and later on the East Coast.
- Crawford moved to Hollywood in her mid-twenties, making her movie debut in a bit part as a showgirl in Pretty Ladies (1925). After several minor roles in pictures, she was awarded her breakout role, the part of Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928).
- Crawford handled with transition from silent pictures to talkies with relative ease, as her first talking picture, Untamed (1929), was a hit.
- Soon, Crawford was one of MGM’s biggest stars, and she remained such for more than a decade. By the early ’40s, though, her standing at MGM was in decline. She decided to cut her losses and make a fresh start at Warner Brothers, where her stellar portrayal of the title character in Mildred Pierce (1945), the noirish-thriller based on the James M. Cain novel of the same same, revived her career in a big way, as well earning her the only Best Actress Oscar of her career.
- The 1950s saw Crawford’s career on the wane. Though she made a number of pictures in that decade, they tended to have the sort of campy quality that is today associated with her, if perhaps unfairly so.
- By the 1960s, Crawford was reduced largely to parts in low budget horror films, such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Strait-Jacket (1964), and Berserk (1967). She also appeared on various television programs, among them the soap opera The Secret Storm, The Lucy Show, and Rod Serling‘s Twilight Zone followup, Night Gallery.
- Though she was always an imposing on-screen presence, Crawford stood just 5′ 3″.
- Crawford was married four times; each union lasted less than five years (though, to be fair, her fourth husband passed away). Each time she remarried, she changed the name of her Brentwood estate and replaced all the toilet seats in the house.
- Crawford made a practice of responding personally to all of her fan mail.
Happy birthday, Joan Crawford, wherever you may be!
Happy 130th Birthday, Chico Marx!
- Chico’s father, Samuel Marx, emigrated to the U.S. from Alsace-Loraine; his mother, Minnie Schönberg, came over from Germany. Sam, known as Frenchie, was, according to his famous sons, NYC’s worst tailor.
- Chico was the eldest of the brothers who would go on to become world famous, but he was not the first-born of Minnie and Sam’s offspring. Their first child, a son named Manfred, died as an infant.
- Of Jewish heritage, Chico honed his Italian accent as a youth, navigating the Upper East Side’s rough-and-tough Yorkville, a neighborhood where the predominant ethnicity changed from block to block, making it advisable to be able to pass when confronted with unfriendly locals.
- For most of his life, Chico had two interests: women and gambling. As a youth, he had already become such a gambler that none of the family’s possessions were safe from the pawnshop. Frenchie frequently had to pay for the privilege of retrieving his tailor’s shears.
- Chico Marx experienced much more success as a womanizer than a gambler. Though his gambling habit left him short of money most of his life, his charming (and persistent) personality paid off royally in the area of female companionship.
- Chico was not only the eldest surviving Marx brother, he was also Minnie’s favorite. She doted on him, even paying for him to take piano lessons when money was very tight. Her investment paid off as early as his adolescence, when he was paid to tickle the ivories at silent movie theatres and in bordellos (when Chico would skip out on these gigs, his younger brother Arthur (later Harpo), who closely resembled Leonard when they were young, would often take them over, though his pianistic abilities fell well short of his older brother’s).
- Chico was the last of the four elder Marxes to join the family act; Herbert (later Zeppo), born in 1912, was much younger). Chico held a number of jobs as young man, including a song plugger gig in Philadelphia that he left to team with a singer named Aaron Gordon. They formed a vaudeville act called Marx and Gordon.
- The nickname Chico is properly spelled (and pronounced) Chicko. In May 1914, during the brothers’ vaudeville years, a monologist named Art Fisher gave them their nicknames during a backstage poker game. He was inspired to dub Leonard “Chicko” because of his penchant for chasing girls—often called “chickens” or “chicks” in those days. The brothers wouldn’t use their nicknames professionally until some years later, but after they started doing so, a typesetter omitted the K when spelling Chico’s name in a theatre program, and Chico continued to use that spelling thereafter.
- In January 1942, with the Marxes’ film career not yet over but definitely winding down and with Chico, as always, in need of money, he partnered with Ben Pollack to form a touring big band. The outfit was successful but short-lived—it broke up in July 1943, but not before having released four recordings on a pair of 78s. The band can be heard in action in a 1942 appearance on the radio program The Fitch Bandwagon. Jazz crooner Mel Torme spent time with the orchestra, serving as drummer and vocalist.
- Chico’s daughter, Maxine, did a little bit of film acting in the 1930s and went on to be a successful casting director. In 1980, she wrote an affectionate but honest memoir of life with her father entitled Growing Up with Chico.
Happy birthday, Chico Marx, wherever you may be!
Happy 115th Birthday, Louise Beavers!
The delightful Louise Beavers was born 115 years ago today in Cincinnati, Ohio. Beavers made the very most of the extremely limited opportunities Hollywood offered African American performers in her time, but we can’t help but mourn for what might have been, for Beavers and for so many other black actresses and actors. Here are 10 LB Did-You-Knows:
- Beavers’ father, a school teacher, moved the family to Pasadena, California, when Louise was 11 years ago. While Beavers attended Pasadena High School, her mother, a voice teacher, trained her daughter for the concert stage, but Beavers instead joined an all-female minstrel company called “Lady Minstrels” and spent time in vaudeville. She also worked as a dressing room attendant for a photographer, a nurse, and as a personal maid to silent film star Leatrice Joy.
- A Central Casting Bureau talent scout named Charles Butler saw Beavers perform and urged her to try for a movie role. Beavers was hesitant due to the typically derogatory portrayal of African Americans in pictures at the time, but she was finally persuaded and won a role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927).
- Though Beavers broke into movies near the end of the silent era, she smoothly made the transition into talkies, making more than 75 film appearances by 1935—she appeared in twenty pictures in 1933 alone! Though Beavers’ roles were (sadly) limited to the sort of maid, mammy and slave characters that black actresses were restricted to in those days, she brought a sense of wisdom, warmth and gentleness to them that allowed her to rise above their inherently cardboard, stereotypical nature.
- In 1934, Beavers was given a breakout role in Imitation of Life opposite Claudette Colbert. In that film, she plays Delilah Johnson, a single mother who agrees to serve as a housekeeper for a white widow named Bea Pullman (Colbert) in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter. Delilah and Bea team to open a pancake recipe (using Delilah’s secret recipe) and together become very wealthy, though their respective relationships with their daughters become strained. Beavers was billed fourth for the film, but anyone who’s seen the picture knows that she deserved equal billing with Ms. Colbert, not only for the size and importance of her role but for the memorable and moving performance she delivered.
- After that moment in the spotlight, though, Beavers returned to playing the secondary characters she’d always played, bringing humanity to them but leaving us 21st century movie buffs bemoaning what might have been if had Beavers been allowed to build on her wonderful work in Imitation of Life.
- Beavers was just a year older than Fredi Washington, who played her daughter in Imitation of Life.
- Like other black performers of the day, Beavers sometimes came in for criticism from the African-American community for accepting the kind of derogatory roles Hollywood offered. She defended herself and performers like her, saying, “I am only playing the parts. I don’t live them,” but as she became more successful and better known, she began to speak out more about Hollywood’s poor treatment of black performers.
- Even after finding success in movies, Beavers continued to work in live theatre, taking part in annual tours of twenty weeks’ duration.
- Beavers was the third of three actresses to portray Beulah Brown on the comedic television program The Beulah Show, which began as a radio show before moving to TV. Ethel Waters originated the role on television, followed by Hattie McDaniel, whose health forced her to drop out after just six episodes, at which point Beavers came in as her replacement. The show came in for criticism for its stereotypical characters, but it was the first sitcom to star an African-American performer.
- Among the more than 150 features and shorts in which Beavers appeared are Our Blushing Brides (1930), What Price Hollywood? (1932), 42nd Street (1933), The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Bombshell (1933), Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Made for Each Other (1939), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).
Happy birthday, Louise Beavers, wherever you may be!
Happy 114th Birthday, Dorothy Mackaill!
- Mackaill’s parents separated when she was eleven, after which she lived with her father.
- As a teen, she left home for London in pursuit of a career acting on the stage. After a short sting in Paris, she met a Broadway choreographer who convinced her to move to New York City.
- That move paid off, as she was soon made a Follies Girl in the The Ziegfeld Follies and met actresses Marion Davies and Nita Naldi.
- In 1920, Mackaill made her motion picture debut in a movie mystery, The Face at the Window, and also appeared in a number of comedies opposite actor Johnny Hines.
- In 1921, Mackaill’s career received another boost when she was cast in Bits of Life, along with Anna May Wong, Noah Beery and Lon Chaney.
- Mackaill’s star-making role came in 1924, when she appeared in The Man Who Came Back opposite leading man George O’Brien. She was also named, along with Clara Bow and eleven other starlets, a WAMPAS Baby Star.
- The arrival of talking pictures didn’t appear to present a problem for Mackaill—she worked steadily in the early years of the sound era—but she was signed with First National Pictures, which merged with Warner Brothers in 1928, and when her contract ended in 1931, Warners declined to renew it.
- Mackaill continued to work as a free agent, but the roles came less frequently—she made just eight pictures in the next six years before retiring in 1937 to care for her ailing mother.
- In 1955, Mackaill moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, a locale she’d very much enjoyed while filming His Captive Woman there in 1929. She resided at the deluxe Royal Hawaiian Hotel on the beach at Waikiki, swimming in the ocean on a near-daily basis.
- Mackaill acted just three times after 1937, making a single appearance on the anthology television series Studio One in Hollywood in 1953 and two guest spots (in 1976 and 1980) on Hawaii Five-O, which certainly made for an easy commute to work. When she passed away in 1990, her ashes were scattered off her beloved Waikiki beach.
Happy birthday, Dorothy Mackaill, wherever you may be!
Happy 106th Birthday, Jean Harlow!
Jean Harlow, the original Blonde Bombshell, was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter 106 years ago today in Kansas City, Missouri. Here are 10 JH Did-You-Knows:
- Harlow, the daughter of a dentist and his wife, left home at 16 to marry Charles McGrew, a businessman seven years her senior. The pair moved to Los Angeles, where Harlow was soon garnering assignments as an extra in pictures.
- Her marriage to McGrew ended after just two years, allowing Harlow to focus on her career. She soon graduated from extra work to bit parts in features and shorts.
- Harlow’s big break came in 1930 when she was cast in Howard Hughes‘ World War I epic, Hell’s Angels. The picture’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood was reported to have drawn a crowd of 50,000 people.
- Hughes sold Harlow’s contract to MGM, where her star continued to ascend. Her work in Frank Capra‘s Platinum Blonde (1931) was very well received, and the following year she was paired with Clark Gable in John Ford‘s Red Dust, the second of six pictures she and Gable would appear in together during her short career.
- Harlow is said to have turned down lead role in Freaks (1932) and King Kong (1933).
- Harlow served as godmother to Millicent Siegel, the daughter of gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. She also dated mobster Abner “Longie” Zwillman, who advanced her career by loaning Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, $500,000.
- In 1935, Harlow demanded more money from MGM, refusing to work until they assented, and while she was on strike, she wrote a novel, Today Is Tonight. It wasn’t published until 1965, early thirty years after her death.
- Both Harlow and Marilyn Monroe starred opposite Gable in their final pictures—Harlow in Saratoga (1937) and Monroe in The Misfits (1961). Monroe idolized Harlow and refused the chance to play her in a biopic because she felt the script was not respectful to Harlow.
- At the time of her death, Harlow was engaged to actor William Powell (and had been for two years). Had the pair married, Powell would have been Harlow’s fourth husband.
- Though rumors long persisted that her mother, a Christian Scientist, refused medical care for her daughter, or that Harlow died of alcohol abuse, sunstroke, poisoning due to her platinum hair dye or any of a number of other causes, Harlow’s passing, at the young age of 26, came as a result of kidney failure.
Happy birthday, Jean Harlow, wherever you may be!
You think that money is everything
And yet it’s anybody’s spring.
Go make a fortune, become a king
And still it’s anybody’s spring.
And if you flash a bank roll
Do you suppose the brook would care?
Or that a rose would say
“There goes a millionaire!”
It’s more than diamonds around a ring
Because it’s anybody’s spring.
You may be born with the silver spoon
And yet it’s anybody’s moon
You couldn’t buy a ticket
To hear the first robin sing
It’s free because
It’s anybody’s spring.
Music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Johnny Burke, 1944