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 112th Birthday, Charles Lane!
We don’t have so many regrets, really, and certainly nothing major. But we continue to kick ourselves for not writing a fan letter to (or perhaps even trying to arrange an interview with) character actor extraordinaire Charles Lane, born Charles Gerstle Levison 112 years ago today in San Francisco, California, before he passed on in 2007.
Think of it: Here was a man who started acting in pictures in 1930 at the age of 25 and was still with us a mere decade ago. And all reports have it that he was still very sharp at age 102. Think of the stories he had to tell!
Here are 10 CL Did-You-Knows:
- Lane’s first career was in insurance sales, but director Irving Pichel recommended he take up acting and he did, working in stage productions at the famed Pasadena Playhouse.
- Lane’s movie debut was a brief appearance in Smart Money (1931) as a hotel desk clerk. His first credited role, as Charles Levinson, was as a switchboard operator in Looking for Trouble (1934). It was his 22nd movie.
- Between 1930 and 1952, Lane had appeared in more than 200 features, generally playing characters who were at the very least officious, if not downright sourpusses. This typecasting was frustrating to Lane, who continued to work in live theatre throughout his career to counteract his cinematic pigeonholing. “You did something that was pretty good, and the picture was pretty good,” he would later say. “That pedigreed you in that type of part, which I thought was stupid, and unfair, too. It didn’t give me a chance, but it made casting easier for the studio.”
- Lane’s movie appearances were generally brief but usually memorable, and he appeared in more than his share of pictures that are today considered classics, among them 42nd Street (1933), Twentieth Century (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), among others.
- Lane was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild. “[The studios] work you until midnight and get you back at seven in the morning,” he said. “The actors were taking a terrible licking physically. Generally, as the case with any union, you form it because people are abused.” The Guild named January 30th, 2005, as Charles Lane Day.
- Lane was friends with Lucille Ball going back to her days as a Hollywood starlet, and when she became a huge success on television, she cast him frequently on her sitcoms.
- Lane appeared in 10 films helmed by Frank Capra, and in a letter the director once sent to Lane, Capra wrote, “I am sure that everyone has someone that he can lean on and use as a crutch whenever stories and scenes threaten to fall apart. Well, Charlie, you’ve been my No. 1 crutch.”
- Born in San Francisco in 1905, Lane was one of the last survivors of that city’s 1906 earthquake.
- Lane was a strong horseman and regretted that in all the pictures he appeared in, he never got to ride a horse. He claimed that he had, in fact, trained some of the western actors in horseback riding.
- Beginning with a 1951 appearance on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Lane was as familiar a face on television as he was on the silver screen, appearing on many dozens of programs over the next four-plus decades. Lane would play a client for McMahon and Tate on Bewitched no fewer than 8 times.
Happy birthday, Charles Lane, wherever you may be!
Happy 107th Birthday, Ruby Keeler!
Actress, singer and dancer Ruby Keeler was born Ethel Ruby Keeler 107 years ago in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Here are 10 RK Did-You-Knows:
- Her father was a truck driver who moved his wife and six kids to New York City when Ruby was three years old in search of better pay.
- Ruby’s family couldn’t afford dance classes for the aspiring hoofer, but she took occasional lessons at the parochial school she attended.
- When she was 13, Keeler lied about her age (the law required chorus girls be at least 16) and attended a cattle call audition for a Broadway producer. She was hired for the chorus in George M. Cohan‘s The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly (1923). A year later, she was working in the chorus at a Tex Guinan speakeasy called El Fay.
- After appearing in a few more Broadway shows, Keeler married Al Jolson and moved west to Hollywood with him. Though the marriage lasted eleven years, it was not a happy one and Keeler was hesitant to discuss it in later years. When a biopic was made about Jolson’s life in 1946, Keeler refused permission to use her name in the movie.
- Her first credited movie role was in 42nd Street (1933), in which she played a young Broadway chorus girl who gets her big break with the star of the show breaks a leg (literally).
- Keeler’s greatest success in pictures came in a string of Busby Berkeley musicals in which she starred opposite boyish crooner Dick Powell.
- Keeler retired from show business in the 1940s, but made a triumphant return to the Broadway stage in 1971 in a revival of the play No, No, Nanette. The production ran for 861 performances.
- Keeler was one of several Canadian actresses who were stars in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, including Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler and Norma Shearer.
- Keeler’s movie career was brief; she starred in just eleven feature-length motion pictures from 1933 to 1941. She later made the occasional cameo appearance in movies and on television, but these were few and far between.
- Keeler’s nephew was Ken Weatherwax, who played Pugsley on the 1960s sitcom The Addams Family.
Happy 101st Birthday, Toby Wing!
Actress Toby Wing was born Martha Virginia Wing in Amelia Court House, Virginia, 101 years ago today. She was never a star, but she’s remembered fondly by old-movie buffs for her many memorable small parts and cameos. Here are 10 TW Did-You-Knows:
- She took her screen name Toby after the nickname her father had given a horse.
- After serving in World War I, Wing’s father moved to Hollywood to serve an assistant director and mid-level executive at Paramount Studios. He also served in World War II and was for a time was a prisoner of the Japanese in the Philippines; he survived the infamous Bataan Death March.
- Her sister Madison was also a film actress, under the name Pat Wing. Madison appeared in 32 pictures between 1923 and 1937, though she generally went uncredited.
- As a child, Wing took a few small parts in silent pictures before refocusing on her studies at her parents’ insistence.
- She was romantically paired with an impressive roster of prominent men—Maurice Chevalier, Alfred Vanderbilt, Franklin Roosevelt Jr., Jackie Coogan (Wing and Coogan were engaged for a time) and Pinky Tomlin among them.
- Wing’s best-remembered role was in the 1933 Warner Brothers musical 42nd Street, where she was the “Young and Healthy” girl opposite crooner Dick Powell.
- Wing’s career alternated between sizable roles and cameos (with the latter being prevalent). Mostly, she served (and ably so) as eye candy, though she occasionally scored more prominent roles when she appeared in Poverty Row pictures.
- After being engaged—but not wed—to a long string of men, Wing married prominent aviator Dick Merrill, who was 22 years her senior. Many were skeptical of the union, but the pair enjoyed wedded bliss until Merrill’s death in 1982.
- Wing appeared on Broadway in Cole Porter‘s You Never Know, a troubled production that lasted just 73 performances; Wing appeared in the production alongside Clifton Webb, Libby Holman and Lupe Velez.
- Wing and Merrill settled in Miami Beach, Florida, where she dabbled in real estate and taught Sunday School at All Souls’ Episcopal Church into her 80s.
Happy birthday, Toby Wing, wherever you may be!
Happy 112th Birthday, Una Merkel!
In Herman Raucher‘s coming-of-age novel Summer of ’42, his teenaged protagonist (perhaps not coincidentally named … Hermie) has a big crush not on Lana Turner, Betty Grable, or Rita Hayworth, but on Penny Singleton, best known for portraying Blondie, wife to Arthur Lake‘s Dagwood in a long series of comic B-pictures.
Hermie was a little bit embarrassed by his preference in movie stars, but he figured there was not as much competition that way.
We have a similar little thing for Una Merkel, whose 112th birthday it is today. Una came to specialize in playing wise (and sometimes wisecracking), loyal second bananas to the leading ladies in films of the Pre-Code Era, but she was certainly not without her own charms, not the least of which was her Southern drawl.
Ironically enough, it was Una who was first slated to play Blondie in that popular series of films before the role was finally awarded to Singleton.
Merkel was born Una Kohnfelder in Covington, Kentucky (we’ve long wondered at the choice of Merkel to replace Kohnfelder. It doesn’t seem the typical choice for a studio-concocted screen name) and began her career in silent movies. She’s listed in some sources as having appear in a 1924 short called Love’s Old Sweet Song and a feature film produced in Texas that same year called The Fifth Horseman. This now-lost (and good riddance) picture was an entry in the then-active genre of pro-Ku Klux Klan films, so perhaps the less said about it, the better. (We hope and trust our Una was just in it for the money.)
Merkel is said to have resembled Lillian Gish during the early years of her career, and she served as her stand-in for a while (on the 1928 classic The Wind, among others). After some time on Broadway, she was back before the cameras, portraying Anne Rutledge in D. W. Griffith‘s 1930 biopic, Abraham Lincoln.
As the years passed, Merkel got to stretch out a bit and her career showed staying power (her final role final role was in 1968, on the popular television program I Spy). Along the way, she appeared in Jean Harlow‘s final picture, Saratoga (1937), indulged in a hair-pulling catfight with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939), and even appeared in the 1961 Disney comedy The Parent Trap as the Evers’ family’s housekeeper.
Here’s a scene from the latter picture, featuring our Una opposite Harlow and Louise Beavers.
This is a revised version of a post that was originally published on Dec 10, 2013.
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