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 116th Birthday, Clark Gable!
Clark Gable was born William Clark Gable 116 years ago today in Cadiz, Ohio. In his day, he was known as the King of Hollywood or, often, just as the King. Here are 10 CG Did-You-Knows:
- Gable was named after his father, William, who was an oil well driller, but even as a child, he was referred to by his middle name or sometimes as Billy. His birth certificate mistakenly listed Gable as female.
- Gable’s stepmother (his birth mother died when he was young) encouraged his interest in music, teaching him to play piano. He later took up brass instruments and at age 13, he was the only teen to play in the men’s town band. Gable’s father encouraged him from an early age to be well-dressed and well-groomed.
- At 17, Gable decided he decided to pursue a career in the theatre and by 21, he was touring in stock companies, along with jobs in the oil fields and working with horses. Josephine Dillon, an acting coach and theatrical manager in Portland, Oregon, set out to remake Gable from head to toe. She paid for him to get new teeth, she built up his once-slight physique with a proper diet and strenuous exercise and helped him improve his movements and posture. She also worked at length to lower his high-pitched voice and improve his diction.
- Dillon, who was 17 years Gable’s senior, also financed Gable’s relocation from Portland to Hollywood in 1924, where she officially became his manager and his wife. He changed his professional name from W. C. Gable to Clark Gable and began to work as an extra and a bit player in silent short and features.
- When no leading film roles were in the offing, Gable returned to the stage, acting for a season with the Laskin Brothers Stock Company in Houston, Texas, where he played a variety of roles and gained valuable experience. Finally, with the ascent of talking pictures, Gable’s stock as an actor rose as well. He was offered a contract with MGM in 1930. His first role was as a rough-hewn villain in a William Boyd western, The Painted Desert (1930). His imposing stature and now-powerful speaking voice made a quick hit with moviegoers (especially female ones).
- Many of Gable’s early roles were tough guys, gangsters and villains, and though no less an authority than Darryl F. Zanuck had once said of Gable, “His ears are too big and he looks like an ape,” he was finding himself cast opposite popular leading ladies of the day, including Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Norma Shearer and even Greta Garbo (with whom he shared a mutual dislike—she thought his acting wooden; he thought her a snob).
- Despite long being known as the King of Hollywood, Gable was never No 1 at the box office in a given year, but year after year, he ranked near the top, as the fortunes of other actors rose and fell. His breakthrough role was his Oscar-winning performance in Frank Capra‘s It Happened One Night in 1934, opposite Claudette Colbert. That classic film won the Best Picture Oscar to go along with Gable’s Best Actor nod. Capra considered the role of Peter Warne in the film the closest to Gable’s actual personality: “It Happened One Night is the real Gable,” he wrote. “He was never able to play that kind of character except in that one film. They had him playing these big, huff-and-puff he-man lovers, but he was not that kind of guy. He was a down-to-earth guy, he loved everything, he got down with the common people. He didn’t want to play those big lover parts; he just wanted to play Clark Gable, the way he was in It Happened One Night, and it’s too bad they didn’t let him keep up with that.”
- Gable is said to have been Adolph Hitler‘s favorite actor, and it’s been reported that Hitler offered a reward to anyone who could capture Gable, then flying combat missions over Germany, and bring him to Hitler unharmed. The reward went unclaimed.
- Gable played a newspaper reporter in nine different pictures, more than any other type of role, but late in life, he expressed regret that he hadn’t appeared in more westerns, the genre he most enjoyed working in.
- Gable was married five times, the first two times to women many years his senior, but it is generally accepted that his third Wife, actress Carole Lombard, was the great love of his life. She even got Gable, a lifelong Republican, to support Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president. It’s said that Lombard’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1942 left Gable so bereft that he immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was absent from the silver screen for three years.
Happy birthday, Clark Gable, wherever you may be!
Happy 112th Birthday, Constance Bennett!
Actress Constance Bennett was born 112 years ago today in New York City. Here are 10 CB Did-You-Knows:
- Bennett was born into a theatrical family. Both her parents, Richard Bennett and Adrienne Morrison, were actors, as was her maternal grandparents, Rose Wood and Lewis Morrison.
- Bennett’s two sisters, Joan and Barbara, were also actresses (though Barbara’s career was brief), but it was Constance who was the first to enter motion pictures, appearing in silent pictures filmed in and around NYC and making her Hollywood debut in Cytherea (1924).
- After giving up films upon marrying Philip Plant in 1925, Bennett, after divorcing Plant, returned to her film career just as talking pictures were taking off.
- Bennett was, for a brief time in the early 1930s, the highest paid actress in Hollywood.
- Like Kay Francis, Bennett’s ability to wear fine clothes well played a big role in her success.
- Bennett Was cast in the role of Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night but withdrew when Columbia Pictures declined to allow her to serve as producer of the film. Claudette Colbert, who took over the role, won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in the picture.
- Bennett starred in the Janet Gaynor/Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand role in What Price Hollywood (1932), which was a clear inspiration for the A Star Is Born pictures.
- Less in demand in pictures by the 1940s, Bennett began working in radio and in the theatre. Her stage debut came in 1940 in Noël Coward‘s Easy Virtue.
- Bennett Was married five times; the final marriage, to US Air Force Colonel (later Brigadier General) John Theron Coulter, lasted by far the longest—from June 1946 until Bennett’s death in July 1965.
- Because of her marriage to Coulter and in recognition of her efforts in providing relief entertainment to US troops stationed in Europe during and after World War II, Bennett was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Happy birthday, Constance Bennett, wherever you may be!
Happy 113th Birthday, Claudette Colbert!
The lovely Claudette Colbert was born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin 113 years agao today in Saint-Mandé, France, an eastern suburb of Paris. We saw her perform on Broadway 31 years ago opposite Rex Harrison in a drawing room comedy called Aren’t We All? and it remains among our greatest regrets that we didn’t play Stage-Door Johnny after the show to tell her how we admired her. Here are 10 CC Did-You-Knows:
- Her father owned a bakery on what is now Avenue Général de Gaulle, but the family moved to New York City in 1906.
- Colbert attended Washington Irving High School in New York City, graduating in 1923.
- As a child, Colbert dreamed of being a Broadway actress, and to that end, after her formal education was completed, she enrolled for dramatic training at the Art Students League of New York and paid for her studies by working in a dress shop.
- She debuted on Broadway in 1923 in a play called The Wild Wescotts, and it was during that show’s run that she changed her name.
- She turned to films as a practical choice when the Great Depression proved to be a difficult time for live theatre. Her first movie was a 1927 Frank Capra-directed silent picture called For the Love of Mike (alas, the film is now considered lost). It was so poorly under-budgeted that Capra had to hitchhike back to Hollywood from New York City. After making the picture, Colbert vowed, “I shall never make another film.”
- Colbert considered her left side to be her best and was rarely photographed from any other angle.
- Colbert was so convinced that she wouldn’t win the Oscar for It Happened One Night (1934) that she skipped the ceremony. She was quickly transported over from a train station when the announcement was made that she had won.
- Colbert turned down the role of Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940).
- Colbert was one of five French actresses (though she later became a naturalized U.S. citizen) to win an Academy Award and one of just 12 French actresses to earn an Oscar nomination.
- Her nickname was Lily.
Happy birthday, Claudette Colbert, wherever you may be!
Happy 112th Birthday, George Brent!
George Brent, born George Brendan Nolan 112 years today in Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland, enjoyed an odd sort of career. By any measure, he achieved great success, but outside movie-buff circles, he’s all but forgotten today. Odd, considering that when he arrived in Hollywood, he was touted as the next Clark Gable. The comparison seems almost laughable today, so low-key was Brent compared to the man once known as the King of Hollywood.
George Brent was a rebel during the Irish War of Independence, though how active he was is open to question; he acknowledged having served as a courier for IRA leader Michael Collins. In any case, the British government put a price on his head, at which point Brent (then Nolan) saw fit to hightail it to the United States.
Brent started his career in the theatre, touring in a production of Abie’s Irish Rose and acting in stock theatre around the country. In 1927, he debuted on Broadway in Love, Honor and Obey. Also in the cast? None other than Clark Gable.
Brent headed for Hollywood a couple of years later, appearing in minor roles for Universal and Fox before signing a contract with Warner Brothers in 1932. It was at Warners that Brent achieved his greatest success. Perhaps the greatest strength of his low-key (but hardly milquetoast) on-screen persona was that he was a perfect complement to strong leading women, holding his own but never overshadowing them.
Given how little he’s remembered today, it’s remarkable to consider how often George Brent worked with some of the most iconic actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He made eleven features with Bette Davis (enjoying an offscreen romance with her as well), six with Kay Francis, five with Barbara Stanwyck, four with Ruth Chatterton (to whom he was married from 1932–1934) and two with Myrna Loy. He also played opposite Ruby Keeler, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Madeleine Carroll, Jean Arthur, Merle Oberon, Ann Sheridan (to whom he was married from 1942–1943), Joan Fontaine, Claudette Colbert, Dorothy McGuire, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball and Yvonne De Carlo. That’s a line-up of costars that any leading man might envy.
By the late 1940s, Brent was appearing in mostly B pictures, and he retired from films in 1953, though he continued to act on television for another seven years. He was married five times, and if you read some of his early interviews, it’s not hard to see why most of those marriages didn’t work out. Brent clearly had no interest in being tied down and seemed to resent the responsibilities that relationships carried with them. “No woman will ever own me,” Brent once said. “I own myself.”
But he and his fifth wife, former model and dress designer Janet Michaels, were together for 27 years until she passed away in 1974.
George Brent, who suffered in later years from emphysema, died in 1979 in Solana Beach, California.
Happy birthday, Mr. Brent, 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