Happy 109th Birthday, Bette Davis!
The singular Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis 109 years ago today in Lowell, Massachusetts. Here are 10 BD Did-You-Knows:
- Davis’ father was a patent attorney. He and his wife divorced when Davis was 10 and Davis was raised by her mother. Davis’ initial interest as a young performer was dance, but she eventually turned her sights on the stage.
- After graduating from the Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, Davis made her way to NYC. She wasn’t accepted to Eva Le Gallienne‘s Manhattan Civic Repertory, but she proved to be the star pupil at the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts, where Lucille Ball was her classmate.
- Davis debuted off-Broadway in 1923 in a play called The Earth Between. Her Broadway debut, in Broken Dishes, came six years later. In 1930, she was hired by Universal Pictures, where she made her screen debut in a pictured called Bad Sister (1931).
- Legend has it that a studio staffer sent to pick up Davis at the train station when she first arrived in Hollywood returned without her, saying he hadn’t seen anyone who looked like a movie star. We’ve no idea if that’s true, but if it is, we’re confident Davis made that poor fellow regret his mistake.
- When she first arrived in Hollywood, it was suggested Davis change her name to Bettina Dawes. She refused, saying the name sounded too much like “Between the Drawers.”
- In 1932, Davis signed a seven-year deal with Warner Brothers, where she would soon become the queen of the lot.
- In 1936, Bette Davis refused a role Warner Brothers assigned her, saying it was not worthy of her talents. She scurried off to England, hoping to make pictures there, but Warners enforced its exclusive contract with her. She sued to get out of the contract, and though she lost the suit, thereafter Warner Brothers treated her with more respect and offered her better roles.
- Davis was nominated 11 times for the Best Actress Oscar over a 28-year span, winning twice (Dangerous , Jezebel ). Five of those nominations (1939-43) were consecutive, an Oscar record Davis shares with Greer Garson.
- In 1941, Davis was elected the first female president of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She resigned the position after just two months for the putative reason that she didn’t have sufficient time to devote to the position, but there were reports that, in fact, she resented not being given that power she thought the position would carry. She had no interest in being a famous figurehead.
- Davis played twin sisters in two different pictures: A Stolen Life (1946) and Dead Ringer (1964).
Happy birthday, Bette Davis, wherever you may be!
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 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 112th Birthday, Kay Francis!
Fashion plate and Queen of the Women’s Pictures Kay Francis was born Katherine Edwina Gibbs 112 years ago today in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Here are 10 KF Did-You-Knows:
- Though Francis was born in Oklahoma City, she didn’t live there long. Much of her childhood was spent on the road with her mother, Katherine Clinton, who was an actress. At age 17, Francis, who was then attending Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School in New York City, married the first of her five husbands—one James Dwight Francis, member of a prominent (and well-to-do) Pittsfield, Massachusetts, family. That marriage, like the four other matrimonial knots Francis would eventually tie, unraveled in relatively short order.
- Shortly after her 1925 divorce, Francis decided to follow her mother’s example and pursue a life on the stage. In November of that year, she made her Broadway debut as the Player Queen in a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
- After a handful more Broadway roles, Walter Huston, her costar in the 1928 production of Elmer the Great, encouraged her to take a screen test for Paramount Pictures. She did, and was given roles in Gentlemen of the Press (1929) and the Marx Brothers‘ first picture, The Cocoanuts (1929), both of which were filmed at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in Queens, NY.
- Soon thereafter, Francis moved to Hollywood where her striking looks and model’s figure (she stood 5’9″, very tall for an actress at the time) helped her career to ascend. From 1929 to 1931, she appeared in more than twenty films.
- Warner Brothers wooed Francis away from Paramount in 1932, and it was there that she experienced her greatest success. By the mid-’30s, Francis was the queen of the Warner Brothers lot and one of the highest-paid people in the United States. From 1930-37, Francis appeared on the cover of more than 38 movie magazines, second only to Shirley Temple (who racked an astonishing 138 covers over that span).
- At Warner Brothers, Kay became known as a clotheshorse. Her ability to wear stylish clothes well was highly valued by the studio and admired by fans; in fact, she eventually came to feel that Warner Brothers put more more of a focus on her on-screen wardrobe than her film’s scripts, as she came to be unalterably associated with the sort of weepy melodramas that were then known as “women’s pictures.” We fully understand the frustration she felt at the time, but we’ll admit that we love those pictures and adore Francis’ performances in them.
- Francis’ great success came in spite of a noticable speech impediment: She pronounced R’s as W’s (ala Elmer Fudd). As such, our favorite line of Kay Francis dialogue appears in Mandalay (1934), which was directed by Michael Curtiz and in which Kay starred with Ricardo Cortez, Lyle Talbot, and Warner Oland. It’s great fun to hear her intone, “Gwegowy, we awwive at Mandalay tomowwow.”
- Francis’ personal life was something of a mess. An exceedingly liberated person, sexually, she slept with both men and with women—and plenty of them, and none of her five marriages lasted very long.
- Francis’s career fell as quickly as it had risen. She was through with the movies (or perhaps vice versa) by 1946, when she appeared in her final picture, Wife Wanted, a budget quickie made for the infamous Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Aside from some stage work in the late ’40s and a couple of TV appearences in the early ’50s, she avoided the spotlight thereafter and was largely forgotten by the public (until Turner Classic Movies began to feature her pictures prominently in its programming and her star again rose among old-movie buffs).
- When she died in 1968 of breast cancer, Kay Francis left more than one million dollars to The Seeing Eye, Inc., an organization that trains guide dogs for the blind.
Happy birthday, Kay Francis, wherever you may be!
Happy 96th Birthday, Gene Tierney!
The lovely Gene Tierney was born 96 years ago today in Brooklyn, New York. Here are GT Did-You-Knows:
- Tierney’s childhood was one of privilege. Her father was a successful insurance broker, her mother a former teacher. She sometimes lived with her grandparents in Connecticut, attending St. Margaret’s School in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the Unquowa School in Fairfield. She later attended finishing schools in Switzerland and Farmington, CT.
- At 17, Tierney visited Los Angeles. Her striking beauty caught director Anatole Litvak‘s eye during a visit to the Warner Brothers studio (her cousin worked there) and she was offered a contract. Her parents urged her to turn it down, due to the low salary and the fact that they envisioned a more high-society path for her.
- Gene Tierney was a debutante, making her society debut in September 24, 1938, but society life didn’t interest her and she resolved to be an actress. She began theatrical studies and was a protégée of Broadway producer-director George Abbott.
- She made her Broadway debut in a small role in What a Life! (1938) that saw her carrying a bucket of water across the stage. A Variety reviewer wrote of her performance, “Miss Tierney is certainly the most beautiful water carrier I’ve ever seen!”
- Tierney went on to appear in a handful of other Broadway shows, garnering larger roles and positive reviews each time. In 1939, she signed a six-month contract with Columbia Pictures and was slated to star in National Velvet (1944), but when the picture was delayed, she returned to Broadway to star in The Male Animal, which was a big hit and led to a contract with 20 Century-Fox and her motion picture debut, in The Return of Frank James (1940), opposite Henry Fonda.
- Tierney wrote poetry throughout her life; she first saw one of poems published in her high school newspaper.
- Tierney struggled with manic depression throughout her adult life. While shooting The Left Hand of God (1955), her costar, Humphrey Bogart, whose sister had struggled with mental illness, urged her to seek medical help.
- Tierney spent time in various institutions and underwent multiple shock treatments against her will. She was thereafter an outspoken critic of shock treatment therapy.
- Tierney was married twice—to fashion designer Oleg Cassini and oil baron W. Howard Lee—and had romantic relationships with many other prominent men, among them John F. Kennedy, Prince Aly Khan and Tyrone Power.
- Tierney, who took up smoking to lower her voice—“I sounded like an angry Minnie Mouse,” she is reported to have said after seeing herself on screen for the first time—remained a heavy smoker throughout her life and died of emphysema in 1999.
Happy birthday, Gene Tierney, 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