Category Archives: Gloria Grahame

Merton of the Movies (1947)

“I feel I belong in a costume.”

merton of the moviesMerton of the Movies is a light-hearted look at Old Hollywood and the silent film era, and what’s so interesting about the film is that it seems to debunk the Hollywood Myth of the newcomer becoming a success, and then proceeds to reverse itself to reinforce the rags-to-riches Hollywood dream.

Cinema usher, Merton Gill (Red Skelton) loves film and longs for the day he can go to Hollywood. To prepare himself for his big break, he’s taken a correspondence course in acting, uses the stage name Clifford Armytage,  and even has the certificate to prove that he looks like an actor. But in spite of Merton’s enthusiastic desire to go to Hollywood, it looks as though he’s stuck in Tinkerton, Kansas until one day fate intervenes….

One night while working as an usher, Merton inadvertently appears to foil a robbery, and he subsequently makes the headlines. In Hollywood, dashing but fading actor, Lawrence Rupert (Leon Ames), needs all the publicity he can get, and Lawrence’s agent arranges to bring Merton from Kansas to Hollywood. To Merton, this represents a lifelong dream, and he’s excited to meet one of his screen idols. But when Merton gets to Hollywood, Lawrence Rupert uses him for a few publicity shots and then ignores him. Merton, however, is determined to become a star and begins haunting the studio lots for work as an extra. Eventually he meets the kindly Phyllis Montague (Virginia O’Brien) who works as a stunt woman for glamorous star Beulah Baxter (Gloria Grahame).  

I’m not a Red Skelton fan, but I did enjoy Merton of the Movies. Skelton plays the good-hearted, innocent country boy who lands in Hollywood and has the sort of misadventures you’d expect given the plot. It’s a role Bob Hope could play–the guileless, idiot bumpkin whose innocence acts as a sort of protective armour against the harsh realities of life. While other people would end up bitter at the bad treatment meted out by Lawrence Rupert, Merton simply doesn’t get that he’s been used and then snubbed. And this basic innocence makes for a great deal of the film’s humour. Some of the film’s funniest scenes show Merton working at the Good Fellows Club in Hollywood in the “Over 70s Room,” a place where the club members are so sensitive that, of course, it’s only a matter of time before Merton creates a disaster. The club members are mostly stone deaf, and yet at the same time, they’re annoyed by the noise made by Merton’s corduroy trousers.

Gloria Grahame, the reason I sought out the film, only appears in a few but delightful scenes as silent screen star Beulah Baxter. Beulah is a good-natured air-head, but in spite of her dimness, she’s a man-eater, and the scenes at her home when Merton tries ‘fruit juice’ are hilarious. Directed by Robert Alton, Merton of the Movies is innocent, good-hearted fun.

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Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio

“She has the manner of a schoolgirl and the eyes of a sorceress.” Cecil B. Demille describing Gloria Grahame.

Gloria Grahame is one of my all-time favourite film noir actresses. She first came to my attention in The Big Heat–one of my all-time favourite noir films. Unfortunately, as with many actresses of her day, her time in the limelight was short, and fans are left feeling shortchanged that Grahame never really made it to that rare coveted spot of the Hollywood Big Time. Don’t get me wrong, Gloria didn’t do badly, and she rose through the ranks, and through the horrible studio contract system to deliver some excellent performances.

For me, Gloria faded into obscurity sometime in the late 50s, but after reading her biography Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio, I now know that Grahame’s career didn’t end when Hollywood lost interest. She had an extensive career in television and theatre and although she no longer commanded the big bucks contracts, the work was pretty steady–so much so that she left 100,000 to be divided amongst her four children when she died in 1981 at the age of 57.

Curcio’s book is considered the definitive bio on Gloria, and as far as I know it’s the only one–although Gloria’s one-time lover, Peter Turner wrote an account of Gloria’s last days called Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Curcio acknowledges that Gloria was “mysterious and enigmatic.” In writing a bio, those qualities make for a difficult, if intriguing, subject. For the bulk of the book, I didn’t feel as though I had a handle on just who Gloria was, and what made her tick. She remained a mystery through her rise and her fall, her explosive marriages and divorces to Stanley Clements, Cy Howard, Nick Ray, and finally Nick Ray Jr. (the son of her third husband). While the author does an excellent job of charting her career through her films, sometimes the lack of personal details is frustrating and also–since this is a bio–surprising. For example, in one section of the book the author details the pinnacle of Gloria’s film career, which he identifies as 1952-1956. During this productive time, Gloria starred as Irene Neves in Sudden Fear. While the author details how Joan Crawford was talked into accepting Jack Palance as her leading man, and how Crawford couldn’t stand to see Gloria on the set, the reason behind Crawford’s antagonism–the fact that Gloria was having an affair with Palance is mentioned as a minor aside. Now considering that Gloria was at the time married (but separated) from Nick and dating Cy Howard, the affair with Palance would have had some impact on her relationship with Howard, but there’s no idea or speculation if this off-screen affair was normal behaviour for Gloria or an aberration. The author also makes the point that Gloria was very attracted to Sterling Hayden and that during the filming of Naked Alibi, she made some strong overtures towards Hayden which pretty much scared him off–again this is mentioned, and while I began to wonder if this co-star/lover trend was a theme with Gloria, this point is never examined in the book.

Similarly Gloria’s affair with stepson Nick Jr. is downplayed, and then there’s a mention of how she traveled to England and opened a suitcase full of “every Technicolour pill you could dream of.” What does this mean? But the subject is never explored. I was left wondering if Gloria had drug problems, but unfortunately the subject is not addressed.

The book is at its strongest when analyzing Gloria’s career, and the author includes an excellent analysis of why she never became a star: “She was offbeat, both in her beauty and her acting, and producers never were sure what to do with her.” Also included are details about how she fought for some roles which she never got while others fell into her lap simply because everyone turned them down.

But when the book covers Gloria’s character, it’s at its weakest. I get the impression that perhaps the subject eluded the author in many ways or perhaps he just didn’t want to focus on the sensational stuff. Curcio discusses Gloria’s lifelong tinkering with her looks through endless (sometimes botched plastic surgery) and her glaring insecurities, but then at other points the jury is out for such intriguing issues as Gloria’s possible naiveté/love affairs. Additional analysis of some of these behaviours would really have added to the book’s depth. It’s certainly okay for any bio subject to remain an enimga, but there are some issues hinted at in the book which are frustratingly not explored. The book sometimes goes back and forth in time rather than stick to a strict chronology, which confuses matters a bit.

Funnily enough, when the book moved on to Gloria’s post-Hollywood career, there are more anecdotes from co-workers and it’s at this point that a fuller, less distant impression of Gloria begins to appear. In her final illness, her toughness comes through loud and clear. Her final illness remains a bit of a mystery: was she in denial about the seriousness of her cancer or was this just a coping mechanism? I think there are arguments both ways on this one, but one thing is for certain, she most definitely grasped the idea of the futility of surgery, so no one was about to convince her otherwise.

One thing–the book’s synopsis of Naked Alibi is incorrect. The book states that Joe Conroy (Sterling Hayden) is “taken off the force for almost strangling” Al Willis (Gene Barry). That’s not correct. Hayden is fired for an incriminating photo snapped by an enterprising photographer. The photo, due to the angle and the circumstances, makes it look as though Conroy means Al Willis harm, when in reality he’s trying to stop Al stumbling into an oven.

All in all, in spite of its shortcomings, this book is a must read for any fan, and thanks to the book, I am now inspired to hunt through my Tales of the Unexpected DVDS and find the episodes in which Gloria starred.

Finally, I wanted to include this quote from the book because I think it nails Gloria’s on-screen mystery.
Peter James:

“She had a terrible way of appearing to be totally absent from anywhere, which is probably the very thing that made her a star in the films; she put a peculiar kind of distance between her and what was happening at the moment. This disengaged quality about her in films is what made her unique. There was a kind of loneliness about Gloria, and in a way, her greatest acting moments were lonely moments.”

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The Bad and The Beautiful (1952)

“You have a very naughty mind.”

The career of director Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) is examined through the stories of three people who worked with him, and swear they’ll never do so again. Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) is the director who worked with Shields when they worked on a series of B films together. James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) is the Southern professor turned Hollywood screenwriter whose grievance with Shields stems from personal tragedy. Shields redeemed actress, Georgia Lorrison–he saw her star quality, but then his wanton cruelty almost destroyed her. Amiel, Bartlow and Lorrison each have a tale to tell through flashbacks, and their stories reveal different aspects of Shields’ nature.

Supporting roles include Walter Pidgeon, Gloria Grahame (as the annoying yet charming Mrs. Bartlow), and Gilbert Roland as Gaucho, a dashing, Hollywood romantic lead. The Bad and the Beautiful is directed by Vincente Minnelli, and while this drama contains aspects of the classic tear-jerker, its emphasis remains squarely on hard-boiled Hollywood.

The most fascinating thing about this well-structured film is the character of Jonathan Shields. He’s an ambitious, driven man–that’s quite clear, but he’s also complex. In his relationship with Georgia Lorrison, Shields is extremely interesting. He shows persistence when salvaging Georgia, and he handles her with a tough reality that she responds to. Many people would fold under the tough challenges Shields offers, but he reads Georgia’s character well, and anticipates her reactions. Unfortunately, Shields also has a hard, ruthless side, and he’s perfectly willing to dump people when he’s used them to get what he wants.

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Crossfire (1947)

 “You ought to be kept in a cage.”

WWII has ended, and a group of GIs are loose in Washington D.C. One evening, the GIs visit a bar, and there they meet civilian, Joseph Samuels and his girlfriend. One of the soldiers, a young married man named Mitchell is despondent over his relationship with his wife. Samuels and his girlfriend take Mitchell out for a meal, but the evening ends in murder with Mitchell as a suspect.

crossfirePolice Captain Finlay (Robert Young) is investigating the case. He wants to question prime suspect Mitchell, but no one knows where he is. So Finlay questions the men who were with Samuels that night. This includes the very domineering Montgomery (Robert Ryan). Sgt Keeley (Robert Mitchum) maintains that Mitchell couldn’t hurt a fly, but the evidence seems to point to Mitchell’s guilt.

Crossfire is an excellent entry in the film noir genre. It examines the dilemma of the returning GIs who sometimes resented that the world had carried on without them, and hardly welcomed them home. This is most evident in Montgomery’s attitude towards Samuels. He’s certain that Samuels is one of those men who’ve maintained a cushy lifestyle while others are off fighting. Crossfire examines anti-Semitism is a very clever way, but the film was based on a book about the murder of a gay man–not a Jewish man. No doubt the murder of a Jewish man was more appropriate for the time. Robert Mitchum fans should delight in his role as Kelley. In his desire to protect his men, Keeley squares off against Captain Finlay, but there’s a mutual respect between the two men. Mitchum plays Keeley with his usual cool, laconic style, and Robert Young plays Finlay with a calm, patient demeanour. Montgomery (Robert Ryan) is a very well developed character, and Ryan really steals the film. Montogomery is crafty, bombastic, and unpleasant, and his speech is full of sly inferences. Montgomery may fool many people, but he certainly doesn’t fool Keeley.

Gloria Grahame’s supporting role of Ginny, the dance hall girl is well worth catching. She’s jaded, prickly, and resentful. She’s another character hardened by the war, and she’s in complete contrast to Mitchell’s clean, healthy and pure wife. Film noir fans will enjoy Crossfire. It’s an entertaining, tight drama.

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Sudden Fear (1952)

“I was just wondering what I’d done to deserve you.”

In Sudden Fear successful, wealthy playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) sacks actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) from rehearsals for her latest Broadway play. Myra just doesn’t see Lester as the great romantic lead she’s looking for, but on a train bound for San Francisco, Lester ‘coincidentally’ meets Myra and shows her just how romantic he can be …

Myra is a great character. She’s so used to writing scripts that she mentally writes one for her life as a newlywed. Even though Myra’s close associates regard free-loading Lance with suspicion, Myra only sees what she wants to see. She scripts herself as blissfully married to the most wonderful man on the planet, and that’s how it plays out. But then Lester’s girlfriend, the slightly sleazy, Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame) pops up in San Francisco, and Myra finds out the hard way that Lester is more interested in money than anything else. Myra handles the truth by writing another script in her mind, but carrying her plans out to their inevitable conclusion is a lot tougher in real life.

Joan Crawford is spectacular in the role of Myra. She seems to visibly age as events take their toll. Several scenes focus on her wild-eyed neurotic stares, and she manages to have a few hysterical scenes into the bargain. Gloria Grahame is one of my favourite film noir actress, so it was a treat for me to see her teamed with Crawford. And Jack Palance as Lester is impressive–there are scenes in which he’s so good, it’s possible to read his mind and gauge how he wants to murder Myra. Director David Miller’s style is evident, and quite reminiscent of Midnight Lace (another husband and wife drama). The 50s San Francisco scenes are phenomenal and accentuate the plot (you’ll see why).

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool by Peter Turner

 “Let’s drink to Gloria. Let’s drink to life.”

Peter Turner, an actor and former lover of film noir star Gloria Grahame, authored an account of her last days, Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Gloria Grahame’s film career was hampered by personal scandal–including four marriages, an affair with her stepson (who became husband number 4), and nasty custody battles. In the 70s, Gloria traveled to England, performing plays, and it’s here that she met Turner. Their relationship moved to New York and to California, but when they broke up, Turner moved back to England.

On September 29th 1981, Turner received a phone call. Gloria was ill in a hotel in Lancaster. Turner, along with family members, collected Gloria from the hotel and took her to the family home in Liverpool. Gloria had been diagnosed with a huge stomach tumour the year before (earlier breast cancer metastasized to the stomach), but she rejected surgery, insisted she didn’t have cancer and traveled to England to perform on stage. Once in England, a doctor drained fluid from her stomach. Although no one was aware of it, this action perforated her bowel. Gloria was dying. The Turner family nursed Gloria in their home until some of her children arrived to take her back to New York.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is grim reading, and Gloria Grahame fans know how the story ends. Author Turner is not a professional writer, but the book is well written and Turner is obviously very comfortable with his style and his tale. Turner juxtaposes Gloria’s last days with memories of their relationship in happier times, and for the most part, the transitions back and forth are smooth. The most interesting parts of the book, however, are the details about Gloria–her taste in clothes, her health obsession, habits etc. The book pays homage to Gloria–an amazing actress, and a tremendously brave and tough person. Fans of Gloria Grahame will want to read this book as a companion piece to her biography Suicide Blonde by Vincent Curcio.

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Human Desire (1954)

“I guess I’m not much of a woman.”

In Human Desire, Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) is fired from his job as assistant yardmaster with a train company. Despondent over the loss of employment, he begs his wife to contact an old friend, Owens, a wealthy company executive, and ask for his old job back. Carl’s wife, Vicki (Gloria Grahame) tries to wheedle her way out of doing this favour, but she finally agrees. Vicki gets Carl’s job back, but once Carl’s plan is successful, he conveniently begins to wonder just what Vicki had to do to win Owens’ favour. In a jealous rage, Carl beats a confession out of Vicki.

When Carl learns that Owens is boarding a train, he drags Vicki along for the ride. Carl viciously murders Owens implicating Vicki in the process. Leaving the scene, Vicki meets Jeff (Glenn Ford) a train engineer who has just returned from three years of combat duty in Korea. There’s instant chemistry between Vicki and Jeff. Jeff could implicate Vicki and Carl in the murder, but when Jeff lies during the inquest, Carl and Vicki are free and clear. Jeff and Vicki plunge into an adulterous affair. Jeff, a war hero who’s faced combat is now involved in a love triangle with lethal consequences.

As a Gloria Grahame fan, I was delighted to find a film that exploits her considerable talents. Vicki is a cipher–sullen, sultry, and underestimated by all the men in her life. Her first scene illustrates the incongruity of her marriage to Carl. He arrives home despondent after being fired, and she’s lolling on the bed eating bon bons. He’s depressed, and she’s showing off her new stockings. It seems odd that a woman like Vicki would be with a man like Carl and later in the film, Vicki explains her marriage: “I wanted a home. I wanted to belong some place.” Stuck in a small town with few choices, Vicki selected Carl because “he looked big, solid, decent….” Vicki is a complex character who shows her true colours in two scenes–one scene takes place with Jeff when she rails at him, and the other scene takes place when she finally tells Carl just what she thinks of him. Vicki is a woman who’s learned to manage in a man’s world. She can be what the men in her life want her to be. But once boxed into a role, her true feelings, which run just under the surface of her polite behaviour, are another matter entirely. She feels like a commodity and tells Carl that women have “different faces” so that men can tell them apart.

Human Desire is directed by Fritz Lang and based on the Emile Zola novel, La Bete Humaine. This film noir gem deserves a DVD transfer before it fades into obscurity. Many scenes are set on trains, and there’s plenty of atmosphere with nighttime smoke and the lonely call of train whistles. Gloria Grahame fans–don’t miss this one.

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