Category Archives: Susan Hayward

Red by Robert Laguardia and Gene Arceri

“The geography of ambition and love delayed, though not wholly denied.”

Red, a biography of Susan Hayward written by Robert LaGuardia and Gene Arceri takes the reader from this phenomenal actress’s poverty-stricken childhood in Brooklyn to her premature death from cancer at the age of 57. The authors weave together glimpses of Susan from many sources–friends, fellow actors and actresses and her long-estranged sister, Florence. Red paints a portrait of a woman of contrasts. Loathed by some fellow actors who considered her ‘cold’, we also see flashes of a woman who showed instances of remarkable kindness.

Susan Hayward was born as Edythe Marrenner in 1917 in Brooklyn, and grew up in the shadow of her glamorous older sister, Florence. Susan sustained and overcame a horrible, potentially crippling childhood injury. Showing tremendous strength of purpose, and remarkable willpower, Susan overcame considerable obstacles to become a model. She landed in Hollywood to screen test for Gone With The Wind.

Reading about Susan’s acting career illustrates just how bad the studio system was for actors and actresses. They all coveted contracts but then once they had a contract they were stuck, and talent certainly didn’t guarantee roles. Susan, groomed by her loyal agent Benny Medford, a man who stubbornly believed in Susan when no one else did, landed a contract with Warner Bros but was later dropped. She then signed with Paramount but managed to alienate studio heads with her outspoken public comments and complaints about her lack of roles. The studio subsequently withheld film roles as a punishment. Susan eventually managed to gain the recognition she so justly deserved with such films as: I’ll Cry Tomorrow, With a Song in My Heart, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, and I Want to Live, but in spite of these phenomenal successes, under contract to 20th Century Fox, Susan’s fame and talent were used to bolster the studio’s stinkers.

The book charts Susan’s personal life: her two marriages and her climb to success, and a suicide attempt. The final section of the book makes for difficult reading due to the subject matter: Susan’s struggle with alcohol, her illness, and death.

On the negative side, I don’t think enough credit was given to her early deprivation. Susan came from a very poor background, and I don’t think that was really addressed when comments appear about how “cheap” she was when it came to spending money. A great deal of the information about Susan comes from Florence, and the book makes it clear that there wasn’t much love lost between the sisters. Florence at one point notes that things were so bad at Susan’s home when she was married to first husband Jess Barker that their twin sons packed suitcases to leave (before Nov. 1947). For the time frame given the twins would have been 2-3 years old, so the packing of cases seems somewhat unlikely. These sorts of points are unchallenged by the authors. You can ask 100 people their opinions about someone they all know, and you are going to get 100 different answers. The book doesn’t address some of the apparently conflicting information about her. Why for example, did some people love working with Susan while others did not? Why did she apparently have problems with inter-personal relationships?

That said, Red, is an highly readable book that offers an account of Susan’s life–its triumphs and its tragedies. There are a lot of details here for any reader interested in understanding Susan’s career, and I particularly enjoyed reading the information regarding Susan’s favorite photograph of herself. It seems ironic that at first the biggest criticism of Susan’s acting ability was that she was unable to show emotion: “She has no heart.” But Susan worked intensely to overcome that and during the course of her career she delivered some of the most memorable and emotional performances ever in the history of Hollywood. The book details the enormous price she paid while throwing herself into her greatest roles. This is a portrait of a woman who was at times her own worst enemy–a woman who desperately wanted to be liked and loved but who often inadvertently alienated those closest to her. The book includes an index and a filmography of this remarkable star.

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Filed under Books about film, Susan Hayward

They Won’t Believe Me (1947)

“You’re a special kind of dynamite.”

Married man Larry Ballentine (Robert Young) juggles three women during the course of the gripping film noir feature They Won’t Believe Me. The film is a courtroom drama, and the story unfolds through flashbacks as Ballentine takes the stand during his trial for the murder of his rich wife, Gretta Ballentine (Rita Johnson).

As a husband, they don’t get much lower than Ballentine. When the flashback story begins, Ballentine has a regular once-a-week assignation with beautiful newspaperwoman Janice Bell (Jane Greer). Although the meetings seem fairly innocent, he showers her with gifts, and they plan a future together as they kiss and cuddle in a quiet bar. When Janice tells Ballentine that their relationship is going nowhere, and that she’s leaving town to make a fresh start, Ballentine decides to dump his married life of luxury and run off with Janice.

Ballentine’s departure isn’t in the cards, and his wife, Gretta, knows just which gold-plated carrot will change his mind and bring him back to heel in the process. Ballentine is led away from Janice and to California by the promise of increased stature as a partner in a brokerage company. Then Ballentine meets scheming seductress, Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward)….

Ballentine is a shallow man, but nonetheless, he remains an interesting character. He uses women and has no problem juggling relationships, but throughout the film, it’s obvious that two women–Gretta and Verna–both exploit his weaknesses. These two women read his character very well, and they both manipulate him. Gretta, as the neglected wife, arouses sympathy–after all, her horse is more faithful than her husband. As the film progresses, it’s clear that Gretta sees her husband for what he is, and is content to buy his companionship–even if it ultimately means complete isolation. Verna is a practiced schemer, and once she enters the picture, Ballentine doesn’t stand a chance of resisting. Verna isn’t the sort of woman who’ll accept crumbs or empty promises.

Robert Young as the weak-willed Ballentine is marvelous. Jane Greer is delicately and sweetly beautiful–she’s clearly in a completely different league than Gretta and Verna. Gretta and Verna act as good foils for one another as they vie for Ballentine’s presence. They Won’t Believe Me was recommended by a friend, and it seems such a shame that the film doesn’t receive more attention. Directed by Irving Pichel, this is classic noir, and the plot is riveting right up to the film’s explosive ending.

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Filed under Film Noir, Susan Hayward

Smash Up (1947)

“I’d love to see you all messed up.”

Smash Up is a tearjerker that offered Susan Hayward her first staring role as Angela Evans. Angela has a promising career as a singer ahead of her when she tosses it all away for domestic bliss with up-and-coming singer husband, Ken Conway (Lee Bowman). Everything is perfect at first, but then when Ken hits the big time, Angela’s deep insecurities emerge, and soon Angela plummets into a serious drinking problem. Ken professes amazement and then annoyance with Angela’s behaviour–after all, he reasons, she has everything a woman can want. Then the marriage hits the rocks, and Angela hits the bottle even more than before ….

Eddie Albert plays Steve Nelson, Ken’s accompanist and partner. Steve is the steady bachelor who can see the error of Ken’s remote and disaffected ways. Marsha Grey (Marsha Hunt) plays a conniving woman who wants Ken for herself. The film is corny in parts, and the relentless playing of the theme grates on one’s nerves, but this is Susan Hayward’s film. She delivers a stunning performance as the needy Angela, whose decline begins with her husband’s success. Some of the scenes called for her to be drunk, or to get drunk, and she performed excellently. Not everyone can pull off the role of a drunk, but there were some scenes when it wasn’t quite clear, at first, whether or not Angela was tipsy–she didn’t overdo it once. If you want to watch an entertaining 40s tear-jerker is a great place to start. From director Stuart Heisler

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Deadline at Dawn (1946)

 “What kind of lounge lizard are you?”

In Deadline at Dawn, Alex Winkley (Bill Williams), a young naive sailor wakes up after a drinking binge to find a wad of money in his pocket. He only has vague memories of exactly how he spent the last few hours, and with just a short time of his leave remaining (he has to take a bus to Virginia at 6 in the morning), he sidetracks into a dancehall. Here he befriends sour, hard-as-nails June Goth (Susan Hayward). Alex reminds June of her younger brother who’s serving as a belly gunner. Feeling sorry for Alex, she takes him home, and listens to his tale of woe. When she hears about the money, she insists he return it immediately. But there’s a problem–the woman Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane) Alex spent the evening with is dead–strangled and dumped on her living room floor. Alex doesn’t think he killed her, but then again he remembers being angry and blacking out. June decides to help Alex prove his innocence and they have just until dawn to do it.

In the few hours remaining, June and Alex come across a motley assortment of characters in the night. They have one lead–a beautiful blonde with a limp–but in the meantime they meet Gus (Paul Lukas), a philosophical taxi driver, and eventually run foul of Val Bartelli (Joseph Calleia) the murdered woman’s violent and unforgiving brother.

Susan Hayward as June seems out of her class here–while her scenes elevate the film above mediocrity, her performance just isn’t enough to salvage it. Some of the minor roles are not acted well, and with some great lines and some poor, the dialogue is spotty. Then there’s the entire relationship blossoming between June and Alex. Alex is portrayed as a naive country bumpkin, but he doesn’t seem just naive–he seems not very bright. In contrast, June is older and worldly wise. A romance between these two isn’t just implausible. It’s downright laughable. Special mention here however for Joseph Calleia in the role of Val Bartelli. His scenes bring a liveliness and an authenticity to an otherwise mediocre minor film noir. Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, the film is directed by Harold Clurman.

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Filed under Film Noir, Susan Hayward