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A Man And His Dreams—Dennis Morgan

Dennis Morgan has been aptly described as the man with the poet’s face and the handshake of a stevedore. I am no connoisseur of poet’s faces but I can attest to the handshake. He grabs you with a firm grip in a big mitt. It is muscular and friendly, like the grasp of an athlete who has just emerged from the showers after a successful contest.

There is more than meets the eye or the hand in this characteristic gesture of Morgan’s. It is a clue to his background and his character. It explains the masculinity which lies behind his romantic appeal and his singing voice, a combination which has contributed greatly to his present popularity. Audiences can appraise him as a singer and as an actor, but it is only in the past year or so that the results of his passion for the strenuous outdoor life are making themselves felt in his screen presence.

The first time I met Dennis was when David Hempstead introduced me to him at Lucey’s, the lunchtime, bartime hangout for the crowd at Paramount and RKO. Hempstead was producing “Kitty Foyle” and Dennis had just got his first big screen opportunity as one of the male leads opposite the very popular Ginger Rogers. That was in 1940.

I recalled that meeting when I was lunching with Dennis recently at the Lakeside Golf Club, across the way from Warner Brothers.

“Lots of things have happened since then,” he said grinning. “I guess it’s just a question of getting the breaks.”

Lots of things certainly had happened so far as Dennis was concerned. That day at Lucey’s he was comparatively unknown despite the fact he had been struggling for recognition for something like four years. On the day of our meeting at Lakeside, he was heading the fan mail at the studio, having received more than 13,000 letters the preceding month. That was more than Arm Sheridan was getting, more than Errol Flynn; more even than Jack Warner himself.

Today, with his performance as Colonel Robert Lee Scott in “God Is My Co-Pilot” tucked firmly under his belt, the letters are even more volmninous. He is now a man who can plan with confidence and security for the future of his wife and children, something he couldn’t do back in those days when we met at Lucey’s. For today he can buy the house he wants at will, which is by way of being a miracle in these parts.

Granted that part of it was luck, the rest of it still is good. Dennis said that he and Lillian, his wife, heard about a place in La Canada, a beautiful suburb in the foothills out Pasadena way. They both fell in love with it at sight, its pool, guest house and wonderful grounds for the children. Lillian took one look at the garden and said to Dennis, “Won’t this be a lovely spot for Kristen to be married in?” Kristen is their six-year-old daughter. After Dennis went to work the next day Lillian drove out to see the house again and when Dennis got home that night he found her in tears. She had learned the house had been sold. He laughed, then said nonchalantly, “Yes, I know. I bought it this morning.”

As we sat there on the glass-enclosed porch of the Lakeside Golf Club, we talked about the opportunities young actors have today as against those afforded struggling players in the pre-war times. Dennis admitted that the shortage of leading men has been of help to some youngsters, particularly with the effort studios are making to build up stars overnight. Nevertheless, he questioned whether ballyhoo alone could in the long run make a star out of anyone who didn’t have the essential qualifications.

“Of course,” he said, “fellows like Van Johnson, Robert Walker and a few others have come up suddenly but they would have won recognition at any other time. They have the stuff. And besides,” he added, “they had their struggles too. They weren’t overnight successes. When an actor gets a break all the public hears about is the success that follows it. There is seldom any ballyhoo about the failures that preceded it.”

Dennis was thinking about his own background and the long pull he had before the real break came. There were his early days in vaudeville, his attempts to put himself over as a radio singer and announcer, his essays into the field of light opera, his long sessions in stock at South Bend, Indiana, and the grueling grind of one-night stands in a condensed version of “Faust.”

What that did was to pave the way for him to meet Mary Garden, the noted opera singer, who was then on a talent-scouting mission for one of the big studios. She arranged a screen test and shortly afterwards he was signed to a studio contract.

But his arrival in Hollywood, instead of launching him on a career, started him twisting and turning on the road of frustration and dismay. Singers weren’t very popular in those days. He languished and fumed and thought of giving the whole thing up and going back home. The fact that he had dropped his own name Stanley Morner didn’t help either. Maybe he should have consulted a numerologist.

However, he got something more substantial than numerology in the person of David Hempstead. David was in the throes of casting “Kitty Foyle.” He had set his heart on one of the top stars to play opposite Ginger and was unable to borrow him. One evening, to get his mind off his I troubles, he dropped in at a movie house. It was a dull little picture called “State Cop,” but suddenly David sat bolt upright in his seat. A young actor caught his attention, a personable, handsome and manly young actor whom David had never seen before.

The next day he phoned Ginger Rogers. “I’ve got our man,” he said.

“What’s his name?” said Ginger.

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” David replied as he hung up, leaving a gasping Miss Rogers on the other end of the wire.

David returned to the theater, caught the picture credits and the next day had Dennis Morgan in his office. He phoned Ginger again.

“I’ve got our man,” he said.

“What’s his name?” Ginger repeated in a voice that indicated that the conversation of the previous day was still continuing.

“Dennis Morgan,” said David.

“Never heard of him,” said Ginger mockingly and hung up. It was David’s turn to gasp.

However, he later overrode her objections to having an unknown in the part and when Ginger saw Morgan’s test she was as enthusiastic as David had been. From that moment Dennis Morgan was in.

Dennis takes the success that has come to him since then with a cool eye. The upward climb was not too easy. In fact it wasn’t until he burst forth in “The Desert Song” and “Shine On Harvest Moon” that he really came into his own. The returning tide of musicals had come at the right moment for him. Yet there was still some tough sledding ahead to persuade his studio to give him a picture like “God Is My Co-Pilot.”

His best friend is Jack Carson. He and Jack grew up together in Milwaukee, attended the same school and shared some rough and tumble experiences in vaudeville. Both are now under contract to Warner Brothers. Whenever the studio throws a party for visiting exhibitors Carson and Morgan are up on the stage wowing them with old vaudeville routines and songs.

A few years ago Carson used to harangue Dennis. He would tell him he wasn’t taking his career seriously enough. The truth of the matter is that Carson was right. Dennis was letting outside interests and diversions become increasingly important in his life. Recently, however, there has been a marked change in his attitude. His friends attribute this in part to Carson’s influence and also to the fact that Dennis at last is getting the kind of roles he wants to play.

His success has made him more serious but it hasn’t robbed him of his enthusiasms. He gets as much fun out of life as he ever did, but he has learned to discipline himself. “Fun is fun,” he says, “if you keep it in its place.”

Dennis doesn’t go in for night-club life. His idea of a good time is to sing barbershop quartets with Andy Devine, Bob Shayne and Jack Carson—either in their homes or his. He has a passion for music and a love for his home.

It was during the making of “My Reputation,” in which he stars with Barbara Stanwyck, that Morgan discovered his ideal home—not the La Canada hacienda but the one he and Lillian will build one day themselves. It’s a New England farm house—the one built for “My Reputation.” He got the plans for it from the studio architects and someday, when the war is over and he will be doing just an occasional movie, dividing his time between Hollywood and the concert stage, he’s going to build that house, but not in California. It’ll be either in Oregon or Minnesota or some such cold spot where the fish are jumping, where he can even saw through blocks of ice and fish during the winter. It’s his favorite sport.

Another venture which he is planning for post-war days is flying. His ambition is to take lessons from Colonel Robert Lee Scott, famous ace of the one-time Flying Tigers and author of “God Is My Co-Pilot.”

Morgan’s admiration for the drawling Georgian whom he portrays on the screen is unbounded. When we returned from our Lakeside luncheon, Dennis introduced him by saying, “Here’s a guy I’d like to fly with!”

But Dennis Morgan is doing okay these days flying high on his own.





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