Stars Hollywood Couldn’t Beat
Determination, perseverance and ingenuity are marks of the indestructibles. Unwearied persistence and a clever use of the gray matter can often bring about that fervently desired show-business break, and further, can make the difference between a healthy career and oblivion. Such a sketch pinpoints Bill Holden.
The debut of Bill in the film world was a case of overnight stardom. And he went on to even bigger things. But his greatest fame was to begin eleven years after his career first got underway.
It was 1939. A search was on for a young actor to play the role of the violinist-prizefighter hero in “Golden Boy”—a tall order. Director Rouben Mamoulian auditioned young men in Hollywood, New York, and, finding no one to fill the bill, back in Hollywood again. After almost a year, he threw up his hands, announced “It’ll be either Lew Ayres or Richard Carlson,” and sat down in despair.
Meanwhile, a William Franklin Beedle, Jr., had arrived at Pasadena Drama School from O’Fallon, Ill. After graduation, he was signed by Paramount to a beginner’s contract (about $50 per week then), went through a name change to William Holden, and did nothing. Mamoulian was also casting for the sister in “Golden Boy” and asked to see some tests. One of them featured a girl named Margaret Young—and Bill Holden. After a brief interview, Mamoulian had his “Golden Boy.”
Cast with Barbara Stanwyck and Adolphe Menjou in his very first film, Bill hadn’t the foggiest notion of what to do or how to go about doing it. But Mamoulian worked with him night and day, and Barbara Stanwyck, giving him tips and advice, gently guided him into various camera positions.
At the conclusion of the picture Bill paid tribute to her, stating, “I could not have succeeded without her help.” It was the kind of thanks expected from a novice by an established star, and it sounded nice. It still does. For on the first day’s shooting of every Stanwyck picture, the actress receives a bouquet—perpetual gratitude in memory of the days when a star helped a struggling newcomer, and perhaps made the difference between success and failure for him.
Paramount saw they had a good thing and for the next twelve years shared Holden’s contract with Columbia. He was one of Hollywood’s hottest new properties, and this sort of thing kept up until his enlistment in the Army.
In 1945, after four years service, Bill was discharged and eager to resume his career. “All I want to do is work,” he announced vigorously, “I’ve come back with more ambition than ever.” The next five years certainly proved that. Bill did just about everything: comedies (“Dear Ruth” and “Dear Wife”); westerns (“The Man from Colorado” and “Streets of Laredo”); dramas (“Blaze of Noon” and “The Dark Past”); comedy-dramas (“Apartment for Peggy” and “Rachel and the Stranger”). His range included a veteran, a frontiersman, a gunslinger and a psychopathic killer. And—with all of his background to draw on—when his biggest break came, he was ready for it.
Director Billy Wilder had a story about Hollywood in mind. He phoned Bill, asked him to come over and together they discussed the central male character: a script writer named Joe Gillis who has fallen on hard times and allows himself to be kept by a faded old has-been.
“I want that part,” Bill told Wilder, “if it means cutting my right arm off up to here!” The sacrifice was unnecessary—he got the part.
The picture was “Sunset Boulevard,” and it covered everyone with glory, not least of all William Holden. The jump from genial leading man to first-rate actor was now complete. He lost in a close Oscar race that year, only to win three years later with “Stalag 17.”
Since “Sunset Boulevard,” there’s been an unbroken string of hits—“Born Yesterday,” “Executive Suite,” “Sabrina,” “The Country Girl” and “Picnic,” to name a few. Last year he turned producer with “Toward the Unknown,” still another hit.
The urge to be versatile, coupled with a willingness to explore and experiment, is another mark of the indestructibles. It varies with each, but a prime example is James Cagney.
Cagney was making a modest name for himself in Hollywood until 1931’s “Public Enemy.” For that picture, director William A. Wellman figured that one scene would be improved enormously if Jimmy smacked Mae Clarke full in the puss with a nice, juicy grapefruit.
Things were never the same after that. Jimmy was placed in a succession of films playing more or less one role—a strutting, arrogant, cocky little punk.
Warners gave Jimmy a western—“The Oklahoma Kid”—and, in flickers like “The Fighting 69th” and “Each Dawn I Die,” he graduated from punk to hero. But blood and thunder were the basic ingredients, and that’s the way things stayed. Until 1942.
In that year Jimmy gave a performance as George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” that was nothing short of astonishing. The cock-of-the-walk formula fitted naturally into the Cohan characterization, but with it went a generous portion of fine acting. In addition, the actor sang and tap-danced as if he’d been doing it all his life. (Actually, he’d done a bit of hoofing as a vaudeville chorus boy and female impersonator at age 19.) An Oscar was the result.
But Jimmy didn’t push this success, as he might have. So by 1955, more people than now care to remember had consigned him to the scrap heap of Hollywood’s once glorious relics. What Jimmy did two years ago was to give as unique a demonstration of versatility as any film actor ever gave in one year anywhere. . . .
In “Mister Roberts,” a hilarious comic performance as the captain; in “Run for Cover,” a crackling western portrayal; in “The Seven Little Foys,” a guest shot as George M. Cohan in an amazingly agile song-and-dance exhibition, and in “Love Me or Leave Me,” what may well have been the finest performance of his career.
At this writing, some previewers are saying that Jimmy can scarcely miss an Oscar nomination for his performance in “Man of a Thousand Faces,” U-I film based on the life of Lon Chaney. “Astonishing,” noted one critic.
James Cagney and the other indestructibles are champions—always. In a business where the cynical “You’re only as good as your last picture” has been flipped around too freely for too long, it bears thinking about.
Actor Henry Fonda, unlike Cagney, once wanted no part of Hollywood. But as leading light of six films made within the past three years—a currently unheard-of situation among stars of his rank—there obviously have been some changes made. After almost ten years of starvation and disappointment incredible even for an actor (“I’ve lived in some of the dirtiest dumps in New York City,” Hank once remarked), success came in “The Farmer Takes a Wife,” and Hollywood was hot on the trail. Longtime pal Leland Hayward, then his agent, went into a huddle with producer Walter Wanger. But the first wire to Hank met with an abrupt refusal.
Several wires later, Hayward got Hank on the phone and the two thrashed the matter out in a long, explosive session that ended in compromise. Hank agreed to fly to Hollywood, to stay there for any amount of time he liked—all at Wanger’s expense—“just to talk things over.” Secretly, Hank figured he had an ace in the hole. If. pressed too closely on the matter, he could always drive his salary demands so fantastically high—say, to $350 per week—that the conversation would end then and there.
The conference was like the phone conversation all over again, except that Wanger was there to push his side of the argument. Finally, the producer offered Hank a term contract with a few months off each year to work on the stage. Seeing no way out, Hank made ready to play his trump, when Wanger blandly inserted, “I am willing to pay you $1,000 a week—if that is all right with you.” As Hank later recalled, everything went blank, but he later learned he’d said “Yes,” and the contract was signed.
Fifteen films later—after establishing something of a record for on-set accidents (both eyes blacked, a self-inflicted handstab and a wrenched leg, among other things)—Hank was still not too happy about films. Then Darryl F. Zanuck put him under contract, and a succession of fat roles was lined up for Hank, one of which was, as “Young Mr. Lincoln,” directed by a man named John Ford. Their next film together was “The Grapes of Wrath.”
For “The Grapes of Wrath,” everyone gave of his best. Long before it was in completed form, they knew they had something special. What eventually emerged was a film that, for honesty and artistry, has few peers. And there were other top talents to work for—William A. Wellman on the unforgettable “Ox-Bow Incident,” and Preston Sturges for “The Lady Eve,” a comic gem that still leaves audiences helpless with laughter.
After discharge from wartime naval service, Hank ran right into the problem that faced other actors returning to pick up their careers: how to find the right roles and regain pre-war popularity. Three years after his return, Leland Hayward offered him the play script of “Mister Roberts,” and Hank jumped at the chance.
The sensational success of “Mister Roberts” is recent enough to make additional comment unnecessary. But just to prove that it was no one-time thing, Hank went into two more stage hits: “Point of No Return” and “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.” Critical hurrahs resounded.
The Warner version of “Mister Roberts” marked Hank’s return to film-making. Since then, there have been: the spectacular “War and Peace,” for which he recently received an award at the Berlin Film Festival; Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man”; the excellent “12 Angry Men” and the forthcoming “The Tin Star” and “Stage Struck.”
Barbara Stanwyck has probably taken it on the chin as often as anyone. Undoubtedly what has saved her from breakdown on a good many occasions is a singular gift for looking at a person or a situation with utter frankness and honesty. She has been many things—twice divorced, four times an Oscar nominee but never a winner, and, lately, the victim of some remarkably poor pictures.
She was born Ruby Stevens and came up the hard way in humble Brooklyn surroundings—a fact she never tried to gloss over, not even in the days when exotic phony studio biographies were all the rage. She made a hit on Broadway in “Burlesque,” and entered Hollywood on the arm of actor-husband Frank Fay. A run of quickie flickers was her lot, but being Mrs. Fay was the important thing, until Frank Capra offered her a role in “Ladies of Leisure.”
Along with the role came the standard summons to test for it. Barbara, who had been through all of this any number of times, wearily declined. “No more of those damn tests” was her reply. Capra sympathized and gave her the role anyway. It was the beginning of a career that soon saw her take a place among Hollywood’s top femme stars. Fay grew increasingly unhappy about this, and they were divorced in 1936. That same year she met Robert Taylor at a Hollywood party. After a courtship of three years, they eloped. Everyone began calling it the “perfect marriage,” something subsequently revealed as the surest kiss of death for any marital union.
In 1937, she made her first unsuccessful Oscar bid with “Stella Dallas.” (“I was so sure I’d get it,” was the typically forthright Stanwyck comment.) In 1941’s “Ball of Fire” she turned torrid, won another Academy nod. Sex appeal was plentifully evident in “Lady of Burlesque” and again in 1944’s excellent “Double Indemnity,” which brought her a third nomination. (“I’m like Crosby’s horses,” she quipped at the time, “always in the running.”)
“Sorry, Wrong Number” nine years ago gave her the meatiest role of her career and Stanwyck played it for all it was worth. It was her fourth, and strongest, try for an Oscar. From then until 1954’s “Executive Suite” (in which, as one of ten stars, she took fourth billing), she made a succession of average films. Since then, she has had nothing remotely worthy of her. Her upcoming film, 20th Century-Fox’s “Forty Guns,” may change her luck.
This brings us to the end of our study of the Hollywood indestructibles—filmdom’s all-time champions. Other names might have been included but for one thing or another. Foremost among them is Charles Chaplin, whose work in Hollywood was his greatest, but who chose to turn his back on the town in favor of political vagaries and exile.
And Greta Garbo—who saw her great talent submerged (with two exceptions) in vehicles unworthy of her, made one disastrous flop and said goodbye—a farewell the world still refuses to believe is final. High-strung and sensitive Luise Rainer, who became the first two-time Academy Award-winning star, subsequently fled from Hollywood—never to return.
Lovely Norma Shearer, whom Dorothy Kilgallen once saluted as “the most gracious of the stars—never loses her poise, her good temper, or her amiable radiant smile.” After top performances had made her Hollywood’s first lady, Norma suffered personal tragedy, later remarried and slipped into retirement.
Fredric March, who has left movies temporarily for his greatest role on Broadway in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Paul Muni, who established a brilliant career in Hollywood, then left it to win fresh laurels on the stage. Pert Jean Arthur, whose wonderfully droll little voice and expert comic timing are still appreciated whenever she makes an all-too-rare film appearance. Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, Rosalind Russell and Jane Wyman—feminine titans all—who have not been really active in movies for some time. And a champion only death could beat: Humphrey Bogart.
As for those periodic bleatings about “Who will replace the ‘greats’ when they’re gone?”—ignore them. Bette Davis announced she intends to go right on acting—in a wheelchair, if necessary. Pressed for statements, the others would probably come up with similar sentiments. They like what they’re doing, and have been at it long enough to have become quite good at it. They are on top and they intend to stay there. Movie fans the world over wouldn’t want it any other way.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE OCTOBER 1957