Thursday, July 18, 2024

Ann Sheridan: New Biography Looks at Hollywood’s Classic Era Star

Annie gets her due--at last!--with the first Ann Sheridan biography.

It's noteworthy that Ann Sheridan, from Hollywood’s golden era, is getting her first biography some 57 years after her death in 1967. How fortunate that Sheridan has admirer Michael D. Rinella as her biographer. His book is a meticulous, empathetic, and honest account of the film actress. Ann Sheridan: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s Oomph Girl by Michael D. Rinella is out now.

Ann Sheridan in her Warner Brothers heyday.

Other ‘40s film sex symbols have gotten their star bios: Grable, Turner, Hayworth, etc. The big difference is that Ann Sheridan was a popular star in her time, but Ann’s career soon evaporated after she left Warner Brothers. While her personal life was lively, it was not as legendary as those of Crawford, Turner, or Hayworth. The most significant reason she faded in the public's mind was that she died at 51 in 1967. Biographer Rinella remedies all this with a book that thoroughly and engagingly shows where Clara Lou Sheridan came from (Texas) and her rise to Hollywood stardom at Warner Brothers.

One of Ann Sheridan's first good roles was in 1938's "Angels with Dirty Faces,"
with James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.

Thanks to the enduring magic of classic films and later TCM, Ann Sheridan began getting her due as a versatile, charismatic performer: Ann had a flair for comedy, was natural as a dramatic actress, and could also sing. She was also a natural redhead who looked like a cross between contemporaries Rita Hayworth and Lucille Ball. Sheridan’s natural pizzazz inspired WB’s publicity to dub her "The Oomph Girl."

Ann Sheridan mixed glamour with tongue in cheek humor.

What's beneficial to the reader is that author Rinella uses many quotes from interviews by Sheridan herself. Lucky for Rinella that Sheridan was plain-spoken, especially for the era. Sheridan reminded me of the late great Carole Lombard, also very candid. Ann was self-aware, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. 

Ann Sheridan finally got a lead where she could shine,
in 1940's "It All Came True."

Some stars are born with their first Hollywood film, like Greer Garson, Katharine Hepburn, or Lauren Bacall. For others, the ascent is arduous, as with Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, or Ann Sheridan. It doesn't always have to do with talent, but with studio promotion or just plain luck. It helps to have a studio head, producer, or director in an actor’s corner. With certain starlets, even if the public showed interest, sometimes the moguls or execs still looked down on them. L.B. Mayer much preferred his great ladies like Garbo, Shearer, etc. over brassy Jean Harlow, who Sheridan was compared to later. Monroe, Grable, and Sheridan were starlets for a long spell, before going on to another studio and achieving stardom.

Once Betty Grable hit at 20th Century Fox, she got the star treatment. Monroe and Sheridan were underpaid despite their popularity—Monroe with her second try at Fox, Sheridan from Paramount to WB. Both legally fought their respective moguls, Darryl Zanuck and Jack Warner. The difference was Sheridan had self-confidence, was pragmatic, and well-liked by studio folk; Monroe was often treated like the red-headed step-child at Fox, and it got under her skin.

This time, Ann Sheridan was front and center with Cagney & O'Brien
in 1940's "Torrid Zone."

Rinella does a fine job offering background info on significant people in Sheridan's life. It helps clarify Annie’s life and career decisions. As for her Ann herself, while Rinella is a Sheridan fan, he is clear-eyed in depicting shortcomings regarding personal and professional traits that hindered her career.

Forget "The Man Who Came to Dinner" himself, it was Ann Sheridan as vain star
 Lorraine Sheldon who stole the show!

Like most stars, while Ann wanted to demonstrate her talents, she also fell into the traps common among the era's stars. She turned down the role as The Strawberry Blonde, because while it was the title character, it was a secondary role. Yet, it was one that helped Rita Hayworth become a star. She was one of many who turned down Mildred Pierce, rightfully here, as she was only 30. Ann turned down To Have and Have Not, though she loved Bogie, perhaps because it was a lot like the role in Torrid Zone. Warner wanted her for a role in Caged, but Sheridan might have suggested herself for the warden role, played by Agnes Moorehead. But Annie didn't see herself in character roles. Thus, her Kings Row co-star Betty Field, who looked like a sourpuss version of Sheridan, ended up in juicy later roles in huge hits Picnic, Bus Stop, Peyton Place, and BUtterfield 8. Ann’s professional pride in maintaining her leading lady status was intact, but what good is being a star if you have no place to shine?

One of Ann Sheridan's first movies after WB was 1950's nifty noir, "Woman on the Run." Unfortunately, it was considered just another thriller then and Ann was already showing her age at just 35, due to her drinking and chain-smoking.

In Sheridan’s personal life—the night life, drinking, and chain-smoking—all took its toll on the star's good looks. This was not an unusual problem for both male and female stars of the golden era. The biggest stars that still drew audiences were given extra attention with their makeup, hair, and lighting. Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, and Lucille Ball come to mind. So do Rita, Ava, and later, Elizabeth Taylor. The stars who were no longer a draw, like Sheridan and Joan Blondell—not so much. 

Admirably, Sheridan did try to advance her own post-studio career, pushing independent film properties, trying television, and later the stage. This is where luck comes in, too. For aging stars, especially women, the 50's and 60's were pretty slim pickings as there were so many stars in the same boat.

Rinella gives great details of Ann's uphill battle to film stardom and how often she was unlucky or foolhardy in love. I always thought George Brent was an odd choice as a Sheridan spouse. Ann was so lively and George was such a dullard on film. Turns out Brent was moody and anti-social, also very un-Ann Sheridan! I asked the author why Sheridan never had children. While Rinella is an extremely thorough researcher, he could not come up with any definitive info on that subject, but I bet that it affected her personal outlook, too. 

Rinella writes a most touching look at Sheridan's last years, as she worked more in television and onstage, with varying results. Ann also had some cosmetic procedures that bolstered her last appearances, like the CBS western spoof, Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats. But sadly, it was then that Sheridan found out she had throat cancer. She declined rapidly and died January 21, 1967, exactly a month before her 52nd birthday. Fortunately, Sheridan had found happiness with actor Scott McKay, her last husband.

Ann Sheridan's last role was in CBS's western spoof,
"Pistols 'n' Petticoats." Cancer was already taking its toll.

While Ann's talents have become reassessed, it's still slow compared to some other actors who have been rediscovered. Ann Sheridan's gift for mixing comedy and drama reminds me a lot of Carole Lombard. Sheridan also had that brash side like Harlow when she became an able comic actor. And Annie's acerbic way with a one-liner was equal to the great Eve Arden. 

Ann Sheridan starred with Bogie& George Raft in 1940's "They Drive By Night."
Ida Lupino went big as the bad girl, but Ann held her own as a good-hearted waitress.

For those who want to watch more Ann Sheridan, she's good in urban melodramas Angels with Dirty Faces, City of Conquest, and They Drive by Night. Sheridan outshines the entire young cast with her warm performance as Randy Monaghan in Kings Row. Later, Sheridan did well in romantic noirs like Nora Prentiss, The Unfaithful, and Woman on the Run. And Annie was aces in comedies: It All Came True, Torrid Zone, The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Doughgirls, George Washington Slept Here, and I Was a Male War Bride. Not a bad legacy for Ann Sheridan, an actress not often given the star treatment. 

Ann Sheridan & Cary Grant were a hoot together in Howard Hawk's
1948 screwball comedy, "I Was a Male War Bride."
Annie should have worked with Hawks more!

Cher once described her own acting range as being great at playing "tarts with a heart." The same was true of Ann Sheridan, memorable as working class girls with a heart of gold. Sheridan had oomph, a phrase she hated, but also authenticity as an honest actress within her range.

Ann Sheridan played many of these kind of girls in her movie glory days!

Michael D. Rinella puts Ann Sheridan back in the limelight, with a most knowledgeable, readable, and thoughtful biography that depicts her life and career with honesty.

See the link below to find out more or
to order this new Ann Sheridan biography.

Here’s Amazon’s link to Ann Sheridan: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s Oomph Girl:

Ann Sheridan as "Nora Prentiss,"
the nicest film noir femme fatale ever!

My look at Ann Sheridan in her film noir phase, as Nora Prentiss:

Ann Sheridan in her best role,
as Randy in 1942's "Kings Row."

My take on Ann in her best film role, as Randy in 1942’s Kings Row:


Monday, July 8, 2024

‘Slightly Scarlet’ is Mostly Camp 1956

Rhonda Fleming & Arlene Dahl as sisters, one good & one bad, and both are
"Slightly Scarlet!"

Slightly Scarlet, a latter day film noir from ’56, teams starlets Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl as sisters, with John Payne as the mister who makes their heartbeats flutter.  I always got Fleming and Dahl mixed up, more for what they had in common than any real resemblance: red hair and creamy skin; born two years apart with long lives (Fleming, 97 & Dahl, 96); six marriages; successful business careers; and eternal glamour.

The stars of 1956's "Slightly Scarlet": Arlene Dahl, John Payne, and Rhonda Fleming.
Fleming's good sister has good reason to look concerned!

A genial leading man for most of the ‘40s, John Payne became a dour film noir or western hero in his ‘40s, much like Dick Powell. Slightly Scarlet is loosely based on a James M. Cain novel, Love’s Lovely Counterfeit. The movie plays like a mashup of Cain’s Mildred Pierce and many crime noirs where the hero, like Payne’s Ben Grace, gets his hands dirty playing both sides to the middle. On the political side, Ben tries to butter up a local hero who’s running for office. On the flip criminal side is “Solly” Caspar, a thug whose temper comes in handy, and who Ben tries to handle him with care, with mixed results.

The above tawdry tagline pretty much sums up the stakes of 1956's "Slightly Scarlet."

The opening of Slightly Scarlet reminds me of a Douglas Sirk soap opera. Each member of the love triangle gets their own dramatic close-up. The good sister-bad sister trope was one of Hollywood’s favorite film plots. The good sister was a bit shady in this film, even though Rhonda Fleming plays June Lyons more like a lamb. Frankly, the women’s angle is more entertaining than the gangster noir, the plot of the anti-hero in over his head with gangsters has been done a hundred times before. The big shoot out finale involves the four leads, with bad sister Dorothy Lyons losing her grip, good sister June suffering nobly, bad boy Ben dying nobly, and Solly shooting everyone in sight.

The opening titles of 1956's "Slightly Scarlet" remind me of a Douglas Sirk soap!

Rhonda Fleming's June Lyons arrives to pick up troubled sister from prison,
in 1956's crime noir, "Slightly Scarlet."

Arlene Dahl as Dorothy Lyons, just sprung from her cage, in 1956's "Slightly Scarlet."

John Payne as Ben Grace, prison paparazzi, in "Slightly Scarlet."

Rhonda Fleming's sis later sees Ben Grace's talent at capturing those special moments,
 in 1956's "Slightly Scarlet."

Rhonda Fleming does well enough as the good sister, who seems a bit self-rationalizing, and a very successful secretary to her sugar daddy boss. Fleming is glam at all times—even her nightgown straps have rhinestones on them! Rhonda looks stunning in her tailored secretary attire and a va-va-va-voom doll in her casual wear. Then there’s the bad sister, played by Arlene Dahl. A precursor to Kitten with a Whip, Dahl’s Dorothy Lyons does everything but roar. “Dor” blames her troubles on her sister, yet always relies on June to bail her out. Dorothy is over the top since she embodies all of the three “O’s”: Klepto, nympho, and psycho! An ex-con just out of prison, as soon as Arlene opens her mouth, every tawdry line is an accusation or an insinuation. I kept wishing for Eleanor Parker’s dramatic chops! The camp value comes from Dahl’s misguided performance of deranged Dorothy. Her playing reminds me of Lucy Ricardo pretending to be a vamp. Both sisters fall immediately in love with weary John Payne, which seems ludicrous. At least the crazy sister has an excuse for her lack of judgment, but Fleming’s June, with a cake job and silver daddy boss—what’s up, sister? Even when Dahl’s alone, she’s posturing and purring. When she steals a pearl necklace, Dahl’s doll drapes them over her head, jutting out her jaw and emoting like Norma Desmond as Salome. The scene where Dorothy is using a back scratcher like a sex toy is an amusing eyebrow raiser. Arlene is sexy in the same overt way that Jennifer Jones and Bette Davis played in King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun and Beyond the Forest. What’s interesting is that Rhonda Fleming got one of her big breaks in 1945’s Spellbound, where she played—yep—an unhinged nympho!

Arlene Dahl's a campy scream as unhinged sister "Dor" in 1956's "Slightly Scarlet."
Arlene Dahl's psycho sister is a real cutup in 1956's crime noir, "Slightly Scarlet."

The director of Slightly Scarlet is Allan Dwan, who has a devoted following of fans, in regards his 50 year history in Hollywood, with some 125 films to his credit. And Dwan lived as long as his leading ladies—96. The stunning color and visuals, the musical score, and lovely leading ladies are well-utilized by this old pro here. Slightly Scarlet is basically a B movie upgraded to a B+ because of Dwan’s solid style and the star watching.

John Payne as bad boy Ben Grace always looks like he has a headache, in 1956's
 "Slightly Scarlet."
Hey, eyes up here, John Payne! Rhonda Fleming upstages Payne in "Slightly Scarlet."

John Payne acted until the mid-70s and while Fleming and Dahl were just in their early 30s, their best days onscreen had already passed, according to ‘50s Hollywood wisdom. However, all three stars became successful business people, as they phased out of full-time acting, yet occasionally performed onstage and in television, to their fans’ appreciation. Slightly Scarlet may be campy, but it is highly colorful fun.

When the leading lady brushes her hair silently, something's up! Rhonda Fleming
in 1956's colorful noir, "Slightly Scarlet."

Arlene Dahl was considered one of Hollywood's great beauties in the 1950s,
seen here in 1956's crime noir "Slightly Scarlet."

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Gene Tierney Reunites with Otto Preminger: ‘Whirlpool’ 1950


Gene Tierney thinks she has troubles as a kleptomaniac in "Whirlpool."
Wait till she meets Jose Ferrer's hypnotist!

20th Century Fox upper middle class luxury meets lurid film noir via a charlatan hypnotist, in 1950’s Whirlpool. The con man (Jose Ferrer) takes advantage of a well-to-do housewife (Gene Tierney) who is a kleptomaniac. Once David Korvo has a hypnotic hold on Ann Sutton, he sets her up for murder.

Gene Tierney's Ann Sutton is under hypnotic suggestion to carry out crimes in
1950's "Whirlpool." The good news is she sleeps like a baby!

Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was hoping for another Laura, as Whirlpool had the same director, female star, and composer. As the smooth-talking hypnotist, Zanuck wanted an elegant villain along the lines of Laura’s Clifton Webb. Filmed in mid-1949, I understand why Jose Ferrer was considered a casting coup at the time, as he was a huge Broadway hit as Cyrano de Bergerac.

Gene Tierney's troubled housewife falls under phony Jose Ferrer's spell in 1950's "Whirlpool,"from 20th Century Fox.

However, I think Fox should have stuck with one of their charming cads, Vincent Price or George Sanders. Ferrer is all sonorous voice but looks and acts like such a little weasel that it begs why someone like Gene Tierney would give him the time of day. At least with the two Fox stars, they had stature and good looks that allowed them the guise that hid the wiles. Or best of all, James Mason, who had a great face and voice, and was new to American movies.

Jose Ferrer's unctuous hypnotist is short on charm & long on creepy in "Whirlpool."

 Richard Conte seems somewhat miscast as Ann’s shrink hubby Bill, but Conte at least has conviction. I think that Conte is a handsome, solid, and intense actor. Conte would have thrived over at WB playing either cops or robbers; he has that kind of face. With those piercing eyes and jutted jaw, Conte always looks like he is gonna belt somebody!

Richard Conte is the psychiatrist husband of Gene Tierney's kleptomaniac in
1950's "Whirlpool."

Charles Bickford is always instantly believable, here as no-nonsense Lt. Colton, who finds the whole story beyond belief—and he's right! The police detective is also mourning the recent loss of his wife, which gives him some depth.

Charles Bickford is the no-nonsense police detective solving a nonsensical crime in
1950's "Whirlpool."

Barbara O’Neil, beloved by film fans as Scarlett O’Hara’s mother and   memorable as the deranged wife in All This, And Heaven Too, plays one of Korvo’s victims. To distinguish O’Neil as the older woman, she is given a skunk-like white streak in her dark hair! Her performance is much more subtle.

Barbara O'Neil's older socialite tries to give Gene Tierney's matron some friendly
 advice in 1950's "Whirlpool."

As for Gene Tierney, I've always admired her great beauty, class, and intelligence. Tierney always seemed to do best in roles where she seemed other-worldly. Here is no exception, given that Ann Sutton's under hypnosis half the time. There's a certain amount of psychology here, with a wife who seemingly has everything, but resorts to shoplifting for some kind of release. Tierney's performing is not electric, like Bette Davis, or deeply empathetic like Ingrid Bergman, but she performs well within the studio era’s stylized acting. 

Hey, when hypnosis doesn't work, drastic measures are required! Jose Ferrer and
 Gene Tierney in 1950's "Whirlpool."

Even for a studio era film noir, the plotting in Whirlpool is preposterous. The movie opens with moneyed suburban matron Tierney getting busted for shoplifting in a swanky LA store. When Ann Sutton is escorted to the manager’s office by security, onlooker David Korvo follows, and imposes his opinion about the awkward situation. In reality, the security would have escorted him out before he could finish his first sentence! Nor would anybody in their right mind meet with this obviously smarmy character in public, despite red flags galore. I won’t give away the finale, but it goes beyond the pale of believability.

One of the most unbelievable scenes, Jose Ferrer in 1950's "Whirlpool."

At the time, Whirlpool was considered an “A” picture, though it feels a bit minor by today’s standards. Zanuck had a personal hand in this film, the book was considered a hot property, Ben Hecht was the screenwriter, etc. And yet, all the ingredients didn’t create a memorable melodrama.

Part of the problem was the miscast leading men, plus neither were particularly box office magnets. Which meant the burden of carrying the picture fell on Gene Tierney’s slim shoulders. Even in her greatest vehicle, Leave Her to Heaven, Gene was bolstered by a strong supporting cast. As Laura, she got great support from Dana Andrews and especially, Clifton Webb. Tierney was a leading lady who always benefited from a strong leading man.

The direction by Otto Preminger, score by David Raksin, cinematography by Arthur C. Miller, and costumes by Oleg Cassini for then-wife Tierney are all top class. But the characters don’t click, due to off-target casting and absurd plot contrivances. Whirlpool is worth a watch, but it’s not exactly a hypnotic film.

Richard Conte and Gene Tierney call it a night in 1950's "Whirlpool."

My take here on Laura, the first and best of four films that Gene Tierney and Otto Preminger made together: