By Noah Howard
My grandmother had the fortune of living in Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood, moving to the City of Angels as a child in 1949 and living there ever since. Working at the star-studded Riviera Country Club as a professional ice skater and dancer, she had regular interactions with the social elite of Hollywood under the studio system. Her experiences touch on stars still well-known today, like Jimmy Stewart, Fay Wray (the woman King Kong famously brought up the Empire State Building, and Clint Eastwood, through to famed actors and actresses of the age, like Victor Mature (the heartthrob of “My Darling Clementine” and “Samson and Delilah”), Joan Leslie (a vaudevillian and dancer who appeared in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), Robert Riskin (a prolific screenwriter and Wray’s husband), the family of Kathryn Grayson (a musical talent who that starred alongside Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly), soap opera star Michele Lee, and James Arness (star of the western TV-show “Gunsmoke” that ran for twenty years). Always thrilled by her analysis of classic movies and her stories living among movie legends, I sat down with her for an interview to capture her perspective on this pivotal age in the American popular imagination.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What’s your favorite movie, your favorite movie genre and your favorite movie star?
Grandmother (M): Wow, right off the bat! Goodness gracious, my favorite movie, there are too many that I like! My favorite movie star, I think Katharine Hepburn was fabulous, I love Deborah Kerr, of course Joan Leslie. Your Aunt Joan, her original name was Phyllis, and your Aunt Barbara was president of the Joan Leslie fanclub, so she suggested changing it to Joan in her honor.
M: You didn’t know that part?
TSD: I did not!
M: Yeah, and when we came to California there was a small blurb in the newspaper that another Joan Leslie was coming to LA. Joan [the real one] came to visit us and introduced herself to us! Anyway, she was one of my favorites. And as far as the best actors, I think another of my favorites of all time would be Sophia Loren, I like her. I liked Olivia de Havilland, and of course Bette Davis, she was such an incredible actor. As far as men are concerned, Clark Gable would’ve been my favorite, but I also loved Jimmy Stewart — anything Jimmy Stewart did.
TSD: I love Jimmy Stewart.
M: He was so underrated in terms of Academy Awards! The thing he got the award for didn’t compare to some of his jobs in other movies.
TSD: What did he win the Academy Award for?
M: He got the Academy Award for “The Philadelphia Story”!
TSD: Oh, no way.
M: And that performance doesn’t compare with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” — like the bar scene, his ability to bring emotion to himself was just fabulous.
TSD: Yeah, even his performance in “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” is amazing.
M: Yeah, you know the Academy Awards tend to be political. I think they gave it to him that once because he deserved it for all the other things he never got the award for. And of course, Cary Grant! How could I not love Cary Grant? There’s too many to pick the best.
TSD: I love Jimmy Stewart in particular, because he’s the sweetest, most lovable person that’s also killed a large number of people, considering he was an ace fighter pilot in WWII.
M: Right! And an amazing actor. One of the early movies he did, it’s so funny — one with Eleanor Powell, where he sang.
TSD: He sang?!
M: Yes! He sang! Listen, in the old days, if you were with the studios, you did everything. They made you take every class, they made you study acting, music, dancing, everything.
TSD: I imagine at the very least that even a well-trained Jimmy Stewart voice can’t compare to Gene Kelly right?
M: Oh gosh no, Gene Kelly had his own genre. He didn’t have a great voice, but he had a comfortable voice. And Kathryn Grayson, she had a great voice, I named Kathy [my dad’s sister] after her.
TSD: Oh really!
M: Yeah! We met Kathryn’s daughter and mother coming out of a Broadway show. And Marsha Hunt, she was there too! I think she’s still alive — just turned 101. You might have to look her up, she was in a lot of movies but was a star with a small “s,” never made it to be a big star.
TSD: So when you met all these people — and I know you have your extremely long list of people that you’ve met — when was this?
M: We moved to LA in 1949 — I was 12 years old — and we’ve lived here ever since. And the people that I met, I once dated a fellow that I met through your aunt when she was at UCLA, who was a publicist for MGM. He was also in a fraternity, and I did some choreography for that fraternity for UCLA’s Mardi Gras. They put on a big show every year. When I came back from Europe I dated him, and I had an opportunity to double date with a lot of movie stars and go to different places where I met movie stars. Richard Chamberlain and Carol Lynley, I went on a double-date with them. [Television actor] Robert Culp, I went with him to watch him shoot skeet, I sat next to Clint Eastwood at a dinner, and he was the most quiet man I ever met. You’d ask him a question and he’d go “yep.”
TSD: That seems completely in-character.
M: It was all just by chance! I worked with a musical revue in the 60s in which Michele Lee got her start. As soon as she turned 18 she auditioned for the show, and of course she went on to become a well-known performer. And then of course working at Riviera Country Club I met all kinds of people — Sammy Davis Jr., Rita Hayworth, Donald O’Connor — and then before I left for Europe to go on the show I got a date with Victor Mature. He picked me up with my girlfriend and I — we were both ice skaters — and we went and saw a circus movie, from what I can remember, at MGM, we sat on a set and watched the set. I went out with him twice, and of course I dated Jim [James] Arness, from “Gunsmoke.”
TSD: No way!
M: Before I dated him I hung out with his assistant director and his wife, Tiny and Thalma Nichols, and they were best man and maid of honor at our [her and my grandfather’s] wedding! So I’d sit there, and I’d be at the dinner table with Velma and five other men, including Jim, and Velma would cook like you wouldn’t believe, I’d say ‘you’re feeding a crowd!’ and she’d say, ‘no, this will all be gone before we leave,’ and they did, they’d finish it off. Jim was like 6-foot-5, somewhere in that range, Tiny was pretty big too. Anyway I would spend a lot of time with them before we went out. I wanted to go out with him [Jim] once but it was a disaster.
TSD: What happened?
M: Well, because I wouldn’t go to bed with him! He took me to his apartment, and every time he started to make an advance at me, I’d be like “Oh my god! Such a gorgeous painting! I love that painting! Where’d you get that painting?” He complained bitterly that it was the start of him not having sex for three nights in a row. So that was my big date with Jim Arness!
Anyway, as far as the old movies, I’ll give you the names of some that are really good classic movies to watch. “All the President’s Men,” have you watched that one?
TSD: That’s been on my list forever, I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
M: That’s a good one, especially now in the atmosphere of our political life today. Although, you know, a lot of the ones I’ve given you are ones that I think have value and have things you can learn from. Although maybe my memory is tainted because of the movie stars. Today our movie stars don’t have the same impact to me as they did when they were on the studio level because you really followed somebody’s career more readily than you do today. And again, there isn’t the preparation for some of the actors today that they had in the studios.
TSD: That’s true, there’s no formal training.
M: No, and you have to remember, people like Gene Kelly — people that did the musicals (of course, that was my favorite genre of all, the musicals) — he [Kelly] had such a variety of forms. He could do things that were so incredible, if you think about the things they did years and years ago, before all the technology we have today — it was phenomenal. Even “King Kong,” if you look at that, with Fay Wray — who by the way, we knew very well — and Robert Riskin, it was really something. They were friends of ours, they had dinner at our house, and we would have dinner at their house, until I put a golf ball through their window …
TSD: [laughs] Wait, what’s the story behind that?
M: Well, they lived in Bel Air, and they had a big backyard, and her daughter, Susan, who was my friend, brought out dad’s golf balls and gave me a golf club, so I put a ball down and I hit it towards the house. Who could’ve known I could hit that hard? It went right through a plate-glass window! They weren’t too pleased with me.
TSD: No way! So you were not invited back?
M: It sort of waned after that. But that was great, and her step-dad Robert Riskin took us to all the baseball games, where I met Groucho Marx. He had a box, and all these characters would come by and say hi to him, so I met a lot of people that way. As I said, it’s all by circumstance when I was in a place to meet a lot of these people.
TSD: So wait, big question, you said Groucho Marx came by, right?
TSD: So did you see him without his mustache?!
TSD: Damn! He even had it out to baseball games?
M: I don’t know, but I never saw him without it at all!
TSD: There’s something else I wanted to ask you about: musicals. I’m curious what you think because we don’t get very many musicals anymore, and the ones that we do get are not very impressive, most of the time.
M: What was the musical that won the Academy Awards a few years ago?
TSD: “La La Land,” I know that’s one you didn’t like.
M: Well I didn’t dislike it, I just didn’t think it merited that level of praise. It was a musical, but it wasn’t like the old school. MGM was incredible, nobody could compete with them. “Singin’ in the Rain” is just so incredible. Although believe it or not, when it came out it was not successful.
M: Same as “It’s a Wonderful Life”. When it came out it wasn’t successful! It’s interesting, isn’t it, when all these things are so revered today. In “Ben-Hur,” for the chariot race, they say the silent one is so much more well-done photograph-wise than the later one, where they had much better ability to film. If you show the two races side-by-side it was more exciting in the silent film than in the Charlton Heston [sound/color] one.
TSD: I’ve seen both of them, and I agree. The rest of the silent film feels very dated, but the chariot race is so amazing.
M: The photography on it was incredible, considering what they were able to do at the time — they achieved so much in the cinematography.
TSD: The other genre I really wanted to ask you about was comedy. The two genres that seem to have changed the most are musicals — which in my opinion are a hollow shell of what they used to be — and comedy. The style of comedy is so vastly different now.
M: I agree with you. I have to tell you — I’m a terrible critic on comedy, because I’m not fond of too many of them. They don’t really make me laugh that much. Some do, but most don’t. You remember when I laughed at “Borat,” that kind of comedy I love. But I don’t go to the movies for comedy, it’s not generally what I like to see. And the ones that I like are the silly ones, I don’t like dirty/nasty comedy.
TSD: Specifically I bring this up because I’ve noticed that, whenever we talk about movies, which is pretty much every time we see each other, two movies that come up all the time are “His Girl Friday” and “Bringing Up Baby.” They’re comedy movies from the late 1930s and early 1940s. Modern comedy movies, and I say this liking many modern comedies, feel very much like “joke, wait for laugh, joke, wait for laugh.” And the old ones don’t actually make you laugh that much, but they’re hilarious, because they’re so fast and snappy in their writing, it’s so clever and so dense in terms of funny content.
M: Do you think partially that it’s the writers rather than the filmmakers or that the filmmakers aren’t looking at the audience and waiting for them?
TSD: I think it is probably the writers. To a large extent sitcoms have since leaked into Hollywood, much more than the older style, which is, rather than “look at us being funny,” it’s incredibly witty banter. Do you agree with that observation?
M: I don’t see the movies of today being that creative in that area, I agree with you on that. Although I’ll be honest, I don’t go that often anymore, because I don’t like the newer writing style … And [the stars are different]. How many people do we have today like Cary Grant? We don’t have any. What we’re missing are all the character actors that were in movies, one after the other. There used to be so many that came from the stage and ended up in movies in the 30s and 40s. And Arthur O’Connell [a famous character actor], I spent a day with him the day Gary Cooper died, and we were headed to Jack Warner’s [as in Warner Bros.] ranch for a barbecue (Lana Turner was also there, and I knew her so I said hi). Anyway, Arthur O’Connell was in a lot of things. We don’t have anybody [like that] today.
TSD: It was a little like having a recurring character on a TV show, but through all of Hollywood.
M: They were popular, they filled the role, and they were well-known. When you went to the movies you felt that you knew these people. And that I don’t think you get today, you don’t feel like you know them that much.
TSD: There’s such the trend now of comedic actors becoming “serious actors”. Steve Carell had a bunch of dramatic roles this year. I don’t know if you know Jordan Peele — he wrote and directed “Get Out” from a few years ago.
M: Times have changed, and the making of movies has certainly changed too. The old studio system was a good system.
TSD: There’s no equivalent now, is there? Disney is monolithic, but they’re not exactly the same studio environment.
M: No, and it’s sad, and of course the movies are making a helluva lot more money now than they did in those days, but in those days you only paid a quarter. Today it’s a little different.
TSD: I saw “Alita: Battle Angel” recently, and with the 3D and the big screen and fancy sound, it was around 17 dollars a ticket.
M: And people are impressed with all of that, but then there’s also so much on television. I don’t think they’re quite as impressed as they once were.
TSD: Especially because 3D is so often a gimmick. “Alita” was one of the first movies I’ve seen in a long time where the 3D actually did contribute.
M: Ok, anything else you’d like to ask me?
TSD: That’ll do it!
Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.