Over at StinkyLulu’s, the latest Supporting Actress Smackdown throws a spotlight on 1956. Reviewing the nominated performances for that year, Lulu and cohorts make some interesting observations - as always -then rebestow the trophy on the lady who stirs up the warmest Smackdown reaction. As it happens, the Academy’s roster that year is one of my least favourites. Virtually all chosen from movies I simply don’t like. The bloated GIANT, lofty reputation inexplicably intact, sits firmly near the top of my “I don’t-get-it” list . THE BAD SEED I find stagey and overstated. BABY DOLL tries to shock but tends to bore. And as for WRITTEN ON THE WIND, well, my appreciation for Douglas Sirk is fairly limited. The first 30 minutes or so of LA HABANERA make a pretty compelling showcase for glamorous Nazi-era superstar Zarah Leander. I also like certain elements of HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. And I’m glad Sirk’s work was there to provide a template for Todd Haynes’ brilliant FAR FROM HEAVEN. But that’s about it. I’ll take Haynes. You can have Sirk . Certainly you’re welcome to WRITTEN ON THE WIND, a picture that shoves buckets of soapsuds down people’s throats with the inevitable result – bad taste on a massive scale. The ’56 nominees were Mercedes McCambridge (GIANT), Patty McCormack and Eileen Heckart (THE BAD SEED), Mildred Dunnock (BABY DOLL) and Dorothy Malone (WRITTEN ON THE WIND). With the exception of Heckart (I just don’t dig her – ever), I’ve enjoyed all these ladies immensely elsewhere. But these particular performances I’d never have nominated. I was about seven when they first came out. And since I was already movie-crazy, they were certainly on my radar. But they were all pretty much marketed as “Adults Only” fare. And I didn’t get to see any of them till years later. When I eventually did, my reaction to all of them was more or less the same - “Is that all there is?”
My movie memories from 1956 are vivid – but revolve around an entirely different batch of films. I recall that
A similarly towering movie memory of mine from ’56 centers on another cinematic slice of antiquity. I prefer my peplum Jesus-free. And as a kid I was a Greek mythology junkie. So when a massive billboard dominating our town’s main street began trumpeting the imminent arrival of Warner Brothers’ HELEN OF TROY, I was practically doing cartwheels. I couldn’t wait. Everything I wanted from a movie seemed to be encapsulated on that billboard. Massive city walls, a kick-ass Trojan horse, clashing armies and a face that looked as if it really could launch a thousand ships. As in the case of The DeMille film, when I finally got to see the picture I was 100% satisfied. I saw it over and over. First-run, second-run and beyond. Rossana Podesta and Jack(Jacques) Sernas were suddenly my favorite screen team, temporarily sidelining Abbott & Costello. Even now when I hear the names Helen and Paris, theirs are the faces I see. I found myself reading everything I could about the movie and its stars. What I didn’t find out, I just made up. I remember telling my grandmother that they’d held a world-wide beauty contest and Rossana Podesta had been unanimously certified as the world’s most beautiful woman – the only one worthy of playing Helen of Troy. Don’t know if my grandmother believed me. But she seemed to go along with it for my sake. Fabricator I might be - but I was her little fabricator. I can remember staring into the window at Franchi’s (half confectionery, half barbershop) at their single copy of the Dell classic comic book of HELEN OF TROY, with its enticing cover-shot of Rossana Podesta in purple. Ten cents. But it was ten cents I didn’t have. I’d already spent my allowance so I begged and cajoled my mother to advance me next week’s. She said no and wouldn’t budge. And that Holy Grail of a comic book disappeared from Franchi’s window a day or two later, destined for the home of some undeserving so-and-so who I'm sure didn't want it as much as I did. This Dell movie classic bobbed around in my consciousness one way or the other for decades afterwards.
In the summer of 1956 my parents took me along on a trip to Duluth. And I nearly had a seizure when I spotted a movie theatre that was playing the next Podesta film - SANTIAGO, a Warnercolor opus that teamed her with another of my favourites, Alan Ladd. I’d already heard about it. But it hadn’t reached our neck of the woods yet. I remember another bout of pleading and wheedling. Please. Please. Please. Can’t we go in and watch it? For whatever reason, it was no go. And I had to wait till it finally showed up in my Canadian hometown some weeks later. But see it I did, love it I did – and this time – with ten cents in my pocket just when I needed it most - I even managed to get my hands on the Dell movie classic edition. Guess I just assumed there’d be an endless series of Rossana Podesta movies in the days and years to come. So I was pretty disappointed when she just dropped off the radar. Seems after a short sojourn in Hollywood she simply went back to Europe. Continuing her film career - but in foreign-language movies far from the Hollywood spotlight. The Sophia Loren level of stardom she’d seemed destined for never materialized. For one thing, during the 60’s she worked almost exclusively with her husband Mario Vicario, a minor director. He kept her busy – but in nondescript vehicles, few of which ever seemed to wash up on this side of the ocean. It’s a crying shame she never worked with Fellini or Antonioni or Visconti. Never fully explored the artistic potential she clearly possessed. She and Vicario divorced years later but by that time her her film career was nearing its end. And after co-starring with another legendary Italian actress, Alida Valli in a warmly reviewed drama called SEGRETI SEGRETI, she quietly retreated from the spotlight, leaving on a grace note. In 1979 I had an unexpected opportunity to meet Rossana Podesta. And to say this childhood heroine of mine lived up to my expectations is sheer understatement. Still gorgeous, she turned out to be a kind, charismatic lady – warm and generous. And still fully capable, I’d imagine, of launching at least a thousand ships. Not too long ago I learned that Rossana Podesta’s now the mate of Walter Bonatti, a famous Italian mountaineer/journalist. As romantic a figure in his own right as she is in hers. What’s more, the relationship seems to be working. They’ve been together for more than 25 years. Sometimes travelling, sometimes living quietly in a lovely rustic home in bucolic Dubino, Italy. A happy fate for the beautiful lady who –as Helen of Troy - made so many hearts beat faster in 1956.
And speaking of 1956. that brings us back to the Supporting Actress Smackdown. Though I don’t care for any of the five performances nominated in ‘56, I do think there were a number of award-worthy turns that went unacknowledged that year. Debbie Reynolds, for instance, gave what I’d say was the performance of
My old favourite THE TEN COMMANDMENTS didn’t chalk up any acting nominations. But I think a number of the participants were certainly nomination-worthy. A totally invested Nina Foch shows what a
One of ‘56’s unsung joys – and a feast for actress lovers - is the wry western THE KING AND 4 QUEENS, with Clark Gable and a passle of feisty women all angling to get their hands on some hidden outlaw gold. Every one of the female roles in the film is sharply crafted. Eleanor Parker – in the last of her peak performances - bristles with a sexy caginess. Jo Van Fleet’s commanding as ever. Sara Shane rings a few decorously spiky changes in the girl next door, while professional birdbrain Barbara Nichols carries on with screechy expertise. But my favourite of the ladies is Jean Willes. She’s Ruby, a no-nonsense tigress with
But my trophy that year would’ve gone to another hard-boiled B-movie icon of the era.
Adele Jergens was the ne plus ultra of brass-plated blonde glamour girls. Stunning, statuesque – she could’ve done duty as a carved figurehead on the prow of a ship. With an Olympian quality that distinguished her from the rest of the underworld blondes. Her floozies were authoritative, her strippers headliners. Even her voice was commanding. And she knew how to use it to make a man feel like a big shot or a worm. If she didn’t exactly create the tough blonde prototype she certainly refined it to perfection. Onscreen, Adele Jergens operated as arm candy of the most imposing sort, the arm generally belonging to a mobster. Flashy clothes, bracelets up to her elbows, fifty bucks for the powder room. These were her hallmarks. Status, disreputable but profitable – not romance – was generally the keynote of her onscreen relationships. When any gangster, shady promoter or con artist wanted to convey the fact that business was booming, Jergens existed as the perfect accessory. The living equivalent of a flashy car.
She’d first come to prominence as Miss World’s Fairest ( New York World’s Fair, 1939). Then paraded over to Broadway for a season or two as a showgirl. A brief gig as Gypsy Rose Lee’s understudy suggested that Jergens’ future didn’t lie in dewy ingénue roles. On the West Coast, a stock contract at Fox led only to bits, but Columbia signed her in ’44 , placing her first in an Irene Dunne-Charles Boyer comedy called TOGETHER AGAIN (a great picture by the way), as a stunningly groomed stripper who always keeps her hat on. Fan mail started arriving and Columbia began making plans for their new acquisition. She starred with Cornel Wilde in an elaborate Arabian Nights vehicle A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS – shot in eye-popping 40’s Technicolor. Seen today, the color and Jergens’ drop-dead glamour are practically the only things the picture has going for it. Otherwise, it focuses relentlessly on bad comedy with Phil Silvers mangling scene after scene with his mugging. Still, in ’45 audiences turned up in big numbers. Trouble was, when it came to glamour girls, Columbia pretty much concentrated their resources on their one true superstar, Rita Hayworth. The studio’s few big vehicles tended to go to her; the other girls usually spent their time shuttling from one B-picture to another. Which is where Adele Jergens wound up. THE WOMAN FROM TANGIER, WHEN A GIRL’S BEAUTIFUL, SLIGHTLY FRENCH – and other titles just as obscure. The fact that she was good in these quickies didn’t seem to get her any closer to stardom. When Rita couldn’t do femme fatale duty in the noirish DEAD RECKONING opposite Humphrey Bogart, it looked as if Adele’s moment might’ve come at last. But in the end the studio borrowed Lizabeth Scott to do the honors. Jergens’ questionable consolation prize? A couple of scenes in Rita Hayworth’s latest big-budget musical, DOWN TO EARTH. This is the opulent stinker where Rita plays the Greek goddess Terpsichore descended to earth to save Larry Parks’ floundering Broadway show. And it’s every bit as stupid as it sounds. Jergens is cast as the temperamental star Rita replaces. Trouble is the little we get to see of Adele onstage is a lot more diverting than the pretentious Parthenon claptrap Rita serves up. The picture’s a kind of horribly misconceived precursor of THE BAND WAGON. With Hayworth eventually abandoning the high-falutin’ stuff for the good of the show – and doing it Broadway-style. Except what’s presented here as Broadway pizzaz is also lousy – a kind of stumblebum version of Agnes DeMille set to a score that ought’ve been strangled at birth. It all constitutes an awful waste of the awesome Rita, leaving Jergens’ brief musical sequence (vocals dubbed by a young Kay Starr) and her attendant temper tantrum the film’s only claim to actual entertainment value. Rita was the reigning love goddess of the 40.s
A year after DOWN TO EARTH . Adele co-starred with future 50’s love goddess Marilyn Monroe
In a quickie called LADIES OF THE CHORUS. Considering Monroe’s enduring status, I’m always surprised this picture isn’t more talked about. It’s the first big part MM ever had – and she’s charming in it. It’s like seeing one of those garden-fresh Norma Jean Baker photos from the 40’s suddenly come to life. The script is Simple Simon stuff, probably whipped off a few hours before the cameras started cranking. But top-billed Adele and wide-eyed Marilyn are both good company for an hour. The two play mother and daughter burlesque queens – which sounds a lot kinkier than it plays, believe me. Considering the film’s utter lack of anything that could be construed as raunchy, they might as well be mother and daughter stenographers. The fact is, though, that Adele, barely out of her twenties herself, was playing the mother of an actress in her early twenties. Which may reflect Jergens’ singular lack of ego. Or maybe the fact that her status at the studio was so precarious she took whatever was offered without a murmur. Certainly Columbia couldn’t have been too concerned about her image if they were willing to rush her into “mature” parts so soon. Whatever the case, both Adele and Marilyn played their roles with ease and precision. Even the songs were better than the twaddle on offer in DOWN TO EARTH. Both ladies got to perform a little dandy called “Every Baby Needs a Da Da Daddy” and did it up brown. Whatever, Jergens was freelancing by the end of the 40’s. By which time she’d honed her Juke Joint Jezebel persona to perfection. Hers was the blueprint others copied, but seldom equalled. Unfortunately, it was not the kind of character Hollywood was writing leads for. She was always on the sidelines, frequently up to no good - but sometimes just spitting out withering one-liners to put punks in their places. And she inevitably looked good doing it. One of Jergens’ specialties (and nobody did it better) involved scenarios where she had to coax something out of some hapless buffoon. Huntz Hall, say, or – even better – Lou Costello. In ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN(1951), she’s gangster’s moll, Boots. Assigned to convince babe-in-the-woods Lou (mistaken for a prizefighter) to throw a match. She first vamps him at a nightclub, hilarious as she alternately coos over Costello and gives Abbott the deep freeze. “I live at the Ritz-Carlton ,” she purrs invitingly to Lou. “So do I” pipes up Bud. Jergens shoots a quick dirty look in his direction and says “I hope you like your room”. Ouch! Later, having lured Lou up to her suite, she sidles up to him in a black negligee and -needless to say – reducing him to silly putty doesn’t take long. But the interplay’s marvelous, with Lou babbling and blundering, while Jergens alternates her come-ons with sublimely exasperated side-glances that say “give me strength!”.
I also love her in AARON SLICK FROM PUNKIN CRICK, a breezy 1952 musical commentators seldom mention except to dump on it. I’m super-fond of the picture myself. Most of it’s filmed in the open air, a nice change from those misguided attempts Hollywood frequently made to reproduce the outdoors on a soundstage. Dinah Shore and Alan Young lead the cast as neighboring farmer/sweethearts. Doris Day and Donald O’Connor would’ve been sensational. But Shore and Young do quite nicely, thank you. None of the songs were hits. But they’re all good – and presented with plenty of zip. Veteran Minerva Urecal, usually an
It’s worth mentioning that Adele bears a striking resemblance to another actress who flourished at the same time. That would be Virginia Mayo, who also arrived in movies in the early 40’s. She, however, was the lucky recipient of a big buildup from Samuel Goldwyn, who gave her leads (frequently opposite Danny Kaye) in a string of splashy color vehicles. They were all box-office hits, establishing Mayo as a sizable name. Later, at Warner Brothers, she sustained the momentum through much of the 50’s. Mayo and Jergens looked so much alike they could have been sisters. Some pretty seasoned movie fans still have trouble telling them apart. And though film-makers went to some lengths to soften the image, Mayo was generally at her best playing the kind of hard-boiled, well-enamelled blondes that were Adele Jergens’ specialty. But while Mayo worked opposite big names like Gregory Peck, Alan Ladd, Bob Hope and James Cagney, Jergens scratched around for a living, often in precarious B’s like RADAR SECRET SERVICE, FIREMAN SAVE MY CHILD and BLUES BUSTERS(with the Bowery Boys). Which isn’t to say she wasn’t her usual striking self in all of them. But as Mayo moved from one plush vehicle to the next, Jergens had to be content with scraps. The finest performance Mayo ever gave was in William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OUR LIVES – as Dana Andrews’ floozie of a wife, only satisfied when she’s rubbing shoulders with the low-lives at Jackie’s Hot Spot. Jergens could’ve done that role to a golden turn. Maybe not better than Mayo (who was admittedly terrific) but surely just as well. I always felt it would’ve been only natural for Adele Jergens to harbour at least a modicum of resentment towards Virginia Mayo. Surely she’d have been ecstatic to land just one of Mayo’s innumerable palmy assignments. And considering that onscreen each had such an effective line in hard-edged dames, I’d have thought if they ever met, it might well have been daggers at dawn. Turns out I was all wrong. Apparently Jergens and Mayo were bosom buddies – and remained so all their lives -long after their film careers were over and done with. Instead of seeing themselves as rivals, they apparently hit it off - genuine kindred souls. Certainly they seemed to have identical tastes in grooming - both projecting the same hard platinum gleam. What’s more, while most of Hollywood’s onscreen good girls seemed to change husbands like they changed hairstyles, Jergens and Mayo each married once – and for keeps. They may have played calculating vixens in the movies. But apparently – in real life – they were nice women who lived long and relatively happy lives with husbands who loved them. Both ladies chose macho actors as mates. For Mayo it was burly Michael O’Shea. For Jergens, Glenn Langan, a slab of prime beefcake who spent a few palmy years at Fox as onscreen consort to some of that studio’s tastiest leading ladies (Gene Tierney, Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell). Langan eventually left the movies and became a fairly successful businessmen. As I said, Jergens and Mayo remained close over the years. I have an image in my head of the two of them – glamorous peas in a pod - poised to enter some swanky nightspot together. They synchronize compacts - a little dab here, a little dab there – pause for a nod of mirror-imaged mutual approval , then sweep in to rock the room.
Maverick film-maker Roger Corman was just getting started in the mid-50’s, producing and directing shoestring quickies, then finding ways to get them into theatres. An expert at wringing the last gasp of value out of every dollar, he built a lean, efficient little no-frills movie-making operation. While the major studios sweated buckets of red ink, Corman – canny, resourceful and tireless –churned out the kind of cheap but exploitable product that kept drive-in owners and their audiences hollering for more. Gunslingers, baby face killers, dragstrips and devil worshippers – Corman tried them all and tried them often. A string of cut-rate sci-fi titles yielded especially tasty profits. In typical 50’s style, the posters promised shocks and sensations the films themselves stopped well short of delivering. Which isn’t to say Roger Corman’s stripped-down little programmers didn’t have their pleasures. For one thing, Corman had an eye for talent and was an expert at roping interesting actors into his projects. Sometimes these actors were (at least hopefully) on the way up. But more often they were veterans on the way down – performers the majors studios regarded as used up. Their commercial heydays may have passed , but years of experience had sharpened both their expertise and adaptability. The kind of performers who could hit their marks and get it right on the first take. Dorothy Malone, who’d definitely turned heads as a Warner Brothers contractee in the late 40’s seemed to be fading when Corman signed her for a pair of mini-budgeters in 1954. THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, a ramshackle race-car opus, had a particularly shot-on-the-fly feeling to it. But Malone was terrific. And just as good in the Corman western that followed (FIVE GUNS WEST). Somebody must have noticed. Because within a year or so, she was Hollywood’s newest Golden Girl , sweeping up to the podium to collect an Oscar for the plushly produced WRITTEN ON THE WIND. Corman, meanwhile, was still working at breakneck pace – turning out, among other things, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi-er called DAY THE WORLD ENDED. This was no 2012 by any stretch of the imagination. Black and white, shot on scruffy-looking sets with a few quick forays around Griffith Park, it was pure guerrilla film-making. But the script has a clunky immediacy. And the cast is excellent. Headed by Richard Denning, who’s always been a favourite of mine. Evergreen charm, Lustre-creme hair, reassuring good-guy aura and a silverlode of a speaking voice. There’s a lot of things I hate about 1958’s AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER. But one aspect that particularly sticks in my craw - how on earth could Deborah Kerr have possibly dumped him for smug Cary Grant?
Anyway, DAY THE WORLD ENDED has scientist Paul Birch and daughter Lori Nelson holed up in their isolated rural bunglalow after some sort of massive nuclear event. Outside, most of the world’s population seems to be either dead or mutating into nasty bargain basement monsters. Seems Birch, having predicted something of this sort all along, has organized enough provisions and precautions(???) to see him and Nelson through the worst of it. Gradually, however, they’re joined by a rag-tag assortment of stragglers, who (so far) seem to seem to have escaped the worst effects of the nuclear haymaker. Cooped up together, everybody’s soon on everybody else’s nerves, with tempers flying and provisions dwindling.Among those gathered – hunky archaeologist Denning, old prospector Raymond Hatton (and his mule) And best of all, barging and griping their way onto the scene in a top-down convertible, come small-time hood Touch Connors and his flashy peroxide blonde girl friend. Connors was an up-and-comer who eventually morphed into TV star Mike Connors (“Mannix”). He’s in the groove here, mean and antsy, complete with itchy libido and itchier trigger finger. The woman with him? It’s our Adele. And here – in this hastily thrown together set-up – she gives the performance of her life. Her name’s Ruby - and she’s lost none of her caustic edge. Still able to deliver a put-down that’s the psychic equivalent of a well-placed knee to the groin.But Ruby’s older now – probably pushing forty. Nowadays any woman with sufficient amounts of disposable income, vanity and motivation can stave off middle age till she’s a pensioner. Back in the 50’s, things were different. If you were forty, nobody took you for twenty. And there weren’t any pills or potions back then potent enough to permanently dispel that sinking feeling that the party was basically over. Especially if – like Ruby – you were a stripper who’d seen better days. From here on in, the good times were something you might occasionally glimpse in the rear-view mirror. Ruby’s still feisty – but her headlining days are over. No more belle of the ball. Her much younger boyfriend sees her as a meal-ticket. And even on those terms, it’s getting harder to hang on to him. Plus – of course – there’s that little matter of a nuclear holocaust hanging over her head. Jergens puts her well-oiled prototype into play. But here it’s only a jumping-off point. The budget’s miniscule, the shooting pace hectic . But the pressure seems to inspire her – and though the context may be shaky, the role’s pretty sizable. Picking up on the energy level around her, Jergens doesn’t falter, gradually exploring facets of her screen character she’d never really exposed before. When Ruby first drops anchor in her new surroundings - a jolt of tawdry, tough-as-nails glamour- it’s clear she’s a little past her sell-by date. Squeezed into a strapless floral number. Clutching a bedraggled fur stole. And fixing her makeup – just in case. Looking for all the world like a weary dime- a- dance gal sizing up the latest batch of suckers. She’s no shrinking violet – nor is boyfriend Connors, who’s soon waving a pistol at anyone who looks at him sideways. For her part, Ruby doesn’t raise any objections. This is how most of the men she knows generally operate. What’s fun to watch are the gradual changes the situation starts to work in her familiar persona. She remains flashy, of course – an enjoyably crass visual counterpoint to her surroundings. It’s a hoot watching her lean against a fireplace in a flared, terraced hacienda-style skirt while Paul Birch reads Bible passages aloud. Inconspicuous just isn’t her style. But instead of crumbling under the pressure of the situation, Ruby starts to blossom a bit. Initially she’s no fan of daisy-fresh Lori Nelson (having caught Connors leering in the girl’s direction). But Nelson’s unencumbered niceness eventually wears down her defences and the two become unlikely buddies. Nelson in a sundress holding a watering can, Jergens inevitably gaudy (at one point she hauls out the top that should’ve gone with that Mexican mariachi skirt; it’s an explosion of cascading off-the-shoulder ruffles and she pairs it with a tartan semi-kilt). But, as I said, the girls are soon thick as thieves. Even donning bathing suits for a dip in a nearby pond (about as advisable, I’d have thought, as a picnic at Chernobyl) But it does give the two of them a chance for some splashy bonding. Hearing a few twigs crack on the shore, Nelson gets all nervous Nellie about possible mutant interlopers. To which Jergens, ever the pragmatic exhibitionist, responds good-naturedly, “Oh, it’s probably one of the men. Boys will be boys.” Ruby’s good-hearted side continues to assert itself in a budding friendship with old Pete, the prospector. They sneak out back regularly for small-talk and a few guzzles of home-made moonshine. She even smuggles