Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, The Saturday Evening Post published a series called “The Role I Liked Best,” where Hollywood movie icons shared why they loved playing a certain character or starring in a particular movie. Here are a few of our favorites.
Three things about the role of Manuel, the Portuguese sherman in Captains Couragous, disturbed me at the start: I had to use makeup for the first time in my screen career, I had to have my hair curled and I had to sing. “Tracy the troubadour,” I could imagine people calling me. Or “Tracy with the light-brown curls.” However, I soon got used to the makeup and curls, and the warbling was easy because Manuel wasn’t supposed to be a good singer. In fact, I had a distinct advantage over other singing members of the cast: They had to be taught to sing off-key; I did it naturally.
Other parts of the role suited me perfectly. The story, based on Kipling’s great novel, had a realistic, mature quality that pleased me. I felt, for example, that Manuel’s death scene — a deviation from the novel — was indicative of the coming of age of motion pictures, for up until that time few heroes had been allowed to die in pictures. I liked the people I was working with, especially Freddie Bartholomew, then a youngster the age of my son, John. The seagoing setting had a natural appeal for me. In shooting this picture we used two schooners, two barges, two water taxis, five speedboats, a tugboat and a number of dories. One of the most exciting parts of making this film was the race between the schooner Oretha F. Spinney, renamed We’re Here for film purposes, and the Mariner, which was once owned by John Barrymore and which had set a record in a trans-Pacific yacht race.
The essence of acting is to be somebody other than yourself, yet in portraying Gilda in the picture of that title, I was more nearly myself than in any other role. Gilda’s story was written to order especially for me, and her character tailored to fit me as carefully as the long black gloves that, in one wild scene, she takes off so suggestively.
Even without this spiritual kinship, I would have loved Gilda for the sheer excitement that surrounded her. Tension and hidden re were implicit in the setting — in romantic Argentina, in the wartime intrigues of international fascism, in the fabulous gambling casino in Buenos Aires, even in the carnival with its snowfall of confetti and in props like the 50-foot gaucho whip that I learned to brandish with menace. The idea of an American girl moving through these scenes was attractive, for I have always been fascinated by Latin American ways through family background as well as inclination.
Gilda herself appealed to me. It was easy to understand her fierce impulse to hurt Johnny Farrell by pretending to be utterly rotten. The problem in portraying her was to express this flagrant abandon yet suggest the love it camouflaged. The glove-removing scene required specially fitted gloves and dozens of rehearsals to achieve exactly the right hint of a strong passion straining to snap its controls.
Glenn Ford, heading a fine cast, which included the veteran trouper George Macready, was particularly challenging as Johnny Farrell. We lived our roles so completely that in one scene we exchanged real, stinging slaps after carefully rehearsing how to fake them.
Rehearsals for Gilda were exhausting, but a welcome change from being typed in lavish musicals. though I like to sing and dance, it was pleasant not to have to limber up for three months before facing the cameras, nor to go home after six-hour rehearsals with aching muscles. Some scenes from Gilda left me equally tired, but the fatigue was mental and was balanced by the satisfaction of creating my first important dramatic role. Public reaction was gratifying: Most fans approved of Gilda, torrid temperament and all.
It startLed me when Carey Wilson telephoned to say he wanted me to read the script of The Postman Always Rings Twice. I knew this story by James Cain had been on the shelf for 12 years, because no writer had been able to make it censor-proof. But after reading the script, I knew the Johnston Office couldn’t possibly object to it, and I was just as delighted with the role of Cora as I was with the obvious fact that Carey Wilson believed I could give a convincing performance in the part.
It may seem strange that I should choose the part of a completely bad woman as my favorite. The fact is, playing a “wicked woman” makes the audience more aware of you as an actress. This role gave me something to work with. Cora was not the usual heroine but a woman who was willing to involve herself in murder to get what she wanted.
I thought I understood the odd, twisted reasoning that made her yearn for a small piece of property out in the hills — for what she considered respectability and security — and yet, at the same time, led her to do things that ruined her chance of getting what she wanted.
I liked the all-white wardrobe Cora wore and the way she did her hair. But the high point in my enjoyment of this role came after the film was completed. Then James Cain presented me with
a leather-bound first edition of The Postman Always Rings Twice, bearing the message, “For my dear Lana, thank you for giving a performance that was even finer than I expected.
The role of Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story was my favorite because I thoroughly enjoyed playing it. I liked working with Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy enjoyed playing it. I liked working with Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart; I liked the honesty of the story and its gentle humor. And I got special satisfaction from the fact that all the money made by this picture went to the British War Relief and the USO.
I was given the choice of playing Dexter Haven or Mike Connor, the two leading male roles. I took Dexter Haven because it was a shorter part and therefore gave me a little vacation. Jimmy Stewart took Mike Connor and received an Academy Award for his performance. But if our roles had been reversed, I’m sure Jimmy would have won the award anyway.
Not long before, I had worked with Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett, which turned out to be a scandalous flop. Then I was with her in Holiday, which suffered because it poked fun at the rich at a time when that exercise had become unpopular. The Philadelphia Story wasn’t a defense of the wealthy, but it did suggest that those who happened to be cushioned with some financial plush were often quite human.
In one scene I had to hit Jimmy Stewart on the jaw. Afterward, looking up from the floor, he said, “What the heck did you do that for?”
Faithful to the script, I answered, “George would have hit you harder.”
Then Jimmy added an impromptu line that stuck. “You’ll do,” he said.
When i played what turned out to be my favorite role &dmash; Kitty Foyle — I had done many musicals and girl-and-boy stories, but never a woman’s story in which all depended on the strength of her characterization. I wanted such an opportunity, but at first I wasn’t keen about trying to portray Kitty, because I didn’t see how the power of the fine story could survive the necessary censoring for the screen. But Donald Ogden Stewart and Dalton Trumbo handled the script so expertly that I was delighted to accept. It was the best dramatic part that ever came my way. I understood and believed in Kitty, and those are requirements for the deep enjoyment of a role.
An especially enjoyable factor was the chance to play Kitty when she was very young &dmash; I had never had the fun of playing a child before. I wore Mary Jane shoes, black stockings, a silly knitted cap and no makeup. One day a big director whom I knew well walked by me without even nodding; I was amused and, of course, pleased when he turned and exclaimed, “I can’t believe it’s you!”
And then there was the inspiration of Sam Wood’s directing. He encouraged freedom of expression
by the cast; if Dennis Morgan, James Craig or any of the rest of us thought of a special piece of business or dialogue, he was always sympathetic. Thus the picture was a blend of the best ideas.
I’m proud that I had the chance to portray Kitty Foyle, and proud of the many Kitty Foyles I’ve come to know off the screen. And I bow to Christopher Morley &mash; the author who knew Kitty so well.
It is difficult for me to decide why I liked the role of Jerry Travers in Top Hat better than any other. I guess it was because Jerry was a buoyant, carefree person with a nice sense of humor. The picture itself was one of the best Ginger Rogers and I ever did together, and it was the first I ever made with Irving Berlin’s music, which helped a lot.
In a way, Top Hat marked a milestone in screen musical comedies. Nearly all the other screen musicals had dealt with the backstage problems of their characters. But in Top Hat I played the part of a successful professional dancer whose problems of love and romance came entirely from his private life.
The idea for the dance number that finally gave the picture its name came to me in the middle of the night. I woke suddenly, visualizing a row of top-hatted men. I saw myself shooting them down, one by one, with my walking stick, while I simulated the sound of a machine gun with my tapping feet. I was so stirred by the possibilities of this number that I jumped out of bed, grabbed a handy umbrella and started practicing it. Soon my sister, Adele, called from the next room of our apartment to ask what in the world I was doing.
“Oh, nothing,” I said. “I just had an idea for a number.”
“Well,” Adele said coldly, “this perhaps isn’t the best time of the day to try it out.”
That comment ended my practice session. But the dance idea persisted and finally took its place with other numbers in the picture, like “Cheek to Cheek” and “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain.”
I literally grew into my favorite role — the part of Velvet in the picture National Velvet. I started to qualify for it as a small child by learning to love horses and beginning to ride at the age of 3. When I was 4, my godfather gave me a eld horse, and soon I started jumping and steeplechasing. Later, I read Enid Bagnold’s novel National Velvet and began to dream of playing Velvet in a movie.
So when I reached a relatively ripe 13 and heard that M-G-M planned to produce a picture based on this story, I went to producer Pan Berman and told him how much I wanted the role.
“But you’re too small and frail,” he told me.
“I’ll grow,” I promised.
Afterward mother wondered why I had said that. “You know you haven’t grown a quarter inch in three years,” she pointed out.
“It wasn’t necessary then,” I said. “Now it is.”
Until then, I had eaten like a bird. But after making that promise I started packing away steaks and chops like a lumberjack. In three months I grew about three inches and gained some weight besides. Maybe Nature poked a helpful hand into my buildup program, but I like to think I did it all myself. Anyway, I got my favorite role—and King Charles.
King Charles was supposed to be a mean horse, and only his owner and his trainer were allowed to ride him. But I managed to win his trust by visiting him day after day. Then I persuaded the studio to buy him for the picture, and finally King Charles was presented to me as a birthday gift.
The role of Clarence Doolittle, the shy sailor in Anchors Aweigh, appealed to me most because it gave me a chance to portray the kind of person I understand. There are thousands of boys like Clarence, and plenty of them were in uniform. I talked to some while visiting camps and canteens and hospitals.
Anchors Aweigh was a fantasy, but because he was an understandable guy, Clarence had a basic reality. He also had a Harold Lloyd quality. Harold, as you may remember, achieved fame by playing shy boys at whom you laughed; then you felt sorry for them because they provoked laughter. The same was true to some extent of Clarence, and this made the part particularly sympathetic.
I also liked the role because I had a chance to sing some good numbers, and — this above all — because I was permitted to dance in pictures for the first time. It’s true there were those who suggested the word “dancing” was loosely used in connection with what I did. Once, after working very hard on a dance sequence, I asked Gene Kelly what he thought of it.
“Frank,” he said solemnly, “you may have set dancing back 20 years.”
Pamela Britton, who played a waitress in the film, was kinder. Once, while dancing with her, I forgot my feet completely because I was trying to get my speeches just right. Having stepped on her toes, I quickly apologized.
Pamela smiled bravely. “Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “You’re very light on my feet.”
Many moviegoers think I play bit parts in the films I direct as a good-luck gesture that ensures their success. But that’s complete nonsense. I’ve had my share of flops. Actually, I started putting myself in pictures 25 years ago in order to save the cost of extra players. I continued it from habit, I guess, or maybe because I’m just a frustrated ham.
My favorite role was in the picture Lifeboat, and I had an awful time thinking it up. Usually I play a passerby, but you can’t have a passerby out on the ocean. I thought of being a dead body floating past the lifeboat, but I was afraid I’d sink. And I couldn’t play one of the nine survivors, as each had to be played by a competent actor or actress.
Finally I hit on the perfect plan. I was on a strenuous diet at the time, working my way painfully down from 300 to 200 pounds. So I decided to immortalize my reduction and get my bit part by posing for “before” and “after” pictures. These photographs were used in a newspaper advertisement of an imaginary drug, Reduco, and the audience saw them — and me — when William Bendix opened an old newspaper he had picked up on the boat.
This role was a great hit. Letters literally poured in from fat people, asking where they could buy Reduco, the miracle drug that had helped me lose 100 pounds. Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but I got a certain satisfaction from writing back that the drug didn’t exist, and adding smugly that the best way to lose weight was to go on a strenuous diet, as I had done.
Despite its cozy title, the movie Tea for Two turned out to be pretty much a picnic for the whole cast. I’m sure I never had more fun in any part or picture than I did while playing Nanette in this film.
Because it was a musical, we didn’t have to struggle with a serious message or a deeply moving story. We could relax, which we did. We exchanged mild insults, gave one another oddly autographed pictures and made up a set of nicknames, which we still use when we meet. I was renamed Clara Bixby. Gordon MacRea became Norbert Kunkel, and S. Z. Sakall was Spike. Eve Arden was Rhoda Dings; Billy De Wolfe was Hugh Whipple; and Gene Nelson and his wife were Melvin and Anastasia Pit. To make it more picniclike, we even toasted piñon nuts on the lights of the set.
In addition to all this festivity, I had a very likable part in Nanette, a wealthy girl who wanted to get into show business. I especially enjoyed the opportunity it gave me to dance in pictures for the first time. For, although I had been trained in dancing as a youngster, I had to give it up because of a leg injury in an automobile accident.
All this was 10 years before Tea for Two, and I felt sure my leg was sufficiently strong for any terpsichorean tricks. Actually, I found that, though my leg was fine, my technique was very weak. But Gene and Miriam Nelson were wonderfully patient in retraining me.
A number of fans have written to tell me how much they enjoyed Tea for Two. But I still wonder if anyone could have as much fun watching the picture as we had making it.
The only person who was completely surprised by the audience reaction to the performance of Carmen Miranda in That Night in Rio was Carmen Miranda. I couldn’t understand why the people laughed at me. When I made this picture — my first — I thought I was acting in a drama, and I played it straight. Then, when the film was released, I was told, “You are very funny. You are a fine comedienne.” at was all news to me, but I soon began to like it, because I liked the sound of that friendly laughter.
Actually, I had been happy about my role of Carmen in this picture right from the first. Carmen, like me, was a Brazilian girl, exciting and excitable, and the picture was set in Rio de Janeiro, where I had been born. I enjoyed that, and I enjoyed the chance the picture gave me to speak in Portuguese and to sing some Portuguese songs. When I came to Hollywood, I could only speak about a dozen words of English, and the executives were worried. They thought I would delay the picture while learning how to talk. But I memorized the whole 300 pages of the script and was able to prompt other actors. Of course, I didn’t understand the story — and I certainly had no idea that I was being so funny.
This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood. This edition can be ordered here.