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Preston Sturges

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Many critics have noted that the life of Preston Sturges played like one of his movies – crazy and comedic, with lots of twists and turns. He was a man of many ambitions who became the first – and arguably, the greatest – writer/director in Hollywood history.

Sturges was born Edmund Preston Biden on August 29, 1898. His mother, Mary, was an independent woman who dumped her husband when Preston was an infant and sailed to Europe with her son to pursue a singing career. In Paris she met the dancer, Isadora Duncan, and moved into her studio when they are said to have become lovers. Returning with Preston to the U.S. in October of 1901, Mary married Chicago stockbroker Solomon Sturges, who adopted the boy; Edmund P. Biden was now Preston Sturges.

At sixteen, Sturges quit school to manage the New York branch of Maison Desti, a successful cosmetics company his mother opened in Paris, and became so good at the cosmetics trade that he invented the first kiss-proof lipstick.

After the war, Sturges returned from the Army Signal Corps and married his first wife, Estelle, a divorcee with a trust fund. She divorced him in 1927 and he returned to his stepfather in Chicago, broke and brokenhearted. He tried songwriting, with little success. Taunted by an actress girlfriend that she was only dating him to get material for a play she was writing, Preston decided to write a play of his own. “The Guinea Pig” opened on Broadway on January 7, 1929, to good reviews. In September of that year Preston’s second play, “Strictly Dishonorable,” opened to raves.

Preston Sturges Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan’s Travels

Sturges’s next few plays were failures, as was his second marriage to another heiress. By 1932, Sturges was penniless and single again. So, like a character from one of his movies, he was off to Hollywood to repair his fortunes. He intended to stay a short while. He stayed for one of the greatest careers of all time.

Sturges first worked on an unproduced adaptation of H.G. Wells’s “The Invisible Man” for Universal. Next he wrote another drama, “The Power and the Glory” (1933) on speculation (without a paid advance). A producer liked the script and gave Sturges $17,500 and a percentage of the profits. This was one of Hollywood’s first “percentage deals” and caused an uproar among the conservative studio chiefs; unfortunately it was more of an uproar than “The Power and the Glory” caused at the box office. It bombed, leaving Sturges a percentage of nothing.

Sturges worked on many scripts through the 1930s, including “The Good Fairy” (1935), “Diamond Jim” (1935), and “If I Were King” (1938). By 1936 he was one of the top-paid writers in Hollywood at $2,500 per week. He bought a big house in the Hollywood Hills, opened a restaurant on the Sunset Strip, and got married for the third time. But it was an old script about a vagrant who becomes a governor that changed his life and Hollywood forever.

“The Great McGinty” (1940) had been written by Sturges back in 1932. Sturges wanted a shot at directing it. In exchange for giving him the director’s chair, Paramount paid only one dollar for the script. It was a gamble that paid off for everyone. In 1940, Sturges wrapped “The Great McGinty,” then wrote and directed two other comedy classics, “Christmas in July” (1940) and “The Lady Eve” (1941). Sturges won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Great McGinty” in 1941, then wrote and directed “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) and “The Palm Beach Story” (1942).

Preston Sturges

World War II was raging and so was Sturges’s career. He added the title of Producer to his next few films. The results included “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944) and “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944), regarded as two of the greatest screwball comedies of all-time. By the end of WWII, Sturges was flying high, until he formed a partnership with a man who knew a thing or two about flying high himself – Howard Hughes.

Hughes, the aviation multimillionaire, formed California Pictures Corporation with Sturges in 1945. Like a bad plane, the partnership quickly crashed and burned. Sturges wrote, produced and directed “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” (1947) and undertook the same chores for “Vendetta” until Hughes pulled the plug. Sturges went to Fox and wrote, produced and directed two failures. During this period, his third wife left him.

The 1950’s found Sturges out of the Hollywood mainstream. He dabbled in playwriting but scored his biggest financial hit when the State of California bought the land under which his home stood to make way for the Hollywood Freeway. Sturges re-married for the fourth time and started a new family. Rejuvenated, he was half-finished writing his autobiography when he died on August 6, 1959.

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Richard Todd

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Richard Todd The Virgin Queen

Even in his 1950s heyday, a lot of people would have thought twice before crossing a busy road to see Richard Todd. Yet he was enormously popular. With clean-cut, chiselled features you could cut your hand on, nicely proportioned shoulders and more virtue up front than a van-load of Bibles, Todd looked as if he had come off a drawing-board instead of having been born the usual way. Wisely, he made the most of what he had, which could be summed up as an inability to sit still while there was a horse to leap astride, a swollen river to swim, or a tree to vanish into.

His first big success was as a dour Scots Guards corporal in The Hasty Heart (1949, Vincent Sherman). The setting is a wartime Burma field hospital, and Todd, unknowingly, is riddled with some fatal disease. He is arrogant and dismissive, more difficult to handle than a Scots football fan at closing time, but everyone else, including fellow patient Ronald Reagan and nursing sister Patricia Neal, knows that his number is up so tolerance prevails.

Looking every inch a stage weepie – which it originally was – the story rumbles on towards a predictable climax, with Todd learning of, and coming to terms with, his condition, but not before a rather pathetic attempt to woo Miss Neal – ‘I’ve good teeth,’ he insists. Todd’s playing is in tune with the sombre mood of the piece and his faltering, change-of-heart address at the end works reasonably well, but some of the earlier writing lacks conviction.

He was another terminal case in Flesh and Blood (1951, Anthony Kimmins), a consumptive medical student who discards pushy girlfriend Ursula Howells for some peace and quiet – only to find his action has precisely the opposite effect. Miss Howells rounds on him like a demented fishwife, hollering, ‘I wish you’d die!’ to which poor Todd, semi-convulsed in yet another coughing fit splutters, ‘I’m . . . doing . . . my . . . best!’ She gets her wish, but Todd reappears as his own grandson, an even worse cad with the ladies. ‘Do you think I’d have let you kick me around all this time without adoring you’, trills Glynis Johns, pacifist daughter of an ammunitions tycoon when, after she has carried out a chequered pursuit of the rotter, he grudgingly proposes to her.

Walt Disney picked Todd for three costume actioners, including an attempt at Robin Hood, during 1953-1954, as if determined, at all costs, to establish him as Errol Flynn’s successor. In The Sword and the Rose (1953, Ken Annakin) and Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1953, Harold French) only the costumes, and Miss Rice were changed. Disney brought in his Flesh and Blood co-star Glynis Johns, plus Robin hoodlums James Robertson Justice and Michael Gough.

Todd risked being adversely compared with Errol Flynn for a second time as Raleigh to Bette Davis‘ Elizabeth in Virgin Queen (1955, Henry Koster), which did nothing for Todd, but reminded audiences how far ahead of his imitators the charismatic Flynn had been in his heyday.

Todd rose to the bait as wartime flying ace Guy Gibson in The Dambusters (1955, Michael Anderson), a pleasantly restrained performance projecting strength of character without showiness. Todd had not been an easy actor to accom- modate dialogue-wise, but the hero of the Mohne and Eder dam raids settled on his shoulders like an expensively tailored jacket, and the film, whose over-reverence for its subject was its only obvious flaw, was hugely successful.

Several factors helped to maximise its impact. There was Todd’s remarkable physical resemblance to Gibson, and Michael Redgrave’s to Dr (later Sir) Barnes Wallis, the bouncing bomb’s dogged inventor; there was the near-documentary feel of the early experimentation sequences, the squadron briefings and the raid itself; the despairing loss as well as the triumph expressed by Redgrave as the dreadful death toll becomes known, due as much to the dangers of low flying in the dark in a target zone surrounded on all sides by steep hills as to the enemy’s defending battery stations; and there was the stirring theme music by Eric Coates, impossible to hear then or now without the spirits being stirred.

Richard Todd

Nothing much stirred watching D-Day Sixth of ]une (1956, Henry Koster), which used the Normandy landings as backdrop for a turgid love triangle involving Todd as a British colonel, Dana Wynter as his girlfriend, a cross between Mary Poppins and a toothpaste commercial, and Robert Taylor as a married Gl captain who fills in for Todd while the lad is engaging the Hun elsewhere.

Even though it means putting the china doll-like Miss Wynter in storage for a while, Todd is no shrinking violet when the call-to-arms comes. ‘I have a singular theory – the quicker more of us go, the quicker more of us’ll come back,’ he tells Miss Wynter. Her grumpy old retired defence chief dad is in agreement – ‘A bit of cold steel now is worth twenty Americans later,’ he urges, before killing himself because he is too old to kill others.

Miss Wynter’s tally falls short of twenty Americans, presumably because not enough of them looked like Robert Taylor. Their dreary, lukewarm affair has to be heard to be believed. Apologising for her father’s dismissive attitude towards LIS troops – they meet originally when Taylor is sent along to smooth out an incident involving her father and a group of Gls – Miss Wynter explains rather grandly: ‘We [meaning the British] are not much good at being thank- ful. We haven’t had an opportunity to he thank- ful to anyone, except maybe God, in several hundred years.’

Later, on a dance floor, she ticks him off: ‘Don’t be cross but would you mind awfully not calling me Honey.’ Sitting in a cafe overlooking the Thames, the watchful Taylor acknowledges the presence of the moon. Miss Wynter coos, ‘Please God, let him be looking at it,’ apparently unaware that any soldier staring at the moon is unlikely to notice an enemy sniper creeping up behind him.

In the end. Miss Wynter loses both of them. Taylor is badly wounded in action and shipped home to the USA, and Todd is killed when he trips over a land mine on the newly-liberated beachhead.

Richard Todd

It took the filming of a real-life heroic naval incident, the escape from Chinese waters of the RN frigate Amethyst in 1949, after months of blockading, as Yangtse Incident (1957, Michael Anderson), to restore Todd’s prestige after D-Day Sixth of June. Todd played the ship’s commander, the redoubtable Commander Kerans – a part which suited his sharp-eyed, closed-mouth style comfortably – and the tension of the wait in Communist waters followed by the ship’s nimble getaway down the Yangtse River under cover of darkness, was graphically conveyed without the need to resort to expensive special effects.

In Danger Within (1959, Don Chaffey), a wartime POW drama, Todd was a paratroop colonel who heads the obligatory escape committee, plagued on this occasion by the presence of a mysterious traitor. He appeared against type in Never Let Go (1960, John Guillerman), as a seedy cosmetics salesman whose car is nicked by sadistic Birmingham car-thief Peter Sellers. In the conflict that follows, Todd is the underdog but he comes through in a way that Sellers could never have anticipated. This was an intriguing – but not altogether successful – pairing of two stars playing outside their familiar selves.

By the early 1960s, he was beginning to run out of steam. He played a Gary Cooper-style lawman in The Hellions (1961, Ken Annakin), urging the inhabitants of a remote 19th-century South African township to find their backbone and repel Lionel Jeffries’ outlaw gang. In The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin) he risked re- minding us of his earlier Normandy landings caper, in a small role as a British Army major, again refreshingly brisk and stiff-upper-lip among hordes of laconic Americans.

In one of his later films, Asylum (1972, Roy Ward Baker), a modest Amicus horror compilation, Todd’s was the first story, a loony tale in which he and lover-doll Barbara Parkins bump off and dismember his troublesome wife, Sylvia Sims. He packages the assortment of odd limbs in neat brown paper packs, and stores them in a freezer till he can get around to final disposal. But the victim refuses to rest in pieces. Like a well- drilled football squad, the gory parcels gang up to inflict a nasty surprise on Todd and his girlfriend.

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Howard Keel

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Howard Keel

He may be best known to younger generations as Clayton Farlow on Dallas, but Howard Keel had a vast and impressive film career before settling down on Southfork. In more than thirty film roles throughout the 50s and 60s, Howard starred opposite some of Hollywood’s most notable legends.

Born Harry Clifford Leek in Gillespie, Illinois, Howard was working as a representative for Douglas Aircraft Corporation in Southern California when he was selected for a role in the Los Angeles Theatre Guild. He worked on Broadway in Carousel and Oklahoma before landing the role of Boke in the 1948 British thriller The Small Voice. He was 29. A role in 1950’s Pagan Love Song followed, but it was his role in the Oscar-winning Annie Get Your Gun that gained Howard real notice.

Obviously deciding film adaptations of popular musicals were a good idea, Howard chose as his next film 1951’s Show Boat. Playing Ava Gardner’s leading man, Howard helped the film become the second highest-grossing film of that year.

Howard Keel

Thanks to a string of not-so-memorable films, Howard’s career treaded water for the next couple of years. In 1953 he redeemed himself, however, by starring in the Doris Day rendition of Calamity Jane. Equally successful was that year’s Kiss Me Kate, starring Howard and Kathryn Grayson. And in 1954, he co-starred with Jane Powell in the Academy Award-nominated Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

After 1959’s The Big Fisherman, the quality of film roles Howard was accepting began to decline. He chose more commercial films, mostly westerns and science fiction films, and as a result, his audience began to narrow. In 1968 he seemed to disappear altogether, possibly never to be resurrected, if it weren’t for a certain TV show that was looking for an opposing father figure.

By the time Howard joined Dallas as Clayton Farlow, it was already in its fourth season. Viewers were watching in droves and Howard’s role — to stand up to the vicious Ewings — would require an authority and confidence only a veteran actor could deliver. After a brief flirtation with Sue Ellen, Clayton became involved with the matriarch of the Ewing family, Miss Ellie. By the end of the series, the characters would marry.

After Dallas’ end in 1991, Howard appeared in the TV movie Hart to Hart: Home is Where the Heart Is and hosted both That’s Entertainment! III and The Making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Keel died in 2004.

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Robert Wagner

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Robert Wagner

Robert Wagner proved to be more than just a pretty face. An enduring and versatile entertainer, he had many successful Hollywood incarnations: from awkward juvenile lead to bobby-sox idol to assured leading man to television star and finally back to captivating character actor. The Brylcreem Kid, as he was known in the early days, turned out to be a major talent.

Born February 10, 1930, in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Wagner was not supposed to become an actor. The son of a wealthy steel executive, Robert was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and achieve great things in the world of business. But Robert caught the acting bug instead, and moved to Los Angeles before he was twenty to pursue his dreams.

His good looks and easy going manner got him into films and soon he became a contract player for 20th Century Fox. One of his first notable roles was in a unique John Ford war comedy called “What Price Glory?” (1952) which put him on screen with the likes of James Cagney. The film was originally intended to be a musical, though the final cut only contained two songs. The Ford film got Wagner noticed and he quickly appeared in a slew of smaller roles in films like “With a Song in My Heart” (1952) and “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952).

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood

Robert with Natalie Wood

Wagner soon progressed to leading man status in films like “Prince Valiant” (1953). But while the roles were getting bigger, they weren’t very challenging, and Wagner still wasn’t taken very seriously as an actor. Woman-kind swooned over Wagner’s all-American looks and every bobby-soxer wished they could take him to their prom. In 1954, however, Wagner got the chance to cut his teeth on a more serious role and display his talent in Edward Dmytryk’s riveting western “Broken Lance.”

Wagner seemed well on his way to establishing himself as a serious actor with another lead role in the western “White Feather” (1955) and the crime drama “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956), when suddenly his personal life completely eclipsed his professional life. In 1956, he met the love of his life, Natalie Wood. In 1957, they married in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hollywood trumpeted their marriage as the most “glittering union of the 20th century.” The public could not hear enough about the two love-birds and were ecstatic when they made their first film together, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” (1960). The moroseness of the film, however, turned out to be prescient: While the two appeared to be the perfect couple, living the perfect life, they were actually living on the edge and running out of money.

The two were deeply in love, but professional and financial stress began to take its toll on their marriage. Wagner was being overshadowed by new male leads like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, while Wood was placed on a fourteen month suspension by Warner Bros. for refusing to shoot a film in England. They couldn’t afford to upkeep their $150,000 mansion on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, they couldn’t live up to the shimmering facade the tabloids had created, they couldn’t get the work they wanted in Hollywood. They wound up divorcing in 1962.

Wagner was a wreck after the divorce and went to Europe to film “The Longest Day” (1962), in part to assuage his grief. On the rebound, he married his old friend Marion Marshall in 1963. Still unable to regain his leading man status, Wagner tried his hand at comedy in “The Pink Panther” (1963) and at mystery in “Harper” (1966) — in which he played a supporting role to the man who had contributed to edging him out of the spotlight: Paul Newman. Reluctantly, Wagner went into television to star in “It Takes a Thief” (1968). The new medium resurrected his career, and he went on to star in many TV movies and several TV series, including the one he is most known for, “Hart to Hart” (1979).

While Wagner’s professional life was once again thriving by the late sixties, his personal life was not. He was still desperately in love with Natalie Wood, though he was still married to his second wife and Wood was newly married to British producer Richard Gregson. Each had a daughter. Wagner was divorced again in 1970, and one fated day, in 1971, Natalie and Robert ran into one another in a restaurant. The years of hardship and strife disappeared; the old magic was back. Wood divorced Gregson and the two love birds re-married in 1972 on their yacht, The Splendour.

Their second marriage really was picture perfect. The two were overjoyed to be reunited, and raised their children together happily. They made three television movies together during this time: “The Affair” (1973), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1976), and “Hart to Hart” (1979). Then, in 1981, tragedy struck and Wagner’s life was shattered again. Under mysterious circumstances, Wood slipped from the deck of The Splendour and drowned. Wagner was inconsolable and spent the next ten years trying to lose himself in his work, and raising Natalie’s and his daughters alone.

Wagner eventually remarried to Jill St. John, though to this day he finds it difficult to talk about his wife Natalie Wood’s death.

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