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Monday, June 05, 2006

Gene Tierney --- Part 2

Training camp war movies have always been more pleasurable for me than the combat shows. For one thing, you’re not stuck in one place. When it’s Bataan or Wake Island, you know those guys aren’t going anyplace, other than a last reel eternal reward, and there’s no stopover in the base canteen or the officer’s dance like you get in the campers. No dress uniforms either. Just dirty fatigues that get dirtier as the enemy gets closer. For all the fun of To The Shores Of Tripoli, Buck Privates, and Fox’s new DVD release, Thunder Birds, there is the flip side reality of early-in-the-war calls to alarm where our boys were outnumbered and often overrun, and it’s no fun seeing Bob Taylor or Dana Andrews facing hopeless odds. Campers were designed to enhance enlistment. Recruits were assured of excitement and romance on a training base. Senior officers often as not had daughters like Maureen O’ Hara, and to uniformed victors went the spoils, be it Anne Baxter, Jane Frazee, or in the case of Thunder Birds, Gene Tierney. Flying fields were like baseball diamonds. Just a couple of loops, and the boys would adjourn to a night club to hear Betty Grable sing or a dress shop to pick up some nylons and flirt with Gene Tierney. War was never hell in a trainer. Thunder Birds has Preston Foster swooping down for a aerial peek at Gene in her water tank bath --- business as usual when you’re a flight instructor --- and later on, romantic rival John Sutton takes time off his training schedule for a Technicolored moonlight horseback ride with the same Miss Tierney. Was army life ever like this? Must have been pretty intoxicating stuff for impressionable boys just finishing high school --- why wait to be drafted when you can sign up now and get a date with Gene Tierney? Thunder Birds was one I’d not seen --- it never seemed to turn up in 16mm or syndication --- and though it lags a bit here and there (even at a brief 78 minutes), there’s still a lot of satisfaction in seeing a Fox Technicolor feature from this period on DVD --- and this one looks stunning (as witness Gene Tierney in this color frame).

Those Sunday rotogravure sections were ideal for glamour shots, and by the time Gene Tierney achieved stardom, the fan magazines were running high gear with color pages and Kodachrome covers. These portraits are typical of what a quarter could buy in those days. Leave Her To Heaven found Gene in a swimsuit again, and this was far and away her biggest commercial smash, due in no small part to that shocker moment when she lets Daryl Hickman drown in the lake. That scene alone generated word-of-mouth that brought out mobs of curiosity seekers. Never had a leading lady behaved like this on screen. I’ll bet the auditorium silence was deafening during those few minutes. It still packs a queasy wallop today. The Razor’s Edge was said to be the most expensive black-and-white movie ever made up to that time. For such a monster grosser ($7.0 million worldwide), there was only $450,000 profit at the end of the day, and by then, a post-war slump was already on the horizon.

Divorcement decrees, changing audience habits (they were changing alright --- moving into suburbs and giving up movies), and eventually television --- all these eroded the industry and especially Fox. 1947 started the flow of red ink, and by the following year, it was a torrent. Gene Tierney in a bad picture lost money (That Wonderful Urge), but so did Gene Tierney in a good picture (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir --- it came up short by $650,000). She wasn’t alone. All the women on 20th payrolls suffered --- Betty Grable was in one loser after another after Mother Wore Tights, Linda Darnell was re-routed into low-grade westerns and mysteries, new personalities like Peggy Cummins proved impossible to launch. Gene Tierney fell into the quagmire of what we worshipfully now call "film noir" --- back then, it was a black-and-white ghetto for fading actresses no longer trusted with Technicolor or best-seller adaptations --- instead of Gentleman’s Agreement and Forever Amber, she got Whirlpool, Where The Sidewalk Ends, and Night and The City. All these were commercial failures, and critics couldn’t be bothered. We love looking at them today, but in the late forties, you couldn’t walk down the street without tripping over a crime thriller, and Gene Tierney could scarcely have increased her fan base for having appeared in them (now, of course, they’re some of the films for which she’s best remembered).

Personal travails increased as the career wound down --- friends and family started noticing irrational episodes around 1952. Tierney thought she could cure it with increased work. Plymouth Adventure was released that year. One of these days we’ll do a posting on this underrated gem --- for now, I’ll merely refer to it as the first and only Mayflower noir --- take away his period outfit, and Spencer Tracy could be the anti-hero in any post-war urban landscape. Plymouth Adventure failed commercially. School kids on a field trip would no doubt have been put off by the bleak mood, and others must have seen it as further evidence of Metro’s artistic decline --- it’s still misunderstood today. Clark Gable helped Gene spend some of MGM’s frozen funds in Never Let Me Go, rescuing her from behind the iron curtain --- it too lost money. She made a last stand with Humphrey Bogart in The Left Hand Of God --- he recognized the signs of a mental breakdown, having had a sister with the same problem, so he knew just how to get her through the shoot. Later on, she’d barely remember making it. This would be Gene Tierney’s final starring role. She’d live another thirty-six years, several of those a resident in various institutions, before a Texas oilman (and ex-husband to Hedy Lamarr) rescued her. There was a memoir published in 1979 called Self-Portrait, and that led to some talk show appearances, but she was fragile to the end. Emphysema finally got her at the age of seventy in 1991. She’d started smoking at the beginning of her movie career in the hopes it would help lower her voice. Finally it did.


Blogger Flutopia Unchartered said...

what!! you mean film noir in the past was considered as a "garbage can" for fading actors/actresses? film noir is one of my fave film genre..well that's hollywood

11:23 PM  
Blogger convict 13 said...

Another excellent Blog John. I love Gene Tierney, think she was one of the most beautiful women to appear in movies. I think she was a fine actress too, I just love "Leave Her to Heaven" she plays the boating scene to perfection. One of my most favourite movies is The Ghost and Mrs Muir and I was surprised to read that it wasn't successful, do you think because it was a period piece at a time when people were looking forward to the Atomic Age?
Once again thanks for your excellent work,

6:11 AM  

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