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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Phil Isley Behind Phylis

There was no persuading Jennifer Jones to sign or acknowledge fan mail. Writers that approached her got nowhere. Retirement went three and a half decades past The Towering Inferno, and except for a glimpse at a few Oscar shows, she was invisible to a public that couldn’t help caring less as those years passed by. The Internet allows for much more recognition of celebrity exits than old media could have managed, thus dozens of tributes so far this weekend (hundreds if you dig). Mine would merely be another voice, and a less eloquent one, in praise of performances she gave in Since You Went Away, Duel In The Sun, Portrait Of Jennie, and others I hope to someday post about. What’s been mentioned less is the Phylis Isley who came up during momentous days of the picture business as only child of one of the Midwest’s great exhibitors. Phil Isley began with tent shows toward what he hoped would be a career on the legit stage. He and his wife led a touring company through wilds of Texas and Oklahoma during the teens and twenties, pitching canvas in whatever tank towns would have them. Sometimes they ran silent film as chaser or to fill intermissions. Phylis sold tickets and candy from an early age. She also played child parts on improvised stages her father jerrybuilt. Chances are Phylis threaded projectors in a pinch. I’d like to think she was the first Academy Award winning actress to have personally handled nitrate film. Someone wrote of Hollywood’s future Silent Movie Theater operator John Hampton getting his start watching 35mm at the Isley’s house, with little Phylis sitting alongside as shows unspooled. Father Phil opted out of Depression blues by saving cash for expansion into talking movie cribs. He spotted areas where theatres closed for inability to install sound equipment, stepping into the breach with one, then another, screen that spoke. The Isleys prospered through lean times on a circuit Phil quickly developed through the Midwest territory. Friends and contacts nurtured there would pave his daughter’s initial way into movies.

Phylis and then Jennifer always had money behind her. Phil would accumulate several dozen venues by the late thirties and she’d want for nothing. Out-of-state schooling and acting academies were covered by revenue pouring forth from Isley theatres. Dad used exhibition’s muscle to get her into, then out of, a contract with Republic. Seems Phylis didn’t thrill to working alongside Dick Tracy and The Three Mesquiteers. When she married Robert Walker, the parents (hers) gifted them with a sky-blue convertible. Was Phylis a little spoiled even before ("A" level) Hollywood beckoned? I don’t offhand know of another actress whose father owned a string of theatres. Phylis, now Jennifer, occasionally came home to personal appear in some of Phil’s lobbies. When his grandson was born in 1941, Phil celebrated by building The Bobby Walker Theatre (ad here) in Abilene. Jennifer’s eventual liaison with David Selznick makes a kind of sense in hindsight. Maybe he reminded the actress of her father. Phil didn’t like Selznick at first, but the two shared common interest in promoting film and making it pay. They even got together during the forties on promotion for DOS releases. I found a trade article about Selznick sending one of his field men to train with Isley and get practical advise for selling reissues of Rebecca and Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. Well, who better than a seasoned theatre man? --- especially when it’s your father-in-law. Phil’s was a name forever turning up in trade headlines. He was a big noise in his territory and knew everybody. When cowboy beginner Monte Hale needed help, Isley picked up the phone and got him into Republic. He did the same later for Jimmy Wakely, only this time it was Monogram on the wire. Well, how does a producer of B westerns turn down a Texas showman with dozens of screens hosting oaters every week? Phil was always welcome on filming sets. The above photo with Russ Tamblyn was taken during 1956 production of The Young Guns. I think in the long run, I’d rather have interviewed Jennifer Jones’ father than Jennifer. His exhibiting career lasted into the seventies. That’s over sixty years with the biz. Wonder what became of all the filing cabinets at Isley headquarters. Wish they were in my house. I could post my lifetime on just what Phil accomplished during his. Could Jennifer Jones have gotten to where she did if not for this pioneer showman?

More about Jennifer Jones at previous Greenbriar Glamour Starter posts Part One and Part Two.


Blogger The Great Bolo said...

I was saddened at the LACK of media coverage concerning Jennifer's passing.

Obama's praise of Hanoi Jane got more press.


8:00 AM  
Anonymous sjack827 said...

Oh well, I think you made a very good point when you wondered if JJ would have been as sucessful a film actress had she not been the daughter of an exhibitor (and a well connected one at that).

She was a very attractive and somewhat capable actress. But she seem to lack a certain charisma or "star quality". She's been in some memorable films but she was never memorable in them. Even DOS couldn't put her over. (At least to the point where she could carry her own films)

This is taking nothing away from Miss Jones: she was beautiful, could act and I like many of her films. But she never got her hooks in me the way Bette Davis or Ingrid Bergman did. I like Carrie and Poitrait of Jenny because of their plots not because of Miss Jones.

You have to admit though, that she "did good". I mean growing up with money during the depression; achieving a dream career as a movie star; marrying not one but two millionaires. And to top it all off, living until the age of 90. One could do a lot worse.

2:50 PM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

Great MARTIN & LEWIS banner today.

Remember that we lost Dino on Christmas Day, fourteen years ago.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Dear John,

As always a nice and thoughtfully written piece. I met her very briefly many years ago when she came into The Village Theatre in Westwood with Norton Simon. She was a definate "presence" and quite elegant but I remembered thinking even then she seemed none too well.

I would also like take this moment to wish you and yours the very best of New Years'.


10:13 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks RJ. I've heard from several readers since posting this piece that encountered JJ around LA over recent years. Their impressions were very much similar to yours.

7:53 AM  

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