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Monday, June 15, 2009

I Want Leonore Lemmon To Have Done It

In a few hours, it will have been fifty years. I don’t recall George Reeves’ death from age five for frankly preferring the Mouseketeers and being resentful upon occasions when my brother switched over from them to The Adventures Of Superman. Others can tell you where they were and describe impact to psyches approached by no happening since. For my present immersion in all things related to that mystery shrouded event, you’d think I was among those hit hard on June 16, 1959, but having known several (lifelong) fans who were, maybe there’s cause for thanks at having been spared the blow. Something about a Perry Mason episode Ann and I watched last night brought the whole thing to at least a moment’s clarity, even as I struggled to view the twenty-five inch TV set we’d set up in a retro den at my parent’s former house we’re fixing up. Remember when consoles looked really big? I don’t think ones that size were available back when George was doing the series. It was a shock to realize I’d need glasses to watch it now. Perry Mason harks from an era when death, crime, and investigation of same were low-tech in the extreme. There’s a relaxed tempo to bodies being discovered and suspects fingered. As we watched, I imagined Lieutenant Tragg being called in on the Reeves matter. He’d putter about, glance at a shell casing, and maybe flirt momentarily with Leonore Lemmon. Anyway, the whole thing would be put to rest by daybreak of the 16th (if only Perry had intervened and cleared things up!). I’ve wondered if alcohol’s involvement made George’s death less consequential to authorities. That plus the fact he was a sub-level celebrity off a cancelled series living in a modest house. He just wouldn’t have mattered as much in 1959. TV’s Superman Kills Self on the front page did indeed sum up adult bemusement, if not indifference, over a costumed oddity watched on tiny screens in black-and-white by kids at risk of trying to emulate flying stunts off home garages. Could grown-ups have imagined the exhaustive investigations eventually to be made by those just lately born when it happened?

June 1959 headlines had cruel thorns. Here’s your hero, they said to kids. No wonder it hurt so much. Reeves’ off-screen image was just too pristine for such a thing to make sense. Nothing published so far had blighted him. That might be another way of saying no one paid much attention, and maybe if they had, we’d have known more of George’s frisky ways with Eddie Mannix’s wife and party girl Leonore. As it happened, his apparent suicide was a first and therefore all the more shattering disillusionment for Superman’s followers. No one saw this tragedy coming. What we’ve learned since make events of that night play like locomotives rushing toward collision. George did keep volatile company. Plus there were guns in the house. Mix that with copious liquor and 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive was a powderkeg just poised to detonate. I have an impression (from movies and star bios?) that people drank more in the fifties. That’s the dark side of a decade otherwise preferable to now. Men seemed always to be wearing jackets and ties and kept handkerchiefs in pockets. I’m figuring George did for that last outing to the Brown Derby with Leonore. But for saucing and arguing into harm’s way with her, he might still be here, or at the least more recently deceased, but there’s a feeling of inevitability about this man’s early death. Bullet holes in floors at the house and some family history of suicides speak to that. Much as I hate admitting it, the Beverly Hills Police look to have got things (mostly) right. Just the same, I’ll continue pinning it on Leonore. She was the kind capable of shooting a man, or at the least waving a gun for his failure to come through with an engagement ring. I see her pulling George’s Luger out of its drawer and drunkenly pointing. He grabs it and Pow. That’ll remain Greenbriar’s public stance until someone proves otherwise.

How many remember seeing The Adventures Of Superman when it first showed up on TV in color? It was 1965 down here. Neighbors (several) had sets and one afternoon left me stunned for discovering Channel 12 in Winston-Salem running the venerable series with deep, stunning multi-hues. Yes, color did look richer then. Ann told me that a child’s senses register such things more vividly. Our perception actually dulls as we get older. I hate hearing that, of course, as it bodes not well for the future (my 16mm dupe of The Adventures Of Robin Hood looked like a blast off rainbows in 1974 --- would it seem so today?). The Superman episode had Perry White encountering a literal Great Caesar’s Ghost. It was one of those you’d not watch but for color (heck, I’d not give a row of beans for the series itself if not for George Reeves). Jan Alan Henderson in American Cinematographer says these were shot in Cinecolor. Their palette is limited, but what’s there is intense (seen Invaders From Mars?). 16mm prints of Adventures Of Superman from the sixties were indeed startling (all the more so when you could find one --- most have by now turned Eastman red). Reeves’ suit jumped off my screen when I ran a few in college. I wonder if actual Cinecolor prints exist. That would really be something to see.

They’ve always paid off as much for luck as merit in Hollywood. How else do you explain George Reeves not becoming a big feature star? Here are stills from movies where he appeared (sometimes fleetingly). You glimpse George in any of these and wish leading men would cede center ring to him. There’s the real Reeves curse, and we get the brunt of it each time he comes and goes too soon in somebody else’s picture. There was a glimpse in 1956 of a future that might have been. Westward Ho The Wagons! had Reeves billed down the line below Fess Parker and character actors trekking westward in Cinemascope and Technicolor (and undistinguished as it is, Westward should be available on DVD). To my notion, George was the surer promise of leading men at Disney, not well intentioned but dull Fess Parker. I’d submit that had he lived, Reeves would have covered most if not all of Brian Keith’s (for instance) starring roles at that company. Age lent George greater authority. He’d have been ideal in Richard Egan’s Pollyanna role opposite Jane Wyman. Reeves in A Tiger Walks and Those Calloways would have at the least made them better pictures if not memorable ones. Long-running vid series during that 60’s flush when programming was so ideally suited to action heroes doubling as father figures would seem a natural had Reeves lived. An Irwin Allen project might actually have justified itself with George starring. Of all the actors to die prematurely, he’s the one I think would have shined brightest had destiny given him another decade to work. It’s pointless now to contemplate that, but today of all days permits such indulgence, and it’s a cinch I’m not alone in wondering how things might have turned out had 6/15/59 played out differently. Likely as not The Adventures Continue will address this and other matters relative to the anniversary and have many insightful things to say about it. They are the Web’s premiere Tribute to George Reeves and The Cast and Crew of the Adventures Of Superman and continually up with something fascinating on the subject (there’s also a really neat message board). By all means go there on this 50th and see what they’ve got cooking!
Here's that photo of George with Superman and The Mole Men producers Robert Maxwell and Bernard Luber that ran briefly as a Greenbriar banner several weeks back.
Look at us, George, not her! Reeves with Fred Crane and Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind.
Reeves in real-life uniform during World War Two.
The lost Leonore in her prime and long afterward.
George seated while bigger names stand in Blood and Sand.
A local TV ad for the syndicated Adventures Of Superman.
There's a wall between Reeves and stardom in The Strawberry Blonde.
George in character as Merle Oberon's boyfriend in Lydia.
Cowboy sidekick to Hopalong Cassidy at United Artists.


Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

John, as usual you've come through with another gem. I particularly enjoyed your speculation of roles perfect for George post-1960.

Here's something you might not have known: George auditioned for Henry Hathaway's "Woman Obsessed" in 1958. He didn't get it because, as reported by columnist Mike Connolly, "the producers didn't want audiences snickering at Superman." The role went to Stephen Boyd, and the picture went into general release three weeks before that fatal night. Could that have been another nail in George's coffin?

My just-released book, "Flights of Fantasy," shatters the "kiddie show" myth. With certainty we can say:

1) "Adventures of Superman" had a large adult audience, and
2) George knew this.

Maybe the adults weren't clamoring to him like their kids were, but by 1954, George knew that his career would be forever entwined with the Man of Steel, and I think he was okay with that... at least until 50 years ago tonight.

9:24 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

My Grandmother(on my mom's side)got a color set around 1966..I remember being startled to find that not only Superman,but Cisco kid and the Lone Ranger were in color too..Wasn't till later that I realized how old alot of those(particularly Cisco) were and still wonder who,in like 1955,could afford a color set,when a regular black and white brought a hefty price..
I always loved Reeves as Clark could see what a smooth dude he was..

11:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Michael, I never knew that George tested for "Woman Obsessed." Very interesting. Also want to say how much I enjoyed your recent two-part story on Pernell Roberts and "Bonanza" at your site, "Better Living Through Television," and highly recommend it to readers ...

Christopher, I too remember being surprised to see "The Cisco Kid" and "The Lone Ranger" in color. Were either of these shown that way during initial 50's runs?

6:42 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

""The Cisco Kid" and "The Lone Ranger" in color. Were either of these shown that way during initial 50's runs?"


9:21 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Hi, John -- Once again, your site has a first: this is the first mention I've seen anywhere of the color process used in the series. I always thought it was unusual that we never saw any lab credit (Technicolor, Pathecolor, Eastman). It never looked like Tech to me -- not on those budgets!

I'd always thought the intention was Cinecolor, given the design of the perennially orange-and-turquoise office sets, and three-color Supercinecolor would have accommodated the red-and-blue costume. But Cinecolor had become Color Corporation of America by 1954; I wonder who really did the work?

I've always admired George Reeves as a performer. He could be authoritative or good-humored or even funny, as the occasion demanded. Even in his humblest pictures (the Elsa Maxwell two-reelers, anyone?) Reeves is a joy to watch. I think I'll watch ARGENTINE NIGHTS tonight, and listen to him sing.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

The Great Bolo is undoubtedly right: those TV shows weren't broadcast first-run in color. But networks were dabbling in color at least as early as 1956, and maybe before. If I remember correctly, CBS tried a color system that only certain sets could receive, while NBC (which became the industry standard) broadcast some important shows in what was called "compatible color" (i.e., a B&W TV could show it in B&W). Even the producers of budget fair like Superman and The Lone Ranger could see that pervasive color TV was only a matter of time (though it took longer than they probably expected), and they decided shooting in color would give their shows a longer shelf life. Clearly, they were right. (David O. Selznick had the same instinct about movies. Nobody else would have bothered making Nothing Sacred or A Star is Born in Technicolor; some people even tried to talk him out of it for Gone With the Wind.)

1:58 PM  
Blogger Armand Vaquer said...

It is interesting to speculate on what George would have ultimately done had he just went to bed and slept through that night.

Funny thing about the color broadcasts, while I was aware of them in the mid-1960s, my mother wasn't until she watched a Mike Douglas Show that had Noel Neill on as a guest. They showed a clip from "The Wedding of Superman" and that was the first time my mom ever knew the show was in color. That was an eye-popper for her.

I posted my own blog a month ago on George's death. Here's the link:

9:37 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Armand, I read your Reeves entires and they are just great! Everyone should check out this terrific site. There is much fascinating stuff about George there.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Old Bob said...

John, great tribute to George. I remember seeing TAOS in color for the first time in the mid sixties (over WGN). We did not own a color set. I think I might have been at Montgomery Wards looking at their tv display.

8:02 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I vividly remember reading the news the morning of Jan. 17 in the San Francisco Chronicle, and your post sent me to the California State Library to check my memory against their microfilm. I remembered a banner headline in the morning edition ("'SUPERMAN' KILLS SELF"), but by the final (microfilmed) edition, it was a smaller front-page article.

My other vivid memory, of reading about Leonore Lemmon's behavior that night, was borne out by the microfilm. "He's going to shoot himself," she blurted as Reeves went upstairs. The others though she was joking, but she went on: "He's opening a drawer to get the gun." According to the Associated Press:

"Then a shot was heard. 'See there -- I told you!' Miss Lemmon exclaimed."

John, you say you want Leonore Lemmon to have done it. Well, my first and strongest impression of the news is from that AP story in the Chronicle. If they got it right, I say she did.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One frustrating afternoon about 1967, we were watching a color SUPERMAN on Boston's ch.7, but the set wasn't adjusted right and it appeared to be in Black and White.I kept begging my mother or grandmother to adjust the horizontal hold so the Color would come in, but they refused(I wasn't allowed to touch the set).My mother argued: "This show is old!George Reeves is DEAD!" That was the first I'd heard of Superman's demise.I told them that Superman had been in color the day before, and my grandma said "sometimes we think we saw things in color that we didn't". Parents can be stupid!

1:56 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I have to comment on today's banner pic of Elvis. The "one picture" was, of course, "Tickle Me" (1965), and it's my favorite Elvis flick for two reasons: 1) The songs were largely culled from 1960's "Elvis is Back" album; undoubtedly his best until the Memphis sessions late in the decade. 2) Everything else about the film is wrong on SO many levels! I love how vet director Norman Taurog tried to turn Presley and Jack Mullaney into Martin & Lewis. It's my understanding that the receipts from this adventure kept Allied Artists' doors open another year. Marvelous! Hopefully you've got a posting about this baby in your future, John!

2:06 PM  

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