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Monday, May 27, 2024

The Universal-International School of Art and Life


Thought Balloon for Kid at Lower Left: OMG, It's Really Piper Laurie!

Where Stars Below Stars Still Get To Be Stars

To be a movie star at Universal-International was to be a fake movie star, said Piper Laurie, who knew from fifties sentence served alongside forever second stringers that was youth under yoke of U-I’s contract system, last of a breed declining elsewhere in the industry. Paramount had its “Golden Circle” that would not last, MGM developing talent beyond point where this could be successfully done, and Columbia … well, Columbia had John Derek. The 50’s was faint chance to be an acting hopeful, at least an actor built from the ground up, which many of U neophytes were. From truck driver to star was myth propagated there, no myth actually, as it worked for Rock Hudson, who as Roy Fitzgerald did manual work until fame whispered in his ear plus promise of time, as much as was needed, for him to season like beef on a spit and become an actor many if not most would respect. Same for Tony Curtis, who wanted to learn, yearned to improve, and did. Audie Murphy had steppingstone of war heroism to become a western favorite, all five foot six and ferocious of him. The women were attractive (had to be) and capable, increasingly so with back-bending work and constant publicity trials. Being a star was more advertising your stardom so as to confirm being a star, or soon to be a star as asserted non-stop on radio/TV stations across the land, theatre lobbies where card tables or countertops supplied surface to sign glossy stills, these and more done at ten to one ratio of time in front of cameras doing what you imagined was the job you were signed for. No one’s conception of stardom was borne out by reality of attaining it. For nearly all there was disillusion of one sort or other, but it was a living, and did beat driving trucks.

Don't Kid with Audie On or Off Screen --- He'd Soon Kill You as Look at You

I’ve been watching a lot of Universal-International lately, much of it pleasing, all of it better in hindsight than I might have expected. Thing about U-I is how humble a shop it was, few aspiring toward grandeur, none for award or prestige. Big stars came there to slum and take percentage of what down-market vehicles drew them, support supplied by junior varsity that was contract players all in a row to earn meager checks they were at least temporarily grateful to get. Many went from astounded by luck just being there to surly/restless for eighty-hour weeks and grueling travel (again, for publicity). Like quitting a lousy job to run away and join the circus, U-I big-top was surfeit of cotton candy to become indigestible. Over-exploited talent would read of actors elsewhere who made good movies and became better actors for doing so, an outcome seemingly foreclosed to Universal players. Tony Curtis was friends with Marlon Brando, shared digs with him a while, long enough to realize Brando had a real professional’s job while Tony wore bell slippers and kissed Piper Laurie, who he disliked both for being “Piper Laurie” and ruthlessly careerist as he was. Piper had complaints too, like U-I executives stopping by her lone table at the commissary to inspect meals and say she’d got too much, them acute-aware of weight she fought throughout U tenure. So were these youngsters mere meat for processing to theatres and more, drive-ins? Yes for most part, and they knew it. Wise or lucky ones got out, moved up, at least kept working, this possible for their having names, remembered less for movies they’d been in than fact they were or had once been, “movie stars,” if faux ones. To such slander I differ however, because seeing U-I hires today is to acquire regard for labor performed competent, theirs a modesty we can admire for doing as instructed and never over-doing, this pleasing contrast to souped-up products of suddenly fashionable technique that would severely date much of young folk acting in the fifties.

Best Meets Brightest, Both Knowing Who Acting's Expert Applicator Was

To modest I’ll add humble, this assured by Universal care in casting veteran back-up to insecure up-and-comers who had less experience than looks. A John McIntire or Ernest Borginine was rod up the back for Curtis or Audie, and the perceptive among neophytes knew it. Where Rock Hudson needed expertise to perform alongside, there was Charles Coburn (Has Anybody Seen My Gal) or someone as seasoned. The girls felt lucky playing opposite Tyrone Power or James Stewart when either deigned to visit Universal, memories from Piper Laurie, Julie Adams, Lori Nelson, happiest for kind/courteous Ty or Jim who treated them as pros and insisted on first name basis throughout shoots. These were examples to aspire to, cash they collected a goal, but how was that attained by one silly pirate or harem yarn after another? Universal meant formula rigidly applied. Yes, they spent and took serious a Stewart or Power property, but where top-lining Tony and Piper (four undistinguished times), there was little but hard sell of his wavy hair and her cottage cheese enabled curves. There always was promise of bigger things ahead. Mamie Van Doren lived on such promise until she realized none would be fulfilled. When peak of accomplishment was Star In the Dust co-starring John Agar, it was time for Mamie to fold and head elsewhere. U-I youth were clubby for sharing same struggles. Rock would cuss out brass, never to their faces, but co-labor admired his pluck and knew someday he’d tell Mr. Muhl what for. Meanwhile they all took lessons in horsemanship, sword play, dance, diction, you name self-improvement route. Mamie said frankly that this was where she got what amounted to a high school education. So did Tony. He’d pose for stills in cap and gown, despite not actually earning them. That’s OK, cause there were more smarts got at U-I than any public school could teach.

Rock and Piper ... Local Greenbriar Friend Married a Woman Who Was Named After Piper

I looked at Ride a Crooked Trail (1958), Audie Murphy versus Walter Matthau, Audie underplaying to Walter’s near-Fieldsian hanging judge, an all but comic read. Matthau came of Broadway and acting lab background, a bull in china shop that was U-I. Murphy meanwhile played close to vest and never let thesping show. Lack of confidence? Maybe (his character is named “Joe Maybe”), but Audie was Zen enough to let Walter knock down furniture toward being the bigger noise, settled star Murphy more amused than chagrined by attempt at theft of scenes. He had no pretense toward acting, Audie’s subdued style and characters believable the more to my inexpert reckoning and perhaps gratification of other modern viewers. Boys at Universal all did boxer movies, thus Murphy for World in My Corner (his trainer John McIntire), Jeff Chandler as Iron Man, and Tony Curtis twice (Fists and Fury, The Square Jungle). What was to dread for distaffs was banish to a Francis or Kettle picture. One or other was always in works, and no ingenue at U-I was spared them. Mamie Van Doren thought they were poison, a very definition of utility work. Add to misery was having to do publicity with the mule, sometimes go on stage with him/her, all for $260 a week Mamie drew. Was she better off as Joan Olander of plain beginnings? Mamie fought off crude advances by U-I helmsmen like Jesse Hibbs, no Vidor or Walsh, but with busier hands. What a life, but Mamie got last laughs by outliving virtually everyone she’d come in contact with.

Mamie Wonders If Jeff Will Get Fussy Again As Was Norm

Like or loathe them, the Kettles and Francis were low risk teaching auditoriums for talent, little if nothing at stake, chance of inviting scorn nil apart from just being in a Kettle/Francis. But were other parts so much better? Mamie did Yankee Pasha with Jeff Chandler, him with a “fussy, little old lady quality.” They were all fussy, of course, worrisome option tolling like chapel bells, with always a front office ringing them, or not. Few could be sure if this month might be their last month. Certainly none wanted ticket back to obscurity they came from. Little reminders shone often through the glitter. Tony Curtis was distinctly turned off Shelly Winters as she reminded him of nagging Mama back in the Bronx, but then Mama and Schwartz brood left same Bronx to move in with Tony/Bernie soon as he had it made, so back he was plunged to old life despite being now “Tony Curtis.” Everyone on contract had some past to escape, sixteen-hour workdays faint hardship beside what they had come from. Disappointments were borne stoically. Piper Laurie worked like a Trojan for a dance segment in The Golden Horde, only to find someone doubled her for the final print. She’d cope also with Mamie trying to cop center stage for numbers they shared in Ain’t Misbehavin,’ a U-I musical MGM need never have worried about. Premieres were a balm, even when they weren’t for your own movie. The Glenn Miller Story upon Grand Open drew U’s junior league and permitted fans to ogle stars of tomorrow. Attendance of course was compulsory. Who knows, maybe someday said juniors would appear in pictures big as The Glenn Miller Story. Annoyance was going on the road to pump someone else’s product, a bigger guest name at U-I maybe who couldn’t be bothered.

Being a Star Often Meant Getting Within Smelling Distance of Francis

Classy features were rare at Universal, done often as not by director Douglas Sirk, him applying grace where melodrama needed it, the helmer a magnet after profound success that was Magnificent Obsession in 1954. Sirks were where contract youngsters could shine brightest. Rock Hudson crossed his Rubicon with Magnificent Obsession, so back he’d be for more of approximate same. Nibbling round edges were others of his former category, Gregg Palmer sensitive and whispering his lines to Barbara Rush, both willing to stand down for leads that were Hudson and freelance noise Jane Wyman. Rock was a first breakout of his class and proved U-I star creation could work with luck and earnest application. Polite players they were, none tried filching scenes from their betters in command, thus William Reynolds in All That Heaven Allows or There’s Always Tomorrow never intruding upon Wyman, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, even Rock Hudson now that latter had graduated into leads. Hudson would see to that even if Universal bosses did not. Grant Williams had his moment in Written on the Wind, withdrew into wings with hopes he’d have another if fortune smiled (it would, with The Incredible Shrinking Man). Junior Mints who’d grow into Pom Poms elsewhere would look back amused at salad (or cottage cheese) days at Universal. Burt Reynolds wove U-I anecdotes into his talk show repertoire, telling how he and Clint Eastwood got the sack on a same day for equally obscure reasons. Latter had begun lowly as jet pilot putting the kibosh on Tarantula in 1955. Who among eager class dreamed Clint would go farthest of all? U-I output apart from famed ones, like the Sirks, are hard to track, let alone see proper. Kino has released oodles on Blu-Ray while others languish on You Tube as gift from fans to fans, which is how I lately saw Running Wild, exploitation that played double with Tarantula on first-runs, reason alone to seek it out, plus Mamie Van Doren doing spirited dance to Bill Haley and Comets (recorded), Running Wild another U-I ghost awaiting resurrection on disc or streaming.


Blogger RichardSchilling said...

This is such a great post. Indeed, the vast majority of the "stars" of 1950's Univeral output languish in forever obscurity - so much so that I wonder if even 10-20 years from now if anyone will even notice enough to write such a perceptive column.

I know mergers brought TCM the majority of their MGM/Warners film library, but has anyone ever asked for a Jeff Chandler or John Agar retrospective? Would Piper Laurie have even been given a contract for her 2011 autobiography had she not struggled to get out of Universal to co-star in The Hustler or Carrie?

Even Tony Curtis - arguably the most-well known of those 1950's contract players - has his Universal box set of films sleeping at 55,979 on Amazon's Movies And TV sales ranking.

Time will tell how many of today's stars will face a similar slide into obscurity in years to come.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

I remember hearing an interview with Donald O'Connor, who toiled at Universal for well over a decade, mostly appearing in movies no one remembers. Most of the interview concerned "Singin' in the Rain," and O'Connor had not a single bad thing to say about that movie, his experience making it, or anyone connected with it. The mood of the interview turned dark when O'Connor recalled that M-G-M wanted to buy out his contract, but Universal refused. They had a talking mule who needed its human co-star.

11:54 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Contract players were often loaned out to other studios (studios keeping whatever was paid over the actors' regular paycheck). Did Universal rent out any of its home-grown stars? Was there any demand?

As a kid in the 60s I perceived Universal as a reliable source of parent-approved entertainment, most of their movies being indistinguishable from their television product. This was when Don Knotts was a top star. Yes, they had Hitchcock and would occasionally venture beyond a G rating, but for a while they echoed the more famous but much smaller Disney operation. The fabled Universal Studio Tour was plugged at the end of each picture, Castle Films offered cut-down reels in every camera shop (remember those?), the old Universal Monsters were still moving merchandise, and a lot of Universal B product had become de facto TV series on local stations: the Monsters, Abbott and Costello, the Kettles, Francis, and Sherlock Holmes. They even shot movie versions of The Munsters and McHale's Navy (two of the latter), and became home base for late-period Bob Hope, then more a TV personality for his specials and old Paramount comedies. Universal and Disney were among the last studios whose identity, for better or worse, saturated their output.

One Universal item that doesn't seem to be on video is "King's Pirate", a 60s remake of "Against All Flags" replacing Errol Flynn with small-screen cowboy Doug McClure. I don't recall whether I saw it on TV or at the neighborhood Granada, but I remember it having that Universal buzz, with Richard Deacon of all people as a bureaucratic pirate. Fond memories that probably wouldn't survive a revisit Even them I recognized it was a kind of movie nobody was making anymore.

6:21 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

"The King's Pirate" followed another Doug McClure/Universal classic "Beau Geste" with TellY Savalas filling in for Brian Donlevy. Universal didn't bother with the Blue Water mystery and cut costs by only casting two Geste brothers. It played as a Universal double feature with "And Now Miguel" which as I remember came off like a second string Disney movie of the time.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Great post. Most of the movies I saw in my home town theatre in New Brunswick were from Universal.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Boston television always got the second-echelon 1950s stuff from Universal-International, which is now consigned to the vaults. A few of the perennials that come to mind: Finders Keepers with Tom Ewell, which is essentially a Baby Sandy picture with 1950s toddler Dusty Henley; It Grows on Trees with Irene Dunne; Ricochet Romance, the studio's ill-fated attempt to replace Percy Kilbride with Chill Wills as Marjorie Main's co-star; Away All Boats! with Jeff Chandler; the long-unseen Fireman, Save My Child with Spike Jones; The Milkman with Donald O'Connor and Jimmy Durante; and anything with Cornell Borchers or Piper Laurie for the ladies-matinée audience.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Yes, there’s no doubt that bland was the house flavor at Universal in the 50’s. Occasionally, of course, an item of undisputed quality would emerge (“Winchester ‘73”, “Touch of Evil”). But normally the studio stuck to paint by number genre stuff.
Must admit, though, that I’ve always been partial to their Technicolor sword and sand dune pictures. “Flame of Araby”(1951) with Maureen O’Hara and Jeff Chandler is assembled with particular adroitness.
And there were also some surprisingly good westerns including the 1951 Val Lewton production “Apache Drums” and Audie’s superb “No Name on the Bullet”(1950) directed by Jack Arnold. Actor Richard Carlson directed “Four Guns to the Border” a 1954 western that packed an amazing amount of sensual sizzle. One observer hailed it as Colleen Miller’s finest hour – and I think he’s right. But the whole movie’s good.
You mentioned “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, surely one of the highwater marks of 50’s sci-fi. But I also like Grant Williams’ other science fiction opus at Universal, “The Monolith Monsters”. And if we’re talking sci-fi, there’s no ignoring the sweeps you along spell of “This Island Earth”, still awesome all these decades later.
Personally I think Douglas Sirk’s comedy “Has Anybody Seen My Gal”, cheerfully set in the 20’s, is much better than any of his lauded sudsers. And I’ll never get tired of “Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man” or “Abbott & Costello Go to Mars”.
I thought Universal’s entry into the Ancient Epic sweepstakes, “Sign of the Pagan” was more than okay.Jack Palance certainly made for a ferociously cagey Attila the Hun. And the production values on hand easily matched what some of the bigger studios were doing in the field. Am surprised this one’s never made it to home video in America.
Also missing from domestic home video is the musical noir “Meet Danny Wilson” with Sinatra (singing killer versions of some great standards) plus Shelley Winters and Raymond Burr providing additional snap to the proceedings.
One of your readers mentioned Cornell Borchers. She really was a fine actress – especially in Fox’s “The Big Lift”(1950). But she’s also great in Universal’s “Flood Tide” with George Nader. And made an excellent partner for Errol Flynn” in “Istanbul”(1957), surely the best of that man’s later films.
I like Lori Nelson too. And - aside from being a pleasantly accomplished young actress - each year she stayed at Universal she seemed to get prettier and prettier.

8:00 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I looked up Walter Matthau's list of acting credits to see what there was of it I haven't seen - and every time I do this, I am reminded of and amazed by how little of any given actor's work I've actually seen, as there's always more lots more stuff I haven't seen than I have; so much so, that I now suppose that any successful actor's career will be made up mostly of things I've never seen ( or even heard of), as "success" always seems to mean "continued work" and not only money for the members of this profession.
Anyhow, I noticed how early and often Matthau was working in television - 1951, even before his first movie credit.
This, together with DBenson's comment above, got me thinking how important for actors TV work quickly became during the first decades of that medium; and how working for the TV and its schedules and style, rather than before the movie cameras, must have been as big a change for the actors as the advent of movie work itself had been for the stage actors of previous generations.
I'm also reminded of a lament I heard the director Norman Jewison utter during an interview; he had started in TV productions, and he regretted how very much of that work from the 1950s had simply been lost forever, or indeed had never been preserved to begin with.
Finally, I notice that Universal and Disney, the two film studios DBenson points out as being all over the TV back in the 1960s in his perceptive comment, are also the studios which have best survived over the intervening decades to become the entertainment colossi they now are, those two having apparently quickly cottoned on to how important - and lucrative - TV was to become for their business, beyond being simply a new way to advertise their cinematic output.

12:34 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts speaks to a Golden Age of Universal availability on television (Part One):


It's funny when one has been in this film collecting/buffery game as long as you and I have John, to watch how various studios old product goes up and down in terms of availability. To hear you talk of how scarce Universal-International product is to see these days reminds me of what was probably the last time it was ubiquitous and easily viewable, and that was the early glory days of American Movie Classics in the 1980's and early 90's. Recall that AMC's catalog in those days was basically Universal, Twentieth Century-Fox and pre-Turner RKO and we would actually groan when the umpteenth showing of THE GOLDEN HORDE or SON OF ALI BABA would come across our cable screens. If we only knew how lucky we were to have them then and haven't really had in abundance since, there are U-I titles I still haven't been able to upgrade from my VHS copies dating back to those days.

And I concur with you, much of Universal product is still quite enjoyably watchable, when one can find it. Donald O'Connor may have held some grudges regarding his indentured servitude at the place, but there are some forgotten gems in his Universal filmography that are still rare as hens teeth to catch today, especially after he came back from WW2. For every episode of the Talking Mule Francis Franchise (and the first one of those ain't a bad picture actually), there are fun films like his pirate spoof DOUBLE CROSSBONES (1951), a fun western comedy-musical CURTAIN CALL AT CACTUS CREEK (1950) (c'mon, a picture with Donald, Vincent Price, Walter Brennan and Eve Arden as a touring acting troupe in the Old West has definite possibilities) and after O'Connor had scored in loanouts like SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, I LOVE MELVIN and CALL ME MADAM, even U-I made an effort to put Donald in what would have to be considered, by Universal standards, a pretty good A-level musical. WALKIN' MY BABY BACK HOME (1953) directed by Lloyd Bacon in his next-to-last picture, is a delightful movie with O'Connor, Janet Leigh(once again proving what a good dancer she was when given the rare opportunity to dance), Buddy Hackett and Scatman Crothers all working hard to make it work on a Universal budget. Sure it would have been nice if they'd hired some songwriters to write some original tunes, but we do get the strangest collection of public-domain and easy to pick up recognizable melodies that get the big number treatment, starting with a Dixieland version of Glow Worm& ending with a MGM-like uber ballet version of 12th Street Rag, and Janet Leigh, in bodysuit, fishnets, heels and top hat gives us the sexiest version of Camptown Races; we might be oddly-inclined to imagine. But it works, and stuffs a lot of good numbers in a not-too-important plot, I was happy to retire my ancient AMC recording when I scored an IB-Tech 16mm on it years ago, it is still a good one to spring on friends who want to see something they've never seen before. Did it ever play TCM? Well, I'm sure the blackface minstrel number in it will keep it off TCM now.

8:36 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Richard M. Roberts:

Universal stuck to the genre movies longer than most of the other studios even into the 50's because that was always their business model, unlike the majors who owned their own Theater chains, Universal always knew a big part of their business was rural independent exhibitors and this is what small-town audiences still liked. I've always thought this is also why studios like Universal, Columbia, and United Artists all up-swinged post the 1948 anti-trust breakup of the movie studios and their chains, they had worked in that model all along and suddenly they had a lot more big-city exhibitors they could sell to, MGM, Paramount,Twentieth Century-Fox, Warners, and RKO had to re-invent their wheel.

One can only hope that Universal will continue to license (since they don't seem interested in putting it out themselves) to the boutique labels like Kino Lorber and get more of their old product (and hopefully the Paramounts they own as well) out to the sadly dwindling audience who would still like to see them. These days, even long-career performers like Donald O'Connor, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis are fading names in the public memory.


8:36 AM  

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