Monday, December 10, 2012

Birthday Girls: The Stars Next Door

Many happy returns today to two of Hollywood's most fondly remembered ladies; neither was ever the biggest star - one a second-tier leading lady, the other a reliable character trouper - but both delighted audiences for a goodly number of years, and both seem to have been thoroughly good eggs.

First born was Miss Una Merkel, who first saw the light of day in Kentucky in December 1903, while Miss Dorothy Lamour came along 11 years later in New Orleans.  We see them here in the one picture they made together, 1941's Road to Zanzibar, one of the genial programmers in which Dottie played longsuffering sidekick to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.  Playing a con artist, in this one she even gets her own sidekick, Una, and together they fuel as much plot as any Hope-Crosby opus ever needed.

Zanzibar was the second of the seven Road movies (the boys and Lamour went to Singapore first, and then on to Morocco, Utopia, Rio, Bali, and Hong Kong, although alas never again with Merkel).  While best remembered for these trio outings, Lamour had a quite respectable career on her own, frequently playing an exotic temptress (inevitably clad in sarong and a scattering of flowers), especially early on, in titles like Hurricane and Her Jungle Love.  When her career in Hollywood sputtered, she took to the stage with relish, keeping her face familiar in dinner theaters and joining the legion of ladies who barnstormed 'cross country in Hello, Dolly!  She was a terrific all-purpose star, one who could sing well, dance a little, and handle lines both comic and poignant.  She never made art, but audiences liked her, a lot, and even when she turned up at the very end of her career in dreck like Creepshow 2, it didn't do much harm to her image as the glamour girl you wouldn't mind having over for a cup of coffee.

By comparison, Merkel carved out a career as an indispensable supporting player, below the title but recognized with affection by audiences who could appreciate how her Southern sass and common sense could leaven turgid scripts saddled with predictable love-plot shenanigans that more often than not seemed to get in the way of the real fun to be had from backstagers, dance-hall sagas, and hospital dramas in the pre-Code era.  She spent much of the '30s under contract to MGM, which meant she got a better showcase as a character player than most leads got at lesser studios (like Lamour at Paramount, for example).  Never a full-on glamour girl like Dottie, she slowly matured into parts that kept her on-screen for a couple of decades after her brassy heyday; eventually, she even copped a surprise Oscar nomination for her supporting part in a pretty much forgotten Tennessee Williams pictures, 1961's Summer and Smoke.

What set players like Lamour and Merkel apart, not just from the biggest A-list ladies but from many of their counterparts - all the utility leading women and inveterate second-, third-, and fourth-billed actresses - was their own personal warmth, their complete lack of personal pretension, and the way that they were able (in large part because they didn't put on airs) to connect with audiences, first in the Depression years in which pretty much everybody went to the movies at least once a week, but then also for decades after, when many whose names for a while shined much brighter found themselves on Poverty Row, selling real estate, or worse.

One of things that consistently disappoints me about today's movies is how little place there is for performers like Lamour and Merkel.  Today's leading ladies don't need to put over a song (let alone in a sarong) in movies that mostly rely on sex, explosions, or zombies, and as for character parts, they have virtually disappeared.  For example, Mr. Muscato and I finally got around to seeing last spring's Streep picture Hope Springs.  Now, in these parts Meryl can do no wrong, and Tommy Lee Jones was very good indeed, but aside from them and some disappointingly pallid support from Steve Carell, the only other parts were more or less bits.  Today its all stars, and nothing else.  Why didn't Meryl have a real best friend, instead of a tiny scene or two with the wasted Jean Smart in what might have been the Una Merkel role?  What induced Mimi Rogers and Elizabeth Shue to take on nothing throwaway roles - glorified walk-ons, really -  that Metro would have worked up into a delicious running gags for Alice Brady or Norma Varden or Marjorie Main?  Why couldn't there have been a recurring bit - as an innkeeper, perhaps - for Eric Blore or Eugene Pallette?

Ah, well.  At least we can look back, and when we want to see how it was done back when they knew better, we need only set out down that Road.  I hear Zanzibar's very nice, this time of year, not to mention Utopia...


  1. I do so agree with you - today's movies do tend to rely upon either a) a "star" vehicle - in some kind of romantic or combative relationship with perhaps one other "star"; or b) special effects. Now I know as well as you that these types of film have always existed, but it is becoming a rare beast indeed to find an enjoyable "ensemble" story in today's cinema that doesnt't involve teenagers or superheroes... Jx

  2. The extinction of these secondary players and secondary characters come at an extremely inopportune time, as I had cast my fates on being a character woman in my dotage.

  3. I myself was all set to be the New Eric Blore, but nobody has asked.