30 September 2022

My deepest love & respect, Bowie

David Hemmings' Just a Gigolo (1978) was Marlene Dietrich's last picture. Dietrich had a small role as Baroness von Semering, a madam who runs a brothel for gigolos in post-WWI Berlin. The then 77-year-old actress, who had not made a film since Judgement At Nuremberg (1961), worked on Gigolo for just two days and was reportedly paid $250,000. 

The film's main character, an army officer-turned-gigolo, was played by popstar David Bowie who later said that he had accepted the part, mainly because "Marlene Dietrich was dangled in front of [him]." Bowie and Dietrich shared two scenes in the film —the only scenes Dietrich was in— but in the end they never met. Gigolo was shot in Berlin, where Bowie lived at the time. As Dietrich refused to leave her city of residence Paris, the scenes were filmed with Marlene alone in a Paris studio while Bowie was in Berlin acting to a wooden chair. The separate parts were eventually edited together, the results to be watched here (with Marlene also performing the song Just a Gigolo).

Although Dietrich and Bowie never met, they did talk to each other on the phone and also wrote each other letters. One of these letters, from Bowie to Dietrich, is seen below. It was written on 8 April 1978, while Bowie was doing his Isolar II world tour. In the end, Just a Gigolo (which also co-starred Kim Novak) became a huge flop, lambasted by both the critics and audiences. Bowie later referred to the film as "my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one."


April 8th 78

Dear Miss Dietrich,

Please, please forgive this disgusting lapse of time to answer your delightful note.

I have no excuse.

If, for any reason, you should wish to reach me, here is the address and no: (tel) of my lawyer and friend in L.A. 
Stanley Diamond 
10850 Wilshire Blvd.
L.A 90024 (Tel) (213) 879 3444.

I hear from David H [Hemmings] that, putting apart the bad areas, the film is looking SPLENDID. Hurrah!

I will be in Paris for 2 or 3 concerts in April or May and will certainly telephone or write before I arrive (staying at Plaza of course).

I do hope we can meet this time. 

I will sing for you at the concert.

My deepest love & respect 


Above: On the set of Just a Gigolo with (l to r) director David Hemmings, Kim Novak, Maria Schell and David Bowie. Below: Marlene Dieterich as Baroness von Semering in a publicity still for Just a Gigolo.

23 September 2022

I’m very sorry to lose her because she is great

Following their successful collaboration on The Pirate (1948), Gene Kelly and Judy Garland were to star together again in Charles Walters' Easter Parade (1948). Before filming began, however, Kelly broke his ankle and Fred Astaire —in retirement after Blue Skies (1946)— was asked to replace him (at Kelly's suggestion). Anxious to come out of retirement and to work with Judy, Astaire didn't hesitate for a moment to accept the role. While filming Easter Parade,  he and Judy got along famously and proved to be a wonderful match. Astaire later recalled: "Of course, Judy was the star of the picture. And it's a joy to work with somebody like Judy, because she's a super talent, with a great sense of humor. She could do anything. She wasn't primarily a dancer, but she could do what you asked her to do .... [Our numbers together] remain with me as high spots of enjoyment in my career. Judy's uncanny knowledge of showmanship impressed me more than ever as I worked with her."

Easter Parade was a big success, both critically and commercially. While the film was still in production, producer Arthur Freed was already working on a new project, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) —also to be directed by Charles Walters— and again he wanted Astaire and Garland to play the leads. Astaire was elated to be working with Judy again and vice versa ("Fred put me completely at ease. He's a gentleman and lots of fun to work with."). But while Judy was in great spirits during Easter Parade, after two weeks of rehearsals on The Barkleys her health —both physical and emotional— deteriorated and she kept calling in sick. Finally, on 18 July 1948, Judy was removed from The Barkleys and put on suspension.

Judy and Fred chatting on the set of Easter Parade

MGM needed a last-minute replacement for Judy Garland and contacted Ginger Rogers to see if she was available and interested in working with Astaire again. The two had worked together for six years and done nine films together (all for RKO) but with the 1939 The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle their partnership had ended. There had been rumours that the couple didn't part amicably, that they had been fighting and didn't even get along. These rumours, however, have always been denied by both Fred and Ginger. About their relationship Ginger said in her 1991 memoir Ginger: My Story: "Fred and I were colleagues, and despite occasional snits... we worked together beautifully ... we had fun, and it showsTrue, we were never bosom buddies off the screen; we were different people with different interests." Delighted to be working with Fred again, Ginger accepted the role and, not having danced in years, worked very hard to get back into shape. Ginger's hard work eventually paid off, her dancing in The Barkleys being as good as ever (especially during the wonderful Bouncin' the Blues, one of my favourite Astaire-Rogers dance numbers; watch here). 

The Barkleys of Broadway, the only film Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did in colour, became a commercial success and also received positive reviews. In the end, Ginger was probably better suited for the role of Dinah Barkley than Judy Garland, considering the Barkleys are a long-lasting showbiz couple and the part called for an older actress (Ginger was eleven years older than Judy). Below: On the set of The Barkleys with (l to r) Fred Astaire, director Chuck Walters, Oscar Levant and Ginger Rogers.
In his autobiography Steps in Time (1959) Fred Astaire looked back on his re-pairing with Ginger Rogers with great fondness. However, others working on The Barkleys (including choreographer Hermes Pan) recalled a lack of enthusiasm in Astaire, who felt they were trying to get back something that couldn't be recaptured. In Brent Philips' biography Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance (2014), Walters is quoted as saying: "It came as quite a shock to find out that Mr. Astaire was not too keen about Miss Rogers ... They got along well, [but] Fred complained about her incessantly ... He would say, for example, that he couldn't stand a woman who was taller than he was ... [Fred could be] a real nag." 

What seems certain is that Astaire had been terribly disappointed when Judy Garland dropped out of The Barkleys. Ginger Rogers also mentioned it in her memoir and even claimed Fred had a crush on Judy: "On the first day of work, I went down to the rehearsal hall to see Fred. He was sweet and friendly, but I could see he was slightly disappointed. I had learned that Judy Garland had originally been signed as his co-star. They'd just worked together on Easter Parade and I knew Fred had a slight crush on her." And Astaire's stand-in Joe Niemeyer commented: "I've never seen him as happy as he was during the making of Easter Parade. It's a wonderful story and a wonderful picture. But to him, the joy came from working with Judy, a girl whose own sense of timing and comedy and perfection is as intense as his. With Judy, the film was nothing but play [for him]." 

After their collaboration on The Barkleys fell through, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland got another chance to work together, this time on Royal Wedding (1951) when June Allyson dropped out due to pregnancy. But again, it was not to be. Once production on the film had started, Judy again kept calling in sick and was eventually fired from the film and replaced with Jane Powell. Easter Parade would remain Fred and Judy's only collaboration.


Below is a small fragment of a letter, dated 1 August 1948, which Fred Astaire wrote to his good friend Jack Leach, jockey and trainer of horses. (Astaire had a passion for horseracing and Leach trained horses owned by Astaire). The segment deals with Judy Garland dropping out of The Barkleys and Ginger Rogers replacing her, with Fred clearly disappointed over the loss of Judy. 

If you're interested in reading the entire letter, which mostly deals with the subject of horses, click on the source link below the image. 


August 1st [1948]

Dear Jack:-

Have been wanting to write but you know what happens when I start on a picture.

We’ve had complications & Judy Garland had to retire from the picture on acct. of illness. I’m very sorry to lose her because she is great – but Ginger Rogers has been brought in to replace her. I haven’t worked with Ginger for 8 years & it’s a lot of work for her to get back to dancing again. I just did a hell of a good picture “Easter Parade” with Judy. It’s a big hit, I think the biggest I’ve ever had. Well – nuts with pictures I want to know about your horses. How is Delerium? Hope he has held up well this year.

Judy Garland and Fred Astaire on the set of Easter Parade, in costume for their terrific act A Couple of Swells.

16 September 2022

I might have gotten a contract with Metro if I had gone to bed with him

Searching information online about actress Susan Fox, I found little to nothing. Apparently Fox was one of the many women considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) and, according to IMDB, she co-starred with Orson Welles in the 20-minute Welles' comedy The Green Goddess (1939). But that's all I found, with no photo of Fox anywhere. She was obviously an aspiring actress whose Hollywood career never took off.

Robert Ritchie was a MGM publicist and talent scout, responsible for recruiting Hedy Lamarr, Luise Rainer and Greer Garson. He is probably best known for his relationship with Jeanette MacDonald in the early 1930s. Ida Koverman (a friend of MacDonald's and secretary to MGM boss Louis B. Mayer) had once described Ritchie as "a schnorrer or parasite". 

In the letter below —postmarked 3 January 1940 and addressed to Howard Hughes— Susan Fox complains about Ritchie hindering her career after she had refused to sleep with him. It's ironic that Fox should be complaining to Hughes about Ritchie, considering Hughes also abused his power to obtain sexual favours from women. Reportedly Hughes was a friend of Fox, as was Katharine Hepburn who is also mentioned in the letter. In the end, as said, Fox's film career never happened; perhaps it was her experience with Ritchie that made her pursue a different career.

(l) Robert Ritchie pictured with Jeannette McDonald circa 1931 and (r) Howard Hughes



Dear Howard -

Just a note to tell you how nice it was speaking to you over the phone last night - it made me feel much better - I felt pretty low after I spoke to Katherine [sic] - even if she does think I'm a good actress - Gosh, why couldn't I be a raving beauty? You know it's funny I always thought I was pretty attractive - and had been told so many times - but I'm beginning to get an inferiority complex about it now - not so good -

And now for Mr. Ritchie - and I'm going to be very frank - He's a bastard - I know that's not a very nice word for me to use - but it's the only appropriate one - Katherine [sic] said the same and I was very pleased when she used the same word - I know he's a friend of yours - but then you're a male - and Bob's behavior is quite different towards males - as you can well imagine - I might have gotten a contract with Metro if I had gone to bed with him - but no job in all this world is worth that - not to me anyway - so now he won't even speak to me - much less do anything for me as far as Metro is concerned - but I'll be damned if I'll throw all conventions and pride to the winds for one by the name of Robert Ritchie - I may be wrong - others have done it before - but I just couldn't and can't - I'm getting mad now just thinking about it - I wanted to tell you all of this last night over the phone - but I decided to write it to you instead - I'll let you know what George does about Fox -

Thanks for not being in the shower last night when I called - it was very considerate of you -

Love to you Howard - and I do - 

P.S. Did you get the magnificent hat?

9 September 2022

Remembering Ann "Dody" Harding

According to author Victoria Wilson, Barbara Stanwyck was a big admirer of Ann Harding and had once said about her: "There are only a few actors who can get me sufficiently to make me lose myself in the story. Ann Harding is one of them ... Miss Harding is so entirely natural at all times that she makes me believe in her and what she is doing. I have always hoped that my own work shows the same degree of sincerity. When I see an Ann Harding picture nothing but her work and the story interests me."

Born Dorothy Walton Gatley in 1902, Ann Harding started her acting career in the theatre and in the 1920s enjoyed several successes on Broadway, particularly with The Trial of Mary Dugan (1927). In 1929, she left the New York stage for Hollywood, making her film debut opposite Fredric March in Paris Bound (1929). Because of her stage experience and good diction, Ann was a sought-after actress in the early days of the talkies. She was put under contract at Pathé, later RKO, and promoted as the studio's answer to MGM's Norma Shearer. For her role in her fourth film Holiday (1930) Ann earned an Oscar nomination and with films like The Animal Kingdom (1932), When Ladies Meet (1933) and Double Harness (1933) she further established herself as one of the most popular leading ladies of the early 1930s.

Ann's popularity would drastically decline after 1935. Audiences grew tired of her being typecast as the noble, self-sacrificing woman, and also critics were responding less favourably to her work. In 1936, Ann retired from acting following a bitter court fight with her first husband —actor Harry Bannister (m. 1926-1932)— over the custody of their daughter Jane. She married conductor Werner Janssen in 1937 (m. until 1962) and eventually returned to the screen in 1942 with a role in the thriller Eyes in the Night. Other supporting roles followed, most notably in It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956). During the latter part of her career —Ann kept working until the mid-1960s— she did some television work and also returned to the stage after an absence of more than 30 years. Ann died in September 1981, aged 79.

Beautiful, elegant Ann Harding left different impressions on those she had worked with. Laurence Olivier called her "an angel", director Henry Hathaway said she was "an absolute bitch", while Myrna Loy thought she was "a very private person, a wonderful actress completely without star temperament, but withdrawn."
Ann Harding in six of her films, clockwise with Mary Astor in Holiday (1930), Leslie Howard in The Animal Kingdom (1932), Myrna Loy in When Ladies Meet (1933), William Powell in Double Harness (1933), Robert Montgomery in Biography of a Bachelor Girl (1935) and Gary Cooper in Peter Ibbetson (1935). I first saw Ann in Double Harness and was immediately impressed by her. I love her calm and sophisticated demeanor and especially her natural style of acting made me want to see more of her. Having now seen 19 Ann Harding films, my favourites remain Double Harness and When Ladies Meet. 


Ann Harding hated being a celebrity and also hated giving interviews, which made her very unpopular with the press (read more in this post). She disliked Hollywood and once said: "I loathed the stupidity in the handling of the material in Hollywood." And about the studio system she commented: "If you're under contract when you're making pictures you may get the plums, but they own your soul. If you're not under contract, you have to take your chances." 

Despite having been a big star in her day, Harding has been largely forgotten by contemporary audiences. To keep her legacy alive, author Scott O'Brien wrote a biography entitled Ann Harding - Cinema's Gallant Lady, published in May 2010. Several months after the publication of his book, O'Brien received a letter from Ann's niece Dorothy Nash Wagar, daughter of Ann's sister Edith. Ann had been an intimate part of her niece's world when Wagar was aged 7-13. In her letter Wagar thanks O'Brien for his book and also shares childhood memories of her "Aunt Dody".

November 15, 2010

Dear Scott,

I am more than happy to recall events in my childhood in relationship with my aunt Dody, better known as Ann Harding. First, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your outstanding book, in which you documented her meteoric rise to stardom in the thirties, and the balance of her career and life.

My family moved from New York to California in 1930, at her invitation so my father could manage her finances. It was a momentous time for my sister Barbara and me. The train trip, all the sights and sounds, the extraordinary differences of the East Coast vs. the West. For me it was a chance to see my little cousin, Jane, but most of all, my aunt for whom I was named and my Godmother.

The days at my aunt's home were a delight, playing with Jane, swimming and wandering about the hillside. When I lived with her and Jane for a time, my aunt invited Bonita Granville to come swim with Jane and me every day. Bonita was about my age and a lovely chum, and she showed me how to dive off the diving board which was a big event for me. Although Aunt Dody was gone most of the day, as soon as she'd come home, we'd all gather in the living room to talk over the events of the day. At all times she was interested in what had happened, and was very loving with us.

My fondest memories of Aunt Dody are small things, really. Watching her brush her hair and then twist it into that bun was an astonishing sight. She was so fast at it, I could hardly believe my eyes. After she'd wash her hair, she'd sit out on the patio and read while the sun dried it. Another favorite memory of mine is how she'd tuck herself away in her small den downstairs. There was a piano and a chair with a writing desk where she spent some of her free hours writing. She also enjoyed playing the piano, gardening, swimming, tennis and crocheting.

I think that my aunt's first love was music. By the age of two, she'd learned to play a song on the piano my grandmother had written for the girls. Aunt Dody sang Gilbert and Sullivan songs while she was crocheting -she taught me several of them, and how to harmonize, and we'd have the most fun singing Chippy-chippy-chopper-on-a-big-black-block. She had a wonderful sound system -music played throughout the entire house. The record player was right behind the piano in a little cabinet built into the wall. We listened to the radio, too, but mostly records -Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Wagner. She gave me several books on music, and her greatest gift to me was the appreciation of it.

I was almost in my aunt's movie, Westward Passage, in the role as her daughter. Costumes had been made, and the first day of filming was upon us -but the weather was terrible, holding up the production. Sir Lawrence Olivier was the dearest man, and even danced with me as we waited for the weather to clear, but it never did. The next day Aunt Dody came home and called me into the living room. She sat next to me on the couch, and tenderly let me know that I wouldn't be in the movie after all. The mother of a young actress had complained of nepotism. The silver lining was that my chum, Bonita got the role, and that took the sting out of it.

My favorite movies were Biography of a Bachelor Girl, and Peter Ibbetson. I loved them for different reasons. In Biography of a Bachelor Girl, it was fun to see Aunt Dody's comical side, which we always saw at home. She was so funny she'd have all of us in stitches— Jane, Fong, the butler, and me. Peter Ibbetson is such a beautiful story, and the especially wonderful spark in her eyes that I recall so dearly is eminently present.

Recalling the words my mother wrote of her sister's devotion to her art -that she was essentially a pilgrim in her great humility and reverence, seeking what every artist must have -love of work for the work itself. She approached everything with the same brilliant life force. Ann Harding was a remarkable actress, a wonderful person, a loving aunt. Thank you for keeping her spirit alive.


Dorothy Nash Wagar  


Source: scottobrienauthor.com

Ann Harding with her daughter Jane by her first husband Harry Bannister. The two were very close when Jane was little. However, they later became estranged and when Ann died in 1981 they hadn't spoken for years. 

Ann with her sister Edith Nash in 1935. At some point Ann stopped speaking to her sister and they became estranged (like Ann and her daughter— makes you wonder what happened?!). Before her death Ann tried to find her sister to make amends. When Dorothy Nash Wagar found out that Ann had tried to contact her mother near the end of her life, it meant a lot to her: "After years and years of their not having any discourse tears came to my eyes, because I was so happy and relieved to think that that happened. Aunt Dody must have undergone quite a change with regard to her relationship with my mother and wanted to get in touch with her. I wish my mother had known that.