Monday, June 6, 2011

Bruce Lester, Jack Haley & Blanche Yurka

Born on this date:

Actor Bruce Lester was born on June 6, 1912 in Johannesburg, South Africa. He appeared in over sixty films from 1934-1958. Lester's career was divided into two distinct periods. Between 1934 and 1938, billed as Bruce Lister, he appeared in upwards of 20 British films, mostly of the cheaply-shot and quickly-forgotten variety. He then moved to Hollywood, where he changed his surname to Lester, and found himself for a time appearing in some of the biggest prestige productions of their day, alongside stars such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn. Lester himself never achieved star-billing, but was said to have remarked that this at least meant that if a film was a flop, no blame ever fell on his shoulders.

One of his first Hollywood films was If I Were King (1938). His film career hit its peak in the early 1940’s, beginning with the role of Mr. Bingley in the 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, followed by landing a plum role in the Bette Davis classic The Letter (1940). Lester and Davis shared some crucial scenes in the film, and it was soon being reported that Davis was very taken by the handsome young Englishman, going out of her way to help him and put him at his ease on set. It is generally believed that a brief relationship of some description developed between the two, although nothing came of it. In 1943 he was featured alongside Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray in the spy drama Above Suspicion.

Lester (left) with Bette Davis in the Letter (1940)

              Lester [right] with Greer Garson, Olivier and Maureen O'Sullivan in Pride and Prejudice

After World War II, Lester's career began to fade, both in quality of film and size of role he was being offered. He did land a good part in 1947's Golden Earrings with Ray Milland and Marlene Dietrich. In the early 1950’s, he was playing minor roles in low-budget versions of English-set historical dramas such as Tales of Robin Hood and Lorna Doone. As the decade progressed film parts became ever-smaller, until he was mainly playing uncredited bit parts. Lester's final screen credit came in 1958’s Tarzan and the Trappers, after which he decided to retire from acting. In later years, Lester and his wife divided their time between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. He continued to play tennis, and was a keen member of the Hollywood Cricket Club. Lester died in Los Angeles on June 13, 2008 and is buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

Who died on this date:

On June 6, 1979, actor Jack Haley died. He is best known for his portrayal of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Haley was a star in the vaudeville circuit as a song-and-dance comedian. In the early 1930’s, he starred in comedy shorts for Vitaphone studiois in Brooklyn, New York. His wide-eyed, good-natured expression landed him supporting roles in musicals such as Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) with Shirley Temple, and Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) and he eventually appeared in over forty feature films from 1927-1970.

In 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer hired Haley for The Wizard of Oz after another song-and-dance comic, Buddy Ebsen, who was originally set to play the Tin Man, had a near-fatal reaction from inhaling the aluminum dust makeup. The makeup was switched to a paste, to avoid risking the same reaction for Haley. The new makeup did cause an eye infection which caused Haley to miss four days of filming, but he received treatment in time to prevent permanent damage. Haley did not take to the makeup or to the discomfort of the costume very kindly. When being interviewed about the film years later by Tom Snyder, he remarked that many people had commented that making the film must have been fun. Haley's reply: "Like hell it was; it was work.

He married Florence McFadden, a native of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania on February 25, 1921, and they remained married until his death. The couple had one son, Jack Haley, Jr. (later a successful film producer) and one daughter, Gloria. Jack Haley, Jr. was married to Liza Minnelli, daughter of his father's Oz co-star Judy Garland, in 1974. Haley died of a heart attack on June 6, 1979 in Los Angeles, California, aged 80. Only a short time previously, he had made an appearance at that year's Academy Awards ceremony with Ray Bolger, who had played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He was still active only a week prior to his death. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California.

On June 6, 1974, actress, Blanche Yurka died. She was born on June 18, 1887 in St Paul, Minnesota. She was an opera star before she became an actress and made her Broadway debut in 1910 and established herself as a character actor, also appearing in several films. In addition to her many stage roles, including Queen Gertrude opposite John Barrymore's Hamlet, she was an occasional director and playwright. She remained active in theatre and film until the late 1960's.

Blanche Yurka in "A Tale of Two Cities"

She turned to films at age 47 and debuted as the vengeful Madame DeFarge in the now-classic A Tale of Two Cities (1935) starring Ronald Colman. Strangely enough, she was not able to capitalize on this and did not return to films for another five years. The foreboding, strong-willed parts that eventually did come to her, however, would not live up to her early promise. Despite a flashy Ma Barker-styled title role in the "B"-level cult film Queen of the Mob (1940), she remained trapped in secondary, often inferior roles. If she wasn't caught up in dreadful Maria Ouspenskaya gypsy attire, such as in Cry of the Werewolf (1944), she was served with small undignified parts that wasted her talents.

Her sharp, austere looks did invite a minor gallery of domineering and/or villainous ladies to play, as testified by her scheming aunt in Lady for a Night (1942), and her shady maid paired up with Bela Lugosi's butler in the horror comedy One Body Too Many (1944). Deglamorized for many of her roles, Blanche abandoned Hollywood in the post-war years and refocused on her first love, the theater, where she enhanced such plays as "The Carefree Tree" (1951), "Diary of a Scoundrel" (1956), "Prometheus Bound" (1957), "Jane Eyre" (1958) and "Dinner at Eight" (1966). In 1969 she scored a personal triumph as the title role in the London production of "The Madwoman of Chaillot."

Suffering from failing health in years to come, she was diagnosed with arteriosclerosis and retired to her Manhattan apartment, appearing only occasionally at women's clubs and colleges in a programmed reading format. She died June 6, 1974 and is buried at the Kenisco Cemetery in Valhalla, New York., author of "Fade to Black: Graveside Memeories of Hollywood Greats, 1927-1950"

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