Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stan Laurel, Ona Munson, George Reeves

Who was born on this date:

Actor Stan Laurel was born on June 16, 1890in Lancashire, England. He is best known as the first half of the comedy team Laurel and Hardy. His film acting career stretched between 1917 and 1951 and included a starring role in the Academy Award winning film The Music Box (1932). His father managed Glasgow's Metropole Theatre where he began work. At the age of 16, with a natural affinity for the theatre, Jefferson gave his first professional performance on stage at the The Panopticon in Glasgow.

In 1910, with the stage name of "Stan Jefferson", he joined Fred Karno's troupe of actors, which also included a young Charlie Chaplin. For some time, he acted as Chaplin's understudy. The Karno troupe toured America, and brought both Chaplin and Jefferson to the United States for the first time. From 1916 to 1918, he teamed up with Alice Cooke and Baldwin Cooke, who became lifelong friends. Amongst other performers, Jefferson worked briefly alongside Oliver Hardy in a silent film short The Lucky Dog. Aound the same time he adopted the stage surname of Laurel.

Laurel went on to join the Hal Roach studio, and began directing films, including a 1926 production called Yes, Yes, Nanette. He intended to work primarily as a writer and director, but fate stepped in. In 1927, Oliver Hardy, another member of the Hal Roach Studios Comedy All Star players, was injured in a kitchen mishap and Laurel was asked to return to acting. Laurel and Hardy began sharing the screen in Slipping Wives, Duck Soup and With Love and Hisses. The two became friends and their comic chemistry soon became obvious. Roach Studios' supervising director Leo McCarey noticed the audience reaction to them and began teaming them, leading to the creation of the Laurel and Hardy series later that year.

Together, the two men began producing a huge body of short films, including The Battle of the Century, Should Married Men Go Home?, Two Tars, Be Big!, Big Business, and many others. Laurel and Hardy successfully made the transition to talking films with the short Unaccustomed As We Are in 1929. They also appeared in their first feature in one of the revue sequences of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and the following year they appeared as the comic relief in a lavish all-color (in Technicolor) musical feature, The Rogue Song. In 1931, their own first starring feature, Pardon Us was released, although they continued to make both features and shorts until 1935, including their 1932 three-reeler The Music Box which won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject.

During the 1930’s, Laurel was involved in a dispute with Hal Roach, which resulted in the termination of his contract. Since Roach maintained separate contracts for Laurel and Hardy that expired at different times, Hardy remained at the studio and was "teamed" with Harry Langdon for the 1939 film Zenobia. There was also talk about a series of films co-starring Hardy with Patsy Kelly called "The Hardy Family." But Laurel sued Roach over the contract dispute. Eventually, the case was dropped and Laurel returned to Roach. After returning to Roach studios, the first film Laurel and Hardy made was A Chump at Oxford. Subsequently, they made Saps at Sea, which was their last film for Roach.

In 1939, Laurel and Hardy signed a contract at 20th Century Fox to make one motion picture and nine more over the following five months. During the war years, their work became more standardized and less successful, though The Bullfighters, Great Guns and A-Haunting We Will Go did receive some praise. Laurel discovered he had diabetes, so he encouraged Oliver Hardy to make two films without him.

In May 1954, Oliver Hardy had a heart attack and canceled the tour. In 1955, they were planning to do a television series, Laurel and Hardy's Fabulous Fables, based on children's stories, but the plans were delayed after Laurel suffered a stroke, from which he recovered. But as he was planning to get back to work, Oliver Hardy had a massive stroke on September 15, 1956. Paralyzed and bedridden for several months, Hardy was unable to speak or move. On August 7, 1957, Oliver Hardy died. Laurel did not attend his funeral, stating "Babe would understand.” People who knew Laurel said he was absolutely devastated by Hardy's death and never fully recovered for the rest of his life.

In 1961, Stan Laurel was given a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award for his pioneering work in comedy. He had achieved his lifelong dream as a comedian and had been involved in nearly 190 films. He lived his final years in a small apartment in the Oceana Hotel in Santa Monica, California. Laurel was a heavy smoker until suddenly giving up when he was about seventy years of age. He died on February 23, 1965, aged 74, several days after suffering a heart attack. At his funeral, silent screen comedian Buster Keaton was overheard at Laurel's funeral giving his assessment of the comedian's considerable talents: "Chaplin wasn't the funniest, I wasn't the funniest, this man was the funniest." Dick Van Dyke, a friend, protégé and occasional impressionist of Laurel's during his later years, gave the eulogy, reading A Prayer for Clowns. Laurel had written his own epitaph: "If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I'll never speak to him again." A similar statement was later found: "If anyone cries at my funeral, I will never speak to him again." He is buried at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery.

Actress Ona Munson was born on June 16, 1903 in Portland, Oregon. She best known for her portrayal of prostitute Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939). She first came to fame on Broadway as the singing and dancing ingénue in the original production of No, No, Nanette. From this, Munson had a very successful stage and radio career in 1930s in New York. She introduced the song "You're the Cream in My Coffee" in the 1927 Broadway musical Hold Everything.

Her first starring role was in a Warner Brothers talkie called Going Wild (1930). Originally this film was intended as musical but all the numbers were removed prior to release due to the public's distaste for musicals which had virtually saturated the cinema in 1929-1930. Munson appeared the next year in a musical comedy called Hot Heiress in which she sings several songs along with her co-star Ben Lyon. She also starred in Broadminded (1931) and Five Star Final (1931). She briefly retired from the screen, only to return in 1938. Another roll was as "Mother Gin Sling" in the (1941) "The Shanghai Gesture." Munson’s career was stalemated by the acclaim of Gone with the Wind; for the remainder of her career, she was typecast in similar roles. Two years later, she played a huge role as another madam, albeit a Chinese one, in Josef von Sternberg's film noir The Shanghai Gesture.

Ona Munson in Gone with the Wind (1939)

On February 11, 1955, plagued by ill health, she committed suicide with an overdose of barbiturates in her apartment in New York. A note found next to her deathbed read, "This is the only way I know to be free again...Please don't follow me." She is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Who died on this date:

On June 16, 1959, actor George Reeves died. He was born George Keefer Brewer in Woolstock, Iowa, on January 5, 1914. He is best known for his role as Superman in the 1950’s television program Adventures of Superman. Reeves's film career began in 1939 when he was cast as Stuart Tarleton, one of Scarlett O'Hara's suitors in Gone with the Wind. It was a minor role but he and Fred Crane, both in brightly dyed red hair as "the Tarleton Twins," were in the film's opening scenes. He was contracted to Warner Brothers at the time; the actor's professional name became "George Reeves" and his Gone with the Wind screen credit reflects the change.

He starred in a number of two-reel short subjects and appeared in several B-pictures, including two with Ronald Reagan and three with James Cagney (Torrid Zone, The Fighting 69th, and The Strawberry Blonde). Warner Bros. Studios loaned him to producer Alexander Korda to co-star with Merle Oberon in Lydia, a box-office failure. Released from his Warners contract, he signed a contract at Twentieth Century-Fox but was released after only a handful of films, one of which was the Charlie Chan movie Dead Men Tell. He freelanced, appearing in five Hopalong Cassidy westerns before director Mark Sandrich cast Reeves as Lieutenant John Summers opposite Claudette Colbert in So Proudly We Hail! (1942), a war drama for Paramount Pictures. He won critical acclaim for the role and garnered considerable publicity. In 1953, Reeves played a minor character, Sergeant Maylon Stark, in the motion picture From Here To Eternity. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and gave Reeves a second motion picture appearance in a film that ultimately won the Oscar.

In June 1951, Reeves was offered the role of Superman in a new television series entitled Adventures of Superman. He was initially reluctant to take the role because, like many actors of his time, he considered television unimportant and believed few would see his work. He received low pay and only for the weeks of production. The half-hour films were shot on tight schedules; at least two shows were made every six days. According to commentaries on the Adventures of Superman DVD sets, multiple scripts would be filmed simultaneously to take advantage of the standing sets, so that all the "Perry White's office" scenes for three or four episodes would be shot the same day; the various "apartment" scenes would be done consecutively.

Reeves's career as Superman had begun with Superman and the Mole Men, a film intended both as a B-picture and as the pilot for the TV series. Immediately after completing it, Reeves and the crew began production of the first season's episodes; all shot over 13 weeks in the summer of 1951. The series went on the air the following year, and Reeves was amazed at becoming a national celebrity. In 1957, the struggling ABC Network purchased the show for national broadcast, which gave him greater visibility.

The Superman cast members had restrictive contracts which prevented them from taking other work that might interfere with the series. Except for the second season, the Superman schedule was brief but all had a "30-day clause", which meant that the producers could demand their exclusive services for a new season on four weeks notice. This prevented long-term work on major films with long schedules, stage plays which might lead to a lengthy run, or any other series work.

However, Reeves had earnings from personal appearances beyond his meager salary, and his affection for his young fans was genuine. Reeves took his role model status seriously, avoiding cigarettes where children could see him and eventually quitting smoking. He kept his private life discreet. Nevertheless, he had a romantic relationship with a married ex-showgirl eight years his senior, Toni Mannix, wife of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer general manager Eddie Mannix. With Toni Mannix, Reeves worked tirelessly to raise money to fight myasthenia gravis. He served as national chairman for the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation in 1955. During the second season, Reeves appeared in a short film for the Treasury Department, Stamp Day for Superman, in which he caught the villains and told children why they should invest in government savings stamps.

After two seasons of Superman, Reeves was dissatisfied with the one-dimensional role and low salary. Now 40 years old, he wished to quit and move on with his career. The producers looked elsewhere for a new star, allegedly contacting Kirk Alyn, the actor who had first portrayed Superman in the original movie serials and who had initially refused to play the role on television. Alyn turned them down again.

Reeves established his own production company and conceived a TV adventure series, Port of Entry, which would be shot on location in Hawaii and Mexico, writing the pilot script himself. However, Superman producers offered him a salary increase and he returned to the series. He was reportedly making $5,000 per week, but only while the show was in production (about eight weeks each year). As for Port of Entry, Reeves was never able to gain financing for the project, and the show was never made.

In between the first and second seasons of Superman, Reeves got sporadic acting assignments in one-shot TV anthology programs and in two feature films, Forever Female (1953) and Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia (1953). But by the time the series was airing nationwide, Reeves found himself so associated with Superman and Clark Kent that it was difficult for him to find other roles. A false but often-repeated story suggests that he was upset when his scenes as Sergeant Maylon Stark in the classic film From Here to Eternity were cut after a preview audience kept yelling "There's Superman!" whenever he appeared on screen.

According to the Los Angeles Police Department report, between approximately 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. on June 16, 1959, George Reeves died of a gunshot wound to his head in the upstairs bedroom of his Benedict Canyon home. Police arrived within the hour. Present in the house at the time of death were Leonore Lemmon, William Bliss, writer Robert Condon, and Carol Van Ronkel, who lived a few blocks away with her husband, screenwriter Rip Van Ronkel.

According to these witnesses, Lemmon and Reeves had been dining and drinking earlier in the evening in the company of writer Condon, who was ghostwriting an autobiography of prizefighter Archie Moore. Reeves and Lemmon argued at the restaurant, and the trio returned home. However, Lemmon stated in interviews with Reeves's biographer Jim Beaver that she and Reeves had not accompanied friends dining and drinking, but rather to wrestling matches. Contemporary news items indicate that Reeves's friend Gene LeBell was wrestling that night—yet LeBell's own recollections are that he did not see Reeves after a workout session earlier in the day. In any event Reeves went to bed, but some time near midnight an impromptu party began when Bliss and Carol Van Ronkel arrived. Reeves angrily came downstairs and complained about the noise. After blowing off steam, he stayed with the guests for a while, had a drink, and then retired upstairs again in a bad mood.

The house guests later heard a single gunshot. Bliss ran into Reeves's bedroom and found George Reeves dead, lying across his bed, naked and face up, his feet on the floor. This position has been attributed to his sitting on the edge of the bed when he shot himself, after which his body fell back on the bed and the 9mm Luger pistol fell between his feet. Statements made to police and the press essentially agree. Neither Lemmon nor the other witnesses made any apology for their delay in calling the police after hearing the gunshot; the shock of the death, the lateness of the hour, and their state of intoxication were given as reasons for the delay. Police said that all of the witnesses present were extremely inebriated, and that coherent stories were very difficult to obtain.

While the official story given by Lemmon to police placed her in the living room with party guests at the time of the shooting, statements from Fred Crane, Reeves's friend and colleague from "Gone with The Wind," put Lenore Lemmon either inside or in direct proximity to the Reeves bedroom, minimally as a witness to the shooting. According to Crane, Bill Bliss had told Millicent Trent that, after the shot rang out, and while Bliss was having a drink, Leonore Lemmon came downstairs and said, “Tell them I was down here, tell them I was down here!” In an interview with Carl Glass, Crane expanded on this: "It needed to be told and that is the way I heard it from Millie as told to her by Bill Bliss. Janet Bliss and Millie were very close friends. I met Millie at Bill and Janet’s house up in Benedict Canyon on Easton Drive. We lived on the same street.” Witness statements and examination of the crime scene led to official inquiry conclusion that the death was suicide. Reeves's will, dated 1956, and bequeathed his entire estate to Toni Mannix, much to Lemmon's surprise and devastation. Her statement to the press read, "Toni got a house for charity, and I got a broken heart", referring to the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation. Reeves is interred at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena, California., author of "Fade to Black: Graveside Memories of Hollywood Greats, 1927-1950"

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