Gloria the Obscure

Most Hollywood stars have a distinct screen persona and Gloria Grahame, whether by intention or design, established herself as the iconic bad girl of film noir starting with CROSSFIRE in 1947 and continuing all the way up to ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW in 1959. At least, that’s how the majority of moviegoers probably remember her – as the vengeful gangster moll, disfigured by hot coffee, in THE BIG HEAT (1953) or the murderous schemer of SUDDEN FEAR (1952) or the unfaithful wives from THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) and MAN ON A TIGHTROPE (1953) or terrified by the likes of Humphrey Bogart (IN A LONELY PLACE, 1950) or Broderick Crawford (HUMAN DESIRE, 1954). A comedienne is not the image that usually comes to mind when one thinks of Gloria Grahame yet that’s how the actress began her career –  in light comedy roles, often playing flirtatious, fickle women who are completely aware of their sex appeal and its effect on men.

Most people are aware of her broadly comic, stylized portrayal of Ado Annie in the 1955 screen version of the popular stage musical OKLAHOMA! but some of her most interesting and unheralded work is in offbeat, little known films such as the quirky romance HEAD OVER HEELS (1979, aka CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER) in which she plays John Heard’s hilariously neurotic mother. This is an aspect of Grahame that is usually overlooked or obscured by her crime melodramas.   All the qualities that made her such an iconic femme fatale – the carnal presence, the provocative demeanor, the bold, sexual stare, the eternal pouty lip and her almost fetishistic attention to her appearance and behavior – become targets of self-parody in her comedic roles.

Dick Powell & Gloria Grahame in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Dick Powell & Gloria Grahame in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

You also rarely read any film scholars or historians making any claims for Grahame’s acting abilities but a quick look at her filmography lets you know that her “bad girl” screen image was mostly a stereotype. Her skill as a dramatic actress was never in doubt in Hollywood – she racked up two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for CROSSFIRE and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952), winning the award for the latter. And she often did some of her best work in genre films or independent efforts that many people didn’t see such as her tough, resourceful dance hall madam in the Western revenge drama ROUGHSHOD (1949) or the desperate working class heroine of THE GLASS WALL (1953), a well-intentioned but uneven attempt to blend neorealism and film noir in a story about an illegal Hungarian immigrant being hunted in New York City.

But back to the film that started it all – BLONDE CRAZY. Unlike a lot of other actresses of her generation, Grahame didn’t have to work her way up through the ranks in bit roles. MGM build an appealing showcase for her in her feature film debut and surrounded her with a top-notch cast – Philip Dorn, Mary Astor, Marshall Thompson and Elisabeth Risdon – slick production values (it might be a B movie but looks like an “A” picture) and a playful script by Patricia Coleman who adapted it from the Ferenc Molnár play. Gloria rises to the challenge and then some as Sally, a small town girl working as a waitress in a posh resort near Reno, Nevada. She’s got a wildly affectionate boyfriend, Freddie (Thompson), but seems to hunger for something outside her realm of experience, namely the very married owner of the resort who possesses continental charm, is experienced in the ways of the world, has money (mostly his wife’s) and is EXTREMELY attracted to her. In fact, Freddie and Sally were a pretty solid item until Sally’s employer Peter (Dorn) began his relentless seduction of her, filling her head with delusions of grandeur and romantic fantasy. Grahame proves herself an accomplished farceur in this pleasant trifle. Her verbal sparring scenes with Peter’s wife Delilah (Astor) are the most amusing in the film with Astor delivering zingers that go right over Gloria’s head while the latter becomes almost drunk on her hormonal effect on the men in her life. She comes to her senses in the end – due to Delilah’s behind-the-scenes manipulation – but it’s more fun when she’s preening like a peacock and basking in her own sexual gamesmanship. I like the way she cloyly delivers lines like “My father says there are only two kinds of girls – nice, and the other kind. I hope you don’t think I’m the other kind,” or ” What is it about me that makes people say that life is calling?” Watching Gloria in action here, you’d never guess this was her first major acting role.

song-of-the-thin-man-1947_poster

After such a promising showcase, you’d think MGM would cast Gloria in an equally appealing follow-up but instead she was given very minor roles in WITHOUT LOVE (1945), IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN (1947) and SONG OF THE THIN MAN (1947). The first two though were comedies and in WITHOUT LOVE, a Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicle, she has an amusing bit as a nightclub flower girl with a cold in her nose. She also shines in her brief scenes with Frank Sinatra in IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN where she plays a brassy army nurse from Brooklyn (dressed in a skin tight, all-white tailored service uniform) who razzes Sinatra mercilessly about being a poseur and not a real native of  Brooklyn.  She’s only featured in the first few minutes of the film and her absence is solely felt, especially during the Jimmy Durante segments. (If you happen to watch it on TCM on August 13th at 7:15 pm ET, don’t tune out before Sinatra’s rendition of “The Brooklyn Bridge”, filmed on location. It’s a dazzling, nostalgic valentine to the borough). As for SONG OF THE THIN MAN, this is strictly MGM contract work. Gloria plays a tough as nails nightclub singer who is permanently silenced and it marks the beginning of many roles as a murder victim.

Gloria Grahame facing James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life

Gloria Grahame facing James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life

It was between WITHOUT LOVE and IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN that Grahame delivered on the promise of her debut film BLONDE FEVER.  She was cast in Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) as a small town flirt named Violet, a role she gets to play in shades of dark and light. She’s delightful in a high school dance scene doing the Charleston and in her street encounter with James Stewart where she takes his remarks the wrong way, creating a public scene. Later on in the film, she plays the same character in a fantasy vision of what her life would have become if James Stewart’s George Bailey had never existed. And we see a hysterical Violet being dragged off by the police in a paddy wagon, most likely on prostitution charges, and she’s a sad sight to behold indeed. It’s like a flash forward to her role as Jenny, the pathetic barfly of CROSSFIRE, a part she would play the next year. In fact, it was ultimately CROSSFIRE that brought her to the attention of the critics and her peers in Hollywood and is also partly responsible for typecasting Gloria as the proverbial bad girl for much of her later career.

Gloria Grahame as Jenny in CROSSFIRE

Gloria Grahame as Jenny in CROSSFIRE

Not that she didn’t appear in other films besides crime dramas and melodramas but ask any film buff to name their favorite Gloria movies and titles like MERTON OF THE MOVIES (1947) or NAKED ALIBI (1954) or THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) are probably not going to be among the films most cited. As much as I love Grahame’s performance in Nicholas Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE (the director and actress were married and in the process of breaking up when it was filmed), I miss the teasing, playful innocence of Gloria’s small town vamp in the early scenes of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

There is, however, considerable compensation in MERTON OF THE MOVIES which remains an undiscovered delight for Grahame fans who haven’t seen it. I resisted MERTON for years because I’m not a Red Skelton fan but I was completely won over by the film’s clever satire of the motion picture business (It’s based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly). Set during the silent era and preceding Singin’ in the Rain (1953) by several years in its insider observations, MERTON not only keeps Skelton’s broad, mugging antics to a minimum but actually gives him a sympathetic character to play and not the usual bumbling fool. He’s a naïve, small town transplant, trying to break into the film industry and is eventually helped by a former stunt double turned successful actress (Virginia O’Brien, master of the poker-face wisecrack and put-down). The real scene-stealer here though is Gloria as Beulah Baxter, a vain, gorgeous but somewhat dim starlet with a screen image like Theda Bara or some similar silent era sexpot. She gets to flash her beautiful, sexy legs in one funny scene where she’s hoisted to the crow’s nest of a ship for a costume picture. “Do I really have to sit in a bird’s nest?” she asks the director (an exasperated Alan Mowbrey). “Crow’s nest!”, he says, correcting her but realizing the distinction is probably lost. “Well,” she replies, “if there’s any crows in it, I’m comin’ down!” Then her stunt double (O’Brien) gets to leap from the top of the mast into the water tank below as Beulah descends and retreats to her private dressing room. There are quite a lot of similarities between Grahame’s egocentric star and Jean Hagen’s equally clueless celebrity in Singin’ in the Rain which become even more apparent in the scene where Gloria tries to seduce Skelton, the studio’s new sensation (she thinks it will help her career). The mixture of transparent manipulation and genuine delight over her apparently victorious scheme are played out in a funny physical charade – the couple are getting smashed on champagne – and culminates with Skelton inquiring if there is novocaine in his drink because his face is going numb. Gloria helpfully suggests, “Try biting your upper lip,” a telling bit of advice considering her real life obsession with HER upper lip (read Vincent Curcio’s biography of her – Suicide Blonde – for the cosmetic surgery details). He responds, “Can’t find it. I had one coming in, didn’t I?” Then before things can get more interesting – really, Gloria Grahame and Red Skelton getting it on? – Virginia O’Brien barges in and rescues Red. MERTON OF THE MOVIES airs on TCM on 8/13 at 9 am ET.

Other rarely seen or lesser known Grahame films in TCM’s lineup include the two aforementioned titles – ROUGHSHOD and THE GLASS WALL - and CHANDLER (1971), which barely qualifies as a Gloria sighting since she only has one scene with the title character, played by Warren Oates. Now THAT’S a couple.

ROUGHSHOD is an engaging and consistently entertaining little B Western directed by Mark Robson in which two wranglers, Clay Phillips (Robert Sterling) and his younger brother Steve (Claude Jarman Jr.), are taking a group of thoroughbred horses to Sonora for sale. Along the way they encounter four dance hall girls who were driven out of Aspen, Colorado by the community (and you know what that means). Now stranded with a broken carriage, the women are allowed to accompany the two cowboys as far as the first ranch they see. Meanwhile, three escaped convicts are on their trail with their leader Lednov (John Ireland), intent on killing Clay who was responsible for his incarceration. While the plot plays out in a predictable manner with few surprises along the way, ROUGHSHOD has an authentic Western feel to it due to the stunning on-location cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc (it was filmed in the Lake Tahoe area). It also features Gloria as an unlikely heroine who  looks surprisingly at home on the range, roughing it under the stars. She’s a spunky, ambitious business woman with no allusions about her reputation even though an intense love-hate relationship develops between her and Clay along the way. [Spoiler] Usually in films of this period, a prostitute in love with the hero would most likely end up dead, leaving the protagonist free to marry his virginal sweetheart. Not in this one. But I will say that only one of the dance hall gals actually makes it to Sonora.
THE GLASS WALL, co-written and directed by Maxwell Shane, is a genuine curiosity in which Hungarian refugee Peter Kaban (Vittorio Gassman), a concentration camp survivor, stows away illegally on a ship of displaced Europeans bound for New York City after WWII. Denied entry into the country and facing deportation, he escapes into the city to look for Tom (Jerry Paris), a former American soldier whose life he saved during the war. With Tom’s support and sponsorship, Peter could stay in America but the desperate immigrant doesn’t even know Tom’s last name or where he lives. He only knows that he’s a jazz musician in a club near Times Square. Peter’s nocturnal ramblings while constantly eluding the police and immigration officers leads him to a diner where he meets Maggie (Grahame), a recently fired factory worker who is about to be evicted from her boarding house. THE GLASS WALL presents Gloria at her most unglamorous during a period where her sexy appearance was always well exploited on screen. Wearing no makeup and looking convincingly haggard, it’s one of her best and less known dramatic performances and truly captures the desperate state of mind and hard knocks her Maggie has endured. Originally Shelley Winters wanted to play this part opposite her husband, Gassman, at the time but Columbia cast Grahame instead. It’s a shame the movie isn’t better as it addresses real post-war concerns about refugees in America, unemployment, and the harsh realities of life on the streets of New York. The cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc (him again) is a wonderful time machine back to the New York City of 1953 and has a raw, you-are-there feel to it at times as if referencing the neorealism films of Roberto Rossellini. For jazz fans, there is even a cameo appearance by Jack Teagarden, Shorty Rogers and their band in one brief nightclub sequence. Unfortunately, the film’s pacing is uneven and the poignant relationship that starts to develop between Gassman and Grahame is interrupted and dropped in favor of constant chase scenes. Gloria fans should seek it out though just to see her running full speed. It’s an odd sight. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in such constant motion except for the climax of Sudden Fear when she tries to outrun Jack Palance’s speeding car.
Gloria Grahame’s day on TCM concludes with CHANDLER, another rarely seen film which features the unlikely pairing of Warren Oates and Leslie Caron as a former security guard turned bodyguard and the target of hit men, respectively. This muddled B-movie is extremely sparse in the dialogue department and there is little action though in theory it should be a chase thriller. There is no chemistry between Oates and Caron and it’s a bit of a mystery of how this movie even got made. Still, there are a few compensations such as the on-location cinematography of Los Angeles and the Monterey Peninsula (some scenes were shot in the Highlands Inn, a famous luxury resort) and one scene with Grahame. She’s cast as the wife of a former partner/friend of Chandler’s and, as if in homage to her film noir past, Oates gets to plant a kiss on Grahame’s famous upper lip which by this point in her career was starting to look like a special effect.
I wish TCM were showing some of the other more obscure but interesting Grahame movies such as NAKED ALIBI or THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (1954), a British noir, or PRISONERS OF THE CASBAH (1953), a tacky, Sam Katzman desert adventure but I’m not complaining. A full day of Gloria is a rare treat from the cinema gods.
0 Response Gloria the Obscure
Posted By Suzi Doll : August 8, 2009 7:16 pm

Nice overview of obscure Gloria roles. A non-Gloria fact jumped out at me, though. Jerry Paris was in The Glass Wall? Interesting. I met him while I was at Northwestern because he and Garry Marshall used to come in once a year and work with the TV students. He directed Marshall’s 1970s TV shows, like Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days. Paris and Marshall were quite a pair when they were speaking informally to the students. I saw Paris in The Wild One after I had met him, and I couldn’t reconcile the Jerry I met with the biker he played in the film.

Posted By Suzi Doll : August 8, 2009 7:16 pm

Nice overview of obscure Gloria roles. A non-Gloria fact jumped out at me, though. Jerry Paris was in The Glass Wall? Interesting. I met him while I was at Northwestern because he and Garry Marshall used to come in once a year and work with the TV students. He directed Marshall’s 1970s TV shows, like Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days. Paris and Marshall were quite a pair when they were speaking informally to the students. I saw Paris in The Wild One after I had met him, and I couldn’t reconcile the Jerry I met with the biker he played in the film.

Posted By morlockjeff : August 8, 2009 8:33 pm

Then you’ll really enjoy seeing Paris in THE GLASS WALL as a aspiring jazz musician with a stage mother girlfriend (that’s another story and not this film). He slowly develops a conscience and some personal moral scruples – should he help his desperate friend (just some guy that saved his life) or go to a live club audition that could make his career and life? So I guess he’s the indirect hero by the end. But you have to see it to see him racing through the halls of the United Nations at the climax. Shot on real locations. I’ve never been inside the U.N. Now I have….circa 1953. I’m sure it doesn’t look that way now. What is the United Nations anyway?

Posted By morlockjeff : August 8, 2009 8:33 pm

Then you’ll really enjoy seeing Paris in THE GLASS WALL as a aspiring jazz musician with a stage mother girlfriend (that’s another story and not this film). He slowly develops a conscience and some personal moral scruples – should he help his desperate friend (just some guy that saved his life) or go to a live club audition that could make his career and life? So I guess he’s the indirect hero by the end. But you have to see it to see him racing through the halls of the United Nations at the climax. Shot on real locations. I’ve never been inside the U.N. Now I have….circa 1953. I’m sure it doesn’t look that way now. What is the United Nations anyway?

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : August 10, 2009 1:52 am

she only has one scene with the title character, played by Warren Oates

For which she was paid the princely sum of $500.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : August 10, 2009 1:52 am

she only has one scene with the title character, played by Warren Oates

For which she was paid the princely sum of $500.

Posted By Steve Kilcullen : August 10, 2009 4:08 pm

Gloria Grahame has been one of my favorite actresses for a long time. I was shocked to discover she’s considered “obscure”! Nonetheless, “In A Lonely Place” is one of my favorite films, due in large part to Gloria.

Posted By Steve Kilcullen : August 10, 2009 4:08 pm

Gloria Grahame has been one of my favorite actresses for a long time. I was shocked to discover she’s considered “obscure”! Nonetheless, “In A Lonely Place” is one of my favorite films, due in large part to Gloria.

Posted By Molo : August 10, 2009 7:33 pm

The 13th of August just happens to be my birthday and I can’t think of a finer present than a day of Gloria Grahame on TCM. I scheduled the day off as soon as it was announced.

Some of us over on the message boards have been keeping a tribute thread to Grahame going for well over a year now. I’m so glad TCM chose to give her a nod for the Summer Under the Stars theme this year.

I have written on several occasions that I thought Gloria had a flair for comedy that was never fully explored. Merton of the Movies being a great example. Now that I have read your thoughts on Blonde Fever, I’m really looking forward to finally getting a chance to see it. I’m also looking forward to seeing Roughshod and The Glass Wall for the first time.

Thanks for the nice write up on Grahame and giving her comedic abilities a mention. It’s great to see the Morlocks talking about Grahame this week.

Posted By Molo : August 10, 2009 7:33 pm

The 13th of August just happens to be my birthday and I can’t think of a finer present than a day of Gloria Grahame on TCM. I scheduled the day off as soon as it was announced.

Some of us over on the message boards have been keeping a tribute thread to Grahame going for well over a year now. I’m so glad TCM chose to give her a nod for the Summer Under the Stars theme this year.

I have written on several occasions that I thought Gloria had a flair for comedy that was never fully explored. Merton of the Movies being a great example. Now that I have read your thoughts on Blonde Fever, I’m really looking forward to finally getting a chance to see it. I’m also looking forward to seeing Roughshod and The Glass Wall for the first time.

Thanks for the nice write up on Grahame and giving her comedic abilities a mention. It’s great to see the Morlocks talking about Grahame this week.

Posted By morlockjeff : August 10, 2009 9:19 pm

Steve, the “obscure” label I used is in reference to aspects of her acting abilities rarely noted by critics or film scholars – her comedic talents, her dramatic chops. I didn’t mean Gloria the actress was obscure. My post was intented to spotlight roles and films that offer another side of her beside the popular stereotype. Check out MERTON OF THE MOVIES or ROUGHSHOD for a different Gloria.

Posted By morlockjeff : August 10, 2009 9:19 pm

Steve, the “obscure” label I used is in reference to aspects of her acting abilities rarely noted by critics or film scholars – her comedic talents, her dramatic chops. I didn’t mean Gloria the actress was obscure. My post was intented to spotlight roles and films that offer another side of her beside the popular stereotype. Check out MERTON OF THE MOVIES or ROUGHSHOD for a different Gloria.

Posted By moirafinnie : August 14, 2009 2:53 pm

Hi Jeff-
I just saw The Glass Wall, which, as you mentioned had an uneven, well-intentioned neo-realist feel to it. The highlight of the film for me was seeing G.G. explain her life to the fugitive. As she described the deadening effect of her life on her desperate soul as she mimed putting the tips on shoelaces for Vittorio Gassman‘s refugee, her anger and exhaustion brought the scene to vivid life.

I find it ironic and a remarkable testament to her skill that within one year, Grahame could go from the stylish humor and Helen Rose gowns worn by her character in The Bad and the Beautiful to her down-on-her-luck character in The Glass Wall, just hanging on to life on the fringes of life in NYC, playing a person so desperate she’d steal two dimes from two street urchins. Frankly, I’m glad she played this role opposite Gassman rather than Shelley Winters. Gloria Grahame almost never whined, but could play a plucky role with a thin veneer of toughness better than anyone at times.

Posted By moirafinnie : August 14, 2009 2:53 pm

Hi Jeff-
I just saw The Glass Wall, which, as you mentioned had an uneven, well-intentioned neo-realist feel to it. The highlight of the film for me was seeing G.G. explain her life to the fugitive. As she described the deadening effect of her life on her desperate soul as she mimed putting the tips on shoelaces for Vittorio Gassman‘s refugee, her anger and exhaustion brought the scene to vivid life.

I find it ironic and a remarkable testament to her skill that within one year, Grahame could go from the stylish humor and Helen Rose gowns worn by her character in The Bad and the Beautiful to her down-on-her-luck character in The Glass Wall, just hanging on to life on the fringes of life in NYC, playing a person so desperate she’d steal two dimes from two street urchins. Frankly, I’m glad she played this role opposite Gassman rather than Shelley Winters. Gloria Grahame almost never whined, but could play a plucky role with a thin veneer of toughness better than anyone at times.

Posted By morlockjeff : August 14, 2009 3:09 pm

Yes, it’s quite amazing isn’t it that Gloria made The Bad and the Beautiful and The Glass Wall back to back? Ironically, The Glass Wall proves what a convincing dramatic actress she could be while, as you pointed out in your piece, her Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful seems unearned (more the fault of a superficial, shallow screenplay than the performance).

Posted By morlockjeff : August 14, 2009 3:09 pm

Yes, it’s quite amazing isn’t it that Gloria made The Bad and the Beautiful and The Glass Wall back to back? Ironically, The Glass Wall proves what a convincing dramatic actress she could be while, as you pointed out in your piece, her Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful seems unearned (more the fault of a superficial, shallow screenplay than the performance).

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