Posted by Susan Doll on July 9, 2012
Ethel Barrymore, a respected thespian on the stage and screen for six decades, once noted, “For an actress to be a success, she must have the face of a Venus, the brains of a Minerva, the grace of Terpsichore, the memory of a MaCaulay, the figure of Juno, and the hide of a rhinoceros.” Perhaps these traits account for the many actresses who made names for themselves for something other than acting. Some achieved noteworthy goals and accomplishments outside of show business; others made the film-history books because they were the first to do something onscreen or on the stage; a few became notorious for less-than-admirable deeds. Whether moved by altruism, attracted to adventure, or driven by restlessness, these unusual stars and entertainers were more than just pretty faces. I have to admit I have a soft spot for actresses—or women in general—who are envelope-pushers, troublemakers, or just natural-born hellraisers.
Though no actress has become president or governor—at least, not yet—several have turned to politics with varying degree of success. Shirley Temple, Hollywood’s most beloved child star, generated a mixed reaction when she was appointed as Ambassador to Ghana in 1974. Many assumed a former movie star would be less than qualified for the job, but Shirley Temple Black had been working in politics and diplomacy for 13 years, including a stint as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. After serving as Ambassador for two years, she was appointed the first female Chief of Protocol. In 1989, she served as the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution—a time of great uncertainty for the Eastern Bloc countries as they abandoned hard-line communism.
Stepping into an even more volatile political situation, Greek actress Melina Mercouri openly criticized the military junta that took over her country in 1967. Mercouri, whose father was a member of Parliament and her grandfather a mayor, joined the resistance movement against the military regime. In retaliation, the government revoked her citizenship and seized her property, partly due to her high profile as a film star. Mercouri was forced into exile, though she continued to appear in internationally based films, including the star-studded melodrama Once Is Not Enough. In 1974, when a civilian-based government regained control, she ran for a seat in the parliament, eventually winning a seat in 1977. She later became the Minister of Culture, establishing a museum at the Parthenon and advocating for the return of the Elgin Marbles. Those who think performers have no business mixing in politics would not agree with Mercouri’s point of view: “I think it’s right to mix art and politics. Artists are more sensitive than others to what is happening in the world; they have a rapport with people.”
Less known is Helen Gahagan, a Broadway singer and actress who became politically active in the 1930s when she drew attention to the plight of displaced Okies while working with the Farm Security Administration. Gahagan starred in one film, She, which was RKO’s 1935 adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s fantasy novel about a hidden civilization in the Arctic and their immortal ice queen. She quickly traded in her acting career for politics and was elected Democratic National Committeewoman from California. Beginning in 1944, she served two terms as a representative from California as Helen Gahagan Douglas (she was the second wife of star Melvyn Douglas).
In 1950, during the postwar red scare, Douglas was involved in a nasty reelection campaign against Richard Nixon. His repeated allegations that she was “really” a communist because of her pursuit of socially liberal causes reminded me of today’s conservatives who muddy the political waters by tossing the word “socialist” around. With his red-baiting rhetoric at a fever pitch, Nixon once claimed that Douglas was “pink right down to her underwear.” Needless to say, he won the election . . .and, well, we know the rest of the story.
Hedy Lamarr attracted the attention of Louis B. Mayer when she appeared nude in a 1933 Hungarian film titled Ecstasy. As Hedy Kiesler, the actress frolicked nude in an extensive swimming scene, which was later edited down for the film’s worldwide release. After she arrived in Hollywood, her name was changed to Lamarr, and she was dubbed “the most beautiful woman in films.” Lamarr did not embrace her identity as a movie star as readily as others, once remarking, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” While Lamarr earned her stardom with roles in such films as Algiers, Tortilla Flat, and My Favorite Spy, she also earned a tiny place in the annals of science. She and composer Georges Anthiel were granted a patent in 1942 for a communications system that would let radio signals hop from frequency to frequency. Thus, a torpedo could be guided to its target by radio, but the chances were greatly reduced that the signal could be jammed by the enemy. Lamarr and Anthiel donated the patent to the U.S. Navy, who was not particularly interested. The Navy kept their ownership of this system a military secret until long after the patent ran out. Later, the idea of frequency-hopping was revisited and embraced by the Navy, but by that time the idea had gone through many permutations from various sources. According to various articles on the Internet, the most well-known application of Lamarr’s idea today is Bluetooth. Apparently, Lamarr had a proclivity for science even as a young bride in 1930s Vienna. When her first husband, Fritz Mandal, chatted with Nazi officials at Viennese social functions about his innovations in control systems for military weaponry, Hedy was paying attention. While giving her patent to her adopted country was a noble and patriotic gesture on Lamarr’s part, it must have been emotionally satisfying to “appropriate” an ex-husband’s ideas and hand them over to his enemy.
Though Hedy starred in a famous nude scene, which attracted the attention of Hollywood, she wasn’t the first actress to appear completely nude in a mainstream American film. That distinction goes to swimmer Annette Kellerman who was shown nude from the back in A Daughter of the Gods, released in 1916. Kellerman made very few films and was not really an actress, but she was a provocative celebrity. The plucky young swimmer was arrested in Boston in 1907 for wearing a one-piece bathing suit in public in violation of the city’s decency standards. Her life story was given the Hollywood treatment in Million Dollar Mermaid, a musical comedy starring another famous swimmer, Esther Williams.
Esther Williams and Sonja Henie are often discussed in the same breath because both were athletes who parlayed their sports celebrity into a Hollywood career. Henie, a champion skater from Norway, won ten world titles and three Olympic gold medals in a row before turning professional in 1936. What I didn’t realize about Henie was that she was not just a sweet, cutesy skater but an innovative athlete who went against the grain. When she began skating in competitions, male judges sometimes marked down women skaters for attempting moves they thought unladylike. Thus, in her first Winter Olympics, Henie finished dead last. A few years later, she introduced ballet-like movements into free skating for the first time, which launched her on the path to ten world titles and Olympic glory.
Some actresses’ claims to fame may be less inspiring but are still unusual, interesting, or amusing. Jane Chester was a budding starlet in Hollywood during the 1930s when she was hired along with several other girls to have her photo taken posed as the Statue of Liberty. In 1938, Columbia Pictures selected her photo as the Statue to use as its trademark to open its films. However, by the time Chester’s photo was chosen, she had already given up on a Hollywood career and returned home. One source estimated that as the trademark of Columbia, she appeared in over 1700 movies. Another Hollywood hopeful, radio actress Tanis Chandler, arrived in town in the early 1940s—a time when the studios were looking to groom new leading men because so many had joined the service. Tanis appeared in several bit parts, small roles, and uncredited roles, including Cinderella Jones and The Big Sleep, but she found her calling in dubbing American characters in French for films released overseas. An unsubstantiated story claims that Tanis attempted to find additional film work disguised as a leading-man type, using the name Robert Archer. I admire a woman who can adapt her talents to the situation at hand. Unfortunately, her identity and gender were discovered when a director asked Robert to remove “his” shirt for a scene.
As I get older, I appreciate age-defying actresses. In 1975, Judith Lowry turned 85 but she was asked to sign a five-year contract to play Mother Dexter on the Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off Phyllis, starring Cloris Leachman. Lowry became the oldest actress to sign a long-term contract. In an age-defying stunt of her own, an 82-year-old Leachman became the oldest contestant to appear on Dancing with the Stars when she signed to do the show in 2008. At age 73 in 1971, Dame Judith Anderson crossed both age and gender lines when she took on the role of Hamlet for the British stage. Dame Judith was not the first older woman to rattle the cages of the boys club of actors who gained acclaim by playing this iconic Shakespearean character. Sarah Bernhardt donned tights to play the moody Dane when she was around 50 (see the photo at the top of this post).
My favorite recently discovered fact about famous and infamous actresses involves Mabel Normand, a wonderful comedienne who was unlucky in love and life. She was likely the first comic to throw a custard pie at another character on the big screen. While shooting a scene with Ben Turpin on the old Keystone lot around 1913, Normand picked up a custard pie and lobbed it at Turpin, hitting him square in the face. In doing so, she gave American comedy one of its most enduring sight gags.
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