MAE WEST 1893 - 1980
Although it was a small role, she was able to display a wit that was to make her world-famous. Raft himself said of Mae, "She stole everything but the cameras." She became a box-office smash hit, breaking all sorts of attendance records. Her second film, She Done Him Wrong (1933), was based on her earlier and popular play that she had written herself. The film was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture. It also made Cary Grant a star. Her third film later that year was I'm No Angel (1933).
The controversy aroused by these two films resulted in the studios establishing the Motion Picture Production Code, which regulated what content could be shown or said in pictures. As a result of these codes, Mae began to double-talk so that a person could take a word or phrase any way they wished. This was so she could get her material past the censors, and it worked. She really felt she had a vested interest because it was her written work being scrutinized. She had already written and performed these for the stage with the very material now being filmed.
Mary Jane West was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 17, 1893, to parents involved in prizefighting and vaudeville. Mae herself worked on the stage and in vaudeville from the time she was five years old. She never was academically inclined because she was too busy performing. She studied dance as a child, and by the time she was 14 she was billed as "The Baby Vamp" for her performances on stage. Later Mae began writing her own plays. One of those plays, "Sex", landed her in jail for ten days on obscenity charges in 1926. Two years later her play "Diamond Lil" became a huge Broadway success. Mae caught the attention of the Hollywood studios and was given her first movie role with George Raft in Night After Night (1932).
Her next film, Belle of the Nineties (1934), was an equal hit. By 1936, with Klondike Annie (1936) and Go West Young Man (1936) she became the highest paid woman in the US. After 1937's Every Day's a Holiday (1937), she didn't make another film until 1940, when she co-starred with W.C. Fields in another film she wrote herself, My Little Chickadee (1940). It was well known she had little use for Fields and his ways, which were crude even for her. After Tropicana (1943), Mae took a respite from the film world, mainly because the censors were getting stricter. She decided she would be able to have greater expression in her work if she went back to the stage. Mae continued to be a success there. When censorship began to end in the 1960s, she returned to film work in 1970's Myra Breckinridge (1970).
Her last film was 1978's Sextette (1978). Mae suffered a series of strokes which finally resulted in her death at age 87 on November 22, 1980, in Hollywood, California. She was buried in New York. The actress, who only appeared in 12 films in 46 years, had a powerful impact on us. There was no doubt she was way ahead of her time with her sexual innuendos and how she made fun of a puritanical society. She did a lot to bring it out of the closet and perhaps we should be grateful for that.
EDWARD G. ROBINSON 1893 - 1973
He portrayed the title character in several biographical works, such as Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940) and A Dispatch from Reuters (1940). Psychological dramas included Flesh and Fantasy (1943), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944)and Scarlet Street (1945).
Another notable gangster role was in Key Largo (1948). He was "absolved" of allegations of Communist affiliation after testifying as a friendly witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy hysteria of the early 1950s. In 1956 he had to sell off his extensive art collection in a divorce settlement and also had to deal with a psychologically troubled son. In 1956 he returned to Broadway in "Middle of the Night". In 1973 he was awarded a special, posthumous Oscar for lifetime achievement.
Edward G. Robinson arrived in the United States at age ten, and his family moved into New York's Lower East Side. He took up acting while attending City College, abandoning plans to become a rabbi or lawyer.
The American Academy of Dramatic Arts awarded him a scholarship, and he began work in stock, with his new name, in 1913. Broadway was two years later; he worked steadily there for 15 years. His work included "The Kibitzer", a comedy he co-wrote with Jo Swerling. His film debut was a small supporting part in the silent The Bright Shawl (1923), but it was with the coming of sound that he hit his stride.
His stellar performance as snarling, murderous thug Rico Bandello in Little Caesar (1931)--all the more impressive since in real life Robinson was a sophisticated, cultured man with a passion for fine art--set the standard for movie gangsters, both for himself in many later films and for the industry.
CARRY GRANT 1904 - 1986
Above: Carry Grant with Ingrid Bergman
Cary Grant was born Archibald Alexander Leach on January 18, 1904 in Horfield, Bristol, England, to Elsie Maria (Kingdon) and Elias James Leach, who worked in a factory.
His early years in Bristol would have been an ordinary lower-middle-class childhood, except for one extraordinary event.
At age nine, he came home from school one day and was told his mother had gone off to a seaside resort. However, the real truth was that she had been placed in a mental institution, where she would remain for years, and he was never told about it (he would not see his mother again until he was in his late 20s).
He left school at age 14, lying about his age and forging his father's signature on a letter to join Bob Pender's troupe of knockabout comedians. He learned pantomime as well as acrobatics as he toured with the Pender troupe in the English provinces, picked up a Cockney accent in the music halls in London, and then in July 1920, was one of the eight Pender boys selected to go to the United States. Their show on Broadway, "Good Times", ran for 456 performances, giving Grant time to acclimatize. He would stay in America. Mae West wanted Grant for She Done Him Wrong (1933) because she saw his combination of virility, sexuality and the aura and bearing of a gentleman. Grant was young enough to begin the new career of fatherhood when he stopped making movies at age 62.
One biographer said Grant was alienated by the new realism in the film industry. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he had invented a man-of-the-world persona and a style - "high comedy with polished words". In To Catch a Thief (1955), he and Grace Kelly were allowed to improvise some of the dialogue. They knew what the director, Alfred Hitchcock, wanted to do with a scene, they rehearsed it, put in some clever double entendres that got past the censors, and then the scene was filmed. His biggest box-office success was another Hitchcock 1950s film, North by Northwest (1959) made with Eva Marie Saintsince Kelly was by that time Princess of Monaco.
Once told by an interviewer, "Everybody would like to be Cary Grant", Grant is said to have replied, "So would I."
JOAN CRAWFORD 1904 - 1986
By the early 1940s, MGM was no longer giving her plum roles; newcomers had arrived in Hollywood, and the public wanted to see them. Crawford left MGM for rival Warner Bros., and in 1945 she landed the role of a lifetime. Mildred Pierce (1945) gave her an opportunity to show her range as an actress, and her performance as a woman driven to give her daughter everything garnered Crawford her first, and only, Oscar for Best Actress. The following year she appeared with John Garfield in the well-received Humoresque (1946). In 1947, she appeared as Louise Graham in Possessed (1947); again she was nominated for a Best Actress from the Academy, but she lost to Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter (1947). Crawford continued to choose her roles carefully, and in 1952 she was nominated for a third time, for her depiction of Myra Hudson in Sudden Fear (1952). This time the coveted Oscar went to Shirley Booth, for Come Back, Little Sheba (1952).
Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1905, in San Antonio, Texas, to Anna Belle (Johnson) and Thomas E. LeSueur, a laundry laborer. By the time she was born, her parents had separated, and by the time she was a teenager, she'd had three stepfathers. It wasn't an easy life; Crawford worked a variety of menial jobs.
She was a good dancer, though, and -- perhaps seeing dance as her ticket to a career in show business -- she entered several contests, one of which landed her a spot in a chorus line. Before long, she was dancing in big Midwestern and East Coast cities.
After almost two years, she packed her bags and moved to Hollywood. Crawford was determined to succeed, and shortly after arriving she got her first bit part, as a showgirl in Pretty Ladies(1925).
Crawford's career slowed after that; she appeared in minor roles until 1962, when she and Bette Davis co-starred in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962). Their longstanding rivalry may have helped fuel their phenomenally vitriolic and well-received performances. (Earlier in their careers, Davis said of Crawford, "She's slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie," and Crawford said of Davis, "I don't hate [her] even though the press wants me to. I resent her. I don't see how she built a career out of a set of mannerisms instead of real acting ability. Take away the pop eyes, the cigarette, and those funny clipped words, and what have you got? She's phony, but I guess the public really likes that".)
JAMES DEAN 1931 - 1955
American actor James Dean had a short-lived but intense acting career that began in 1952 and ended tragically with his death in September 1955. After his death he became a cult figure (a legendary person), and fans have marveled for decades at his ability to duplicate their adolescent (teenage) agony on screen.
Born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, James Byron Dean was the only child of Winton and Mildred (Wilson) Dean. Winton, a dental technician (a person who creates dental appliances), moved his family to Santa Monica, California, when Dean was six years old. Dean was particularly close to his mother, who had dreams of him being a performer. She enrolled him in tap dance lessons at the age of three, and taught him violin.
In July 1940 Dean's mother died of cancer. This was a loss he would feel strongly all of his life. His father sent him back to Fairmount, Indiana, to live with Marcus and Ortense Winslow, Winton Dean's sister and brother-in-law. In Fairmount Dean grew up in his aunt and uncle's rural Quaker home, helping with farm chores and enjoying a reasonably carefree existence. He enjoyed swimming and ice-skating, and was interested in cars. He played guard on the high school basketball team and excelled at debate and drama.