Thursday, January 20, 2005

No "Hold The..." or "...Clinic" Jokes, Please

The death of Virginia Mayo didn't get a lot of coverage; as this obituary makes clear, she didn't make a lot of memorable movies, though her best movie, White Heat, is coming out on DVD on Tuesday as part of WB's excellent Gangster movie collection.

Like frequent costar Danny Kaye, Mayo suffered from Samuel Goldwyn's determination to make his leading players as sweet and wholesome as possible. Having decided to make Mayo a star -- it didn't exactly work out, but it worked better for Goldwyn than his legendarily disastrous attempt to make Anna Sten into the new Garbo -- Goldwyn had her playing sweet, innocent, cute and wholesome, even though she wasn't particularly good at it. He did give her a change of pace with A Song is Born, a musical remake of Ball of Fire where she played the Barbara Stanwyck role, but the part called for a type of comic timing that Mayo didn't have either. (Howard Hawks, who directed both films, was asked how Mayo did in A Song is Born; his answer was one word: "Pathetic.") But the problem with acting for Goldwyn wasn't just the kind of parts he gave; it was the overstuffed, over-elegant nature of his productions. Even Bob Hope looks a little at sea in Goldwyn's The Princess and the Pirate; there's just not much freedom or energy in a typical Goldwyn production.

Mayo did better when she left Goldwyn for Warner Brothers, not just because Warner Brothers gave her more of the parts she was good at, but because WB's productions didn't have the same kind of pretentiousness and allowed performers to be a bit more earthy, more freewheeling. Playing a part similar to the Song is Born part in She's Working Her Way Through College with Ronald Reagan, Mayo is much more at ease and enjoyable. (The movie, a musical loosely based on The Male Animal by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent, in my opinion improves on the original by throwing out all the sophomoric political content of the play and the nonmusical movie version.) And of course White Heat is a must-buy this Tuesday; a great funny moment -- which I think is played as intentionally funny by both director and actress -- is when she reminds her lover that he almost got gunned down by her mother-in-law: "I had to shoot her, Ed. She had you covered."

She didn't have a great career, but she proved she was as fun to watch as she was lovely to look at, and anyone who overcomes the stigma of having been in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty deserves a lot of respect.

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