Friday, December 10, 2010

Happy birthday, Una Merkel!

When I sit down to watch a classic movie and come across the actress who’s in today’s Thrilling Days of Yesteryear spotlight—well, I know it can’t possibly be too bad because I have always had a thing for Una Merkel, the beloved character thesp who was born one hundred and seven years ago on this date in Covington, KY.  Una’s career spanned the Broadway stage, silent and sound films, television and radio—and though she was quite capable in dramatic roles, her comic turns are always what I remember best.

Her physical resemblance to actress Lillian Gish allowed her to double for the divine Miss G in such films as Way Down East and The Wind—and though she did appear in a handful of silents most of her work was consigned to the New York stage until 1930, when director D.W. Griffith cast her as Ann Rutledge in the first of his two sound films, Abraham Lincoln.  From that moment on, the silver screen made room for Miss Merkel, who was the best wisecracking friend a screen heroine ever had—among the films she appeared in were The Maltese Falcon (the 1931 version), Private Lives, Red Headed Woman, 42nd Street, Beauty for Sale, Midnight Mary, Bombshell, The Merry Widow, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, The Cat’s-Paw, Broadway Melody of 1936, Born to Dance and On Borrowed Time.  She had one of her best film showcases in 1939’s Destry Rides Again, in which her character of Lilibelle engages in one of the all-time great movie catfights with Marlene Dietrich’s Frenchie; a year later she’d make audiences laugh in the role of Myrtle Sousè, daughter of W.C. Fields’ Egbert Sousè in The Bank Dick.

Una was still making movies throughout the 1940s—Road to Zanzibar, Cracked Nuts, This is the Army, To Heir is Human (a 1944 comedy two-reeler that paired her with Harry Langdon) and It’s a Joke, Son! immediately come to mind—but by the 1950s she wasn’t in a great deal of demand (though she could still be seen in such vehicles as Kill the Umpire, A Millionaire for Christy, the 1952 Merry Widow and With a Song in My Heart) until she switched over to playing moms and maiden aunts, spurred on by a Tony Award-winning performance in the stage play The Ponder Heart.  She closed out the decade with high-profile roles in such films The Mating Game, The Parent Trap and Summer and Smoke—the latter film getting her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

A recent Radio Spirits project that I worked on found me making a greater acquaintance with Una when I put together a collection of The Great Gildersleeve broadcasts that featured her as one of Gildy’s infinite number of girlfriends/fiancées, southern belle Adeline Fairchild.  If Adeline bore a strong resemblance to an earlier paramour of the Great Man’s, Leila Ransom—well, it wasn’t entirely an accident.  Adeline and Leila were kissin’ cousins…though they preferred to direct most of their kissing toward the hapless Gildy, who in one broadcast found himself engaged to the both of them at the same time.

Merkel’s last feature film was the Elvis Presley vehicle Spinout in 1966, and after that she settled into retirement (save for a 1968 appearance on TV’s I Spy).  The world lost a wonderful performer on January 2, 1986 when Una left this world for a better one—and although I’ve been known to cringe around women with strong Southern drawls I like to think I’d make an exception in her case…she was truly one-of-a-kind.  Happy natal anniversary to an amazing lady and to her fellow birthday celebrants as well…

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851) – Founder of the American School for the Deaf

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) – Poet popular with college girls majoring in English lit

Melvil Dewey (1851-1831) – Inventor of the Dewey decimal system

Victor McLaglen (1886-1959) – Academy Award-winning stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include The Unholy Three, What Price Glory, The Lost Patrol, The Informer, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Quiet Man

Ray Collins (1889-1965) – Stage, screen, radio and television character actor whose vehicles include Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Leave Her to Heaven, The Heiress, Touch of Evil and TV’s The Halls of Ivy and Perry Mason

Moyna MacGill (1895-1975) – Stage, screen and television character actress whose vehicles include Frenchman’s Creek, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry and Kind Lady; mother of Angela Lansbury

Pat Costello (1902-1990) – Actor-stuntman brother of Lou Costello who served as executive producer of Lou and Bud’s syndicated 1952-54 TV comedy series

Mary Norton (1903-1992) – English children’s author who wrote The Borrowers and its sequels, also wrote the book that inspired the 1971 Walt Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks

George J. Lewis (1903-1995) – Stage, screen and television character actor who appeared in scads of serials and B-westerns; co-starred in the 1944 cliffhanger Zorro’s Black Whip and then played the “senior Zorro” (Don Alejandro de la Vega) on the 1957-59 TV series

Michael Blankfort (1907-1982) – Motion picture and television script writer whose cinematic contributions include An Act of Murder, The Dark Past and Tribute to a Bad Man; received credit for 1950’s Broken Arrow though he was fronting for Albert Maltz

Hermes Pan (1909-1990) – Academy Award-winning choreographer who enjoyed a long association with Fred Astaire on TV and in movies like Top Hat, Swing Time, A Damsel in Distress, The Barkleys of Broadway, Silk Stockings and Finian’s Rainbow

Chet Huntley (1911-1974) – Television journalist who partnered with David Brinkley as anchors of the NBC Evening News from 1956 to 1970

Hal Le Roy (1913-1985) – Stage, screen and television actor-dancer-singer who’s best known for a series of Vitaphone musical two-reelers including Rhythmitis, The Prisoner of Swing and The Knight is Young

Dorothy Lamour (1914-1986) – Sarong-ed stage, screen and television singer-actress best known for her “Road” film appearances with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope; can also be seen in such films as The Last Train from Madrid, The Hurricane, A Medal for Benny and The Greatest Show on Earth

Anne Gwynne (1918-2003) – Stage, screen and television singer-actress whose vehicles include Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Black Friday, Ride ‘Em Cowboy, Weird Woman and House of Frankenstein

Hal Baylor (1918-1998) – Unsung stage, screen and television actor whose vehicles include The Set-Up, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Sun Shines Bright, The Young Lions and The Grissom Gang

Professor Longhair (1918-1980) – New Orleans blues singer and pianist

Alexander Courage (1919-2008) – Motion picture and television composer-arranger whose vehicles include Show Boat, The Band Wagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Gigi, The Left Handed Gun, Day of the Outlaw and the theme for TV’s Star Trek

Gerald Thomas (1920-1993) – English motion picture director-editor who helmed most of the films in the Carry On series

Reginald Rose (1920-2002) – Emmy Award-winning television and motion picture writer whose contributions include Crime in the Streets, 12 Angry Men, Man of the West and the TV series The Defenders

Harold Gould (1923-2010) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include Harper, The Lawyer, The Sting, Love and Death, Seems Like Old Times and TV’s Rhoda and The Feather and Father Gang

Jean Byron (1925-2006) – TDOY character actress fave best known as Dr. Burkhart on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Natalie Lane on The Patty Duke Show; she also played Minnie on the TV version of Mayor of the Town

Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille (1928-     ) – WPXI-TV personality and horror movie host; he plays the reporter in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead

Dan Blocker (1928-1972) – Stage, screen and television character actor best known as Eric “Hoss” Cartwright on Scott C. fave Bonanza; also had a recurring role as “Tiny” on the TV oater Cimarron City

Mako (1933-2006) – Japanese-born stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include The Sand Pebbles, The Hawaiians, The Killer Elite, Conan the Barbarian, Seven Years in Tibet and TV’s Hawaiian Heat

Chad Stuart (1941-     ) – Singing partner of Jeremy Clyde

Tommy Rettig (1941-1996) – One-time film and television moppet actor whose vehicles include The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, The Raid, River of No Return and TV’s Lassie (also known as Jeff’s Collie)

Tommy Kirk (1941-     ) – Stage, screen and television moppet actor whose Disney vehicles include Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, Swiss Family Robinson, The AbsentMinded Professor, Babes in Toyland and the “Hardy Boys” serials on TV’s Mickey Mouse Club

Peter Michael Goetz (1941-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose regular TV gigs include After MASH, The Cavanaughs, Room for Two and The Faculty

Fionnula Flanagan (1941-     ) – Irish-born stage, screen and television character actress whose regular TV gigs include How the West Was Won, To Have & to Hold, Brotherhood and Lost

Teddy Wilson (1943-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose regular TV gigs include Roll Out, That’s My Mama and The Sanford Arms; also played Sweet Daddy Williams on Good Times

Tisha Sterling (1944-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actress whose vehicles include Village of the Giants, Coogan’s Bluff, Norwood, The Killer Inside Me and The Whales of August

Sharon Rockefeller (1944-     ) – Daughter of former U.S. Illinois Senator Charles Percy who married John D. Rockefeller IV in 1967 and became First Lady of WV when Jay was governor from 1977 to 1985; also CEO of Washington, DC public TV station WETA

Gloria Loring (1946-     ) – Pop music vocalist and actress (Days of Our Lives) best known for co-composing the theme songs of Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life

Douglas Kenney (1947-1980) – Author-writer who co-founded the humor magazine National Lampoon; also contributed to the screenplays for Animal House and Caddyshack

Johnny Rodriguez (1951-     ) – Country music singer-songwriter

Susan Dey (1952-     ) – Stage, screen and television actress who had regular gigs on the TV series The Partridge Family, Emerald Point N.A.S., L.A. Law and Love & War

Kristine DeBell (1954-     ) – Former model and soft-porn actress who turned up in a few mainstream movies like I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Meatballs and TAG: The Assassination Game; also caught her on The Young and the Restless a time or two

Paul Hardcastle (1957-     ) – English composer-musician

Michael Clarke Duncan (1957-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include Armageddon, The Green Mile, Planet of the Apes, Daredevil and Sin City

John J. York (1958-     ) – Stage, screen and television actor best known for his boob tube gigs on Werewolf and General Hospital

Kenneth Branagh (1960-     ) – English stage, screen and television actor-writer-director whose directorial oeuvre includes Henry V, Dead Again, Peter’s Friends, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet

Nia Peeples (1961-     ) – Stage, screen and television actress-R&B singer-dancer who scored regular gigs on such TV shows as Fame, The Young and the Restless and Walker, Texas Ranger

Bobby Flay (1964-     ) – Television personality and celebrity chef/restaurateur who’s only tolerated by my mother because he’s married to actress Stephanie March (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit)

Raven-Symoné (1985-     ) – Singer and moppet actress best known as Olivia Kendall on The Cosby Show and the titular character of That’s So Raven*

*I once asked my nine-year-old niece to explain the premise of this series to me—my suggestion to you would be not to repeat my mistake, particularly if you have someplace to be

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Scott C. said...

George J. Lewis also played one of the main goons sub-contracting for J. Carrol Naish's Japanese spy ring in the 1943 Batman serial.

Kristine DeBell was charming as Jackie Chan's love interest in his first American film The Big Brawl, and very funny as Ryan O'Neil's Much Better Half in The Main Event, playing a pretty girl with a cough like a mine explosion.

Stacia said...

I have always had a thing for Una Merkel

You and me both, my friend.

Also, Tommy Kirk was in a "Village of the Giants" and "Catalina Caper," two 1960s films MSTed to pretty good effect... although those 2 films are the kind I like to watch without MSTing.

Scott C. said...

Oops, that was a major oversight. Thanks for picking up the spare, Stacia. For some reason my eyes slid right past Tommy Kirk's name without even a flicker of recognition, as they so often yearn to do when he's on screen.

mndean said...

Una was one of the fun feminine sidekicks of the '30s who unfortunately didn't get to star a B-picture series, like my other fave Glenda Farrell did. I enjoy her a lot in a couple of unmentioned films here, the Carole Lombard comedy True Confession, and as Andy Devine's girlfriend in The Impatient Maiden. She's also quite good as Loretta Young's pal in They Call It Sin.