About 15 years after the launching the highly innovative and spellbinding moving picture, the scrappy moguls realized that the future of their industry depended on more than the novel technology itself. After reading several fan letters inquiring about the people in the movies (who were then uncredited), they came up with the ingenious idea of grooming movie stars for public consumption (we all know how well that worked out).
Gloria DeHaven, far left on the 2nd row from bottom. Courtesy of handkerchiefheroes.com
The star machine had its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s during the Golden Age of Hollywood. One of the best practitioners of this method was MGM, whose endearingly corny but apt studio mantra was a place where there were “more stars than in heaven.” MGM, specializing in gorgeously gauche fare, was a perfect fit for the crude and synthetic star system.
One of its starlets, Gloria DeHaven who died from a stroke July 31st, has been a favorite of mine since childhood. Born to vaudevillian parents Carter and Flora Parker DeHaven, Gloria began her career early, making her screen debut as an extra in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).
From the get go, this fresh-faced glamorous brunette (sometimes blonde) exhibited confidence and glamour and made a good impression in small supporting roles, best of which was Best Foot Forward (1943). She more than held her own against the large and vibrant cast, as a feisty co-ed who instigates antagonism towards publicity-hungry actress Lucille Ball, who opportunistically accepts a prom date from a young cadet. This film marked the first pairing between DeHaven and June Allyson who along with Nancy Walker vibrantly delivered the show stopping musical number “The Barrelhouse, The Boogie Woogie, and The Blues.”
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DeHaven and Allyson had such great chemistry that the next year, they got their first leading roles as plucky singing sisters in the charming morale boosting WWII musical Two Girls and A Sailor. As two singing sisters who gently spar for the affections of a boyish sailor played by Van Johnson, DeHaven’s sexiness and poise as the slightly impulsive sister who attracts the men perfectly complements Allyson’s warm, maternal, though slightly homely sister. Musically, DeHaven’s smooth, clear mezzo and Allyson’s raspy alto are in sync. In the end, audiences gravitated more towards the cuter, All-American Allyson and Johnson who starred in several subsequent films together, thus ending the Allyson DeHaven duo. (Off-screen, the two women remained best of friends).
With that, DeHaven was relegated back to supporting roles, as mostly kid sisters or secondary ingénues. She always brought an effortless, personable, slightly naughty but nice quality that deftly eschewed cloying sappiness. Her charm and vivacity sparkled even if the film didn’t. She easily outshone the negligible song and dance man, George Murphy, mediocre songstress Ginny Simms, and antiquated ex-Vaudevillian fuddy duddy Charles Winninger in the clunky Broadway Rhythm (1944).
DeHaven had a couple of major career setbacks in the mid-40s. First, she was suspended for refusing a role in Good News. Her next assignment, Summer Holiday, a strange but interesting (though not entirely successful) musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play Ah Wilderness, was a highly troubled production that sat on the shelf for two years, and flopped miserably when finally released. Collectively, this kept her off screen for three years.
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While many of her peers utterly resented Dore Schary replacing an acrimoniously ousted Louis B. Mayer as head of production at Metro, DeHaven appreciated the chance to play against type in grittier roles under the new executive’s auspices. She gives a potently poignant performance as the black sheep of a cold, elitist family who has a pregnancy out of wedlock (and naturally a tragic outcome) in the broody melodrama The Doctor and the Girl. In the nifty, cynical little film noir, Scene of the Crime, a bottled blonde DeHaven is effective as a quasi femme fatale who strips in a skeevy nightclub and cavorts with riff raff.
Although both films turned a profit and received decent reviews, DeHaven went back to lighter fare, playing Judy Garland’s slightly self-centered sister in the bizarre farm-set musical Summer Stock and Red Skelton’s love interest in The Yellow Cab Man. Shortly after, she left MGM and freelanced, where the quality of the material declined.
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While no longer an A-lister, DeHaven worked steadily on television, Broadway, and nightclubs until the 1990s. She continued to display her versatility in a variety of excellent performances ranging from a shady old-flame who embroils private detective Mannix in a murder case to an assertive travel agent friend of Jessica Fletcher in a recurring role on Murder, She Wrote. In one of the best episodes of the series, DeHaven, engages in several delightful catfights with several grande dames of the studio-era Julie Adams, Kathryn Grayson, and Ruth Roman, all of whom had dalliances with a town handyman whose shrewish wife was recently murdered.
Like several of the classic stars, DeHaven was approached a few times to write an autobiography, but the deal always fell through because she refused to write a “tell-all” account of her Hollywood days. Instead, in public appearances, DeHaven emphasized the positive aspects of being part of the “Metro family” (though she found some of the sillier aspects of the censorious Hays Code disagreeable). While she didn’t have the widespread fame as some of her peers (I would say she was sorely underrated), Gloria DeHaven has made a lasting impression on movie-loving folks like me.