Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bert Lahr, A Gentleman in Lion's Clothes

While the Cowardly Lion searched for courage, funny man Bert Lahr—who donned that oversized wig and lion’s clothes—faced a personal crisis more distressful than the cyclone that brought Dorothy to Oz in the first place.  Cast as the frightened feline in MGM’s ambitious version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Lahr had no idea he was about to make movie history.  Even if he had realized that his performance would enthrall generations of filmgoers far into the 21st century, the actor probably wouldn’t have done anything different.  Besides, it wasn’t skipping down the Yellow Brick Road that concerned him most, but a private dilemma that commanded his attention

Lahr was a trooper in the truest sense of the word.  Like many of his contemporaries, his career began on the stages of burlesque and vaudeville.  During the Roaring Twenties, he partnered up with Mercedes Delpino, a pretty, dark-haired dancer. Together, they established an act that included the sexy Delpino as a gyrating dancer who catches the eye of a bumbling, beat-walking policeman played by Lahr.  Their chemistry and their antics made them one of vaudeville’s most popular duos.  Offstage, Lahr was smitten with his partner and a romance blossomed.  The couple married on August 23, 1929 and they soon had a son, Herbert.
The new Mrs. Lahr, however, had never been well.  She suffered from what was probably some form of schizophrenia that caused abrupt mood swings and sudden black-outs leading to memory loss.  She was prone to breaking things and starting fires.  At one point, she even shaved her head.  Lahr was at a loss.  He desperately wanted to help his wife, but had no idea how.  When she tried to hurt the baby, he had no choice, but to admit her to an asylum—most likely in 1930.  Lahr spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to find a cure for Mercedes, but back in the early thirties little was known about mental illness.  Beyond any help that was available at the time, she was eventually declared insane.

In 1932, Lahr met the striking Mildred Schroeder, a Ziegfeld Girl.  She thought he was a perfect gentleman and he thought she was simply wonderful.  Knowing that a normal life with Mercedes was not possible, Lahr promised Mildred that he would divorce his wife and marry her, but it wasn’t so easy.  Divorce laws in New York were problematic and the process extremely slow.  Four years later, Mildred got tired of waiting and married another man.  Lahr was crushed, but he refused to give up.  Mildred soon realized the mistake she’d made and in October, 1937, she divorced her husband who accused Lahr of being a ‘love thief’.
As filming of The Wizard of Oz took place, Lahr was still trying to end his first marriage to Mercedes who remained institutionalized.  He was anxious and worried that Mildred would run out of patience and leave him once again—this time permanently.  It wasn’t until February 8, 1940 that Lahr finally received an official annulment and only after three doctors in White Plains, New York testified that Mercedes had been incurably insane for the past five years.  Three days later, Lahr and Mildred married.  Despite their long union, which produced a son, John, and a daughter, Jane, Lahr never forgot his first wife.  It was reported that when Mercedes died, a morose Lahr didn’t speak a word to anyone for three days. 

Dressed as The Cowardly Lion, he endured the grueling make-up sessions that forced him to sip his lunch through a straw because he couldn’t open his mouth wide enough to eat.  He tolerated the elaborate wig and long, heavy costume made out of actual lion fur, which caused him to overheat under the studio’s hot lights.  But it wasn’t the hazards of the job that bothered Lahr.  Beneath that oversized wig and the awkward lion’s clothes, a gentleman quietly struggled to rebuild his life with as much dignity as he could muster.

Monday, September 10, 2012

From Motown to Hollywood

People often ask me how in the world did a girl from Motown end up writing a book about Hollywood?  The answer is pretty simple—I was the original couch potato, at least when school was out. 

As a kid with nowhere to be, I set my own schedule.  My day began at 8:30 a.m. sharp with Rita Bell and ‘The Prize Movie’.  In between each movie segment, Bell played several notes of a song and viewers tried to guess its name.  If memory serves me correctly, for every wrong answer, the winning pot grew.  Once someone gave the right answer and claimed the money, the whole thing started over again with a new tune and a new jackpot. 

Next, we were treated to ‘Bill Kennedy at the Movies’.  Kennedy’s show broadcasted from across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.  It started at 1:00 p.m.  There were no gimmicks and no games—only the films.  In his youth, Kennedy was under contract at Warner Bros.  He never made it big in Hollywood, but he did land roles in some great films.  He played an officer in ‘Destination Tokyo’ (1943), one of Bette Davis’ beaus in ‘Mr. Skeffington’ (1944) and appeared in a myriad of early television shows.  Kennedy prided himself on his inside knowledge of the movie industry and the filmmakers he knew during his tenure in Hollywood.  I always remember the day Jack Warner died.  Kennedy made a point to say, with a hint of sadness, that his old boss had passed away.  A wise-cracking crew member hollered back from behind the camera:  “Jack Warner didn’t know you from the prop man!”  Suffice it to say, Kennedy was not amused.
After Bill Kennedy and his endless supply of movie trivia, it was back to ABC for the afternoon science fiction film.  There were no hosts, but plenty of gigantic spiders, prowling werewolves and shapeless blobs wreaking havoc wherever they went.  There was always lots of terrified screaming and extensive scurrying as unsuspecting bystanders tried to get away.  Some films, like ‘Godzilla’ (1954) were made in Japan and dubbed.  That was fine.  No one cared.  Monsters in any language gave us kids the willies.

From combat to comedy, from good guys to gangsters, from musicals to madcaps, the Motor City had ‘em all.  And that’s how a girl from the Car Capitol of the world came to be a couch potato who  fell madly in love with the movies.  As for writing that book about Hollywood?  I just couldn't help myself!