Friday, December 16, 2016

The Souls behind the Christmas Classics

By Mary Claire Kendall

Every year as we celebrate the birth of Christ, one time-honored tradition is that of sitting in the warmth of our homes and enjoying classic Hollywood films with friends and family, if not alone, as we savor the days of Christmas.

James Cagney presenting Gary Cooper Best Actor Oscar at 1942
Academy Awards for title role in  Sergeant York (1941)




These cinematic treasures help us appreciate the momentous reality of Christ becoming man because they exemplify, in many respects, the goodness and virtue he embodied, and which a Christian—“a bearer of Christ”—is called to live. Often this happens through characters such as George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge, in, respectively, It’s a Wonderful Life (1945) and A Christmas Carol, produced numerous times, including the 1938 and 1971 classics, starring Reginald Owens and Albert Finney, who exemplify our weak human nature and how, with grace, it is beautifully overcome.

These Christmas films feature legends of Hollywood—many of whom I write about in Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, including: 
  • Gary Cooper, who starred in Frank Capra’s classic “Meet John Doe”(1941), about a quintessential common man (Cooper) up against powerful state forces seeking to undermine his humanity, and that of all common men everywhere, which he vows to dramatize on Christmas Day;
  • Mary Astor, who starred in the turn of the 20th century Vincent Minelli masterpiece“Meet Me in St. Louis,” set before and during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, which exemplifies the strong family bonds that typified American families then;
  • John Wayne, who starred in the poignant classic, “Three Godfathers”(1948; also made in 1916 and 1936)about three outlaws on the lam, who discovering a dying woman and her newborn baby in the desert, vow to save the baby;
  • Betty Hutton, who starred in “The Miracle of Morgan Creek” (1944), a Preston Sturges World War II comedy classic, with an amazing twist;
  • Patricia Neal, who starred in “The Waltons” (1971), another film about maintaining strong family bonds during tough times, in this case, during the Depression era;
  • Lana Turner, who starred in “Imitation of Life,” the 1959 remake of the classic 1934 film about cleansing the stain of racism;
  • Bob Hope, who starred in “The Lemon Drop Kid,” a hit comedy where the “Kid” (Hope) pressed to repay $10,000 to an irate gangster, celebrates the spirit of Christmas and people willing to part with their money!

It’s easy enough to take these stars and the joy they bring into our lives for granted. But did you ever consider the blood, sweat and tears that went into their performances? What my friend Harry Flynn, formerly Bob Hope’s publicist, calls “the soul behind the billboard.”

As Gary Cooper famously said, “No player ever rises to prominence solely on talent. They’re molded by forces other than themselves. They should remember this—and at least twice a week drop to their knees and thank Providence for elevating them from cow ranches, dime store ribbon counters and bookkeeping desks.”

God was there, ensuring they would play their role.

And, he was there later, offering his grace and healing when they stumbled along the way. For the fortunate “all-star twelve” I write about—including Alfred Hitchcock, Cooper, Hope, Astor, Wayne, Ann Sothern, Jane Wyman, Susan Hayward, Turner, Hutton, Ann Miller, and Patricia Neal—they embraced the healing love and forgiveness as they did battle with their demons.

For some, it was a long journey. Others glimpsed their need for God early on. It was not always an easy road. The stories in Oasis are laced with great suffering and tragedy as these legends made their way out of the wilderness of human frailty, and ultimately arrived safely in God’s loving arms.

Originally published in Townhall.com.


***

Oasis was published in Spain in November 2016 under the title, También Dios pasa por Hollywood.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Happy Birthday, Billy Wilder!

Billy Wilder with Gloria Swanson
during filming of "Sunset Boulevard" c. 1950
Happy Birthday Billy Wilder, one of Hollywood’s most talented all-time writers/directors and winner of six Oscars. 

After fleeing the Nazis in 1933 at age 27, he came to America and made such classic films as “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Apartment,” and “Some Like It Hot,”  ranked by AFI in June 2000 as the #1 comedy of all time
Jack Lemon, who starred in many of his films, spoke fondly of the filmmaker.

Billy would have been 110 today!

Mary Claire Kendall is the author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hollywood Rejects Wisdom at Its Own Peril*

By Mary Claire Kendall

Mike Dann, legendary programmer for television with a far-reaching impact on American life and culture, whose counsel and friendship I prized, recently left us.

Dann helped create such NBC hits as “Meet the Press,” “Today” and “Tonight” and later, at CBS, successfully shepherded “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and, on the news side, “60 Minutes,” among many other hits.
With Paul & Deirdre Lee at Governor's Ball following 86th Oscars.  
It was while working with Paul, most recently ABC Entertainment head 
(2010-2016),  that I met and worked with Mike Dann.
While he sometimes missed the boat—for instance, initially failing to appreciate “Gilligan’s Island”—more often than not, he knew a gem when he saw it and knew just when to schedule it.
Then, new CBS president Robert D. Wood decided, in 1969, to gamble on riskier shows appealing to the younger set. The youth were riding high in the wake of the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury and its sequel, Woodstock.
“Make love not war” was the mantra, and “sex, drugs and rock & roll” ruled.
So, Wood ordered Mike to cancel “The Red Skeleton Show,” “The Jackie Gleason Show,” “Green Acres,” “Hee Haw,” and other demographically broad hits which he had catapulted to success.
Later surveying the ruins, Mike decided to exit—but not before acquiring the mega-hit “All in the Family,” epitomizing CBS’s post-“Hillbillies” era.

Hollywood Rejects Experience

As I reflected on Mike’s legacy and how his career took a radical turn when the suits responded to what they deemed the exigencies of the moment, I could not help thinking of the recent “out with the old, in with the new” wave in Hollywood.
The diversity dust-up surrounding this year’s Oscars precipitated big changes at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with lightning speed—changes that sought to respond to popular pressures without regard for the larger consequences.

Older, wiser members of the Academy were disenfranchised as part of this rapid, yet misguided effort, to redress, by ‘widening its nets,’ the Academy’s collective failure this year to nominate not even one African American star for an Oscar.
Many, like George Clooney, rightly note the problem lies with the pipeline.
If these members are inactive for 10 years and do not meet certain criteria, their status will be changed to “emeritus” with all the privileges of Academy membership—except Oscar voting.
Not so fast, says Academy member Mother Dolores Hart, known for “Wild Is the Wind” (1957), “King Creole” (1958) and Oscar-nominated “God Is The Bigger Elvis” (2012).
These older members, she said, are the “wisdom figures.” And, when the Academy loses them it “is going to destroy something of the essence of how people look at” it and “the quality” with which they associate it, Mother Dolores says.
“It’s always been the star in the sky” among all the guilds. “And, I think they are going to lose that,” she adds.
The 1st Annual Academy Awards held on May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood

‘Precious’ Contributors

Not all of the lifetime members will be disenfranchised, and irrespective of their status, some like Oscar-winner Olivia de Havilland (“Gone with the Wind” (1939), “The Heiress” (1949)) do not choose to vote. But, many will lose voting status. This “hurts” said Mother Dolores, not only for herself but for the sake of her Academy friends, who, she said, are “precious and have such value.”
Mother Dolores was brought out of retirement in 1998 by Karl Malden, then president of the Academy. In 1963, at the end of the “Come Fly with Me” press junket – just as sex, drugs and rock and roll were revving up – her limousine’s final destination was the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., where she has lived in consecrated life for 53 years.
“We want to hear what you say and what you experience, because you have experienced it from a different place,” she said Malden told her when he called.
“I think they should rethink this,” said Mother Dolores of the new Oscar rules, “and see if there’s something else they can offer.”
Surely, they will come up with a solution that keeps the Academy glistening. After all, wisdom figures like Mother Dolores (and Mike Dann) know what they’re talking about.

Mary Claire Kendall is the author of “Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends,” which Mother Dolores Hart wrote the foreword to.  Another version of this article, occasioned by the 49th, 37th and 55th anniversaries of the deaths of, respectively, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne and Gary Cooper, was recently published in Mary Claire’s “Legends of Hollywood” blog.

***

*This piece was originally published in Hollywood in Toto

Friday, June 10, 2016

Respecting Hollywood’s Legends

By Mary Claire Kendall 

Gary Cooper publicity photo
for Morocco (1936)
When two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington won the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award earlier this year, Tom Hanks, himself an Oscar two-timer, glided over some Hollywood giants in his introduction of “Denzel.” 

Like Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper and John “Duke” Wayne.

“It’s odd how many of these immortals of the silver screen of the firmament,” he said, “need only one name to conjure the gestalt of their great artistry. In women, it’s names like Garbo, Hepburn, Stanwyck, Loren. With men it’s Bogart, Cagney, Gable. Now you can chuck in the ones, who combination punch, of Gary Cooper or John Wayne. But a solo tag is the norm. Brando, Clift, Poitier, McQueen, Hoffman, DeNiro, Pacino… The list is finite. The club is exclusive…”


Spence, Coop and Duke are three “immortals of the silver screen of the firmament.” And, they tower.

Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew
in Captains Courageous (1937) 
Tracy, who left us 49 years ago today, also won two Oscars for, respectively, Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938). As did Coop for Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952), along with an honorary Oscar for his entire body of work.  He was such a legend that, shortly before his death 55 years ago this May, President John F. Kennedy spent a day trying to get through, as he competed with the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Audrey Hepburn and Ernest Hemingway, calling to say their goodbyes.

Duke, for his part, won an Oscar for True Grit (1969), which premiered 10 years to the day before his death on June 11, 1979. Like Denzel, he also received the Cecil B. DeMille Award. 

Of course, Hanks’ oversight was, no doubt, inadvertent—no disrespect intended—even though he failed even to mention Tracy, considered by his peers to be the greatest actor Hollywood had ever seen. In addition to his wins, he garnered seven more Best Actor nominations including, posthumously, for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).  

The trio, like so many stars in the silver screen’s firmament, deserves respect.

John Wayne in Wake of the Red Witch trailer.jpg
John Wayne in Wake of the Red Witch (1948)
For their art—the raison d’être of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  (Sure, Louis B. Mayer had convened industry insiders in January 1927 in his effort to stem labor disputes. But, Mary Pickford and others envisioned a body that would enshrine film as the art, which, in its finest form, it surely is.)

Then there are the living legends which, not two weeks after Hanks’ Golden Globe oversight, were disenfranchised by the Academy as part of its misguided effort to redress, by ‘widening its nets,’ the Academy’s collective failure this year to nominate any African American stars for an Oscar. (Though many like George Clooney rightly note the problem lies with the pipeline.) If these members are inactive for 10 years and do not meet certain criteria, their status will be changed to “emeritus” with all the privileges of Academy membership—except Oscar voting.    

Not so fast, says Academy member Mother Dolores Hart, known for Wild Is the Wind (1957), King Creole (1958) and Oscar-nominated God Is The Bigger Elvis (2012). These older members, she said, are the “wisdom figures.” And, when the Academy loses them it “is going to destroy something of the essence of how people look at” it and “the quality” with which they associate it.  “It’s always been the star in the sky” among all the guilds. “And, I think they are going to lose that.” 

King Creole 1958 (Elvis Presley and Dolores Hart).JPG
 Elvis Presley and Dolores Hart in King Creole (1958)
Not all of the lifetime members will be disenfranchised, and irrespective of their status, some like Oscar-winner Olivia de Havilland, known for Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Heiress (1949), do not choose to vote. But, many will lose voting status. This “hurts” said Mother Dolores, not only for herself but for the sake of her academy friends, who, she said, are “precious and have such value.”

Mother Dolores was brought out of retirement in 1998 by Oscar-winner Karl Malden, then president of the Academy. In 1963, at the end of the Come Fly with Me press junket, her limousine’s final destination was the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, where she has lived in consecrated life for 53 years. “We want to hear what you say and what you experience, because you have experienced it from a different place,” she said Malden told her when he called.

“I think they should rethink this,” said Mother Dolores, “and see if there’s something else they can offer.”

Surely, they will come up with a solution that keeps the Academy, like the “immortals” of the “firmament,” glistening.

Mary Claire Kendall is the author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, which includes chapters on Gary Cooper and John Wayne and discusses Spencer Tracy in the overview chapter, which includes a never-before-published photo with his disabled son, John, c. 1927.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Oasis in Boston -- Barnes & Noble Prudential Center

Sunday's book signing at the Barnes & Noble Boston Prudential Center was a wonderful opportunity to meet folks from all walks of life and parts of the country, if not the world.  Everyone who bought a copy of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends had a special story and reason for buying it.  Thank you Barnes & Noble Boston Prudential for hosting me!  A terrific event.  And, to all who read this post, please don't forget to "like" the Barnes & Noble Facebook page!


Afterwards, a friend and I stopped by the original Cheers to exhale a la Norm, Frasier, Cliff & co...



On Friday, June 3, in advance of Sunday's event, per below tweet: 


Monday, May 23, 2016

Oasis in Towson; upcoming in Boston

My father and I enjoyed visiting with patrons of the Barnes & Noble in Towson, Maryland on Saturday, May 21, 1-3 PM. I was there to sign copies of my book, Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, and in the process we had some interesting conversations and made some new friends... and sold a dozen books... more will be sold in coming days, given display in store and on social media, e.g., Instagram... all in all a rewarding and fun experience... NEXT UP: Boston on Sunday, June 5, 3 PM, at the Barnes & Noble Prudential Center. Here's the official notice as well as Facebook post.  Also, I will be appearing on Boston Herald Drive on Friday, June 3 at 6:45 AM talking about book series and plugging event.

Oasis, a great summer read, matches Barnes & Noble summer tote, shown in background!

My father and I took turns taking photos, while we were waiting for customers... next time, we'll have to bring our photographer along!

My 90 year old father... 

... and I waiting patiently for more customers to stop by...  




... and below, a photo posted on Instagram by Barnes & Noble Towson...




Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Oasis in Maryland -- Baltimore, Rockville... upcoming in Towson!

And, now my book tour reaches my home state of Maryland... at the Barnes & Noble in Rockville, not far from where F. Scott Fitzgerald is buried, on Sunday, April 17, per below photos... at the Power Plant Barnes & Noble on the Baltimore waterfront on Thursday, February 25, per next set of photos... and UPCOMING on Saturday, May 21, 1-3 PM, at the Barnes & Noble in Towson, Maryland, where I will be signing copies of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends for the public, per below flyer...



And, my visit to Baltimore...



And, upcoming...

Meet the Author
Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends
Saturday, May 21, 1:00-3:00 PM
Barnes & Noble in Towson Circle
1 E Joppa Road, #100, Towson, MD 21286


Author signing "Oasis" at the Burbank
Barnes & Noble on July 15, 2015
In Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, Mary Claire Kendall writes about an “all-star twelve” from film’s “Golden Age,” including Alfred Hitchcock, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, Mary Astor, John Wayne, Ann Sothern, Jane Wyman, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Betty Hutton, Ann Miller and Patricia Neal. The book uncovers stories of recovery and conversion, with intimate portraits of these all-too-human movie stars. 


Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based writer. Among other projects, she is currently working on Oasis II; a book about Hemingway; and a TV show featuring never-before-told stories about some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She has done numerous radio and TV interviews about “Oasis” including “Morning Answer” on Salem News Network and Boston Herald Drive.”  She was a regular columnist in Forbes (2012-2013) and Breitbart (2014) and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, The Weekly Standard, Washington Times, Daily Caller, Townhall, FoxNews.com, The American Spectator, Catholic New World and National Catholic Register, among other venues.


For more information, see www.maryclairecinema.com.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Spencer Tracy and His Son John

By Mary Claire Kendall
Spencer Tracy and his son John c. 1928 
Credit: The John Tracy Collection 
It is said—our strength is our weakness. In the case of Spencer Tracy and his son John Ten Broeck Tracy, who died in Acton, California on June 15, 2007—five days after the 40th anniversary of his father’s death—nothing could be truer.
“Spence was considered by many to be the greatest actor the screen had ever seen,” his good friend, 82-year Paramount veteran, A.C. Lyles told me.*
Yet, the painful emotion he felt upon learning, in 1925, that his baby son, John, was deaf was the hardest of blows. The only thing Spencer Tracy was not good at, he candidly admitted, was “life.”
His son John, on the other hand—dealt a whole series of setbacks, in what, at age 22, he would term “My Complicated Life” in an article he wrote for The Volta Review—was great at life.
If only Spencer Tracy could have read the script, he would have discovered John would soon hear the voice of God a little more loudly; see with the eyes of faith a little more clearly; and grow a big heart, drenched with hope and optimism.
As John’s daughter-in-law Cyndi Tracy said, “He just always had an uncanny ability to accept God’s love and always knew (his suffering) was going to be for a greater good.” It was never “Why me?” or “Poor me.”
God, he felt certain, had a plan.

The Plan’s Unfolding
When Louise Treadwell met Spencer Tracy, her theatrical star was rising. Spencer, four years her junior, was just starting out.
It was early 1923. They were both arriving in Grand Rapids, Michigan to play in the same stock company. As fate would have it, they alighted the train station platform simultaneously.
The attraction between these two polar opposites, descended from, respectively, English blue bloods and working-class Irishmen, was immediate. Six weeks later, in between the matinee and evening shows in Cincinnati, Ohio, they got married. Nine months and two weeks hence, on June 26, 1924, in Spencer’s hometown of Milwaukee, their little bundle of joy arrived.
Turning Point
One day, while John lay napping, the screen door accidentally slammed behind Louise and he kept peacefully slumbering on. She immediately—instinctively—knew he was deaf. The diagnosis came back as nerve damage of unknown origin. Unbeknownst to them, he had what is known as Usher syndrome, which also causes gradual blindness due to Retinitis Pigmentosa—starting at birth.
The doctors said the Tracy’s best option was to place John in an institution for retarded children at age six. The Tracys would hear none of that and promptly went to work—talking to him, reading him nursery rhymes, playing games with him… loving him.
“Spence,” said Lyles, “was absolutely marvelous with him;” but “gave all credit to (Louise)” for John’s progress.
Early on she “kept repeating the word ‘talk’… a hundred… sometimes three hundred times” in twice or thrice daily “exercises.” One day, said Lyles, when she finished, John, then 3 or 4, leaned his head close to hers and said, “talk”—his very first word.
Tragedy again visited when John contracted polio at age six, leaving him with a withered right leg. That same year, Lyles recounted, Louise “gave up her career to devote herself entirely to her son and studied everything she could get her hands on about (educating deaf children).” No institution existed at the time that worked with parents of deaf children to teach them how to help their children develop a bridge to the speaking, hearing world.
Silver Lining
John’s travails motivated Spencer to work much harder so he could give his son all the financial help he needed to overcome his disability. The irony is, it is John’s very disability that provided the impetus for Spencer to overcome what his good friend and fellow actor Lynne Overman said was a tendency toward laziness, thereby becoming the acting legend he was.
The father-son bond was stronger than ever and was set for life.

John learned how to lip-read perfectly and to speak, read and write and was fully functioning by age 11, when he began to write his daily journals. Three years later, he started “publishing” his “Newsy News” for friends and family.
When John was 17, Louise first spoke publicly, in her lovely English-accented tones, about raising and educating a deaf child. Her speech at the University of Southern California led her, a year later, in 1942, to found, in a campus bungalow, with Spencer’s money, the John Tracy Clinic.  It became the only such entity worldwide to provide service, free of charge, to parents of infants and preschool children born with hearing losses.
Walt Disney, with whom the family played polo at the Will Rogers Ranch and The Riviera Polo Club, was one of the original board members.
In 1975, poignancy overflowing, Louise was the first recipient of the Father Flanagan Award for her special service to youth; and, around the same time, she helped establish the Boys Town National Research Hospital for Usher Syndrome: Boys Town, saved from bankruptcy and oblivion by Spencer Tracy’s Oscar-winning performance as Father Flanagan, was now rescuing those who suffer John’s same sensory afflictions.
“Our Everyday Blessing”
John Tracy circa 2005

John was always intent, as his son and fellow artist, Joseph Spencer Tracy, characterized it, on living “each day to the fullest, regardless” of his daily challenges.
“I’m an artist, writer, photographer; I played polo, tennis; swim, water-ski, dance,” he wrote in his journal in 1975.” I got married, had a family. I’m also profoundly deaf, going blind, had polio. What can you do?”
Well, apparently everything!
Endowed with a high IQ and an athlete’s body, he energetically poured himself into life, blissfully unaware of his multiple disabilities until he was in his twenties.
He loved horses, which mirrored his own “gentle” spirit, and the invigorating sense of freedom riding gave him: It reminded him of his “favorite” times of life at the family ranch in Encino (1936-1955), so full of fond memories like the day he started playing polo at age 12. (He had only begun riding three years earlier.) That day, one of the players was injured and Spencer summoned him to ‘come on down!’
Through it all, he had, Cyndi said, a “tremendous sense of humor” and the “charm of an angel.” Fittingly, he did a dead-on impersonation of his father, which no professional comedian has ever achieved.

John graduated from Pasadena City College then attended Chouinard Art Institute, graduating in 1955, the same year his son was born. He subsequently worked at Walt Disney Studios in the props department for nearly five years, until his eyesight started failing. But, he continued doing his watercolor paintings and pen and ink and pencil drawings, as he was able to.  He was declared legally blind in the early eighties and, by 1994, was totally blind.
“The moment you met him,” Cyndi said, “your life was changed. You knew that you were in the company of someone great, who was, at the same time, the most humble person you would ever meet.” Quite simply, he had no idea how positively he impacted others’ lives.
“Pa Pa Johnny,” Cyndi said, “was truly ‘our everyday blessing.’”
John attended Sunday services at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills for decades with his mother, who died in 1983. He would also pray nightly in an elaborate ritual that, Cyndi said, revealed his “darling personality.” The family—Joe’s family, sister Susie, the cousins, among others—“was lined up in the same order every night.” But “all his friends and acquaintances were always jockeying for position.”
“He was strong until the end,” said Joe, and “always prayed for other people, didn’t pray for himself”—a lesson in selflessness he communicated to his three grandchildren.
As for actually communicating with words, John could talk, but his deafness combined with his blindness required some special techniques for his family to reply back.
Cyndi described how he loved to converse and remembered with particular warmth those special times, often at the end of a long day, that she would be perched next to him as he would regale her with fascinating stories. She would reply by spelling words on his back. Or, for shorter responses, she would spell words on his hand—a hand that so often held her hand, while tapping her other hand, as he said, “God bless you, Cyndi. Thank you. ”
For, whatever else he was, John Tracy was always profoundly grateful for all life’s blessings.

Mary Claire Kendall, a Washington-based writer, is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends featuring, in the overview chapter, Spencer Tracy, including a never-before published photo of him and his son John c. 1927, among other legends. 

********************
*Originally published in DBI Review, Number 45, January-June 2010. Republished in Forbes on June 25, 2012.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Easter Parade: A star’s tragedy and triumph

Publicity photo of Ann Miller
for Easter Parade (1948)
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
This Easter Sunday*, as we celebrate with full-throated “Hallelujahs!” our precious Savior’s glorious triumph over death, many of us will also mark the joyous occasion by watching Easter Parade (1948), starring Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Peter Lawford and Ann Miller.

For many it’s an Easter tradition.

But, what few know is that, while Miller beams as she dances her way through this Easter classic, just before filming, she lost her unborn child and nearly died, herself, at the hands of an abusive husband. She was still suffering the after-effects of this tragedy during filming, about which I write in Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, along with the rest of Ann’s story.

Miller had had success in Hollywood initially, landing a key role in the Oscar-winning You Can’t Take It With You (1938) at age 15. Albeit, she rose the hard way.  As she wrote, “I became a Hollywood star on my talent, not on casting couches. If I had gone that route, I could have been a bigger star. That’s the name of the game in Filmlandia.”

But, while she avoided such pitfalls in her professional life, in her personal life, she was not so discriminating. When she was just 21, she began dating a wealthy oilman and steel heir, Reese Milner, whom she met through friends at the Mocambo nightclub. Milner was a tragic choice. Rare in the annals of Hollywood, Ann was a virgin at the time of her marriage, which lasted just one year, February 16, 1946 to January 22, 1947.

After marrying the Texas charmer, she soon became pregnant. One night in a drunken rage, Milner kicked his wife, now eight-months’ pregnant, down the stairs, causing her to go into premature labor. Ann gave birth to a baby girl, Mary Milner, on November 12, 1946, now buried, alongside her mother, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

While still healing from broken ribs sustained in the fall, Miller landed her starring role in Easter Parade after Cyd Charisse bowed out. It was a painful but rewarding experience—Darvon pills getting her through the dance numbers, while her rib cage was taped up.

Afterwards, Ann signed with MGM, making several more musicals including On the Town (1949) and Kiss Me, Kate (1953), but continued to make tragic choices in men. Through it all she found Jesus and shortly before she died was baptized into the Catholic Church.


Mary Claire Kendall, a Washington-based writer, is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends featuring John Wayne and Susan Hayward, among other legends. 

* This piece was originally published on March 27, 2016 in The American Catholic blog, a week before the Divine Mercy Sunday feast we celebrate today.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Oasis in Upstate New York & Northwest Pennsylvania


Lovely trip to Upstate New York and my father's childhood home over the Easter holiday. Along the way, we dropped by the Barnes & Noble in Elmira where I signed copies of my book Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends. It's been selling nicely there!




Then, on the way home, we had a great visit at the Barnes & Noble in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania where I signed more copies of Oasis for two hours for several customers and for stock on the shelf... 


All in all a great visit up north including, among other relaxing features, time spent in Watkins Glen on Holy Saturday, where we stopped by Lakewood Vineyards and tasted, and later bought, some of their delicious wine... afterwards, we drove down to the Seneca Lake waterfront, shown below... my father said he had not appreciated as a child just how blue and beautiful it was!