Wednesday, November 30, 2011

With Miles Yet to Go...

It's been a while since I've posted anything due to the Thanksgiving holiday, during which I was away from the office for four days in a row (yay!) Now it's back to the grindstone and back to The Underworld. I'm highlighting an actress today who enjoyed an extremely prolific career in movies and television, sometimes appearing in films that represent the very best of their kind. Her career seems somehow punctuated by one particular missed opportunity, though there's really no guarantee that said chance would have propelled her that much higher. Despite never having received any major awards (nor even any nominations!), she consistently proved her dedication, professionalism, versatility and skill over a forty year period, after which she basically vanished like a wisp of smoke. She is worshipped in The Underworld for one role in particular, though we enjoy her in many others as well. I refer to Miss Vera Miles.

On August 23, 1930, Thomas and Burnice Ralston gave birth to daughter Vera in Boise City, Oklahoma. They could never know at that time that another Vera Ralston, born more than a decade prior in Prague, Czechoslovakia, would grow up to be a world class figure skater and, later, motion picture actress in Hollywood films. Their own little Vera Ralston was a slim, but fit, all-American girl who grew up (to just under 5' 4” anyway) to turn all the heads of her friends, family and neighbors. The family relocated while she was still a youngster to Pratt, Kansas and then to Wichita, where Vera graduated from high school. While working for Western-Union, she began appearing as a contestant in local beauty pageants. Some fans might be surprised to find out that this is where she got her start.

Apart from scoring such esteemed titles as Miss Chamber of Commerce, Miss Texas Grapefruit and Miss NuMaid Margarine, she was also crowned Miss Wichita and Miss Kansas, leading to competition in the 1948 Miss America Pageant. She came in third in the line-up and, as a result, was able to launch a career as a model and eventually an actress. Not one to wait for life to pass her by, she also got married in 1948 after the pageant, at the tender age of eighteen! Her marriage to bit actor and stuntman Bob Miles resulted in two daughters. (Miles appeared in over 70 episodes of Bonanza alone, usually as shooting victims or as Michael Landon's stunt double.)

By 1950, she had managed to win the attention of legendary director John Ford, who cast her in her film debut in a brief, uncredited role. Using her married name of Vera Miles, there was, thus, no confusion with the other, by-now famous, Vera Ralston. The film, When Willie Comes Marching Home, was a comedy starring Dan Dailey. Though Miles' participation was almost nil, the association with Ford would lead to greater things. She was paired in the film with Alan Hale, Jr, best known as The Skipper on Gilligan's Island, a situation that would repeat itself with other cast members of that show in a bizarre series of coincidences!

Her next part came in the minor musical Two Tickets to Broadway in 1951. The film's stars were Tony Martin, Janet Leigh, Ann Miller and and Gloria DeHaven. Miles was an uncredited showgirl, another example of her looks and figure still taking center stage at this point in her career. Eventually, Miles and Leigh would be tied together to a later, heavily iconic movie, but, for now, it was still the burgeoning phase of Miles' career.

She finally landed an actual role in a film. 1952's For Men Only was produced, directed by and starred Paul Henreid. The unusual for the time subject matter was the danger of fraternity hazing on college campuses. Miles played the concerned girlfriend of the young male lead, Robert Sherman. The villain of the piece was portrayed by Russell Johnson, better known as The Professor on Gilligan's Island, making his screen debut!

That same year, Miles played the mother of Natalie Wood in The Rose Bowl Story, all about young Wood, the Rose Bowl Princess, falling for a football player played by Keith Larsen. Impossible for them to realize it just then, Miles and Larsen would one day become man and wife themselves! Also in the cast, continuing the almost unbelievable trend, was another Gilligan's Island castaway, Jim “Mr. Howell” Backus!

The Charge at Feather River, a 3-D western, had her playing a white woman held captive by Indians along with Helen Westcott. Guy Madison and Frank Lovejoy were in charge of rescuing her, but, now that she's been captive so long, does she wish to be retrieved? It's an interesting precursor to The Searchers, in which Natalie Wood is captured as a child and nearly assimilated into the Indian tribe her relatives are so determined to remove her from.

1954 marked the year her marriage to Bob Miles came to an end as well as the first time she acted on television. (She had been a contestant on Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life back in 1951.) The show was Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson and that's just about all that is known about it. Now a single mother of two, her career was starting to kick into high gear as she balanced movies (such as Pride of the Blue Grass with Lloyd Bridges, shown here) with TV appearances (on Hallmark Hall of Fame, Four Star Playhouse, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse and others.)

Her career to this point had been varied, but hardly remarkable or prestigious. Her next project, Tarzan's Hidden Jungle, would do little to change that. However, while playing the typical female role against the strapping, muscular and handsome Gordon Scott, in his debut as the vine-swinging hero, she found herself enjoying a whole new brand of romance. She and Scott hit it off (I assume she found his “hidden jungle,” vine and all!) and swiftly became a couple offscreen.

In 1955, she made several more TV appearances and also costarred with Joel McCrea in Wichita, ironic since she had lived and worked in the city as a youth and even graduated from Wichita High School! The western, about Wyatt Earp and his law-enforcing efforts, was not much of a challenge for her acting-wise and the twenty-five year age difference between her and her leading man (and love interest) McCrea was a tad sticky even then. Additional cast included Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and Keith Larsen (as Bat Masterson), marking the second time she would act with the man who would, in time, be her husband.

That same year, she appeared in the very first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, this one directed by the master himself. (The series would go on for 268 episodes, with Hitch directing 17 in all.) As the dazed wife of Ralph Meeker, nearly catatonic in the wake of a possible sexual assault, she won over the director with her ability and he placed her under personal contract. This was big news for her still-fledgling career and held the promise of great things.

First up, though, was another western, this time for John Ford again, but with a more prominent role. The Searchers was a vividly colorful and dramatic western starring John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter as two men of opposing viewpoints who are desperate to locate a young girl, a relative to each of them, who has been captured by Indians. The search takes years and years (long enough for the captive girl to emerge at the end as Natalie Wood!) All the while, Hunter's girlfriend, played by Miles, waits for him to stop combing the land for Wood and return to marry her. Their on-again, off-again romance provides a bit of comic relief to the often bleak story.
She was playing a girl of the earth, tomboyish and strong, yet one who could also become feminine and beautiful when called for. The role offered her not only the chance to show concern for Wayne's and Hunter's cause, but also the frustration at being continuously abandoned, sometimes with comic results. In one scene, she had the good fortune to help the deliriously beautiful Hunter wash up after yet another long trek across the country. Had I thought of it, this could have been part of my recent tribute to men in the bathtub.

The Searchers, released in 1956, would go on to become one of the all-time most acclaimed westerns ever made. It does have its detractors (and parts of it have not worn well), but you must count me on the side of those who love it. It is unquestionably my favorite western film. But 1956 would be quite a year for Miles in several other ways. She also costarred with Van Johnson in 23 Paces to Baker Street, all about his blind character overhearing the details of a kidnapping and enlisting the help of his ex-fiancee (Miles) and others to thwart the plan. The director was Henry Hathaway.

Then there was her supporting role in the Joan Crawford-Cliff Robertson romantic drama Autumn Leaves. This soap opera (featuring an exceedingly popular title song) concerned lonely Crawford falling for the young Robertson only to find out that he has a secret or two he hasn't revealed to her. Miles played a devious little piece of work who comes forth and tries to spoil the newborn romance. Miles was working with and for some of Hollywood's most important people.

Amazingly, still in 1956, she was cast as Henry Fonda's wife in The Wrong Man, directed by her new mentor Alfred Hitchcock. The story was about a jazz bass player whose wife (Miles) is in need of expensive dental work. When Fonda attempts to borrow on her life insurance policy to help pay for it, he is identified as the man who previously held the office up in a robbery! He is then railroaded through the justice system and convicted of a crime for which he is innocent.

Miles' role was a key part of the story as her character then has an almost total breakdown. (Doesn't she strangely resemble a 1950s Lauren Bacall in this particular picture?) The bleak, almost documentary-like, black and white film showed off her abilities that much further and Hitch was pleased with what he saw. He was preparing his next movie, one that was altogether different from this gritty one, and sought to use Miles as its centerpiece.

First, though, he lent her out for a costarring role with Bob Hope in what was (and remains) a very rare type of role for him. Beau James was based on the life story of a real 1920s mayor of New York City, a song and dance man who was elected to office but whose personal life was marked by adultery! Hope's wife was played by Alexis Smith while Miles played his showgirl mistress. (Bob Hope!) This is one of Hope's least known works and is difficult to come by. I have never seen it, but would certainly love to see a steely Smith verbally spar with the pert Miles over Hope!
Miles, a mother of two, was still able to show off (as depicted above) a stunning, pageant-quality figure. She's shown here during a visit to the set from her hunky husband Gordon Scott and her two daughters by her first marriage. I love the hysterical expression on Debra (the girl on the left), which is so natural and un-posed. Her other daughter Kelley went on to have reasonable success as an actress herself during the '70s and early-'80s. All four of them seem to be having a very fun time together as a newfound family unit.

Now back to Hitchcock. He had long had an affection for fair-haired actresses, an early favorite being Ingrid Bergman who worked three times for him, but his fascination reached its zenith with Grace Kelly. In Kelly, he (quite correctly!) sensed a cool, blonde, ladylike ice princess with a simmering volcano of sexual passion located beneath the surface. Having worked with her in Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, by the time of To Catch a Thief in 1956, he had (with the help of costumer Edith Head) succeeded in creating an ethereal, breathtaking screen goddess whose looks and manner were dazzling to behold. Unfortunately, having filmed Thief on location in Monaco, he set the ball rolling for her to meet and marry that principality's ruler, thus ending her brief (11 film!) career.

Now, he was without a go-to girl just as he was preparing his most personal film ever, Vertigo. He saw possibilities in Vera Miles and started grooming her for the part. Her hair was lightened and restyled, she was photographed in high glamour outfits with every detail seen to. The story, about a man who is assigned to watch over a beautiful, but disturbed, woman only to fall in love with her and then see her die, had strong overtones of obsession, reinvention and sexual desire. Hitch would pay closer attention to the story, the colors and the rhythm of this picture than virtually any other.

Then the bottom fell out. Production delays began to chip away at the schedule and, most importantly of all, Miles discovered that she was pregnant! There was no way for her to take on the part of this lean, elegant, object of desire when she would be heavy with child during the filming. Miles was happily married to Scott and had not an iota of doubt about having the child, but Hitchcock was aghast at the timing and soon lost interest in her.

In time, Vertigo would be filmed with Kim Novak in the role. He was never pleased with her (and she did present a problem or two along the way), but she was actually quite wonderful, unforgettable in my opinion, in the part and the movie (after a rough initial reception) has gone on to be hailed as a masterwork and one of the cinema's all time most studied and highly-regarded projects. It's hard to know whether Miles' own career would have been exalted to a new level had she played the part. What if she wasn't right for the part in the end? Would it have been successful on any level without the dreamy, breathy presence of Novak versus the more direct and inherently sensible style of Miss Miles? Or would Miles have allowed herself to be reinvented into Hitch's vision, thus creating a whole new image for her? These questions will never be answered. Miles herself acknowledged the beauty of other "Hitchcock Blondes," but admitted that she just wasn't the correct type and never would be.

A son, Michael, was born to Scott and Miles in 1957. Afterwards, Miles did only some TV anthology performances rather than commit to the schedule of a feature film right away. In 1959, she returned to the big screen in Web of Evidence, again paired with Van Johnson, this time helping him deal with the fact that his father, who he believed to be dead, is serving time in prison for murder. That same year, she had two other films in release. The FBI Story had her playing James Stewart's nervous wife. A Touch of Larceny concerned James Mason faking his own death, raising the suspicion of his lover Miles.

As the 1960s prepared to dawn, Miles was busily working on TV and in movies. She guest-starred on Rawhide with Clint Eastwood and did an episode of The Twilight Zone. Then she took part in a rather startling project initially called “Jovanka and the Others.” Director Martin Ritt was in charge of the story of five Yugoslavian women who are publically humiliated for having allegedly consorted with a Nazi sergeant who is stationed in their overthrown village. The women are punished by having all of their hair cropped off almost to the scalp. In this post-Sinead O'Connor world, in which virtually anything goes and, in fact, some women opt to “own” their bald heads while battling illness rather than resorting to scarves, hats and wigs, it's not entirely unusual to see such a sight. In 1960, however, this was still a very surprising sight to see.
Miles, along with costars Silvana Mangano, Jeanne Moreau and Carla Gravina, had her head shaved in order to portray one of Five Branded Women (the film's eventual title.) The fifth woman, Barbara Bel Geddes, was not as willing to allow herself to be clipped this way and so she was (rather obviously) fitted out with a stubbly, blonde wig. This was a daring move for a wife and mother of three to do at that time. What effect, if any, it had on her marriage is not known, but nonetheless she and Gordon Scott divorced in 1960! That same year (and a more likely reason for the divorce), she married former costar Keith Larsen, seen below. She and Larsen would have a son in 1961, her fourth child.
Alfred Hitchcock was embarking on another of his innovative films and this next one would be the most audacious yet! Whatever ill feelings there might have been between he and Miles, they were obviously not strong enough to prevent them from working together again as he called upon her take part in his upcoming black and white horror experiment Psycho.

For Psycho, Hitch developed a twisty, surprise-filled story that led audiences on a suspenseful, nail-biting path. He only threw tidbits of the story details to the press and to movie audiences, building up anticipation for the low-budget, but high-concept, movie. The ostensible star of the film was Janet Leigh (who Miles had first worked with at the dawn of her own career) along with Anthony Perkins. Miles was cast as Leigh's sister (though they share no scenes in the film) and gorgeous John Gavin played Leigh's lover.

The press photos played up the fright, but never truly spelled out exactly what it was that was so horrifying. The threesome of Leigh, Gavin and Miles, huddled in terror, had no bearing on the actual plot. Perkins was barely featured in much of the pre-release publicity. Because her hair had been shorn off for the filming of Five Branded Women, Miles was rigged out with a wig for the shooting of Psycho.

Ground-breaking in too many ways to count, Psycho was an astonishing hit that made Hitchcock one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood. (Keeping costs low, he took 60% of the profits in lieu of a salary, which amounted to $15 million - this would be in today's dollars the equivalent of over $150 million!) The film is most readily known for Perkins' nervous, distraught Norman Bates and Leigh's remarkable shower scene than for Miles' contribution, but she comes in at the midpoint to drive the story further forward, ending up with a memorable scene in the basement of Perkins' house. Every viewer wanted to scream at the screen, “Don't go down those steps!” and yet there was no way she wasn't going to check it out. Again, Miles was part of one of the premiere examples of a cinematic genre, this time horror.

Her next role, despite all the success that she had enjoyed in more prominent motion pictures, is the one for which she is worshipped undyingly in The Underworld. Producer Ross Hunter was riding a wave of success in taking venerable old soap operas (such as Magnificent Obsession with Jane Wyman and Imitation of Life with Lana Turner) and redoing them in high style, with glittering results. He was at it again with Back Street, an old Fannie Hurst tale about a woman who devotes her entire life to a married man she cannot have, content to stay to one side as he divides his time between her and his family.

This time, Susan Hayward had the lead and was no sublimated mouse in a tiny back street apartment. She was a successful fashion designer whose home was a charming, secluded cottage! John Gavin played her great love and, as his wife, Psycho costar Miles was cast. Miles was at, perhaps, her all-time blondest (thanks to another still-necessary wig) and surely her all-time bitchiest. She brazenly (over)played a smirking, boozy, snarling, desperate shrew and in the process won my heart forever!

Gavin, handsome, but unavoidably rather bland, and Hayward, stalwart and devoted, but also lacking very much backbone, are trod upon by the vicious, fire-breathing Miles. Jean Louis provided her with a lavish wardrobe of eye-popping costumes, one for every deliciously wretched occasion.

The aforementioned connection to Gilligan's Island is continued one final time as one of her society acquaintances in the movie is Natalie “Mrs. Howell” Schafer. Schafer is present during my favorite scene in the film, in fact, one of my favorite scenes in any film! Hayward is proudly debuting her latest collection at a splashy charity auction and as the bridal gown, called “Wedding in June,” is put forth for bids, a loud, harpy-like voice belonging to Miles comes from out of nowhere to bid $10,000 on it! Then Miles proceeds to publically lambaste and humiliate Hayward in front of her assembled clientele. My whole life I've wanted to burst into an auction, any auction, and do the same. (“SOLD... to Mrs. Paul SAXON!”)

Miss Miles could have performed no other role in her life and I would love her for this alone. It's just the type of poisonously bitchy part that I cut my young teeth on while watching Ava Gardner in Earthquake and Lee Grant in Airport '77. You may have your realistic drunks, impactful and meaningful though they may be, in films like Ironweed, Barfly or Leaving Las Vegas. I like my liquor-nippers to be coiffed, bejewelled and dressed to the nines!

While continuing to appear on television, there were still film opportunities. She was again selected by John Ford to costar in another of his westerns, this one also now regarded as a classic, 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The examination of truth versus fiction and heroism versus cowardice in the old west starred John Wayne and James Stewart, with Miles portraying Stewart's sturdy, but conflicted, wife. Though her screen career would continue for another thirty years beyond this, it may her last truly important film.
In 1964, she began an association with Walt Disney Studios, starting with A Tiger Walks, as the wife of sheriff Brian Keith. Both of them are caught up in the search and possible destruction of an escaped circus tiger. Other Disney films followed over the next couple of years such as Those Calloways (1965), again with Brian Keith, and Follow Me, Boys! (1966), with Fred MacMurray. Other family-oriented films were The Spirit is Willing (1967), with Sid Caesar, and Gentle Giant (1967), with Dennis Weaver and Ralph Meeker. Occasionally, a more adult offering would still come her way (such as the bizarre 1968 Hawaiian-set mystery Kona Coast, opposite Richard Boone.)

All the while, Miles was doing tons of episodic television and there would be much more to come. She worked multiple times on Wagon Train, My Three Sons, Insight, The Virginian and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. In 1968, she was cast in The Green Berets as John Wayne's wife. Her scenes were deleted and if she wasn't grateful for that, she should have been as the film was reviled by critics and disliked by most viewers for its gung-ho, simplistic approach to The Vietnam War. That same year, she played his wife again in Hellfighters, the saga of oil well firemen. Here, she played the mother of Katharine Ross, an actress only ten years Miles' junior.
Her husband Larsen was embarking on a directorial career, having jumped on the bandwagon of people who were shooting movies in The Philippines. His first film as director (and costar) was Mission Batangas. It had Dennis Weaver rescuing Miles and others from the Japanese during WWII (this was a very popular plot line in the 1950s and '60s!) In 1970, she did another Disney family feature, The Wild Country, playing the wife of Steve Forrest (what is happening in his trousers??) and mother both Ron and Clint Howard. She has, in fact, played the mother of many future superstars over the years including Kurt Russell and Jodie Foster.

In 1971, her marriage to Larsen came to an end. She would not wed again. Despite being the mother of four and age forty-one, she still possessed an incredibly fit and sexy body, which occasionally was shown off, such as here, in a bikini, but was mostly under wraps in the demure clothes of the characters she played. Vera Miles was a very steadily employed American TV actress during the 1970s and '80s, sometimes down to earth, sometimes glamorous. She worked multiple times on Ironside (seen here with star Raymond Burr), Marcus Welby, M.D., Medical Center, Cannon, The Love Boat and Hotel. In 1972, she made the low-budget western Molly and Lawless John with ruggedly handsome Sam Elliott. In '73, she was back at Disney for One Little Indian opposite James Garner (this was also when she played Jodie Foster's mom.)
She was part of a proposed series called State Fair in 1976, based on the popular movies of the same name, but it wasn't picked up. There were countless TV-movies (including Irwin Allen's Fire! in 1977) and guest shots on Barnaby Jones, Fantasy Island and even Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (happily, this one costarred her daughter, Kelley Miles.) In an episode of the series The Runaways, she was placed with a flare-gun-toting Greg Evigan.
In 1983, a rather unique opportunity presented itself. Australian director Richard Franklin, who had been a devoted student of Hitchcock's work from the age of twelve when he first saw Psycho on, was keen on making a sequel to that film. Universal still had the sets standing from two decades prior, so that part was easy to finagle as well. Originally conceived as a made-for-cable movie, Psycho II flipped to a feature when it was discovered that Anthony Perkins was, after some hemming and hawing, willing to reprise his role of Norman Bates.

A present-day story was conceived that had mental-hospital-released Perkins back at the infamous Bates Motel, now older, but still haunted by the earlier events. When wayward traveler Meg Tilly shows up, things start to go rotten again. Miles, reprising her same role from the 1960 movie, is vehemently opposed to Perkins' being allowed to roam free and makes her feelings known. The two square off, with Tilly caught in the middle, until the violent finale.

In actuality, Miles and Perkins got on fine (they're shown below at the film's premiere with Perkins' wife, model-turned-actress Berry Berenson. He died in 1992 and Berenson, sadly, was later among those killed in one of the 9/11/01 aircraft hijackings.) It was Perkins and Tilly who clashed. Apparently, she had led a very sheltered, movie and television-free life as a youth and was unaware of Perkins' fame as Norman Bates. She expressed resentment one day over the attention he was getting for reprising his part and he never spoke to her again unless absolutely necessary. Of course now, though she did go on to some degree of success, it's more like “Meg WHO?”

The film did decent box office, earning back about 4 times its cost. It did not, however, lead to any decent film parts for Miles. She did some low-rung projects like 1983's BrainWaves, with Keir Dullea and a coked-out Tony Curtis (ironically, Eve Brent also appeared, having once been Jane to Gordon Scott's Tarzan), and 1984's The Initiation, a sorority ritual thriller starring Daphne Zuniga. A somewhat more prestigious project was the 1985 action dramady Into the Night, which starred Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer. Director John Landis loaded the supporting cast with an eclectic conglomeration of familiar faces and she was one of them. Considering that she only made one more movie after this, it might have been a good spot to call it quits, but she did not.

Miles was still being put to good use in shows like Simon & Simon and the obligatory Murder, She Wrote, as well as telefilms like The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro when she pretty much stopped working in 1991 at the age of sixty-one. For reasons known only to her, she made one more film, the lowbrow thriller Separate Lives, in 1995, which starred Linda Hamilton and James Belushi. She was sixty-five. From that moment on, practically no one outside her circle of friends and family has seen or heard one dot of Vera Miles.

She doesn't attend any industry events, festivals, premieres, fan gatherings or the like. She doesn't grant interviews to anyone. She has not written a book (which would have no choice but to include information on many of the top names of Hollywood from 1950 to 1990!) Most sadly, she offers no insight (such as through DVD commentary) on any of the milestone films in which she starred, many of which have few, if any, other surviving cast members. A wealth of information, opinion and trivia could be gleaned from her from her staggering body of work and yet she will have none of it. Now eighty-one, she is not even of a remarkably advanced age by today's standards! (But I guess not everyone can be a never-ending powerhouse like eighty-nine year-old Betty White!) One can only hope that these years of retirement have been peaceful and rewarding ones. It's criminal that her talent for histrionics went untapped during the glory days of the prime-time soap when Joan Collins, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Alexis Smith, Jane Wyman, Kim Novak, Barbara Rush and others were making great use of the genre, especially considering how alternately caring and bitchy she could present herself. In a freak twist of fate, all three of her ex-husbands died within 4-1/2 months of one another. Larsen was first on December 13th, 2006, followed by Miles on April 12th, 2007 and finally Scott on the 30th of that same month.

We salute Miss Miles for her compelling body of work in any number of TV and movie projects, but the bronze bust that is on display in The Underworld is of her hellaciously nasty Liz Saxon from Back Street. This glossy, camp gem was recently put out on DVD, after a painfully lengthy delay, by TCM. Unfortunately, it is absent the participation of one of its stars.