Friday, March 8, 2013

Oh, What a Character! Part Eleven: Let's Have a Field Day!

Today's featured actress is one who seems to have slipped through the cracks in many circles, perhaps due to some of the careworn parts she essayed or because she led a far less flashy personal life than some of her peers. This in no way changes the fact that she was one of the most hard-working, dedicated and very talented performers of her day. While she was a leading lady at the start of her career, she later morphed into a sterling character player and that's why we love her in The Underworld. We refer to Miss Betty Field.

When the pilgrim-filled Mayflower broke shore at Plymouth Rock in 1620, carrying with it John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, the couple would proceed to marry and produce a large family. One of the much later descendants of this union was a man named George Field, who would marry Katharine Lynch and, together, they would give the world Betty Field. Though Field would travel Europe and take both New York and California by storm, she remained at heart a New England girl, born in Massachusetts on February 8th, 1913 and dying in that same state sixty years later.

When George and Katharine divorced while Field was still a young girl, her mother took her on various jaunts to Spanish-speaking countries, enough to allow her to pick up the language, but in time Katharine remarried and they settled back in Massachusetts. An early interest in acting led to her being accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Art. By the time she was twenty, she was working in summer stock and even got an opportunity to trek to the West End of London for a part in She Loves Me in 1934.

That same year, she returned to the U.S. and made her Broadway debut in Page Miss Glory. She had a small role in the George Abbott production and understudied the lead. Mr. Abbott thought much of her and was able to use her in quite a few subsequent productions, one of which was 1938's highly successful What a Life. When Paramount Pictures opted to film the story in 1939, Field was one of only a couple of actors from the original play who were recruited to reprise their roles for the movie (seen here at right.)

So well-liked was she by the studio that she was signed to a seven year contract and that same year was handed the practically sole female role in the important film Of Mice and Men, opposite Burgess Meredith. The movie was based on John Steinbeck's famous novel. In it, she played Mae, the flirty, tacky, ill-fated wife of Bob Steele who befriends the towering simpleton Lon Chaney Jr., whose friend and protector is Meredith. Field seemed poised to make a serious mark in Hollywood.
Her next film was Seventeen, a teen romantic comedy starring Jackie Cooper (who had also been the lead in What a Life.) Field was now twenty-one, but either she or the studio began to shave five years from her birth date in order to turn back the hands of time and allow her to conceivably play ingenue roles with more effectiveness.


Field, a lifetime dog lover, was snapped behind the scenes playing with her canine costar.

She was paired with Fredric March in Victory (1940) based on a Joseph Conrad novel, though March had feverishly fought to have Ingrid Bergman as his costar. (Am I projecting or is there something making its presence known in Mr. March's pants?!) Field was striving for versatility in her work and would do so throughout her career. This allowed her to play a diverse range of women as her performances on stage, in the movies and, eventually, on TV continued.
1941 brought the Technicolor mountain drama The Shepherd of the Hills, a John Wayne film (his first one not in black & white) concerning animosity within a family of hill people. Directed by Henry Hathaway, she was working for and with top people in the industry and her appearance differed greatly from movie to movie. (This could also be a curse to burgeoning talent because audiences might not realize that they had seen a performer before and in that day, star identity was key.)
All during this period, whenever possible, Field was returning to New York to work on Broadway in a variety of plays, often for George Abbott. She met playwright Elmer Rice and began to fall in love. She would marry him in 1942 and work in several of his subsequent plays, some of which were constructed with her in mind. The couple had three children together.

First, she'd been a socially-reserved single girl, eschewing the Hollywood party scene, then she became a wife, working often on stage, and then a three-time mother. All of these aspects, along with her amorphous looks, helped to hamstring her chances of becoming a top name in the cinema. Somewhat forlorn, with a down-turned mouth, she nevertheless was capable of not only glamour, but sexiness as well when it was called for (see below.)
In 1941's Blues in the Night, she played the glamorous part of a big band singer who has a propensity for stirring up trouble. (She also joined Joel McCrea for The Great Moment, a period medical drama about the advent of anesthesia, for Preston Sturges, but the movie was heavily edited and shelved for two years!)

Her next role was at the opposite end of the spectrum of Blues in the Night, 1942's King's Row, for which she was lent to Warner Brothers. She played the deeply troubled childhood friend of Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan whose physician father rules her with an iron hand. Based on a then-scorching best selling novel, it was a soapy, but high-quality, examination of life in a small town riddled with secrets and problems.
Her other 1942 film, Are Husbands Necessary? is of interest because of what it eventually sparked. She and Ray Milland play spouses who become involved in comic situations and squabbles. The format was adapted for radio into a show called My Favorite Husband, starring Lucille Ball and Richard Denning and this, of course, formed the basis for the TV series I Love Lucy, which starred Ball and her real-life husband Desi Arnaz.

Once again, Field was snapped off the set playing with a pooch (who looks awfully like Humphrey Bogart's dog, Zero.)  If you know how I adore dogs, then you know that this loving quality in Fields only adds to my affection for her.
She was heavily considered for the role of Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), opposite Gary Cooper, thanks to her familiarity with Spanish language, but ultimately was considered too American in persona, so Ingrid Bergman won the part (now a considerably bigger star since the release of Intermezzo in 1939 and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1942.)

After re-teaming with Bob Cummings for one part of the occult anthology Flesh and Fantasy in 1943, she costarred once more with Fredric March in the now-campy, but nevertheless fascinating, Tomorrow the World! (1944.) In it, she plays the lovely fiance of March who, because of her Jewish heritage, is targeted by his newly-adopted son, the blatantly-Nazi grade-schooler Skip Homeier. Little blonde Homeier, in a precursor to The Bad Seed, is a German war orphan who has every intention of building up a contingent of like-minded youths and taking over America!

Next came 1945's The Southerner, a farming drama that starred Zachary Scott (of that same year's Mildred Pierce, but in a diametrically opposite sort of role) and Field as a couple facing multitudinous hardships as they attempt to grow cotton. The prestigious production was directed by Jean Renoir and, though mostly forgotten now, remains a film with many admirers.
There was a break in her movie career after this as she concentrated on bearing and raising her children along with stints on the Broadway stage. Spending as much time in New York as she was, she also began to take part in television, her debut coming in an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1948.

In 1949, she returned to the big screen after a four-year absence in The Great Gatsby, playing Daisy. Starring Alan Ladd as the title character and with a cast that included Macdonald Carey, Ruth Hussey, Barry Sullivan, Ed Begley and Shelley Winters (as Myrtle), it was considered a misfire. She'd only won the role after Gene Tierney was considered too distractingly beautiful for it and was deemed too intelligent and practical for the part. Though this version has gained more respect over the years, thanks in part to equally uneven remakes in 1974 and 2012, it slammed the lid on her movie career for quite a while.
Field, a confirmed workaholic, remained active on the stage in a variety of parts and also appeared on television in such programs as Pulitzer Prize Playhouse (as Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Raymond Massey), Robert Montgomery Presents, Goodyear Playhouse and Lux Video Theatre. Interestingly, she and her old Of Mice and Men costar Burgess Meredith replaced Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in Broadway's The Fourposter.

In 1955, six years after her previous movie, she returned to the big screen again, this time in Picnic. The star-laden story of romantic upheaval in a small town included William Holden, Cliff Robertson and Rosalind Russell among its large cast. Now forty-two, she was playing the mother of twenty year-old Kim Novak and the younger Susan Strasberg.
She would from this point on most often portray older, sometimes wiser, sometimes not, ladies in support of the stars. This was at least partly due to the fact that as an actress, Field had little to no vanity and was unconcerned with looking older, worn-down or haggard. In fact, she reveled in it. She just wanted to play a variety of parts, the more interesting the better.

In 1956, she joined the cast (led by Marilyn Monroe) of Bus Stop as Grace, the owner-operator of the title facility and diner. Sporting brassy red hair and a sassy attitude, it was characteristic of the type of part she could play in her sleep (though she approached every role wide awake.) Her fourteen year marriage to playwright Elmer Rice ended in 1956, but the following year she would wed attorney Edwin Lukas.
Having costarred in King's Row in 1942, a film many thought would never make it to the screen because of its sordid content, it's interesting that she also had a role in 1957's Peyton Place. This was another adaptation of a white-hot novel that few people believed could be acceptably translated to the screen in the conservative 1950s, when the Production Code was still in place. The New England-set drama was right in this native Massachusetts-born gal's comfort zone.

She played Nellie, the dirt poor, hardscrabble maid to Miss Lana Turner and the wife of sleazy, hard-drinking, lascivious Arthur Kennedy, who has an eye on Field's daughter Hope Lange. Field's character is no bleak and nondescript that she, literally, almost blends into the scenery. Note the pattern on her dress and how closely it matched the kitchen wallpaper in Turner's home! Kudos to costumer Adele Palmer for (not so?) subtly turning this tragic figure into a wallflower. Do note the extreme difference in the styling of Turner, flawless in makeup, hair and clothing, versus the downbeat, despondent Field.
Plenty of stage work and TV appearances on The Loretta Young Show, The Alcoa Hour, Kraft Theatre and Climax!, among others, kept her quite busy at this time. (Field always felt that the only reason to rest was in order to recharge oneself for the next assignment.) In 1959, she joined former Picnic costar Arthur O'Connell in the rural Fabian vehicle Hound Dog Man, playing O'Connell's wife. Still only forty-six, she cared not that she was made up to look like a wrinkled old woman.

After appearing with Walter Matthau on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and guest-starring on The Untouchables, Field took the role that first gained my own attention, that of a wisecracking, knowing neighbor to Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8. Taylor's mother in the film, Mildred Dunnock, spent hours fretting over her daughter's behavior and Field was on hand to give Taylor a reality check when she came in the morning after a night of kicks.

Practically every line Field delivers in the film is a dig at Taylor and she's deliciously snarky. When she's not haranguing Taylor for her loose behavior, she's trying to support the fragile Dunnock, who has trouble coming to grips with her daughter's fast lifestyle. Interestingly, real-life doggie-phile Field played here a woman who finds Dunnock's little Yorkshire Terrier a bother. I find her smirky face and pragmatic comments irresistible and wish that she were in the movie more than she is!
More TV (on hit shows like Route 66 – shown above as an overly made-up floozie, Naked City and Ben Casey) preceded her role in 1962's The Birdman of Alcatraz, which starred Burt Lancaster. She played a widow who weds the life-sentenced prisoner in a whitewashed version of a factual story. Note the difference that color makes in these two stills (the actual movie was in black and white, making it much more stark and gloomy.)
In 1963, she joined the rest of of a stellar Broadway cast in Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, a highly-touted and very lengthy Actors Studio-produced revival. Her costars included Jane Fonda, Ben Gazzara, Pat Hingle, Geoffrey Horne, Geraldine Page, Franchot Tone, William Prince and Richard Thomas, which makes one wish they would have filmed the production.
She continued to pop up on TV (seen above in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) and then in 1966 worked on another film, this time for legendary director John Ford, though it would be his last completed feature film (and a very troubled on at that with the initial star Patricia Neal suffering a stroke, requiring the sudden recasting of Anne Bancroft in her role.)  The movie was called 7 Women.

Now, in her mid-fifties (!), she was called upon to play the very pregnant wife of Eddie Albert, a missionary schoolteacher, and who has the misfortune to be stuck in a remote section of China where vicious bandits are ravaging the surrounding landscape. Field, as called for by the script, is a moaning, complaining annoyance who goes into labor just as the renegades descend on the mission compound! Very unappreciated in its time, the film has slowly won a place in many peoples' hearts, no doubt thanks to the work of stalwarts like Margaret Leighton, Flora Robson and Mildred Dunnock helping to round out the title females.

She and her second husband divorced in 1967 and the year after, she married artist Raymond Olivere, who she would remain with the rest of her life.

Also in 1968, Field played a landlady in the colorful romp How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life, which starred Dean Martin and a positively luscious Stella Stevens, then at the pinnacle of her beauty (though that isn't particularly evident in this still photo.)

That same year, she showed up as raging criminal Don Stroud's blowsy, no-nonsense mother in the Clint Eastwood film Coogan's Bluff. (This story of a western sheriff transplanted to the big city formed the basis for the long-running Dennis Weaver series McCloud.) The three-minute scene was cited by many viewers as a highlight of the film.

Afterwards, she was back to Broadway once more to costar with Jessica Tandy, Colleen Dewhurst and others in All Over (which was a strangely prophetic tile for what would be her final appearance on The Great White Way after about two dozen shows there.) She then prepared to appear in the flashy, fiery role of a female evangelist of the Aimee Semple McPherson mold in Day of the Locust. Sadly, that would never come to pass because in September of 1973, Field suffered a fatal stroke. Geraldine Page, certainly no acting slouch, inherited the part as a result.

When Betty Field died in 1973 at only age sixty, we were robbed of the chance to see a truly fine and devoted character actress ply her craft into the old age she had already delved into somewhat through makeup. Countless great little old lady roles would have been enhanced by her particular brand of sass and spunk. Thankfully, her work has been captured on film in plenty of prior projects so that she can be enjoyed by fans, some of whom weren't even born when she passed away.

4 comments:

NotFelixUnger said...

I love this gal. You are right. There are dozens of movies I've seen that I only realize, "that's her!" when the credits roll. Her look was never set which for an artist can be a true blessing.

Picnic and Bird Man of Alcatraz are two of my favorite movies of all time. I don't think they would be the same without her contributions. You can tell real talent when a look or a slight expression can say "quite literally!' 1000 words. She had that gift!

In Picnic you can see her entire life unravel in her eyes as she wants her daughter [Kim] to marry up. In Bird Man she practically worships him from the get go without ever lifting a finger or moving a facial muscle.

One of my favorite lines of all time, "You're not such an old gal. You still got a couple of dances left in you." I want to cry when I hear that. She was a beautiful lady. At any age. That's the only movie I've ever seen Lancaster in that I thought he was sexy. I think I was seeing him through "Stella's" (Betty's eyes.)

Same thing, in Bird Man she has to deal with Lancaster's mother. Ritter! When the old bat starts giving orders, rather than talk back, she tries to prove she's got the same backbone. [All for nothing!] I'm getting teary just thinking about those movies.

Great post. She definitely deserves a spot in the UnderWorld.

BTW, someone who shall remain nameless has gotten himself quite the Ken Clark collection of movies! To boot, that same nameless someone has gotten his own copy of Miss Robin Crusoe. Can you say, "the rewind button is busted?" :-)

dcolp said...

I read that before Shirley Booth was cast in the sitcom "Hazel," that Ms. Field and Agnes Moorehead were among the actresses who screen tested for it.

joel65913 said...

Always been a fan of Betty Field. The first three films I saw her in, all within a short period of time, were Peyton Place, The Southerner and Blues in the Night and I was struck by how different she was in each.

Of those three my favorite was Blues in the Night but more for the music and my beloved Priscilla Lane, playing a character named Character!, than Betty's shrill hussy. But that was more a case of the heartless trollop she played than the actress who played the part well. She was very fine in the Southerner and also in The Shepherd of the Hills, a good if strange film in the John Wayne canon.

I think I've seen most of her film work except The Great Gatsby and she's was always wonderful. I think my favorite of her performances is her deeply affecting work of a plain girl made beautiful by love in first segment of Flesh and Fantasy.

Wonderful write up as always but just one small thing, she wasn't married to Burgess Meredith in Of Mice and Men. He was George the migrant worker who traveled with Lennie but Mae was married to Curley the son of the ranch owner where they worked.

Poseidon3 said...

Oh God, you're so right, Joel!! I'll fix it asap. Thank you. It's been too long since I've seen it.