Monday, July 18, 2011

Oh, What a Character! Part Seven: Crews Control

In the sweeping, roller coaster epic Gone with the Wind, there lies a hysterically overwrought and fussy character who all fans know as Aunt Pittypat. The prim, socially-conscious, amusingly coiffed lady gasps at the slightest infraction of the standards of her day, even as war threatens to rob her of her very life. This vivid, unforgettable persona is enacted by a lady whose career reached far beyond this, her most famous part, though most movie viewers must struggle to see her other works and, of course, her many stage triumphs are lost in the sands of time. The lady is Miss Laura Hope Crews.

Crews was born in San Francisco, California on December 12th, 1879. Think about that. She came into this world a mere fourteen years after the American Civil War ended! We tend to think of that staggering event as having occurred in ancient times and yet here was an actress whose parents lived during the conflict, albeit out of harm's way on the west coast. Her mother was a stage actress, Angelena Lockwood and her father, John Thomas Crews, was a backstage carpenter with the California Theater Company.

Thus, with sawdust literally pumping through her veins, there could be little doubt as to her profession. She began performing in touring productions at the tender age of four and continued doing so until she was nine, with significant success. Her parents, however, removed her from this life of theatricality in order to provide her with a solid education in a San Jose school. Before the ink was barely dry on her diploma, she was back in San Francisco acting with the Alcazar Stock Company.

By 1903, at age twenty-four, she had moved to the east coast and landed her first role on Broadway. A gifted stage actress with the ability to convey deep emotion whether it be dramatic or comedic, she found continued success and would ultimately appear in more than forty Broadway productions as well as various other plays, tours and events. Shown here is a scene from Brown of Harvard in 1905 with costar Henry Woodruff. Some of her other shows in those early days included The Great Divide, Hedda Gabler (as Thea), The Rainbow and Much Ado About Nothing (as Beatrice.)

One of her greatest personal successes was in a play called The Phantom Rival in which she emoted opposite a man left with only one arm. She became a name actress, appearing on postcards of the era and photographed and written about in the publications of the day. In 1915, she starred in two Jesse Lasky silent films, The Fighting Hope and Blackbirds, but it would be another fourteen years before she would appear again before a motion picture camera.

In the meantime, she continued to make a mark onstage. Steadily employed either on Broadway or on tour throughout the late 1910s and 1920s, she had another notable success in A. A. Milne's Mr. Pim Passes By in 1921. She appeared in his play Ariadne in 1925 and in Noel Coward's Hay Fever later that same year. In 1926, she played a role in The Silver Cord, a show that would later be made into a motion picture and it was one of her most memorable characterizations.

Following that, there were several more plays on Broadway (including a revival of Mr. Pim in 1927) until she was summoned to Hollywood during the advent of sound films in 1929. Fifty years of age by now, she was too late to the party to be launched as a leading lady, but she was heavily utilized in colorful supporting parts. In Charming Sinners, she was already portraying a busybody, a woman who has discovered an affair between Ruth Chatterton's husband Clive Brook and another young lady played by Mary Nolan. (Incidentally, the story of Mary Nolan's own life was far more dramatic than any of her movie roles!)

Crews found herself engaged at coaching silent stars in the new ways of sound film-making, with one of her charges being no less than Miss Gloria Swanson. She then played the wife of Lewis Stone and the mother of Robert Young in 1932's New Morals for the Old, a film that examined the change in generational mores when Crews' children engage in either premarital or adulterous affairs. She played a smothering mother to Slim Summerville in 1933's Out All Night.

Then, in 1933, she was granted the chance to reprise one of her prior stage hits as a movie. The Silver Cord told the tale of two brothers, Joel McCrea and Eric Linden, whose mother severely disapproves of their selections of women (though, truth be told, not a woman could exist that she would approve of!) Irene Dunne played the wife of McCrea while Frances Dee was Linden's fiancee, making this a terrific example of an older film to watch, thanks to the familiarity of the cast.

Even if one didn't know a soul amongst the acting ensemble, it's still a rip-snortingly captivating viewing experience and Crews is utterly unforgettable. As the scheming, manipulative, barely-veiled incestuous mother, she gives a performance that boggles the mind. Dunne and McCrea, who are also very good, may have top-billing, but this show belongs almost completely to Crews. The mother-in-law from hell was already a stock character (that same year, Helen Hayes was grappling with one in Another Language, hers played by Louise Closser Hale), but no one outdid Miss Crews.

If you are ever fortunate enough to come across this 74-minute gem, do yourself a favor and check it out. The dynamics of the story and the acting are simply jaw-dropping. Crews outrageously dominates her offspring, kisses them inappropriately, slights their female counterparts and just generally runs roughshod over the household, all the while iced with a thin veneer of vulnerability and pity. Linden seems to be gay, despite his attraction to the lovely Dee. Fortunately, Dunne finally has her fill and lets Crews have it in a diatribe near the end. It's just a wonderfully old-fashioned, yet somehow relevant and resonating, piece of drama. It's hard to believe, but this was only one of SEVEN films she appeared in in 1993!

Crews worked in a variety of films be they comedic, dramatic or even murder mysteries such as Blind Adventure. Then there was Rafter Romance, a sort of variation on The Shop Around the Corner, in which Ginger Rogers and Norman Foster play two people, working opposite shifts, who live in the same apartment (one from 8:00am to 8:00pm and the other the opposite) and yet don't know each other! They, incensed at one another's living habits, proceed to despise each other and play pranks against themselves while simultaneously falling in love on the outside, never knowing that they are tenants together! Crews played a boozy, sexually predatory benefactress who has her own eye on Foster and rather effortlessly steals the show.

She played Barbara Stanwyck's grandmother in Ever in My Heart, a tear-jerker about the effect of WWI upon German's living in America. In If I Were Free, she was reunited with Irene Dunne as the mother of Clive Brook, a man who loves Dunne in spite of the fact that both of them are married to others. This time, she wasn't quite the gorgon she had been in The Silver Cord, though she was not without frustration over and concern for her son.

Crews, now a thickened, chubby-faced sort of biddy, had an inimitable voice that served her well in all of her roles. She had a breathy, exasperated way of speaking that lent a flourish, sometimes giddy, sometimes horrified, to her lines. At this stage in her career, she was working against some of Holywood's all-time famous names. 1934 brought Lightning Strikes Twice, a comedy about mistaken identity which featured Crews as Ben Lyon's kooky aunt and which also starred the notorious Thelma Todd.

Still another go round with Irene Dunne was 1934's Enchanted April. That same year, she was back in mother-in-law from hell territory with Behold My Wife. In this one, she and her snobbish family drive the fiancee (a young Ann Sheridan) of Crews's son Gene Raymond to kill herself out of despair. For revenge, he marries a full-blooded Indian girl named Tonita Storm Cloud and brings her home in full regalia. If telling you that Sylvia Sydney plays the Indian isn't enough to make you want to see this (which, sadly, I haven't!), then there's no hope for you!

1935 brought Escapade with William Powell and Luise Rainer as well as The Melody Lingers On, which cast Crews as a Mother Superior. It was not unusual for Crews to play characters with amusingly pretentious names. Some of her characters included Elise Peabody Whittington Smythe, Prudence Duvernoy, Minerva Twombling and Lily Hoggett-Egburry. In the 1936 comedy, Her Master's Voice, she played Aunt Minnie Stickney opposite Edward Everett Horton (now there's a pair!) For her, it was another film adaptation of a play she'd done three years prior on Broadway, but Horton took the role that Roland Young had originated.

Another of the big names Crews worked with was Greta Garbo in the widly popular Camille. Here, she played a courtesan at an advanced enough age to make one smile now. She's sort of a high scale Belle Watling! It was not the only time that Crews would portray such a type of woman. The very next year, she was, of all things, an opera star in Kay Francis' Confession. It's not easy to picture any sigificantly melodic sounds emanating from Miss Crews' raspy throat!

In '37, she worked with Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall and Melvyn Douglas in Angel, playing Grand Duchess Anna Dmitrievna, a nightclub owner who inadvertently causes married Dietrich to become involved with another man. The next year she played in The Sisters with Errol Flynn and Bette Davis as well as Dr. Rhythm with Bing Crosby and Thanks for the Memory with Bob Hope, separately ticking them off her list of famous names she'd worked with. In 1938, she was back on Broadway for the brief run of a show called Save Me the Waltz.

1939, a year that has continually been named as one of the film industry's all-time best, saw Laura Hope Crews appearing in seven (!) different productions. She helped round out the cast of stars in Idiot's Delight, which featured Clark Gable and Norma Shearer, was a stage mother to a burgeoning opera star in Bing Crosby's The Star Maker, popped up in the B-western Reno, with Richard Dix and had a small role in Robert Taylor and Greer Garson's romantic comedy Remember?, which no one did.

She also played a society matron in The Rains Came, with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy (that one climaxing with a wonderful earthquake and flood.) There was even an uncredited bit in Charles Laughton's famed rendition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. None of these films, though, could begin to compare with the mammoth, lavish production of Gone with the Wind.

David O'. Selznick's obsessive project, one that would both build his reputation and haunt him forever after, became one of the most enduring motion pictures of all time. Crews' participation in it is limited, but she surfaces every now and then. In a lengthy movie during which something dramatic seems to occur at least every dozen minutes or so, Crews' fuss-budgety, over-the-top comic relief is a welcome respite from the melodrama. No one can accuse Miss Crews of being understated as the fretful Aunt Pittypat, but I, for one, wouldn't have it any other way.

As the maiden relative, just as likely to faint over an inappropriate word as she is over a cannonball hitting the street before her, she is a thorough delight. If you enjoy Crews in GWTW and have never read Margaret Mitchell's novel, yet plan to, you will be thrilled to know that Aunt Pittypat is a far more integral character in the book and it's pretty clear that, like virtually every actor cast in the film, Crews was perfect for the part.

When 20th Century Fox couldn't come to terms with lending their child sensation Shirley Temple to MGM to star in The Wizard of Oz, they concocted their own colorful children's film, The Blue Bird, and rounded up a few stalwart supporting stars to enhance the proceedings. Crews played Mrs. Luxury, with other roles going to Gale Sondergaard, Spring Byington and Jessie Ralph. The film was a big flop, however, with audiences refusing to accept Temple as a girl with attitude problems.

As the 1940s dawned, Crews found herself still in demand, but not in as prestigious works as she'd been toiling in previously. She was yet another wealthy matriarch in Girl From Avenue A, a Jane Withers comedy, and once again a disapproving one (of Dennis O'Keefe) in I'm Nobody's Sweetheart Now, the story of a college football player in love with a nightclub singer who's politically-inclined family worries about its reputation.

Things turn a turn for the better when she played Miriam Hopkin's mom in the biographical film Lady with Red Hair, the story of a Chicago divorcee, Mrs. Leslie Carter, who was transformed into a Broadway sensation. (Oddly enough, in 1935, the real Mrs. Carter had appeared in Becky Sharp, the first full-length Technicolor film, the star of which was Miriam Hopkins!) In 1941, Crews was back alongside Marlene Dietrich in Flame of New Orleans as a character called Auntie.

One Foot in Heaven, an episodic film about the lives of a minister and his devout family, had Crews as a spiteful and malicious enemy of the minster's son. The other stars were Fredric March and Martha Scott, as the minister and his wife, and Gene Lockart as Crews' husband. She closed out 1941 with a small role as Apple Annie in the Fred MacMurrary-Mary Martin comedy New York Town, a virtually forgotten film nowadays. She had a bit part in the crowded film The Man Who Came to Dinner, starring Monty Woolley and Bette Davis, among others, never knowing that it would be her cinematic swan song.

Laura Hope Crews, regardless of the many amusing and entertaining film roles she assayed (and there were nearly 40 despite her late start!), always considered herself a stage actress. In 1942, at age sixty-two, she headed back to the Great White Way for a final stint, this time as a replacement for Josephine Hull in Arsenic and Old Lace. She was performing in this production when a kidney ailment began to get the best of her. She was finally forced to enter the hospital on October 15th and lasted almost a month when she died on November 12th, 1942.

When she passed away, the world lost not only one of stage's great talents, but also one those magical, inimitable character performers whose work accented so many terrific Hollywood movies over the years. Her presence in any movie meant that there was going to be at least one chuckle and, if not, she was still going to collect the viewers attention on some level. Astonishingly, though she worked in all those Broadway plays, she was never once so much as nominated for a Tony and regardless of the many films she made, there was never any reward granted from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Miss Crews was dead before television took hold. In The Underworld, however, she is acclaimed for her dazzlingly infectious acting persona, with special credit for her work in The Silver Cord and Gone with the Wind.


Narciso Duran said...

Wow! I had no idea Laura Hope Crews was a San Francisco native. Early Bay Area theater history is one of my areas of special interest, and how that fact escaped me, I'll never know. I see that she is buried across the bay in the same cemetery as my great grandparents. trust me, I'll leave flowers soon.

I find it interesting that you commented on something I have always pondered -- that many of the early film character actors were born deep in the 19th century and had performing rots going way back. Thus, we can be assured that a period piece from the 1930s about the, say, 1870s, will be portrayed accurately.

Another actor in GWTW, Harry Davenport, who played the pivotal Doc Meade, was born only a year after the Civil War ended! He was the male lead in the 1897 Broadway musical The Belle of New York, marrying about that time, producing a family acting dynasty with many branches. And there he was in Meet Me In St. Louis in 1944 playing the grandfather in a film that took place in 1904, when he himself in 1904 was pushing forty. Amazing, amazing!

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks for your comments and information on Miss Crews. It does my heart good to know that you'll be paying a visit to her grave site. She deserves to be remembered!

I'm about to do a play set in 1977 (when I was ten!) and definitely remember how things looked and seemed, so I totally get you on the score of actors playing roles in times they once lived in. It's something that no one can really train a person for because it's revisiting an old reality in many ways, rather than just studying it. Thanks!

Narciso Duran said...

Break a leg Poseidon; I just finished set design for "Once Upon a Mattress," and I am exhausted; still scraping the paint from beneath my fingernails.