In a recent post, I touched on the idea of a performer's career having differing levels of success at either end. Some start off brilliantly and then flame out. Others have a slow burn to the top, but then stay there. Today's featured actress never went away (certainly not from the stage, at least), but when it came to the movies, she definitely had a more prominent first and third act, though even her second act was not without at least one highlight. I refer to the “First Lady of the American Theatre” as she came to be dubbed. This was a lady who was devoted to her profession, rose to the very top of it, and yet seemed as approachable as any cute, suburban grandmother. I refer, of course, to Miss Helen Hayes.
Born Helen Hayes Brown in Washington, D.C. on October 10th, 1900, she was the daughter of a man, Francis Brown, who had worked as a clerk in a patent office as well as having been a salesman and manager for a wholesale butcher. Her mother Catherine “Essie” Hayes, was of Irish descent, having come to America with her parents during the mid-1800s Irish Potato Famine (an event responsible for the deaths of about 1,000,000 people!) Essie had been named for her great-aunt, Catherine Hayes, who was a stellar opera singer and the first international star to spring from The Emerald Isle. She was an actress herself, touring with various productions, but it was her little daughter Helen who would eventually make the bigger mark.
At the tender age of five, Helen performed, singing and dancing, in a production right across the street from The White House called Miss Hawke's May Ball. That same year, she was utilized in a rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As a pre-teen, she continued to work in the theatre, sometimes portraying little boys, as she honed her craft and absorbed everything around her. In time, she appeared using only her first and middle name, Helen Hayes, in order to avoid the more mundane Helen Brown. Her Broadway debut came at age nine when she worked in a musical farce called Old Dutch. Little did she know that it was the first of about fifty Broadway productions she would eventually appear in.
As she entered her twenties, some of the plays she acted in included She Stoops to Conquer, Caesar and Cleopatra (as Cleopatra! Can you imagine?), The Last of Mrs. Cheney and Coquette. In 1928, she married Charles MacArthur, a former reporter-turned playwright and author. MacArthur, a divorced man, was the son of a fundamental Protestant evangelist while Hayes was a dyed in the wool Catholic. The marriage meant that she was denied Communion for the length of their union. A daughter, Mary, was born to the couple in 1930. When MacArthur was offered a job writing screenplays in Hollywood that same year, he and his new family headed west.
Hayes had appeared in a pair of small New York made silent films, but the strength of her stage career landed her a job at MGM where there was a demand for actresses who could speak distinctly and effectively in this, the dawn of the sound era. She was given the buff and polish that went hand in hand with becoming a feature film actress. An adaptation of a 1923 play called The Lullaby was given to her as her first role, but MacArthur bristled at the old-fashioned melodrama. Genius producer Irving Thalberg told him to “fix it!” then, and hired him to do so. Eventually retitled The Sin of Madelon Claudet, it was one of the many then-popular stories of a hapless woman who sacrifices all for the sake of her child.
Filming was something of an ordeal, with Hayes completely insecure about her performance. At one point, she even offered to buy the property back in order to subdue it from release. No one involved had high hopes for it and an attempt was even made to prevent Thalberg from previewing it, but he insisted. Recognizing its flaws, he ordered restructuring and reshoots. This meant that Hayes, who had already moved on to her next film, had to come back and work on Claudet during her only time off!
The result was a four-hankie woman's picture that gave its star a tour-de-force of acting opportunities. Creaky and manipulative by today's standards (even that day's standards!), it nonetheless showed off Hayes' chops at emoting. Playing a woman who is impregnated by Neil Hamilton (later to be Commissioner Gordon on Batman!), led to jail by lover Lewis Stone and ultimately becomes the broken down mother of Robert Young (later to be Marcus Welby, M.D.), she parlayed the pendulous role to an Oscar for Best Actress!
Hayes next film, the one she had to balance with Claudet retakes, was Arrowsmith. In it, she played the devoted, but ignored, wife of research doctor Ronald Colman, a top cinema actor of the day. (The difference in their career standings is evident in the size of the letters for each of their billing on this poster!) This film was a Best Picture nominee, thus her screen career would seem to be off to an amazing start.
Her subsequent role is one that is far more famous than the one which won her the Oscar. This is due, perhaps, to the fame of the novel the story is based on and because her male costar was another one of the beloved and enduring actors of the time, whose career still resonates now. The role was that of Catherine, a WWI nurse who falls hard for a handsome ambulance driver. When he is wounded on the battlefield and put into her care, their love takes hold, eventually leading to tragedy. The film was A Farewell to Arms.
Initially, Fredric March was signed to play the male lead, but when a change in director occurred, he quit the production, allowing Gary Cooper to inherit the role. (March and Cooper would appear together as friends and roommates in Design for Living only a year later.) Cooper and Hayes ultimately emerged as one of the classic romantic pairings of the cinema, a couple cited years and years later for their chemistry and on-screen magic. (Hayes couldn't help but admit to finding Cooper attractive. In 1932, few people could deny such a fact!)
One thing that lent a strange sort of tenderness to the pairing was the fact that 6'3” Cooper (taller, even, with his boots on) towered over the diminutive Hayes, who was only 5' even. This particular publicity shot demonstrates the disparity in their sizes while conveying the protective quality of Cooper towards his vulnerable lover. While not a completely faithful adaptation of the 1929 Ernest Hemingway novel, it succeeded better than other, later versions. (An epic 1957 Rock Hudson-Jennifer Jones rendition almost did producer David O. Selznick in!)
That same year, Hayes went Asian in The Son-Daughter. She and Ramon Novarro played Chinese lovers in 1911 San Francisco, suffering under the threat of political upheaval amongst their people. She is the title character, a young virgin named Lien Wha whose gender causes her father disappointment as he wished a son to help his people back in his homeland who are rebelling against the emperor. She vows to act as a son would in order to make him proud and aid their people, even if it means giving up what she wants and being “bought” by an enemy of her father's side.
After this, she continued to act opposite men who would become icons of the cinema. In The White Sister, she played an Italian girl who has been promised to a man by her father in a bid to add financial security to the family's coffers. However, she is in love with a handsome, dashing soldier (played by Clark Gable.) When he is declared missing during WWI, she takes the fateful step of becoming a nun! The troubles only continue to get worse when it turns out that he is actually still alive.
1933 also brought the contemporary melodrama Another Language, in which Hayes played an elegant, tasteful newlywed (to Robert Montgomery) who can't seem to break through to his lively, common, oppressively controlling family, all led by his domineering, manipulative and self-involved mother. In time, their relationship is severely threatened by her refusal to put up with all the rude and smothering shenanigans any longer.
She rounded out the year as part of a large, all-star cast in Night Flight, an aviation drama that had her married to Clark Gable and appearing in the same film as John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy. Few expenses were spared in order to bring this story to the screen. One of MGM's top directors, Clarence Brown, was put in charge of corralling the stars, though what was a fairly major film then was out of circulation for years and is said to be pretty creaky now.
Already, the pint-sized theatrical powerhouse was showing that she could portray women of various walks of life and those who possessed either great power or virtually none. She continued to act on stage occasionally, even while making movies. Feeling underwhelmed by the process of movie-making, with its piecemeal approach to acting, the lack of audience feedback and the glizty side to the business which didn't interest her at all, she returned to Broadway.
First she played the title role in Mary of Scotland, a gig that lasted from November of 1933 to July of 1934. The next year, she took on what would become one of her most famous roles ever, that of Queen Victoria in Victoria Regina. Aged beyond her years for the part, she would play it again and again. The first run lasted six months but was brought back for a return engagement that lasted close to a year! A third production was mounted the year after that, but only ran about two months.
In between these portrayals, she made a couple more movies, but it wouldn't be long before she abandoned the cinema for the stage entirely. She starred in 1934's What Every Woman Knows with Brian Aherne. In it, she played a Scottish girl once again having her family arrange a marriage for her lest she wind up a spinster.
Then there was 1935's Vanessa: Her Story, a very melodramatic story in which she is set to wed Robert Montgomery until he fails to rescue her father from a fire and breaks up with him. When she discovers that he has wed another girl, she accepts the marriage proposal of Otto Kruger only to find out that he's insane! This marked her final movie for more than a 15-year stretch and was her last that featured Lewis Stone, a costar for four out of her nine films of the period.
In 1937, she and her husband adopted a baby boy to keep seven year-old Mary company. Little James MacArthur would grow up to become a successful actor in his own right. Close family friend Lillian Gish was his godmother. After continuing to portray Victoria Regina, Hayes proceeded to enact the role of Viola in Twelfth Night and later portrayed famed novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe in Harriet. 1946 brought a comedy her way called Happy Birthday and it was a significant success, earning her her first Tony Award in 1947. (This was the first year of the Tonys and she was its first recipient as Best Actress in a Play.)
Hayes and MacArthur were dealt a shattering blow in 1949. Their daughter Mary had embarked on a stage career of her own, appearing in a Maryland production of The Corn is Green. She enlisted her twelve year-old brother James to be in it as well, which marked his stage debut. However, Mary soon came down with polio and was dead from complications of it before the year was out. She was nineteen years old. It is believed that this crushing loss contributed to the death of Charles MacArthur, himself, in 1956.
1950 found Hayes entering an entirely different acting medium, television. She first appeared on The Prudential Family Playhouse in a teleplay of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. She then played Mary Queen of Scots again on Pulitzer Prize Playhouse and Queen Victoria again on Robert Montgomery Presents, allowing the rest of the country to catch a glimpse of what they'd missed in not coming to the Big Apple.
It was 1952 when she stepped before the movie cameras again, her first time since 1935. The movie was My Son John, a heavy-handed anti-Communist drama directed by Leo McCarey. She was granted top-billing before costars Van Heflin, Robert Walker and Dean Jagger. Troubled Walker, as the title character, died of a drug and alcohol combination before he could complete all of his scenes, which meant that bits of footage from his previous movie Strangers on a Train had to be spliced in and arranged to try to properly sew up this movie. The film was not a success, commercially or critically. Thus, it was back to the stage when Miss Hayes worked in the successful comedy-fantasy Mrs. McThing and revivals of What Every Woman Knows, The Wisteria Trees and The Skin of Our Teeth.
In 1956, 20th Century Fox was preparing the film adaptation of a hit Broadway play based on the legend of one Anna Anderson, a young lady who claimed to be the sole survivor of the massacre of Russia's royal Romanov family. To tackle the part of this distraught, emotionally-wounded, but driven, woman, Ingrid Bergman was cast. Bergman had been an outcast in Hollywood ever since leaving her husband and daughter for Italian director Roberto Rossellini, by whom she'd gotten pregnant, and was chastised as far up as the floor of the U.S. Senate!
In the film, Anastasia, a Grand Duchess was called for, the tired, embittered and regal potential grandmother of Bergman's character, who who will ultimately decide if the girl is authentic or not. Legend has it that the film's producer, Buddy Adler, wanted elderly actress Helen Haye for the part, but that due to a misunderstanding, Helen Hayes was enlisted instead! It is true that Helen Hayes was a mere fifteen years older than the actress whose grandmother she was supposed to be playing, but the actress who'd originated the role on Broadway (Eugenie Leontovich) was the same age as Hayes. Also, Hayes had played imposing royal figures many times, so it wasn't really a stretch. (And would a studio really proceed with an important movie and not make some effort to correct an error like this if, in fact, one had been made?) In any case, the far less famous Helen Haye was eighty-one at the time and was dead the following year, so if the rumor was true, who knows if she'd have even made it through filming.
A more likely story is the one that Hayes told: that with shamed expatriate Bergman in the lead, the studio hedged its bets by casting All-American, irreproachable Helen Hayes opposite her in the hopes of legitimizing the production and assuaging any ill feelings that might be felt towards the film and its star. As it turned out, there were none. The glittering candy box of a movie was a big hit and Bergman won an Oscar for Best Actress. Hayes was able to bring the desperately unhappy and skeptical Empress to life, adding shades of relief, fondness and joy to the mix as it became appropriate. Having just lost her husband of close to thirty years could only have aided in her portrayal. Despite this cinematic success, it would be yet another lengthy stretch (this time fourteen years) before she would make another movie.
Hayes had risen to a position of prestige, having been dubbed “First Lady of the American Theatre,” though the title had also been applied to her friend and peer Katherine Cornell. Reportedly, they each felt that the other deserved the title. She's shown here at the 1956 Tony Awards with Julie Harris (winner for The Lark) and Paul Minu (winner for Inherit the Wind.) In 1955, New York's Fulton Theatre was renamed The Helen Hayes Theatre. She was still a prominent working actress on Broadway and yet already had a venue bearing her name! In time, this area was razed for new construction and so, in 1983, the Little Theater took on the mantel of The Helen Hayes Theatre, a name which still holds today. Below are Mary Martin and Helen with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, two other acting legends who had a theatre named for them.
On Broadway again, this time in the romantic comedy Time Remembered, Hayes won her second Tony Award. She was playing a duchess, overseeing the blossoming romance of a young couple played by Richard Burton and Susan Strasberg. Unfortunately, the pair were in the middle of a real-life love affair that was passionate and explosive, causing all sorts of behind the scenes upset and turmoil. Burton, of course, was married, though he claimed to have slept with practically every primary female costar in his movies and most of the ones on the stage.
Miss Hayes was performing in many television programs during this period as well. Not so much as a guest on dramatic series, but in the then-popular anthology shows which would present a playlet each week, always with a different cast. She did seven episodes of Omnibus as well as The United States Steel Hour, Play of the Week and The Bell Telephone Hour. These programs offered her various acting opportunities when she wasn't appearing in a Broadway play. Always a reflective and introspective person, she would occasionally be called upon to share her thoughts and experiences as in this 1965 Parade magazine article. What floored me is the devastatingly hilarious array of advertisements to the left of the article! I'm gonna guess that this magazine was geared towards an older readership?
In 1967, she acted on an episode of TV's Tarzan with Ron Ely and her own son James MacArthur, who was, by now, a successful movie actor (in some famous Disney films as well as others) and was just about to embark on the eleven-year run he enjoyed on Hawaii 5-O. She had previously popped up briefly (and unbilled) in one of his films, Third Man on the Mountain, as a tourist in 1959. She and Gish teamed up for a TV remake of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1969, costarring Fred Gwynne and Bob Crane. As for Hayes, she was about to discover that the movies, a field in which she had only found sporadic success despite her Oscar in 1931, weren't quite finished with her.
Producer Ross Hunter was planning a glitzy, all-star adaptation of Arthur Hailey's best-selling novel Airport. The line-up of stars included Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Van Heflin, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, Maureen Stapleton, George Kennedy and Lloyd Nolan. A key role, that of an old lady stowaway who ultimately becomes part of a plan to disarm a mad bomber on board, was offered to Claudette Colbert, who turned it down.
Hayes, who had scarcely tried to prevent the onset of gray hair and wrinkles and, thus had no glamorous image to protect, was only too willing to take the part, knowing full well that it offered countless opportunities for scene-stealing. I should say Hayes was not a deliberate scene-stealer in the derogatory way, but simply knew that the dialogue and situations were predestined to offer many fun, showy acting opportunities. Thus, the role of crafty, impish Ada Quonsett in Airport was filled by Helen Hayes.
Rigged out with a brown felt hat that featured a hysterical fluffy pom-pom and a black patent-leather purse that seemed to hold anything and everything an airline ticket agent might utilize in his profession, Hayes doddered onto the scene, taking on Lancaster and Seberg in an extended scene of one-upsmanship. Later, she figured into what can only be described as one of my favorite movie scenes ever! Stunning Bisset confronts her in her seat about not having a ticket, leading to a tete-a-tete between the women as shocked passengers look on. Then, a tearful, distraught Hayes is practically dragged down the aisle by an authoritative Bisset, thrust back into her seat and slapped, all as part of a scheme to distract Heflin, a disturbed, desperate man who intends to destroy the aircraft in order to leave his dejected wife Stapleton a fat insurance settlement.
Hayes got to play everything in this movie, from wistful remembrances to sly deceit to innocuous frivolity to total hysteria. Alfred Newman, a masterful film music composer, came up with a whimsical music cue to punctuate most of her scenes. Every cell of her body was channeled into creating this charming but duplicitous little gnome who is, on the outside, a darling granny, but is in fact a career criminal, repeatedly stealing seats on airplanes in order to visit her family! Because most of the audience also resents the hefty price of airfare, they find themselves on her side, even knowing that she's in the wrong.
Airport was loaded down with Oscar nominations, ten in all, but when the dust settled, it was Miss Hayes who emerged as the sole winner, copping a award as Best Supporting Actress, a mere 39 years after her previous nomination and win. Sadly, she was not present at the ceremony. Rosalind Russell accepted the Oscar on her behalf. She was back to the boards of Broadway, costarring in a revival of Harvey with James Stewart, who'd starred in the film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play three decades earlier. Their collaboration was later filmed and presented as a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie in 1972. Hayes' stage career was basically over after this, a severe (and ironic) asthmatic reaction to stage dust making it nearly impossible for her to continue. Not without some spunk left in her, the year after her win she co-hosted the Oscars and said to the applauding crowd, "As George C. Scott forgot to say last year, thank you very much" (the actor had famously refused to accept his Patton Oscar for Best Actor.)
In 1971, she joined Mildred Natwick, Sylvia Sidney and Myrna Loy as part of a quartet of old ladies who, on a lark, decide to create an imaginary woman for use in a computer dating service. In the movie, called Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate, things get out of hand when the “woman” they've created attracts the interest of a psychotic killer! She reteamed the following year with Natwick to act in The Snoop Sisters, a short-lived mystery show that rotated with others (like George Peppard's Banacek) as part of the NBC Wednesday Night Mystery Movie. Her little old lady act was catching on like wildfire, gathering up new fans who'd never even been around when she had started acting decades before.
As the '70s progressed, Hayes started to appear in a series of live-action Walt Disney movies, starting with 1974's Herbie Rides Again. A sequel to The Love Bug, all about the adventures of a Volkswagon that can act independently of its driver, Hayes played its current owner. As she stands in the way of evil developer Keenan Wynn and his unknowing employee Ken Berry, its up to Herbie and Hayes' neighbor Stefanie Powers to save the day.
1975 brought One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (and no, she didn't play one of the dinosaurs!) Here, she played one of a group of nannies who try to help determine who has stolen the remains of a prehistoric creature from a natural history museum. It turns out that Chinese spies are involved and who is the primary one but Peter Ustinov as a character called Hnup Wan, in deliberately campy Asian drag.
Hayes' final Disney feature (and, in fact, her final feature film, period) was 1977's Candleshoe, something of a play on her earlier Anastasia in that her character, a British lady living at the title estate, is presented with a young girl claiming to be her long-missing, presumed dead, granddaughter. The faux granddaughter was played by Jodie Foster, already a sensation for having costarred in Taxi Driver in 1976 and Freaky Friday that same year. She's there to discover some hidden treasure supposedly located on the property. David Niven costarred as a loyal employee trying to keep the struggling place out of foreclosure and the knowledge of such out of Hayes' mind.
During this same time, she had continued to make appearances in TV projects such as a guest shot on son MacArthur's TV series Hawaii 5-O in 1975 (playing his aunt) and with featured roles in Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers (produced by Ross Hunter), as the therapist to Kirk Douglas' disturbed wife Marisa Pavan, and Victory at Entebbe, as one of some hijacked airplane passengers who are relying on Israeli soldiers for rescue.
She might be finished making feature films and stage appearances, but she remained busy with charitable ventures, various show business events and on TV. She was nominated for an Emmy in 1978's A Family Upside Down, a poignant family television movie about an elderly couple having to rely on their children. Fred Astaire played her husband while Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Pat Crowley and Patty Duke played the younger generation.
After the obligatory appearance on The Love Boat, she took part in a 1982 telefilm based on an Agatha Christie novel, Murder is Easy. She portrayed the victim in this with the star being Bill Bixby. However, she soon was hired to play Christie's sleuth Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery and Murder with Mirrors. The first one, in 1983, had her stationed at a luxurious resort and hobnobbing with Barnard Hughes, Maurice Evans, Jameson Parker and Swoosie Kurtz, among others.
The second, in 1985, had her paired with Sir John Mills, Leo McKern, Dorothy Tutin, a young Tim Roth and none other than a stroke-ridden (and very cranky) Miss Bette Davis! The prickly Davis was mighty difficult to get along with and Hayes was hard pressed to get along with her. Later, Davis would clash with Helen's pal Lillian Gish on The Whales of August, seemingly hell bent on driving anyone within her age range into (belated) retirement!
Always one with an incredibly optimistic outlook and a belief in keeping active (one of her quotes was, “If you rest, you rust”), she felt it important to work in projects that kept things pretty clean and suitable for viewing by most all ages. Here she is with Mr. Clean, himself, Fred Rogers. Their scorching affair brought Hollywood to its knees! (That's a joke...) While The Moneychangers had been more than a little risque at times, her own participation was not. That's about the zestiest credit on the latter part of her resume, though she did make an appearance – her last ever – on the TV show Glitter, all about the sometimes sultry goings on with investigative reporters working for an entertainment magazine.
Now eighty-five, she retired from the screen, though she did continue to appear at awards ceremonies and other special events and fund raisers. She could accept and enjoy the many accolades of her career such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1986 and The National Medal of the Arts in 1988. An American Masters special was done on her career in 1991 (when she was ninety-one) and she participated in that and she lent interview material to When the Lion Roars, a retrospective series about MGM's glory days. In 1990, she wrote an autobiography, perfectly-titled, called Helen Hayes: My Life in Three Acts. Her unadorned, yet utterly adorable, profile decorated the cover. (It was not the first book she penned. She'd been writing here and there since the mid-1960s.)
Helen Hayes, of half-Irish descent and a lifelong Catholic, died of heart failure on, appropriately enough, St. Patrick's Day of 1993. She was ninety-two. She had just been named the beneficiary of longtime friend Lillian Gish's estate, who had died only a few weeks prior on February 27th at the age of ninety-nine(!), but wasn't around long enough for it to make much difference. In 2011, The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor. Currently, all outgoing mail from The Underworld bears this as postage, though an occasional Gregory Peck will show up if the addressee seems like someone who'd prefer that instead. Ha!
Helen Hayes was a diminutive, but towering, woman who put forth a staggering acting career. In one medium or another, she acted for eighty years(!) and more than mastered the art. New York Times critic Clive Barnes once said of her that “to watch how she is doing something is almost as pleasurable as what she is doing.” She was many things to many people (and did have her detractors, though those were far outweighed by her admirers), but above all, she was a lady. In that incredible career, one that put her in the select group of people who earned a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy and a Grammy, she scarcely rated so much as even a hint of scandal, even after her death when all the wolves usually come out. She was an institution whose name lives on in the work she did and in the theatre that bears her name. For the wealth of dedicated work she did and for her performance in Airport, she is welcome to stowaway in The Underworld any time!