Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Moment with Marvelous Monica

Recently, I happened to unexpectedly rub cyber-elbows with a personage who figures into several of my favorite movies, yet who - as a supporting player in them - hasn't won the same sort of attention as the showier, in some cases downright feral, stars.

I was tottering around on Facebook and ran into Miss Monica Lewis, the 1940s vocalist-turned-actress who after a spate of early-1950s films went into semi-retirement (augmented by occasional TV appearances) until popping up again in a series of 1970s disaster films. Anyone who comes here with regularity knows of my deep affection for the studio disaster films made between 1970 and 1980!
Lewis was born to musically-inclined parents (a conducting-composing father and an opera-singing mother) in Chicago in 1922 and wasn't even out of her teens before achieving success as a radio singer and eventual recording artist. Club dates and TV appearances with many famous entertainers and hit recordings followed until she was signed to a movie contract.

She landed at the very best studio in the world, MGM, where the full force of that company's publicity machine kept her in the public eye. Already the first guest ever featured on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1948 (her brother was co-producer of the program), she next took on the big screen.
After getting her feet wet as a cafe singer in David Brian and Arlene Dahl's Inside Straight (1951), she won a featured part opposite Red Skelton in Excuse My Dust and played a rendition of herself in Mickey Rooney's The Strip (both 1951 as well.)
She also became the face of many 1940s and 1950s products, be it hosiery (as Miss Leg-O-Genic!) beer or cigarettes, though she also provided a familiar voice when she became the woman behind the character of "Miss Chiquita Banana," for over a dozen years.
In 1952, she danced with Gower Champion on the big screen in Everything I Have Is Yours, one of only a small handful of ladies to ever do so besides his then-wife Marge Champion. Next came 1953's Affair with a Stranger with Victor Mature and Jean Simmons.
Miss Lewis was also notable for her entertainment of and support given to American servicemen, be it at home or in the field, such as these shots taken during the Koren War demonstrate.
A variety of other movie and TV work followed, though in 1956 she married movie producer Jennings Lang (truly a name, his own real one, that belonged on cinema posters and in credits on screen!) She had been briefly married before to songwriter Bob Thiele (who composed the oft-recorded and used "What a Wonderful World" and later married singer Teresa Brewer.)
Lang had once been part of Hollywood's most eye-popping scandals when he was shot during a scuffle with producer Walter Wanger, who reportedly caught his wife Joan Bennett making love to Lang (who was at the time her agent) in Lang's car. Lang was shot in the groin (!) and Wanger went to jail for four months, but both men went on to much further success in the business. (Pictured at left are the rollercoaster couple Wanger and Bennett, who nonetheless remained wed from 1940 to 1964.)
With this husband, Lewis was blissfully happy and the couple raised three children, two from Lang's prior marriage, which Lewis adopted (and two of whom went on to work in the business themselves in direction/ production and music.) Her focus shifted to motherhood and her position as the wife of one of Hollywood's important executives and eventually one of its prominent producers. She emerged as the hostess to countless industry shindigs and, thus, knew practically everyone! Some of Lang's output includes The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me (both 1971), High Plains Drifter (1973), Charlie Varrick (1973) and House Calls (1978), revealing his close association with Clint Eastwood and Walter Matthau.

But it is his contribution to the disaster genre which makes him a hero in Poseidon's Underworld. He was the producer behind Airport 1975 (1974), Earthquake (1974), Airport '77 (1977), Rollercoaster (1977) and The Concorde...Airport '79 (1979), putting him on par with Irwin Allen when it comes to those making the catastrophic scene! And Monica Lewis wound up with roles, medium and small, in many of these.

Chief among her credits in this phase is the role of Lorne Greene's loyal and devoted secretary Barbara in Earthquake, in which she not only has to contend with and console Greene's emotional daughter Ava Gardner (a close friend in real life) but also is rudely shoved out of an elevator by a panicking client during the big event (though he paid for his selfishness.)

She also is the recipient of one of the genre's most unforgettable lines when Greene, in need of something to strap people in to a makeshift chair-lift barks, "Barbara, take off your pantyhose dammit!" We love Barbara, from her blonde hairpiece to her sensible wash & wear polyester dress to her little head injury that leaves a decorative blood streak just below the hairline.
In Airport '77, Lewis played one of James Stewart's longtime friends and employees, a flight attendant trainer who serves as the head stewardess on a flight that is bringing a gaggle of his associates to the grand opening of a museum of his. The plane never gets there because it is hijacked for its art treasures on board and winds up, intact, beneath the surface of the ocean!

In this film she gets to operate the now-hooty laserdisc equipment that was then state-of-the-art and provides a comforting presence to the many injured and frightened people on board the disabled aircraft. In the expanded TV edition of the movie, her role is far bigger as she is shown preparing all the other girls for the flight in question.

For Rollercoaster, she has only a walk-on role as a festively-attired amusement park customer, but she was back again for The Concorde, as a former jazz great on her way to a festival. Once more (in what is really quite a lunatic movie in all regards), the plane runs into tragedy when a desperate industrialist decides to shoot it out of the sky with rockets because his girlfriend (who knows too much about his shady dealings) is on board! Lewis' primary work in this was opposite Jimmie Walker. Oddly, just two years after she'd played one character in the series, she was back as a wholly different one while George Kennedy was still playing the same one, venerable George Patroni!

Lewis continued to make sporadic appearances in the films produced by her husband from The Sting II (1983) to Stick (1985) along with occasional TV gigs (such as on Falcon Crest, seen at left). She also reignited her cabaret career, enjoying several stints and even recording some new material on a few albums, one of which (shown directly below) was a tribute to her forty-year marriage, a union that only ended when Mr. Lang passed away in 1996 at age eighty-one. (He had suffered a stroke in 1983, precipitating his retirement.)
So what is happening with Monica Lewis nowadays? It's my pleasure to report that she is ninety-two years old and is very active online, with sharp senses and a gleeful attitude, full of joy and humor. She has a Facebook page that is PACKED with photos and anecdotes from her long life in Hollywood (none of which I nabbed for use here. The pictures in this post were culled from other sources including myself.) I encourage even a casual fan to check it out because it features all sorts of information and amusement including a recent lunch meeting with Don Mancini, creator of the demonic "Chucky" of the Child's Play movies (1988 and beyond!) See if you think she resembles Lana Turner in some of those ultra-glamorous older portraits.

She has also penned a photo-packed book that documents her long career in music, TV, cabaret and film that is available for sale here. I cannot describe to you how friendly and accessible she was to me (and patient because, as you know, I can go on and on...) She had some complimentary things to say that I am adding to the "Food From the God" column above right, in which a couple of folks in the know have been kind enough to relay to me their impressions of this site.

If you visit Facebook to check her out, you'll soon see that she's just a doll!
Stop by and give her some attention. I promise you will be delighted at the many photos, either sultry or with her more familiar and infectious ear-to-ear grin!


Philip Mershon said...

Her incredible autobiography, truly one of my all time favorite celeb biographies, sits proudly on my coffee table. But her warm friendship resides in my heart!

Monica is one of the kindest, easygoing, approachable people I've ever met. And considering that she sat at the very pinnacle of the Beverly Hills social whirl for years, there is not one shred of 'seen-it-all-superiority' in her.

Her sharp memories of the past and, more importantly, her supreme interest in life of the present, make her an inspiration for me.

I could go on and on about my friend, but better to check out her facebook page and grab a copy of her book and dazzle yourselves!

Narciso said...

I just wanted to strike while the iron is hot; you were prescient last year when your posts and comments about Eleanor Parker, Tom Laughlin and Joan Fontaine were almost immediately followed by their departures. Last week, in your "Farewell to Arms" piece, you shared your observations about Elaine Stritch, and...

Poseidon3 said...

Felix, I recall your association with Ms. Lewis. Thanks for the added information and validation about her lovely character, wit and attitude!

Narciso, Sweet Holy Jesus! Can there be any doubt that I'm some sort of TCM-era grim reaper?!? I feel awful about that and hope that the trend ceases immediately. Yikes!

Gregorama said...

Ms. Lewis is proof positive that an active life and mind keep a person right in the swing of life. She's an inspiration and is just about the textbook example of how to age with grace. Everything I've read about her leaves me thinking, "Geez, I wish I knew this lady!" I hadn't known of her autobiography (just ordered on Amazon) or her Facebook presence (just 'liked'). Keep doing what you're doing, Mrs. Lang!

Unknown said...

Oh this is terrific! I've never even heard of this person (sorry), but I immediately went to Amazon to listen to her singing voice. It is beautiful and previously unknown to me. I am going to plunk down the money to download her tunes today. Please tell me she gets some of that money?!

I've found some other "lost" singers of the 40s and 50s, so I'm always happy to find new ones.

I also want to say that her looks are very chameleonic from photo to photo. Yes, sometimes she looks like Lana Turner, but she looks so different in all the eras (my favorite photo is the candid of her with her man and her camera).