There is nary a boring life among The Hollywood Hat signers. But five stars most have forgotten lived especially memorable lives:
The Almost Star: John Lodge
John Lodge, born in 1903 to an uber-patrician and uber-political family (his older brother, by a year, was Henry Cabot Lodge, a U.S. Senator, Ambassador and Nixon’s 1960 vice-presidential running mate and his grandfather had been a famous U.S. Senator as well) is emblematic of those for whom Hollywood was just a brief stopover. Educated at Harvard University and Harvard Law School, Lodge married Italian-born actress/dancer Francesca Braggioti in 1929. While he toiled at a NYC law firm, Francesca took a 6-month job being the Italian voice of Greta Garbo in movies such as Grand Hotel and Mata Hari being prepared for release in Italy. The dubbing job required her to relocate to Los Angeles, and John joined her during his summer vacation in 1932. Being “tall, dark and handsome” and having a background in amateur college theatrics, John came to the notice of Paramount talent scouts, who initially offered a standard $75 week contract. He declined. When they upped the offer to $275 a week (way more than what he earned in law), he agreed. From all reports, his family was not amused.
Mae West, a huge Paramount star at the time, wanted him as her co-star in She Done Him Wrong. But Lodge, presumably aware of how a pairing with the lascivious West might really piss off his family, demurred, asking to be cast in supporting roles first. Paramount’s mind, as you can imagine, boggled. Although he appeared in 22 films over the next 9 years — most notably The Scarlett Empress opposite Marlene Dietrich, and in The Little Colonel as Shirley Temple’s father — Lodge had missed his one shot at the brass ring on the Hollywood merry-go-round. (By the way, Cary Grant played the role in She Done Him Wrong and became an overnight sensation.) Lodge moved back to NYC and appeared in the hit Lillian Hellman play, Watch on the Rhine. Then World War II happened.
John served with distinction, achieving the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Navy, and when the War was over, he and Francesca settled in Westport, Connecticut whereupon he ran as a Republican for U.S. Congress. He won in 1946, joining a freshman class that included John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and was re-elected in 1948. Two years later, he successfully ran for Governor of Connecticut. During his term, one of the hot button issues was the construction of the Connecticut turnpike, which cut through some rockbed Republican towns. Local legend has it that the turnpike turmoil cost him some Republican support when he ran — unsuccessfully — for reelection in 1954. If true, I’m sure it was no small irony that the turnpike was renamed The Governor John Davis Lodge Turnpike in 1963.
Lodge spent much of the next three decades as a U.S. Ambassador, appointed by a series of Republican Presidents — to Spain from 1955-61, to Argentina from 1969-74 and to Switzerland in 1983-5. Nice postings. His brother Henry got the booby prize posting of the 20th Century — South Vietnam from 1963-4 and 1965-7 during the U.S. military build-up there. John Lodge died in late 1985 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Oscar Anomaly: Hal Mohr
Hal Mohr (1894-1974), one of the few cinematographers to have a Star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame, has a unique distinction. He’s the only person to ever win a competitive Oscar as a write-in candidate. Mohr won for his work on 1935′s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and immediately thereafter, the Academy forever banished the write-in option. Hal got an Academy Award the “regular” way 8 years later for his color cinematography on The Phantom of the Opera.
Fascinated by cameras at an early age, Mohr built his own movie camera and started filming short subjects while still a teenager in San Francisco. The Motion Picture Patents Company, a monopolistic trust started by Thomas Edison, actually confiscated his camera, citing violation of their patents. Mohr served in WWI and stayed in Paris for another year studying the technical aspects of European film-making. When he moved to Hollywood, he very quickly became a recognized cinematographer, racking up well over 100 credits including such classics as The Jazz Singer, The Front Page, State Fair (the first one with Will Rogers), Captain Blood, Green Pastures, Destry Rides Again, A Watch on the Rhine, Rancho Notorious, A Member of the Wedding and The Wild One.
He was married for 40 years to Evelyn Venable, a 1930′s ingenue, who was the original model for the “lady-with-a-torch,” the logo that opened all of the Columbia Pictures films and the voice of the Blue Fairy in Disney’s Pinocchio.
Cinderella: Mary Duncan
Mary Duncan made her Broadway debut at age 15 in 1910, but it was another 16 years before she scored in a theatrical hit, The Shanghai Gesture. Hollywood came calling and she starred in a number of silent movies. After talkies came in, she played substantial supporting roles. One of these was in 1931′s Five And Ten, in which Duncan is Marion Davies’ rival for the heart and hand of Leslie Howard. Davies’ real-life paramour, William Randolph Hearst, was the producer, so I think you can guess who won.
During the filming of Five and Ten, Davies and Duncan became BFFs, and at a polo match in 1931, Davies introduced Duncan to Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, a very wealthy international polo player (he’d been Time’s first “sportsman” cover boy on March 31, 1923) and director of the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company. Duncan was 36 at the time, and her biological clock as an actress was ticking. By the age of 40, most actresses’ gilded carriages of a career turn into pumpkins, or in other words — mother roles. It was probably a good time to plan an exit from her career.
And it was a great time to fall in love. Mary and Laddie courted for two years. Duncan performed her last role, in the 1933 Katharine Hepburn Oscar winner, Morning Glory, then married Sanford. Their permanent base was a fabled forty room mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, called Los Incas, modeled after a palazzo on Venice’s grand canal. But they had three other homes in New York social centers — Saratoga, Westbury and New York City. And there was a vast ranch near Orlando (which was later sold to Disney when property was being assembled for Walt Disney World; she savvily took the sale price in stock, not cash).
Duncan introduced the novel concept of physical exercise to other Palm Beach matrons — she swam daily and liked to golf and play tennis. Mary was also a legendary hostess, entertaining the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and her bud, Rose Kennedy. She was devoted to Laddie, and when he was physically devastated by a stroke, she nursed him for 20 years until he died in 1977.
Mary was a champion fund raiser and event planner for charities. She was in charge of the annual American Cancer Society Ball in Palm Beach and the April in Paris Ball in New York — both high points of the social season — for decades, raising millions of dollars. Cinderella didn’t just get to go to the ball. She ran it.
By the time Mary Duncan died in her sleep in 1993, she was almost 98 years old and had been the undisputed and beloved grande dame of Palm Beach society for as long as anyone could remember.
Russ Columbo: The Most Famous Singer You’ve Never Heard Of
If they made the story of Russ Columbo’s life as a movie (and many, including Tom Cruise and Tony Curtis have been considered for it), you’d never believe it.
He was born in 1908 as Ruggerio Eugenio di Rodolpho Colombo in Camden, New Jersey, the 12th or 13th child of musically-minded Italian immigrants. He was given violin lessons as a kid, declared a prodigy and began to perform professionally at 13, just after the family’s move to San Francisco. By his late teens, he’d moved to Los Angeles, where he had gigs playing music on the sets of silent movies to get actors into the right mood. There, his handsome “Mediterranean” features caught the eye of screen vamp Pola Negri, who was struck by his resemblance to Valentino. (Negri practically had a second career claiming to be Valentino’s last lover.) Negri and Columbo (the new spelling of his last name) became romantically involved and she assisted him in landing small screen parts.
In 1929, Gus Arnheim, whose nationally known orchestra was the “house band” at the famed Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles, hired Russ as a violinist and as a standby for featured vocalist Bing Crosby, whose drinking sometimes rendered him unfit for microphone duty. In no time at all, Crosby left for bigger things and Columbo was in, singing on Arnheim’s recordings and filmed shorts.
Columbo specialized in delivering love songs in a dead serious heartfelt manner — dreamy ballads that spoke of unrequited love or love gone wrong. Today, some call them “victim songs.” And he practiced what he sang. Russ was always falling in love. The press dubbed him a “crooner,” and likened him to Bing Crosby. But his ardent delivery was not at all akin to Crosby’s diffidence. No matter to the press: all crooners were alike.
He struck out on his own early in 1931 and struggled until he came under the management of songwriter Con Conrad (who would go on to win the first Best Song Oscar ever given for co-writing “The Continental” for Astaire and Rogers’ The Gay Divorcee). A fast talker, Conrad moved Columbo to NYC and arranged contracts for, almost simultaneously, an NBC radio show, an open-ended engagement at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater and an RCA recording contract. More importantly, Conrad created, for the benefit of dozens of newspaper columnists, a fictitious rivalry between Crosby and Columbo and called it the Battle of the Baritones.
The fake rivalry filled the newspapers on a daily basis, and Columbo’s star rose very fast — with big record and sheet music sales following. The sheet music sales are important because Columbo was also a gifted co-writer of love songs — including “You Call it Madness (I Call It Love),” which was Russ’ theme song, and the standard “Prisoner of Love” (later recorded by everybody from Frank Sinatra (who owes a great deal of his early style to Columbo) to Perry Como to Etta James to James Brown). He was called the “Romeo of the Radio,” and seemingly overnight, he’d become a household name.
Conrad’s management was less than ideal for Columbo, and when they parted ways, Russ went into a year-long slump, which saw him first tour with his own band (including sidemen Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa) and then return to Los Angeles. But, he bounced back with a new radio program, a new girlfriend — actress Carole Lombard — and acting contracts from both Universal and 20th Century (Universal planned to star Columbo as Gaylord Ravenal in their production of Showboat). Everything was going his way, and there was every indication he was going to be a gigantic star in multiple media.
On September 2, 1934, Columbo had a photo sitting at the Beverly Hills house of his good friend, photographer Lansing Brown. Afterwards, as they sat around talking, Lansing struck a match for his cigarette against the metal part of a Civil War pistol. The flame set off an unknown powder charge in the gun and it fired a lead ball; it first struck a table, then ricocheted and pierced Columbo’s left eye before lodging in his brain. Rushed to the hospital, he astonishingly clung to life for 6 hours before dying. Russ Columbo was only 26 years old.
His funeral was attended by thousands and Lombard arranged for his casket to be covered with a blanket of gardenias. One of the pallbearers was Bing Crosby. And the story should end there, but it doesn’t. Here’s the kicker: Columbo was very close to his mother. Two days before Russ’ death, his mother suffered a stroke, and her doctor feared that news of her beloved son’s passing would kill her at once. So, the Columbo family concocted a story that Russ had left suddenly for a long-term booking in England and arranged to have letters from Russ, addressed to his mother, appear with regularity. They got Carole Lombard to write to Mrs. Columbo, too, telling her that she and Russ were married and very happy. The family kept newspapers out of the house, and censored what radio programs could be played. Russ’s London gig turned into an extensive European tour.
This went on for 10 years, until Mrs. Columbo finally died. Reportedly her last words were “Tell Russ I am so proud…and happy.”
Noble is as Noble Does: Noble Johnson
Noble Johnson, an African-American, was born in Missouri in 1881, but moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado at a very early age, where he became good friends with classmate Lon Chaney. They became pals all over again once Noble entered the film business in Los Angeles.
How and why Johnson entered the film business is the fascinating part of his story. In 1915, Noble was acting in the Omaha, Nebraska area. He, and his brother George, a Postal worker, started a business called the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the aim of which was to film stories that portrayed African-Americans as real and “normal” and not as the racist depictions which were then the norm. This was the first African-American owned film production company, and the first movie company to portray African-Americans in a positive light.
Earlier in 1915, D.W. Griffith’s epic The Birth of a Nation premiered and quickly became the most successful movie released up to that time. It was also the center of enormous controversy sparking riots in major U.S. cities because this Civil War and Reconstruction-themed blockbuster unfairly presented African-Americans as stupid and cowardly (among other unattractive attributes) and the Ku Klux Klan as a band of heroes.
Undoubtedly, the formation of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was the Johnson brothers’ reaction to The Birth of a Nation. They moved to Los Angeles later that year and set up shop. To help pay for production of what were to become known as “race films,” Noble started acting in movies, and by the following year, Lincoln released their first film, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition, the story of an African-American young man — a civil engineer — who gets his chance to work in his chosen profession after rescuing the white daughter of an oil field owner.
That same year, in no small irony, Noble had a part in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Griffith’s cinematic ode to tolerance partly made to atone for the sins of The Birth of a Nation.
Throughout the Teens, Johnson performed in more than 30 movies and plowed much of his earnings into the cost of further production at Lincoln. Two more Lincoln films came out in 1917 — The Law of Nature and Trooper of Company K, about the near-massacre of an all African-American cavalry unit during the unofficial U.S. invasion of Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa. Both were box office successes with African-American audiences. One more picture was released in 1919 — A Man’s Duty, before Noble reluctantly withdrew from Lincoln. He simply couldn’t run a film company and pay attention to his very busy acting career.
And Johnson’s acting career was pretty much non-stop. Because of the peculiarities of the film stock used in silent pictures, African-Americans didn’t necessarily come out on developed film as African-American. Noble was also able to play Hispanics and Arabs and Asians and American Indians. He was a casting director’s dream. Throughout the silents era of the 1920′s, he had featured roles in such classics as Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Thief of Bagdad, The 10 Commandments, King of Kings and Robinson Crusoe (Noble portrayed Friday).
Johnson made the transition to talkies without a blip, a breath or a pause. He played Queeg-Queeg to John Barrymore’s Capt. Ahab in Moby Dick, the Nubian in The Mummy and perhaps the role for which he’s most famous — the Tribal Chief in King Kong and the sequel Son of Kong.
In 1950, Noble Johnson retired to Yucaipa, at the foot of the San Bernardino National Forest, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. In 35 years, he had appeared in approximately 150 films. He died in 1978 at the age of 96.