Happy Birthday, Barbara Hale!

Today, the lovely Barbara Hale celebrates her 90th birthday and this post is my way of wishing her well. So please feel invited to walk down memory lane with me through her career on screen and her public life which started in the funny papers when she was modeling for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill and ended when she retired from acting in 1994 to fully commit herself to her beloved family.

Born on April 18th, 1922*, in DeKalb, Barbara Hale grew up as the second of two daughters of Ezra and Willa Hale in Rockford, Illinois. Interested in art early on, Barbara was encouraged by her mother to pursue her goal of becoming a commercial artist. Working after school to show her dedication to her craft, her father gave his consent for her to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts after her high school graduation. Living at the YWCA where she shared a room with a friend, Barbara was soon asked to model for fellow students and finally landed a job posing for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill. She was a fashion model when a talent scout spotted her and offered her a chance for a trial contract with RKO in Hollywood. Young, ambitious and thrilled about acting, Barbara hopped on the train out West and landed her first job as the replacement of a sick extra in Gildersleeve’s Bad Day on her day of arrival in 1943.

Getting her education on the studio lot, Barbara immersed herself in her new profession, eagerly embracing singing, horseback riding, voice and dance lessons while continuing to work as a model for a variety of products. Prone to being sociable and charming, it didn’t take her long to meet fellow contract player Bill Williams with whom she fell in love on studio grounds. Working together on West of the Pecos in 1944, her first big part after debuting on Higher and Higher alongside Frank Sinatra, she soon knew she wanted to marry her “Ramblin’ Bill”. Although committed to founding a family while missing her own, Barbara kept working hard for her career and landed strong parts in First Yank into Tokyo and Lady Luck.

In 1946, Barbara and Bill got married and started working on A Likely Story. In 1947, a little more than a year after taking their vows, their first child was born, daughter Jody. Two more children followed in 1951 and 1953, son Billy and another daughter, Juanita. While being a dedicated mother and wife, Barbara kept working on movies such as The Boy with Green Hair, The Clay Pigeon and The Window until she left RKO when her contract ended with the studio. She started working for Columbia and secured herself a part in Jolson Sings Again, then also worked for other studios before tackling television. The Jackpot with Jimmy Stewart, Lorna Doone, A Lion is in the Streets with James Cagney and The Houston Story were some of her memorable films, as well as a number of Westerns such as The Oklahoman with Joel McCrea.

In 1956, Barbara was approached by Gail Patrick Jackson who urged her to join the cast of a new show called Perry Mason. Skeptical at first due to the young age of her three children, Barbara finally accepted the promising offer and became TV’s most famous secretary when the show went on the air in 1957. Rewarded with a congenial atmosphere on set, lasting friendships, two Emmy nominations and one win, Barbara soon had a reputation of being everyone’s favorite cast member. Adored by fans and press alike, coverage on the Perry Mason family and “Della Street” in her private life returned to an old-time high. Although strenuous at times, being on set six days a week (even when she didn’t have any lines) and leading a rich family life, Barbara embraced her part with full abandon and was grateful for the steady work.

In 1966, after nine years of television fame, Perry Mason was discontinued and Barbara took a well-deserved break from acting to unwind and enjoy more time with her family – her husband and their three children, then nineteen, fifteen and thirteen. In 1967, Barbara made her big screen comeback in a Western called Buckskin, continuing the family tradition of working with her husband on the same film. More common projects followed, including guest stints on Insight and Adam-12, as well as movies such as The Giant Spider Invasion and The Flight of the Grey Wolf.

After numerous guest stints on popular shows like Ironside, The Doris Day Show and Marcus Welby M.D. and supporting parts on movies such as Airport in 1970, Barbara also returned to making a living with commercials when she became the Amana spokesperson for Radar Range microwave ovens in the 70s. She also starred in two of her son Billy Katt’s projects, Big Wednesday and The Greatest American Hero before he joined her on the reprise of her career’s biggest success. In 1985, Barbara was asked to reunite with her longtime co-star and friend Raymond Burr for Perry Mason Returns, a TV movie that launched another ten years of steady work. After the death of her husband of forty-six years in 1992 and the passing of Raymond Burr only one year later, Barbara Hale continued her performance as Della Street in another four Perry Mason Mysteries before she retired from acting in 1994 for personal reasons. She has led a private life with her family in the Los Angeles area  since but given occasional interviews. Some of her latest interviews are available on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD which was released in 2008.

After this sketchy introduction to a very rich life and a darling lady what else is left to say but this: Bless your heart, dear Barbara Hale, for being such an inspiration, and best of wishes on your special day.

* Author’s note: There’s some confusion about Barbara Hale’s actual birthday. While most sources list April 18, 1922 as her day of birth, others say she was already born in 1921. I decided to stick with the most commonly used date. Should that be wrong, I’ll gladly make the necessary changes here on Talking Classics.

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Personal Note On Spring Cleaning

It’s that time of year again: spring has finally arrived and I feel like cleaning out my cupboards, closet and shelves. I look at new (vintage) dresses and dust off my heels, I start looking for flowers and I’m back to cooking leaner meals.

When I grew up, I have to admit, I never grasped the meaning of spring cleaning. I knew my grandma did it with abandon and what was important to her has always mattered to me, but somehow the rejuvenating effect escaped me until a few years ago. I don’t know what started it, maybe I’ve just been getting older (and a little wiser I would hope), but now, spring cleaning starts my new year like I was always taught it would.

So along with scrubbing my floors and clearing out my basement, I also go through my boxes and files, my pictures and books, my movies and shows. And each year seems to awaken something new: a project, a friendship or a journey.

The funny thing about my spring cleaning is that it’s a process – though joyful and humbling at times, it also comes with a melancholy side. Last year at this time, I was mending my heart that had started to break the year before. This year, I feel like striking roots while looking for a change, a feeling that ties in with something I once read when I was still a kid, that most women have two hearts beating in their chest, that they have ambiguous feelings about marriage, career and motherhood.

I remember soaking up those words without understanding them, after all, I’d been taught that we could have it all. But when I was little, my mother was a housewife and my grandma retired, and I greatly cherished their presence. My mother returned to work as I got older, working part time without leaving the house before I’d been off to school. When I came home, she was always there with steaming food on the table and open ears to hear about my day. Now, I often remember how safe a feeling that was, how cushioned I felt, and I’m beginning to crave to create the same kind of haven for a family of my own. At the same time, however, I love to work and cherish having a career. Or to say it in my words: do I want to be a Barbie Hale or Della Street?

So far, I haven’t minded walking on the Della Street side of life (without having found a darling boss like Perry Mason or excelling at secretarial duties as naturally as his perfect girl Friday – fiction aside). But what if I’m craving to have more in life than that? How do I adopt that Babs Hale attitude I am so fond of, that “I chased him till he caught me” poise to use it on the Bill Williams of my heart who seems to be as shy as Our Miss Brooks‘ Mr Boynton? How do I get to be a Lucille Ball with a spoon of Lucy Ricardo, or a Donna Reed with a dash of Donna Stone? How do I learn to walk that tightrope Ms Hale and Hearty once described, that fine line between devoting yourself to having a family and being your own woman who leads a creative life?

You see, I’ve always taken great comfort and found inspiration in reading about female lives in times so different from ours today and yet so alike. My love for vintage was born this way, instilled by my grandma and our close-knit relationship.

My grandmother was born in 1916, a working mom of two girls who lost her son early on. She was married, of course, and yet juggled the household, her kids and the job she had been trained to do all on her own. By law, she wasn’t the head of her family, but she sure had to act as one. And when her health was troubling her, she didn’t have time to complain or rest, nor did she want to burden her family. What she really loved was cooking for us and our extended family, a whole apartment full of people at times. She never tired of running around to get more dishes, to serve more booze or cigarettes (yes, those were the days).

As a kid, I remember marveling at her in her apron dress, getting up early to follow a tight schedule every day. She always put her loved ones first and herself last without ever subordinating her personality. Like me, she loved Perry Mason and together we watched the TV movies with great pleasure (and a conjoint crush on Ray Burr), one of my favorite memories because Della Street has always reminded me so much of my grandma’s humble, demure attitude, her commitment and quiet joy.

I was truly blessed to have someone in my life who was always there for me, who understood me so deeply, who spoiled and loved me no matter what. I’ve been missing that a lot since she’s passed away –  the values and the trust she raised me with, her concept of family, love and community. I suppose that’s the question for me to answer this year, how to (re)create something that has been lost?

Now that’s my personal note on spring cleaning – apart from cupboards, sewing and dishes.

Insight

TV classics: Insight

USA 1960-84, 23 seasons,  250 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, Syndication, black & white and color. Presented by Ellwood Kieser. Guest performers: Beau Bridges, Jimmy Doohan, Patty Duke, Barbara Hale, Jack Klugman, Walter Matthau, Bob Newhart, John Ritter, Martin Sheen, Bill Williams et al.

Plot summary: An anthology series, Insight presented a different cast and topic each week, mainly focusing on the meaning and perception of everyday issues concerning love, life and death.

Insight sample episode “A Thousand Red Flowers”

Review: Insight was an award-winning show produced by Paulist Productions and created by the show’s early day presenter, Ellwood Kieser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Paulist Fathers. The weekly half-hour series was a religious program presented in an anthology format which introduced different settings, scenarios and characters each week. The show attracted a variety of actors, including Martin Sheen, Walter Matthau, Patty Duke and Beau Bridges and was rewarded with of a number Emmy nominations and awards in the 1970s and 80s.

In 1969, Barbara Hale appeared on the program along with working actor husband Bill Williams. The episode is an excellent example for the diversity of the show, presenting a tale about loss, hopelessness and death. Shot like a staged production, “A Thousand Red Flowers” (see link above) used theatrical elements as well as basic special effects while relying on the power of its excellent cast of actors and their gripping lines. The episode, like so many, picked up on what society was struggling with at the time. It presented two sides of the coin, that of a young man in his world and that of his grieving parents. The writing of the episode was top notch and the acting fabulous. I know I may be biased, but trust Barbara Hale to haunt you with her portrayal of a mother who’s overcome by her emotions at the unexpected loss of her son. A difficult topic most delicately done.

“A Thousand Red Flowers” is not the only outstanding episode Insight had to offer back in its days. Unfortunately, the program has not been released as complete collection so far and is currently unavailable on DVD, selected episodes are available online however. So go check them out if you’re the slightest bit interested in spirituality and religious programs that used television as more than just an entertainment medium. You never know, you may even come across an episode that leaves a mark on you like “A Thousand Red Flowers” has left on me.

Adam 12

TV classics: Adam 12

USA 1968-75, 7 seasons,  174 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, NBC, color. Created by: Jack Webb. Cast: Martin Milner, Kent McCord

Plot summary: Police officers Pete Malloy and Jim Reed are patrolling the streets of L.A. and are confronted with many different situations each day, often dramatic but also harmless ones.

Review: Adam 12 was a half hour procedural police drama, created by Dragnet originator Jack Webb. Although not a typical spin-off, the character Jim Reed was already introduced in Webb’s preceding hit show. As a rookie, he was teamed up with veteran policeman Pete Malloy who had previously lost his partner. Belonging to the 1 Adam 12 unit, the duo patrolled the streets of Los Angeles  and was confronted with a wide range of cases ranging from dramatic encounters to harmless incidents.

Like its “sister show”, Adam 12 offered a realistic approach to police work and the often harsh routine of police officers. The show depicted a lot of teenage problems and cases, always walking a fine line between punishment and support. The TV series also featured a lot of renowned guest stars in unlikely roles, including two of my favorites in the below displayed sample episode “Pick Up” from 1971, Barbara Hale and hubby Bill Williams.

Adam 12 was a suspenseful and entertaining show with a touch of desired realism that attracted a lot of young people to crime fighting professions in the 1970s. Today, it is not only a great example of one of the first TV police procedurals, but also a mirror of its time when drug abuse (as one example) was on the rise not only amongst youngsters. In the new millennium, it is still a fascinating and gripping show with a decent cast of characters and interesting cases, all of which fit into a mere half hour of good storytelling.

Available on DVD and Hulu. Adam 12 season 4 episode 13 “Pick Up” sample episode

West of the Pecos

Talkie of the Week: West of the Pecos

USA 1945, 66 minutes, black & white, RKO Radio Pictures. Director: Edward Killy, Written by: Norman Houston, Based on a story by Zane Grey. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Hale, Richard Martin, Thurston Hall, Rita Corday, Russell Hopton, Bill Williams

Plot summary: On their way to their ranch in the West, Colonel Lambeth, his daughter Rill and her French maid find themselves lost in the desert, requiring the help of two local cowboys, Pecos and Chito.

Review: Based on one of Zane Grey’s tales, West of the Pecos is a nice little B Western adaptation featuring Robert Mitchum and RKO starlet Barbara Hale. Designed as a genre film with a comedic, as well as romantic subplot, West of the Pecos is a fun little movie that leaves you chuckling and in a good mood.

Robert Mitchum plays Pecos Smith, a cowboy who has an entire bandwagon of adversaries to fight while he takes on the job to guide Colonel Lambeth and his daughter Rill to their final destination. Still shaky after  having been attacked by villains during their trip out West, Rill has decided to disguise herself as a boy for the rest of their journey. She manages to keep her secret from their guardians until Pecos finally discovers that the odd, goofy teenage boy who’s come to impress him is actually a young lady who’s engaged to be married.

Although the plot may sound silly and predictable, the film is highly entertaining. Barbara Hale does a beautiful job disguising her pretty self in boyish jeans and a cowboy hat. It is hilarious to watch her Rill slowly falling in love with a handsome Pecos, against her better judgment one might add (all the while, in real life, Ms Hale was falling for her future husband and brief co-star Bill Williams). She has a great match in Robert Mitchum and the rest of the cast who support her subtle and intuitive talents for this innocent kind of comedy.

All in all, West of the Pecos is not meant to be all too suspenseful, nor gritty. It’s a good hour of pure fun and games with a darling cast of characters and actors who know how to make the best of their story. My pick for a night of good laughs when all I’m looking for is some relaxation.

Available on DVD and on Hulu.

The Approaching New Year

With the new year fast approaching, I’ve decided to have a look at 2012 because I may love vintage but I rather look ahead than back. So what’s cooking?!

On January 17th, America’s sweetheart Betty White is going to complete another decade. She’ll be turning  ninety. I know she just recently said that’s not an accomplishment but that it just happened, bless her for  counting her blessings like that. But still. Ninety is quite a milestone. And with her popularity, filmography  and attitude she definitely outshines an entire studio full of performers less than half her age.

 

On April 18th then, my personal Tinseltown darling, RKO’s 1940s starlet and Perry Mason‘s renowned girl Friday, Barbara Hale, will join Ms. White, my N Hollywood grandma and their club of Fabulous at Ninety. Although long retired, well-deserved and (apparently) happily so, Ms. Hale is still fondly remembered by Della Street fans and classic cinéastes from around the globe. More and more of her work has been published on DVD or online in recent years and I sincerely hope that 2012 will reveal more of her bubbly warmth for us all to enjoy.

Then several films and TV shows will celebrate their anniversaries. Here are some examples:

  • Ironside (1967-75, NBC)
  • The Lucy Show (1962-68, CBS)
  • My Little Margie (1952-55, CBS & NBC)
  • Perry Mason TV show (1957-66, CBS)
  • A Likely Story (1947, RKO, directed by H.C. Potter, starring Barbara Hale and Bill Williams)
  • The First Time (1952, Columbia, directed by Frank Tashlin, starring Robert Cummings and Barbara Hale)
  • Ivanhoe (1952, MGM, directed by Richard Thorpe, starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor)
  • The Miracle Worker (1962, United Artists, directed by Arthur Penn, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke)
  • Pat & Mike (1952, MGM, directed by George Cukor, starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey)
  • Singin’ in the Rain (1952, MGM, directed by Stanley Donen, starring Gene Kelley and Debbie Reynolds)
  • That Touch of Mink (1962, Universal, directed by Delbert Mann, starring Cary Grant and Doris Day)
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, Warner Bros., directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis & Joan Crawford)

Of course there are many many more, e.g. Bambi (1942), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Mrs. Miniver (1942) or To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Also other TV shows like The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78) or The Flying Nun (1967-70).

The legendary Barbara Stanwyck had her screen debut as a fan dancer in Broadway Nights eighty-five years ago. She would’ve turned one-hundred and five on July 16th, Raymond Burr ninety-five on May 21st.

I could continue this list ad infinitum. But I rather wish you a smooth start into the new year and hope you’re looking forward to all the vintage treats that will be revisited and adored on this blog in the up-coming leap year.

Bless y’all!

Vintage Christmas

So this is it, only one day left till Christmas Eve.  Let’s doll up and spend the holidays with some of those joyful classics. Have yourself a charming vintage Christmas. And bless y’all!

Christmas songs:

Christmas TV episodes:

Christmas radio: