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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Does class have a comeback?

I just stumbled upon an article about a comeback of classic hairdos: the Beehive, the Victory Roll, the Pin Curls, the Head Scarf look – and my immediate reaction was about time!

I mean, personally, I can do without the Beehive (and other exaggerated hairstyles from the 1960s for that matter), but generally spoken I couldn’t be happier. For me, there’s nothing better than those classy, curly dos – from the housewifely head scarf wrapped around a bobby pin covered head to the glamorous long curls of the 1940s.

Lasting well into the early 60s, curly hairstyles were supremely feminine. They embellished women’s faces of all ages, in all styles and at all lengths. Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe or Rosie the Riveter – all iconic names that trigger memories of a certain do and trend.

Here are a couple of my favorite dos from the 40s and 50s, modeled by Barbara Hale:

See how her Della Street curls even held up a book they were so swell?! Or how Jimmy Stewart couldn’t resist hugging his on-screen wife because the head scarf looks so darling?! Now don’t say these curls aren’t versatile.

Glamorous, cute or homey, it really doesn’t matter: with curls (or Victory Rolls), there’s a style for every occasion. And trust me, getting these looks is not as much work as you may think – at least not if you’re not a total stranger to hot curlers, curling irons or bobby pins. It may sound shallow, but people do appreciate the effort. All dolled up and pretty you advertise yourself differently, show a new sparkle. You may even end up feeling like your favorite star, in my case Ms. Hale, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck or Eve Arden.

So if you’re like me and are excited about the return of hairdo class, do embrace your inner silver screen goddess, homemaker sweetheart or Rosie the Riveter. There are lots of manuals out there, pictures and videos to help you get the look you adore the most. Years after pulling off long rich curls in high school (unknowingly resembling Barbara Hale’s in the fourth picture above) and then going for the exact opposite, I finally returned to my favorite style last year – shorter now but still elegantly fluffy. Della Street inspired one of my friends suggested – I really don’t know what gave her that idea, but I’m digging it.

The Jackpot

Talkie of the Week: The Jackpot

USA 1950, 85 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox. Director: Walter Lang, Written by: Henry and Phoebe Ephron, Based on the article “The Jackpot” by John McNulty in The New Yorker about a real radio program jackpot winner in Rhode Island in 1948. Cast: James Stewart, Barbara Hale, James Gleason, Fred Clark, Alan Mawbray, Patricia Medina, Natalie Wood, Tommy Rettig, Robert Gist, Lyle Talbot

Plot summary: Bill and Amy Lawrence live their quiet little, Midwestern middle-class life in a nice suburban house with two kids. Then Bill wins the grand prize on a popular radio show and his entire life is turned upside down.

Review: The Jackpot is a comedy set and shot in 1950. Radio was THE big thing. Game shows, commercials, whodunits – everything later projected on TV, you name it, it all happened on radio before. That’s what the film so beautifully picks up on from a contemporary point of view. It adds a sense of nostalgia to it, a longing for those quality radio programs I also grew up with, the memory of campfire moments with the family following bewitching voices on the radio.

On a more general note, this film is about the promise of an exciting life that comes with a jackpot win. Only that this jackpot is not monetary but comes in material values: household equipment, a pony, jewelry, an interior decorator, food supplies and much much more. Some of it useful, most of it not so much. A middle-class consumer’s dream, delivered all at once to stir up a lot of trouble in Bill Lawrence’s life.

The problems Bill and his wife are facing after being lucky winners still work today, the initial but short-lived euphoria, the private turmoil and the sit-com elements. James Stewart was brilliantly cast as Bill Lawrence who may have been a little at odds with his all too normal life before, but who actually enjoys nothing more than his routine and his loving family. Barbara Hale was an equally genius casting addition. Her Amy Lawrence is a joy to watch: from the committed, effervescent housewife and mother to a jealous, unnerved wife who’s considering divorce. Lovely sidekicks are their children played by Natalie Wood and Tommy Rettig, and an overall believable cast.

The end is not all that surprising but adds to the charm of this entertaining and highly enjoyable film. It is a definite gem for everybody who enjoys James Stewart’s work and Barbara Hale’s talents. It is a worthwhile piece of hilarity for everybody who’s not familiar with their work but who needs a good laugh, some family entertainment and a dash of late 1940s / early 1950s style.

Tidbits and side notes: According to a Chicago Tribune article / interview with Barbara Hale, “The Faithful Secretary” from 1993, Barbara was pregnant with her second child, son William Katt, during the shooting of The Jackpot.

Screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron were nominated for a WGA award for this film.

Available on VHS, likely to be released on DVD.