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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The Oklahoman

Talkie of the Week: The Oklahoman

USA 1957, 80 minutes, color, Warner Bros.. Director: Francis D. Lyon, Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Cast: Joel McCrea, Barbara Hale, Brad Dexter, Gloria Talbott, Michael Pate, Verna Felton, Douglas Dick, Anthony Caruso, Esther Dale, Adam Williams, Ray Teal, Peter J. Votrian, John Pickard, Mimi Gibson

Plot summary: Dr. John Brighton is on his way to California with his wife and friends when a stroke of fate urges him to stay were it him hardest, in a small town in the Oklahoma Territory that needs a doctor as much as he needs a new home.

Review: The Oklahoman is a Western. The picture above may already have told you as much. Or the summary which basically only sums up where it all starts. If you don’t like the genre, you will probably not be eager to watch this film – which would be a pity, a real one – because The Oklahoman is a classic gem.

Starring Joel McCrea as Doc Brighton, the film is beautifully shot, cast and edited. It’s not artsy, nor dark. It’s entertainment. It’s drama. It’s romance, unpretentiously provided by the leading actor himself and the woman who would enter the supporting actresses’ hall of fame on TV, Barbara Hale. Westerns are as much her homeland as his, and they make their audience feel it. Not only do they create a chemistry that sizzles, they also make you want to grab your boots and saddle a horse to ride along with them. They build up that longing for nature and for something that is hard to describe. It is a feeling of nostalgia for something that’s long gone. A different life. A different time. Be it the 1870s of the plot or the 1950s of the production, take your pick. Watching The Oklahoman today, these two stars make you long for both.

Of course there is more to the film than “only” the congeniality of two performers, their believability and charm. There is also Doc’s friend Charlie Smith (Michael Pate) who gets in trouble when he defends his land against a crooked trio of brothers. And his young daughter Maria who combines innocence and trouble for Doc Brighton, convincingly portrayed by Gloria Talbott. And then there are Ann Barnes’ (Barbara Hale) mother and Doc’s own landlady, both hilariously brought to life by Verna Felton and Esther Dale. To cut it short, the entire ensemble is a joy to watch and the story gripping from beginning to end. It would be a shame to give too much of the plot away, to spoil the surprises and explain how the characters interact. So go get yourself a copy and watch The Oklahoman. (Re)Discover it and embrace what you see: a good movie with a decent cast and two shining leads, Joel McCrea and Barbara Hale.

Available on DVD.