Sunday, May 3, 2009

Happy Birthday Mary Astor (1906-1987)

Beauty contest winner Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke (renamed by producer Jesse Lasky to Mary Astor in 1920) came to the attention of Hollywood at the age of 14 and played a bit part in The Scarecrow (1920) at age 15. Strictly speaking, Mary Astor was never a star in the accepted sense of her time, but a featured player. This was of her own choosing. Offered starring contracts at various times, she preferred not to shoulder the responsibility of having her name appear above the title of a film. This decision was due largely to a lack of confidence generated by a childhood dominated by demanding parents who looked upon her as a meal ticket. The public with whom she was very popular nevertheless regarded her as a star. Her career lasted an incredible 44 years, during which time she ran the gamut from limpid ingénue to forceful character player.

Beau Brummel (1924) with John Barrymore

Don Q Son of Zorro (1925)

Don Juan (1926)

with John Barrymore in Don Juan (1926)

Don Juan (1926)

Don Juan (1926)

Don Juan (1926)

Inevitably, with the advent of talkies, Fox gave Mary a sound test. The test failed miserably when it was found that the ethereal madonna-like beauty had a deep voice. This vocal "defect" was mainly due to the primitive sound equipment, and to sound technicians who were still learning their trade. Nevertheless, Fox released her from her contract. It was friend Florence Eldridge, wife of Fredric March who came to Mary's rescue professionally. Florence was to star with Edward Everett Horton in a stage play Among the Married at the Majestic Theater in Los Angeles. She secured Mary the second lead. The play was a success, and Mary's voice, undistorted by primitive sound equipment, was described by critics as low and vibrant, instead of low and masculine. Within a week she had five offers to make sound films after the close of the play. She signed a contract with RKO-Pathe.

Ladies Love Brutes (1930) with George Bancroft

George Bancroft, Mary Astor and Rowland V. Lee in
Ladies Love Brutes (1930)

The Lost Squadron (1932)

The Lost Squadron (1932) with Richard Dix and Erich von Stroheim

The Lost Squadron (1932)

Red Dust (1932)

Red Dust (1932) with Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Mary Astor
on the set of Red Dust (1932)

Donald Crisp, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Mary Astor
on the set of Red Dust (1932)

with Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932)

Return of the Terror (1934)

Upperworld (1934) with Warren William

The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) with Warren William

Mary Astor in 1935

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

Paradise for Three (1938) with Robert Young

There's Always a Woman (1938)

Listen, Darling (1938)

Listen, Darling (1938)

Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Walter Pidgeon,
Scotty Beckett and Freddie Bartholomew in
Listen, Darling (1938)

Early in 1941, Bette Davis was to star in The Great Lie, the story of the rivalry of two women for the love of aviator George Brent. Many notable actresses tested for the part of Sandra, a self-centered concert pianist. Davis liked Mary's test and demanded she be signed for the part. Mary was one of the few major players who got along with and became a friend of the volatile Bette. In fact, Davis, in order to strengthen the story, threw the film in Mary's direction. So much so, that Mary won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her part in the film.

This led to the best role of her career, that of the duplicitous Brigid O'Shaughnessy in the classic The Maltese Falcon (1941) opposite Humphrey Bogart. In fast company with supporting players such as Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Lee Patrick, Mary got superb notices. She was cast again with Bogart in the exciting spy melodrama Across the Pacific.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart

The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart

The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart

The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart and Lee Patrick

The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart

The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart,
Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet

Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet in
The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Mary Astor in 1941

Mary Astor's films-noir included The Maltese Falcon (1941), Desert Fury (1947), Act of Violence (1948) and A Kiss Before Dying (1956).

Across the Pacific (1942)

Across the Pacific (1942) with Humphrey Bogart and Keye Luke

Across the Pacific (1942) with Humphrey Bogart and Philip Ahn

Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and
Frank Wilcox in Across the Pacific (1942)

Across the Pacific (1942) with Humphrey Bogart

Across the Pacific (1942) with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet

Across the Pacific (1942)

Blonde Fever (1944)

Marshall Thompson, Gloria Grahame, Mary Astor and
Philip Dorn in Blonde Fever (1944)

with Gloria Grahame and Philip Dorn in Blonde Fever (1944)

Desert Fury (1947)

with Lizabeth Scott and John Hodiak in Desert Fury (1947)

with Lizabeth Scott in Desert Fury (1947)

Act of Violence (1948)

Act of Violence (1948) with Van Heflin

Margaret O'Brien, Janet Leigh, June Allyson,
Mary Astor and Elizabeth Taylor in Little Women (1949)

Little Women (1949) costume test

with Clark Gable in Any Number Can Play (1949)

Always fond of writing, she penned her autobiography, My Story, in 1959. It proved to be a best seller and a sensation for its time. She discussed her battle with alcohol, her failed marriages, and life in general, but steadfastly refused to discuss her film career. She then tried fiction, eventually writing five novels. Titles included The Incredible Charley Carewe, A Place Called Saturday, and Image of Kate. The books enjoyed moderate success.

In 1964 she was offered a cameo role with Bette Davis in the gothic thriller Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, in which she would play an old lady, who when young had committed murder. She had paid blackmail ever since. Mary decided this role would serve as a fitting finale to her acting career, especially since it would be in a film with Bette Davis. She retired from acting but continued her writing. In 1971 she penned A Life on Film, in which she discussed her film career, which she had refused to do in My Story - twelve years before. This also became a best seller.

with Cecil Kellaway in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

In 1976 she left her home in Fountain Valley, California and lived out her remaining days confined to the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, where she died of a heart attack on September 25, 1987 at the age of 81.

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