Ann Blyth, a 1940s Universal leading lady best remembered for her Oscar-nominated performance as Joan Crawford’s cute-but-sociopathic teenage daughter in Warner Bros.’ Mildred Pierce, is Turner Classic Movies’ "Summer Under the Stars" star on Friday, August 16, 2013. Note: Today, Ann Blyth, one of the earliest surviving Oscar nominees in the acting categories, turns 85 years old. (See: “Ann Blyth Movies: TCM Schedule.”) (Photo: Ann Blyth ca. 1955.)
First, the good news: Ann Blyth is a likable, talented actress and singer, and it’s great that TCM is dedicating a whole day to her movies. The bad news: As mentioned above, Ann Blyth was mostly (1944-1952) a Universal star; TCM is presenting only one of Blyth’s Universal movies, Brute Force (1947), which has been shown before. In other words, not a chance of finally having the opportunity to catch Ann Blyth in B comedies and musicals such as The Merry Monahans, Chip Off the Old Block, and Babes on Swing Street; or as the young, unmarried Regina Hubbard (Bette Davis’ Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes) in the prequel Another Part of the Forest; or as a mermaid cavorting with William Powell in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. Maybe on some future "Summer Under the Stars" day, after TCM decides to lease the titles found in Universal’s extensive film library (which also includes Paramount movies from 1929-1948).
Now, I haven’t watched either Brute Force or the MGM-released Killer McCoy, but apart from TCM’s perennial Mildred Pierce, those two 1947 movies seem like Ann Blyth Day’s best bets. Directed by Jules Dassin before he was forced into exile by right-wingers in the U.S. Congress, Brute Force is a prison escape movie featuring Burt Lancaster at the dawn of his film stardom. In Roy Rowland’s Killer McCoy, a lightweight boxer (Mickey Rooney, trying to shake off his gee-whiz Andy Hardy image) gets mixed up in murder.
Ann Blyth MGM musicals
Ann Blyth became briefly attached to MGM in the mid-’50s, starring in several prestige productions, most notably the musicals Rose Marie (1954), a remake of a Jeanette MacDonald / Nelson Eddy hit of the ’30s; The Student Prince (1954), a remake of the silent classic starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer; and Kismet (1955), an adaptation of a Broadway hit that itself was a musicalized version of an old play which, for its part, had been made into a handful of movies, including a lush 1944 color version starring Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich.
None of those three Ann Blyth musicals was very well received. I’ve seen two of them. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who had experienced more creative days back in the ’30s at Warners, Rose Marie is a lifeless bore, making the treacly MacDonald / Eddy version seem like a masterpiece. Directed by Richard Thorpe, who had had a big hit with Ivanhoe a mere two years earlier, The Student Prince features beautiful Sigmund Romberg songs (sung by Mario Lanza, the original choice for the role that eventually went to Edmund Purdom), but lacks the charm, the spontaneity, the wistfulness, and the sensitive acting found in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1927 version.
Admittedly, Kismet, which I’ve yet to see, has several things going for it. Among those are the presence of Howard Keel — unlike Edmund Purdom, a real singer; unlike Mario Lanza, gifted with a less powerful but more melodious voice — and the fact that it had the musically inclined Vincente Minnelli at the helm, working at MGM’s prestigious Arthur Freed unit. And, of course, Ann Blyth herself.
Another Ann Blyth MGM musical is The Great Caruso (1951), with Mario Lanza in the title role. The film was a gigantic hit; it’s also both beautiful to look at and a monumental bore. Every possible and impossible cliche was inserted into William Ludwig’s screenplay, while Richard Thorpe apparently had his mind elsewhere while directing the mechanical proceedings. Ann Blyth looks pretty in The Great Caruso, but is otherwise wasted.
More Ann Blyth today
Our Very Own is a Samuel Goldwyn production featuring Ann Blyth and Goldwyn’s find Farley Granger, who at the time was being "difficult" because his producer-boss was casting him in mediocre fare — such as Our Very Own. Ann Blyth then goes dramatic in The Helen Morgan Story (1957), a biopic about, who else, singer Helen Morgan — a talented but hard-drinking, emotionally unstable performer who died from liver disease at age 41. The Helen Morgan Story turned out to be Blyth’s last movie. Note: Though an accomplished singer, in The Helen Morgan Story Ann Blyth’s singing voice was dubbed by Gogi Grant.
I haven’t seen Roy Rowland’s Slander (1957), the story of a television star whose career and marriage are almost ruined thanks to a tabloid story — and to the imbeciles who read that sort of garbage and believe it. Van Johnson plays the TV star; Ann Blyth is his wife. It could be interesting, especially considering that the film’s topic remains as relevant today as — if not more so than — in the ’50s.
And finally, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945), which seems to be on TCM every other week, is undoubtedly the best movie about humankind’s pressing need for radical birth control. Come to think of it, TCM should start showing it every day.
["On TCM: Ann Blyth Today" continues on the next page. See link below.]