Melvyn Douglas: From suave leading man to Hollywood’s top female stars to first-rate dramatic actor
Unlike Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, or Gary Cooper, Melvyn Douglas couldn’t exactly be considered a handsome, matinee idol type. Unlike Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, or Spencer Tracy, Douglas likely would have had a hard time playing tough guys. So what’s Broadway actor turned Hollywood star to do? The answer back in the 1930s and early 1940s was: play the suave, intelligent-looking leading man to myriad glamorous female stars of the era.
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And that’s how Melvyn Douglas – TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” Aug. 5 honoree – found himself romancing and/or being romanced by the likes of Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Ann Harding, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Merle Oberon, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Luise Rainer, Sylvia Sidney, Joan Blondell, and another dozen or so actresses of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age. Even teen icon Deanna Durbin – young enough to be his daughter – fell for him, at least temporarily, in the surprisingly pleasant That Certain Age.
Douglas’ movies of that time weren’t always good. In fact, for the most part they were anything but: your usual Hollywood goo-factory pap made for 10-year-olds and/or their grandmothers.
But every so often there would be something special: James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), in which Douglas gets into one of the creepiest fights ever seen on film; Phil Rosen’s largely forgotten Dangerous Corner (1934), a curious ensemble drama about alternate realities and the darkness that lies beneath the shiny surfaces of happiness and success; Richard Bosleslawski’s Theodora Goes Wild (1936), with Douglas as a book illustrator who becomes acquainted with small-town Sunday school teacher/scandalous author Irene Dunne; and Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), teaching dour Soviet envoy Greta Garbo about how joyful capitalism can be as long as you’re a titled playboy spending his time in the heart of Paris.
TCM will be showing Ninotchka, perhaps Melvyn Douglas’ best remembered film of his first Hollywood phase. All but forgotten but a must for anyone interested in Douglas’ career are TCM’s other, lesser-known titles – e.g., Fast Company, Tell No Tales, There’s Always a Woman and its sequel, There’s That Woman Again. Once again, most of Douglas’ movies weren’t first-rate, but he almost invariably was.
Wesley Ruggles’ romantic comedy I Met Him in Paris (1937) is a TCM premiere. It’s no better no worse than other romantic comedies – Too Many Husbands, The Gilded Lily, The Bride Comes Home, True Confession – directed by Ruggles, perhaps best known for the 1930–1931 Best Picture Oscar winner Cimarron and who did much better work on the very best Mae West comedy, I’m No Angel (1933).
Far superior are two movies from the second phase of Melvyn Douglas’ Hollywood career: Gilbert Cates’ family drama I Never Sang for My Father (1970), which earned Douglas a Best Actor Oscar nomination (it should have earned him the actual award) and Hal Ashby’s sociopolitical satire Being There (1979), which earned him his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar. (The first was for Martin Ritt’s Hud, 1963.)
In Being There, the liberal-minded Douglas plays a wealthy but ailing businessman married to the much younger Shirley MacLaine. The world of politics was hardly alien to the Hollywood actor; in 1945, his wife, former actress Helen Gahagan (She), became California’s first female Democrat elected to the U.S. Congress.
Several years later, Richard Nixon, competing against Gahagan for a Senate seat, would smear her with the label “The Pink Lady,” implying – and long predating Republican tactics in the early 21st century – that Gahagan was, in current parlance, “communism-adjacent.” Nixon’s supporters also accused her of being unworthy of the job because her actor husband was Jewish.
Now, anyone watching or rewatching Being There will realize that comparisons to the current occupant of the White House are on target only to a certain extent. Peter Sellers’ Chance the Gardener (a.k.a. Chauncey Gardiner) – a masterful portrayal – is, like Donald Trump, a television addict: the difference being that the gardener turned U.S. president-to-be is an apolitical man-child who’ll watch anything on TV – and not just white supremacist, far-right propaganda networks.
Besides, when – not if – Chance becomes president of the United States, it’ll be, according to Being There, because the powers-that-be that control American politics found him electable. The Kremlin – or any hostile foreign government – plays no role in the game.
In addition to Trump, Being There will surely remind viewers of Gump – of Robert Zemeckis’ Best Picture Oscar winner Forrest Gump (1994) fame. Starring Tom Hanks as the title character, the latter – much more commercially successful – film is a(n idiotized) rip-off of the earlier modern classic. (Note: Both movies are based on novels.)
Reminder: This Melvyn Douglas article is being revised/expanded. Please check back later.
Melvyn Douglas movies: TCM schedule (EDT)
6:00 AM ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS (1938). A reformed jewel thief helps detectives track down a criminal. Dir.: Geo. Fitzmaurice. Cast: Melvyn Douglas. Virginia Bruce. Warren William. B&W. 81 mins.
7:30 AM FAST COMPANY (1938). Married book-dealers Joel and Gerda Sloane try to clear a friend in the murder of a rival book-seller. Dir.: Edward Buzzell. Cast: Melvyn Douglas. Florence Rice. Claire Dodd. B&W. 75 mins.
9:00 AM TELL NO TALES (1939). In search of a big scoop for his failing paper. an editor tries to solve a kidnapping case that’s turned into murder. Dir.: Leslie Fenton. Cast: Melvyn Douglas. Louise Platt. Gene Lockhart. B&W. 69 mins.
12:00 PM THERE’S THAT WOMAN AGAIN (1938). Dir.: Alexander Hall. Cast: Melvyn Douglas. Virginia Bruce. Margaret Lindsay. B&W. 72 mins.
1:30 PM MARY BURNS FUGITIVE (1935). Dir.: William K. Howard. Cast: Sylvia Sidney. Melvyn Douglas. Alan Baxter. B&W. 84 mins.
3:00 PM THE SHINING HOUR (1938). A nightclub dancer marries into society and has to contend with her jealous sister-in-law. Dir.: Frank Borzage. Cast: Joan Crawford. Margaret Sullavan. Melvyn Douglas. Robert Young. Fay Bainter. Allyn Joslyn. Hattie McDaniel. Frank Albertson. B&W. 77 mins.
4:30 PM THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING (1941). A happily married woman sees a psychoanalyst and develops doubts about her husband. Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Merle Oberon. Melvyn Douglas. Burgess Meredith. B&W. 83 mins.
8:00 PM NINOTCHKA (1939). A coldhearted Soviet agent is warmed up by a trip to Paris and a night of love. Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Greta Garbo. Melvyn Douglas. Ina Claire. Bela Lugosi. Felix Bressart. Sig Ruman. B&W. 110 mins.
10:00 PM I MET HIM IN PARIS (1937). Dir.: Wesley Ruggles. Cast: Claudette Colbert. Melvyn Douglas. Robert Young. Mona Barrie. Lee Bowman. Fritz Feld. Louis LaBey. Yola D’Avril. B&W. 86 mins.
11:45 PM THIRD FINGER LEFT HAND (1940). A man-shy fashion editor pretends to be married until a suitor claims to be her husband. Dir.: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: Myrna Loy. Melvyn Douglas. Lee Bowman. Raymond Walburn. Donald Meek. B&W. 97 mins.
1:30 AM I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER (1970). When his mother dies. a grieving son is torn between his demanding father and his need to live his own life. Dir.: Gilbert Cates. Cast: Melvyn Douglas. Gene Hackman. Estelle Parsons. Dorothy Stickney. Color. 92 mins. Letterbox Format.
3:30 AM BEING THERE (1979). Political pundits mistake an illiterate gardener for a media genius and turn him into a national hero. Dir.: Hal Ashby. Cast: Peter Sellers. Shirley MacLaine. Melvyn Douglas. Jack Warden. Color. 130 mins.