Thursday, June 11, 2015

Classic Book Corner: Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.

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Today, I'm reviewing the great new biography, Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., by Jacqueline T. Lynch. The book will be published June 18.

Exceptional old Hollywood biographies fall into two categories. First, there are books that are the final word on a legend a la Victoria Wilson's monumental biography, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940. Then there are the works that revive the reputation of an under-appreciated or long-forgotten star. Jacqueline T. Lynch's new biography, Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., falls into the latter category. It is the first full-length biography of Blyth and this meticulously researched book restores a wonderful actress to her rightful place in old Hollywood history.

Blyth hasn't exactly been forgotten by movie buffs -- she is still widely recognized for her Oscar-nominated performance as cinema's ultimate spoiled brat in Mildred Pierce (1945) -- but Blyth is so much more than the pretty girl who slapped Joan Crawford. Blyth, who was a show business trouper by age 16, had a multi-faceted career on stage, in Hollywood and as a successful singer (Blyth possessed a gorgeous soprano voice). Lynch, a talented blogger, author, and playwright, has outlined the full scope of Blyth's career for the first time in a book that is both a joy to read and a great resource for old movie fans. I'll outline why I so enjoyed Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., but, first, here's a little background.

Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce" (1945)
Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford in a tense scene from Mildred Pierce (1945).
Anne Blythe (she gradually lost the "e's" after her start in show business) was born Aug. 16, 1928, in Mount Kisco, N.Y. She was raised in New York City by her single mother, Nan, and like many children of the Great Depression she began performing at a young age to help earn income for her family. Blyth was "discovered" by Broadway impresario Herman Shumlin when she was 12. He gave her a plum role in the popular Broadway play, Watch on the Rhine (Watch on the Rhine was made into a 1943 film, but Blyth's role was played by Janis Wilson). Soon Hollywood came calling and Blyth signed with Universal studios where she appeared in several pleasant musicals and teen comedies before getting her big break as the manipulative Veda Pierce.

Howard Keel Ann Blyth Rose Marie 02
Howard Keel and Ann Blyth on the set of Rose Marie (1954).
Veda led to roles in some interesting films noir -- Swell Guy (1946), Another Part of the Forest (1948), and Killer McCoy (1947) -- but her fine voice made her a big star in many MGM musicals during the 1950s, including Rose Marie (1954) and The Student Prince (1954). Blyth retired from films after a bravura final performance in The Helen Morgan Story (1957), but she continued to appear occasionally on stage and on television. Blyth married and became a devoted mother of five children. She still lives in California and gives occasional appearances and interviews. 

Bing Crosby, Ann Blyth and Barry Fitzgerald
A vintage movie poster featuring Ann Blyth.
One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day. For example, Lynch discusses Watch on the Rhine not only in terms of Blyth's career, but she also reflects on how Lillian Hellman's play helped shape the national debate during the tense days before World War II. The book also offers an inside glimpse into the workings of the Hollywood studio system, especially at Universal and MGM where Blyth was under contract.

Mario Lanza, Ann Blyth - "The Great Caruso" (1951)
A publicity still for The Great Caruso (1951).
Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star also gives a rich sense of Blyth as a person. Blyth is a woman of devout faith (she is a lifelong Catholic), who never let personal tragedy  or the ups and downs of a Hollywood career warp her gentle personality. Lynch draws on archival newspaper and fan magazine interviews and comments from Blyth's co-stars, family, and friends to paint a picture of a woman who is universally described as quiet, self-effacing, and hard working.

1956 Ann Blyth
A lovely New Year's portrait of Ann Blyth in 1956.
Blyth was a fixture of fan magazines in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and Ann Blyth Actress. Singer. Star is richly illustrated with 275 photographs that are interspersed throughout the text. The print book is coffee-table size, which makes it extra-enticing for fans like me, who enjoy richly illustrated biographies (here's a sample page).


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Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will be available  June 18. Go here to pre-order the e-book. For much more, including daily prizes, visit Lynch's website, http://anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com/



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