Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Some Hollywood Stars in New England Summer Theatre


In the summer of 1952 Victor Jory departed Hollywood for one of his habitual stage runs and toured the summer theatre circuit, with Alexis Smith in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives”. The sophisticate role was a natural for Miss Smith, who was typecast as such by Hollywood since her film career began some 12 years previously. But unknown to many moviegoers, it was an even more natural fit for Victor Jory, who had a much longer film career, and a much, much longer stage career. Hollywood had already typecast Jory as a scruffy villain. On stage, he was urbane, witty, and devilishly charming.

From the Boston Daily Globe August 12, 1952:

“The Boston Summer Theatre may be air-cooled but it sizzled last night with the heat engendered by Victor Jory kissing decorative Alexis Smith in that famous second act of “Private Lives”…I never saw…quite as much vigor and passion as Miss Smith and Mr. Jory, who seemed to enjoy every second of the sophisticated romp…The dialogue is light, witty and thoroughly naughty; the acting should be on the same order. And Miss Smith and Mr. Jory live up to audience expectations. It was a wonderful evening and the audience was capacity.”

Alexis Smith had minimal stage experience when she was in college, but Victor Jory had played stock theatre everywhere from his early apprenticeship at the Pasadena Playhouse to stages across the continent and as far as Australia. He played Shakespeare, Ibsen, Moliere, and Shaw. He wrote plays, and directed them.

A year later, Miss Smith and Mr. Jory took another summer tour, this time with “Bell, Book and Candle.” From the Boston Daily Globe, June 28, 1953, Alexis credits Victor Jory for teaching her stagecraft:

“I can’t believe that anyone in the whole world could have taught me as much as Victor has about my job. Working with him is better than any training school of the theatre you ever heard of. Mr. Jory has a vast amount of experience and he is willing to share it. Some actors are reticent when it comes to giving newcomers tricks of the trade. Victor is generous and kind. He has taught me all I know about legitimate theatre.”

When she first met Jory, she had a different impression. This was on the set of her film “South of St. Louis” (1949), which we discussed here. Jory played a nasty villain. She thought him a “rather horrible person” who was, “dirty, bewhiskered and wearing baggy pants.”

This had become Jory’s fate by the 1940s. Syndicated Hollywood columnist Bob Thomas visited the set of “South of St. Louis”, as picked up by the St. Petersburg, Florida Evening Independent June 14, 1948:

“Victor Jory, the mug they love to slug, was being pummeled by Joel McCrea when I visited the “South of St. Louis” set. The poor guy was being bounced all over the barroom…”

After “South of St. Louis”, Alexis and Victor Jory worked on one more film together, “Cave of Outlaws” (1951). He’s still a villain here, but considerably cleaned up. He vies with Macdonald Carey for the love of the typically cool and aloof Alexis, and gets beaten up again. It was on the set of “Cave of Outlaws” where she and Victor got to know each other better. They talked of theatre, of his experience in it, and her desire to pursue it. They formed the plan of working together. In the following year, they found themselves in an unexpected hit in “Private Lives”.

The next year, they met with further success in “Bell, Book and Candle”. Their performances were sold out, largely on the strength of their previous hit. From the Lewiston (Maine) Evening Journal, July 3, 1953. Smith and Jory “broke all attendance records at the same theater last year with their presentation of ‘Private Lives’.” (At Lakewood.) They had opened their tour of “Bell, Book and Candle” in Ogunquit, Maine at the famed Ogunquit Playhouse “to the pleasure of all that saw them there.”

“Bell, Book and Candle” opened the Framingham, Massachusetts season that June 1953. James Lee, author of the “Backstage” column for the Worcester Evening Gazette, June 11, 1953, met Alexis Smith and Victor Jory at a party in Boston the week before.

“They were supposed to leave at 7:30 for another rehearsal of “Bell, Book and Candle”…Victor decided they had been rehearsing so arduously for a week they could skip that night’s practice, and prolong the party instead.

“But not Miss Smith. She liked the party, but she liked the rehearsal idea better. So they left and rehearsed.

“‘Never saw anybody so anxious for perfection,’ he whispered to me.”

In the above-referenced Boston Daily Globe article of June 28, 1953, the article by Marjory Adams, Jory further commented on his co-star:

“Alexis is one of the hardest workers in the theatre I have ever met…She has intelligence and imagination. She is able to concentrate. And it has been a hell of a lot of fun to work with her in both ‘Private Lives’ and ‘Bell, Book and Candle.’”

Jory was pronounced “superb” by the New London Day when they brought “Bell, Book and Candle” to the Norwich (Connecticut) Summer Theatre.

From Skowhegan to Schenectady, they covered New England and the northeast with both plays. Hollywood was entering an interesting period in the early 1950s. Between the studios cutting back on productions, the court-mandated breaking up of movie theater properties, the competition from television, and the Communist witch hunts going on in the industry, actors were being booted out from the system or else voluntarily fleeing for work on the stage or television. It was, not so coincidentally, one of the most celebrated periods of summer theatre.

The same year Smith and Jory brought “Bell, Book and Candle” to Ogunquit, Zachary Scott appeared there in “The Moon is Blue”, Richard Arlen brought “Mister Roberts”, and Cedric Hardwicke appeared in “Island Visit”. The latter two stars brought those plays that same summer to the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. Macdonald Carey was at the Westport (Connecticut) Country Playhouse in “Day of Grace.”

In future seasons, Alexis Smith returned to New England summer theatre with a different partner, her husband Craig Stevens, who made fame as TV’s Peter Gunn, in the comedy “Critic’s Choice”, which played, among other stops, the Ivoryton (Connecticut) Playhouse in August 1961, and closed the season that year at Oguquit. They also appeared together in the comedy “Mary, Mary” which made a stop at the old Mt. Tom Playhouse (see this previous post on the Casino at Mt. Tom) in August 1965; and at the Westport Country Playhouse, and Ogunquit, in 1968 with the comedy “Cactus Flower”.  She returned to the Country Playhouse, and Ogunquit, in 1968 without Victor or Craig to appear in "The Coffee Lover."  Gabriel Dell was her lead.

Victor Jory's many other appearances included "The Happiest Millionaire" in 1958 at Ogunquit, and with Don Porter in "The Best Man" at the Cape Playhouse in 1976.  Mr. Jory was in his 70s at the time, and looking well and fit.

The 2012 season of summer theatre is ending hereabouts, and joins the memories of seasons past.

For more on Victor Jory - On Stage and Screen, have a look at yesterday’s post on my Another Old Movie Blog.



3 comments:

tonyarice said...

Hi Jacqueline. Thanks for sharing this post. I thoroughly enjoyed your blogathon contribution about Victor Jory and I learned here even more about Alexis Smith. I was only familiar with just a few of her films. Learning about an actor's range is always exciting and I appreciate what you've shared here. I will certainly look for more of their films.

tonyarice said...

Learning about an actor's range is always exciting. Your blogathon contibution about Victor Jory and this post enlightening me more about Alexis Smith has really got me interested in seeing more of their films. Thank you for sharing!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, tonyarice. I hope you enjoy discovering more film work by Alexis Smith and Victor Jory. They both left a long legacy on film, even if we can no longer see them on stage.