CORRIDOR OF NOIR
A Dark Corridors Classic
Totter turns up the heat
one on one with
AUDREY TOTTER An interview with Hollywood's favorite 'bad girl' from the golden age
Totter's role in films noir:
Be Bad, Be Very, Very Bad!
[Actress Audrey Totter was signed to an MGM contract in 1944 when it was still considered the biggest and best studio in Hollywood. Then 26, she already was an experienced and versatile radio actress, but her new studio defined her future career for her by plunging her into a series of "tough girl" roles in the dark, sinister noir thrillers then becoming a vogue in wartime Hollywood. In 1999, when she was then 81, Totter talked with Canadian film and TV critic James Bawden over lunch at a restaurant in Westwood, Calif., just a few miles from the old MGM studio. Bawden, a frequent guest columnist for TheColumnists.com, asked Totter about her MGM days and her career after leaving the famous lion's lair.]
By JAMES BAWDEN
Bawden: What was your first reaction when you arrived at MGM in 1944?
Totter: I came from radio where I'd had some very busy years. But when I was first taken around the MGM lot in 1944 I couldn't quite believe it. There were 25 huge soundtages all working at complete capacity and thousands of people all under exclusive contract. I'm not talking of the 100 or more actors but directors, writers, musicians. The studio system was based on the assumption everybody had to go to the movies at least once a week. I think attendance was up to 90 million people weekly and business was really booming despite the closing of foreign markets because of the war. It was the cheapest and most efficient way to make movies. The back lot with its false front streets and villages was huge. We almost never went off the lot to make pictures in those days.
I was so lucky to get there at a time when MGM was still MGM. A few years later TV came in and movie attendance slid and the whole system just melted away in a few short years. But in 1944 MGM was still the quality lot. My mentor was talent head Billy Grady, who said the studio wanted to build me slowly and give me lots of publicity and practical experience in movie making.
I played the bad gal in a little ``B'' called "Main Street After Dark" starring Edward Arnold. Then, because of my radio experience, I was the evil voice taunting Phyllis Thaxter in "Bewitched" (1945). Phyllis later told me she thought she could have done the voice herself. But I wasn't seen--this was a ``radio assignment'' for the movies.
B: How did the studio system work for a contract player?
T: You were paid for 40 weeks, on turnaround for 12 weeks without pay. You couldn't take a vacation without the studio's permission! All the print ads you might do, that money went to the studio. They arranged for the radio appearances and kept most of the money. My father told me to put aside 10 per cent of my salary and invest it! And I was 26 when I got there with years of acting experience in radio behind me, so my head was not easily turned. But some of the girls came from very poor backgrounds and were making their first big money. It went to their heads and they got into debt. The studio would lend them money to buy cars or houses and then had complete control, meaning they couldn't turn down parts. Because that meant suspension without pay and they couldn't afford this.
And there were times the studio had nothing for you but didn't want to pay you so they'd deliberately send over a lousy script, knowing you had to turn it down. Then it was suspension without pay until they needed you again. The suspended time was tacked onto the end of your contract until Olivia de Havilland took Warners to court in 1944 and, after a bitter two-year court battle, that tactic was ruled illegal because of existing anti-peonage laws. So, it was Olivia who broke the back of the old studio system.
Totter in 'The Lady in the Lake' with the mirror image of Robert Montgomery as Philip Marlowe
B: Your first 'A' picture must have been "The Postman Always Rings Twice?"
T: No, it was "Adventure" (1945), but if you blink you'll miss me and that was deliberate. I'd had some small speaking roles when director Victor Fleming spotted me on the lot and requested me. It was a walk-on without lines. I was a bit distraught but the star, Clark Gable, came to my rescue. He told me to turn slightly when the scene started and nobody would see my face! And it worked: nobody saw me. The picture was a huge bomb and later when I met him in the commissary Fleming joked, ``Did you know something about the picture I didn't?''
I was a voice again in "Ziegfeld Follies" (1946). Remember the skit where Keenan Wynn is trying to use the phone? I was the unseen operator. With "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946) I got a small part in a big time movie. I was the trampy blonde John Garfield picks up. I was in a train station and I say ``It's a hot day and I've got on a thin skirt and that's a leather seat.'' How that passed the censors I'll never know. We shot it out of the studio but there was a lion in a cage in the background and it peed and the scene was useless. So we did the retake back at the studio. Garfield was very cool, quite a cut-up. But Lana Turner was in her blonde goddess mode and what struck me was how tiny and petite she was.
B: Then came "Lady in the Lake" (1946)?
T: Bob Montgomery had come back from the war and made a huge hit, "They Were Expendable" (1945). The studio was desperate to keep him because they'd lost Jimmy Stewart, who simply said his contract was up and left. Gable had come back and made the horrid "Adventure" (1945). So Bob got carte blanche to direct and star in "Lady in the Lake," using the subjective camera. That meant that for the whole picture the camera took the perspective of Montgomery as detective Philip Marlowe. Bob could occasionally be glimpsed in mirrors. The other actors had to look directly at the lens and Bob couldn't find a leading lady who could do that. He tested everybody at MGM, including Lana, but it was no go. Then somebody slipped in a shot of me from "The Hidden Eye" (1945) when he was running tests and he jumped up and shouted, ``I've got my girl!''
Billy Grady protested that I needed more seasoning but Bob said it had to be me, particularly after he learned about my radio training. On radio I'd always looked at the mike. Studio head Louis Mayer watched the daily rushes and remained unconvinced the perspective change would work. Mr. Mayer was very conscious of the look of MGM. There's one scene where I'm awakened in the night and rush to the door. My hair was quite properly all askew. Mr. Mayer stood up in the screening room and ordered that the scene be re-shot with my hair combed and the makeup just so. He said, "A Metro star must look her best even asleep.'' He was peddling dreams. Reality never interested him.
The film came out to great critical attention but audiences were puzzled. Finally MGM ordered us back to shoot a conventional ending where Bob steps into view and we kiss. He told me he was going on to the new Greer Garson picture, "Desire Me" (1947), but it was such a shambles he left -- I mean he left MGM for good. It's the only MGM film ever released without a director's credit. So MGM lost Bob after all.
B: It seems MGM loaned you out as much as they used you?
Totter (in left foreground) adored Claude Rains (right), her co-star in 'The Unsuspected.'
T: They were making fewer pictures by war's end and could make a lot of money out of loaning out their talent. I was loaned to Warners for "The Unsuspected" (1947) because the director, Michael Curtiz, was big on me. He was making his first picture for his own company to be released through Warners and he publicly said he wanted to buy out my contract as well as the contracts of the star, Michael North, and Joan Caulfield who was borrowed from Paramount. It was a wonderfully noir mystery starring that ace actor Claude Rains as a radio personality who plots the incredibly complicated murder of his niece (Caulfield). I was the trampy niece, Althea Keane. Hurd Hatfield, also borrowed from MGM, was my alcoholic husband. Curtiz was a dazzler with the camera work and the complicated setups.
I absolutely adored Claude Rains. I think he was my favorite actor. I met him many years later when I was at Columbia and he was doing a TV thing and reminded him of the times I'd come over to have dinner with him and his wife. There were tears in his eyes. I did not know she had left him. And he said, ``Oh, my dear that was a hundred years ago.''
B: Is it true you were the original choice for the female lead in "The Killers" (1946)?
T: We were so long making "Lady in the Lake" that they had to start without me. So Billy Grady said to Universal ``I'll send you over this brunette as compensation. She can't act but she has a certain look.'' And Ava Gardner's superstardom was launched. I went on at MGM to do "The High Wall" (1947), another noir thing with Bob Taylor, another MGM returning veteran who'd been emotionally scarred by the war. By the way he was very solid as a distraught man who thinks he's killed his wife. Then I made "The Saxon Charm" (1948) at Universal--Bob Montgomery was a ruthless Broadway producer patterned after Jed Harris. You should catch it--it's splendidly bitchy and it was made before "All About Eve" (1950). Bob borrowed me from MGM.
Susan Hayward played the solid wife of playwright John Payne. There was this certain air about Susie. You knew she'd go to the top and she'd wring the neck of anybody in her way! Then there was another loan out to Paramount for "Alias Nick Beal" (1949). Ray Milland was the Devil and it was a wonderfully dark fantasy and I thought it would be a smash. Just before release Paramount changed the title to "Alias Nick Beal"--get the devil connection? And the film just died because it seemed a bit obvious, that title. Ray was very big right then. And very protective. Late one night I told him I had to go and meet a Paramount producer about another offer. And Ray said the man had a terrible reputation with ladies and drove me home instead!
Totter with Ray Milland in 'Alias Nick Beal' in 1949
B: "The Set-Up" (1949) is considered to be just about the finest boxing picture. Any memories?
T: I didn't want to do another loanout, but director Bob Wise sent over a script. I looked at a few of his films and knew he was a talent. It was photographed in real time. The story took exactly 69 minutes--the same time on the screen. Bob Ryan had a real character part as this washed up fighter--and he ran with it. He was magnificent. It was shot on real locations instead of false studio fronts. Did you know it was based on a poem (by Joseph Moncure)? We thought we had a winner, then RKO head Howard Hughes panicked. He heard there was another boxing picture, "Champion," with Kirk Douglas, going to open. He was determined to beat it so we opened with no press publicity and we just died. But I did go to last year's AFI tribute to Bob just to say thank you for such a great part. People are always mentioning that one to me. It's out on video.
B: Some people assumed you'd marry Clark Gable because the two of you used to go out together.
T: I never did. I knew him since "Adventure." Then we made "Any Number Can Play" (1949). Yes, we dated. He was a tremendous guy, very witty, with a huge romantic aura. But all the girls he dated looked a little like his late wife Carole Lombard. He was still in love with her. So we settled for being great friends. I never thought I'd marry. I dated Ross Hunter at one time--then he realized he was gay and I later met his sweet boyfriend. I dated John Payne, who was a control freak. He phoned me one night and said, "I can't make dinner. I'm getting back with my wife.'' That was Gloria DeHaven, but they eventually did divorce. I ran into her recently and told her how controlling John was. And she said, "Tell me about it.''
Like I said, I thought I'd never marry. And then one day I was shopping at Bullock's for cuff links. And I met a man who was buying the very same ones I'd bought. He was a doctor, Leo Fred, and he was assistant dean of medicine at UCLA and he asked me out. Normally, I would have turned him down, but you see I knew we would marry. And from that moment I lost all my ambition. I lived for my family and not my career.
B: Were you shocked to be dropped by MGM?
T: I could see it coming. I'd been out at Dore Shary's home for dinners, but his concept for MGM was so different from Mr. Mayer's. Dore wanted message pictures. And the studio output was dwindling--I did one last, great MGM picture, "Tension" (1949), and got mostly loanouts after that. Mr. Mayer was a confidante, a dear, older uncle. Dore was brash and completely wrong about MGM's future. The way he went on, you'd think the studio was called Metro-Goldwyn-Schary! When Mr. Mayer was deposed it seemed like the end of an era. But I think the studio really died the day Dore let Gable go (in 1953). Yes, they thought the King was over the hill. But he had one final Metro picture awaiting release and it was "Mogambo," his biggest postwar hit, so he walked out a true king. So, yes, I left (in 1951). So did Angela Lansbury at about the same time. so I was in good company.
B: Then you went to Columbia?
T: A very different studio! Harry Cohn, the head, was something else. I told him I was going to get married. There was no reaction. I said my fiance was a doctor and Harry brightened up.
Totter with Robert Ryan, her co-star in 'The Set-Up'
"Audrey, I've always wanted to be a doctor,'' Harry said.
"Oh, Mr. Cohn, that's so noble of you,'' I gushed.
"Yeah, that way I could screw all my female patients and the wife would never suspect anything,'' he cackled.
The pictures I made at Columbia included "Man in the Dark" (1953), "Cruisin' Down The River" (1953), "Massacre Canyon" (1954), "Women's Prison" (1955). Do those sound like MGM titles to you? Of course not! But, like I said, I was now focused on my family. I didn't care and I think that showed. I did a terrible one called "Assignment Paris" (1953) and George Sanders was so mean he never talked to me or the co-star, Marta Toren, between takes. We're both Swedish so we'd babble on in Swedish until he blew up, thinking we were making fun of him. I remember he finally said something strange: "My dear, whatever are we doing in such tripe?''
B: Then you went into TV.
T: No, I'd been doing live TV right through the Fifties and loving it as a kind of theatre. I also liked doing those half-hour dramatic series because you'd shoot one in three-four days and get home in time to have dinner with your family. But in 1958 I signed for my first series, "Cimarron City," and I was told I'd star in every third episode. George Montgomery was the other star. But it turned into shots of me waving from the balcony and when the producers changed I asked them to pay me off and the series died right after that anyway. Then in 1962 I did the pilot for a comedy series, "Our Man Higgins." ABC was so very high on it. Stanley Holloway had just experienced a great late-life success in "My Fair Lady" and he was an English butler who found himself sent to America to serve a family and I was the suburban mom. We debuted against a new CBS sitcom, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and the rest is history.
Then, in 1972, the producer of "Medical Center," Frank Glicksman, was having dinner in L.A. at a Hamburger Hamlet. He told his wife Jayne Meadows was leaving the series and he needed a replacement, saying, "I need a feisty woman as head nurse, somebody like Audrey Totter.'' Just at that moment I walked by with my husband. And Frank hired me on the spot as Nurse Wilcox and I was on from 1972 through 1976. I'd do a day an episode and it was very eerie walking around the MGM backlot as all the old streets were being torn down. I thought it was such a waste.
They asked me to go to the premiere of "That's Entertainment" (1974) and we all lined up afterwards for one last group shot. I've got that shot and a lot of the greats have since passed on: Gloria Swanson, Marjorie Main, even Alexis Smith. And Ava Gardner walked up to me and said "Audrey, I have always admired you. Because you got the two things I never had: a loving, supportive husband and a child.'' And she's right. Try sleeping with a career!
I didn't act after that series because my husband needed taking care of. He died four years ago and I'm only just beginning to date a bit now. And the man I'm currently dating I met on the MGM lot in 1944: Turhan Bey! But it's only for dinner. I don't want to be married again.
Acting? The critics said I acted best with a gun in my hand. And I recently did an hour interview special, "The Women of Film Noir," on AMC, with Jane Greer, Marie Windsor and Colleen Gray. And I think we still look great. Marie had the best line. She said, "We didn't call it film noir in our day. We called it 'B' picture-making.'' But those are the movies people remember. Strange, isn't it?
© 2000 by James Bawden.
JAMES BAWDEN writes about film and television for The Toronto Star and was a regular contributor to the late, great film journal, Films in Review.
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