...in her glamorous
days in the 1930s
Binnie Barnes as Katherine Howard with Charles Laughton as King Henry in "The Private Life of Henry VIII" (1933). Barnes' character was beheaded,
but she wasn't the only wife to end that way.
A great British actress who stayed in America
By JIM BAWDEN
Back in 1973, I wound up sitting next to Bob Foster, one of my best friends among the television columnists invited to dinner by the Columbia Pictures Television division. Bob pointed to the place card in front of the chair next to me, which read: "Mrs. Frankovich."
"That would be Binnie Barnes," he said. "I always wanted to meet her."
So did I. As a Canadian who grew up watching many English and American films that starrred Binnie Barnes, I certainly knew who she was, even if the mostly American TV press group had never heard of her. Bob, who was stationed in England during World War II and had a British wife, may have been the only other TV columnist in the room who remembered her.
A few minutes later the Frankovichs arrived. He was the producer of what turned out to be the short-lived TV version of the hit movie "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice." Our interest in that project was pretty limited, so it was fortunate that "Mrs. Frankovich" (Binnie Barnes) was there to regale us for the rest of the evening with tales from her glorious movie past.
Two years later, I invited Binnie Barnes to lunch while I was in the Los Angeles area and we soon became good friends. Our friendship continued with several long telephone calls that eventually led to a 1985 invitation from her to meet her at the legendary Friars Club for another lunch that lasted hours.
Here are some highlights from our many conversations:
JIM BAWDEN: I have this 1938 biography of you and I'm wondering how accurate it is.
BINNIE BARNES: Let me look. Well, my real name is indeed Gitell Enoyce Barnes. But nobody ever called me that and I later switched to Gertrude. When I started on stage it became Binnie. My father was a London bobby. We were Jewish and Im a true Cockney, born within the sound of Bows Bells. Yes, indeed, I was a milkmaid, nurse, chorus girl and then partner to Tex McLeod, who taught me the business on a long tour of South Africa. I was known as Texas Binnie Barnes by then.
Back in London I did 26 comedy shorts with Stanley Lupino, Idas dad. I first acted on stage in 1929 opposite Charles Laughton in a play called "Silver Tassie," directed by Raymond Massey, and I made my first feature picture in 1931 called "A Night In Montmarte."
But my birthdate is wrong. It says 1908. But its really 1905.
BAWDEN: How did you get into Noel Coward's stage play "Cavalcade" in 1931?
BARNES: Noel Coward told me he starting writing it when doing "Private Lives" on Broadway. It has four characters and he wanted to go the other way with a mass spectacle. The way he saw it, the British Empire was suffering badly during the Depression and he wanted a way of showing all that had been achieved. He said it could only be done at the Drury Lane theater, which has 3,000 seats and six hydraulic lifts for the mass of scenery changes. The cast was over 400 largest ever for a British play. Mary Clare and Edward Sinclair were the parents in the film and support came from Johnny Mills, Moya Nugent, Una OConnor, Arthur Macrae and me. We opened in October 1931 and played until September, 1932. On election night I remember King George V and Queen Mary were in the Royal Box. But for all its success it made little profit (because) it was so expensive to mount.
I auditioned for "Noellie" as a lark. He tapped me on the shoulder and simply said Youll do! Johnny Mills was my leading man, a head shorter than me but hed told Noel he was still growing and got the part. But at age 25 he was hardly going to grow so Noel staged our love scene with me standing and him seated and that got a huge laugh. My big number was "Twentieth Century Blues" which brought the house down every night. On the official opening I looked through the curtain, saw the masses of people and swooned. Noel kicked my butt to get me out there but once out I really did enjoy myself. Standing ovations were given for the scenes of the Boer War, the funeral of Queen Victoria and the sinking of the Titanic. And then there was mass weeping for the Victory Day celebrations. People were literally dancing in the aisles by the ending. It was some night.
BAWDEN: Did that lead to your first big film, "The Private Life Of Henry VIII" (1933)?
BARNES: Well, I think I was on stage in "Cavalcade" by night and by day Id take the subway out to Elstree studios where we made "Henry VIII." How I did all that I cant imagine except I was young and full of energy. Salary was minimal. This was designed by Alexander Korda as the first in a series of personal movie biographies. And he got the right actor for it: Charles Laughton, who simply became the Merrie Monarch. One day when Wendy Barrie, who played Jane Seymour, was acting up he reached over and bit her arm. Completely in character!
There simply was no money for a lavish production. Alex got permission and shot scenes at Hampton Court, Henrys residence outside London. The studio sets were jerry-built. If one stepped a foot away, the set ended. Camerawork covered up a lot. It had quite the cast of up-and-comers: Robert Donat played my lover, Thomas Culpepper, I was Katherine Howard, who got beheaded, Charless real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, was Anne of Cleves, who escaped with her head. Henrys longest marriagehis firstto Katherine of Aragon was dismissed with a title card! Impudence like that made it wildly popular but it was all Charles show. Merle Oberon was given special attention as Anne Boleyn because Alex was falling for her. When I first met her she was Miles Manders mistress, then she switched to Leslie Howard.
BAWDEN: Then you made "The Private Life of Don Juan" the very next year.
BARNES: A dreadful bomb. Alex never had another real hit with his biographies. Elisabeth Bergner made "Catherine the Great" (1934) for his company, but her husband, Paul Czinner, directed it and I guess it made some dough. Charles (Laughton) came back as "Rembrandt" (1937), but nobody wanted to see it. "Don Juan" was Doug Fairbanks Sr.s last picture. The poor man was in bad physical shape by then. This one was intended to parody the legend but mentally Doug was not up for it. He was rightly protective of his image. Sound had ruined him. Oh, he had a fairish voice but his acting style was of another generation. I was a Spanish maid named Rosita! Me with my Cockney ways! Merle (Oberon) was a dancer and the other ladies included Diana Napier, Benita Hume (who married Ronnie Colman later on) and Gina Malo. I do remember Gibson Gowland, who starred in "Greed," had a part in it. Doug insisted he be cast. I think Doug basically played himselfsad at getting older, fllled with reminiscences. Audiences simply did not want to see that sort of thing from a great idol, however old he may be. And Doug after all was only 51 by then. We were rehearsing one bit and there were tears in his eyes. Its all gone, he whispered to me. Fame never lasts I should know.
BAWDEN: What did you think of your first American movie, "Theres Always Tomorrow?"
BARNES: Dull. It was based on an Ursula Parrott novel and starred Frank Morgan, who later played the Wizard Of Oz. Universal remade it in 1956 with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. I was the sincere secretary in love with my boss, who feels neglected by his family. I think it got OK reviews but there were no stars and nobody saw it and it came and went quickly.
Universal then rushed me into "Diamond Jim" (1935) starring Edward Arnold, whod actually met the real (Diamon Jim) way back and copied the mannerisms. Look, its a good picture. Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay. Jean Arthur was in it. So was Cesar Romero. I was Lillian Russell. I didnt have the girth, but I supplied the gaiety and the picture did fair business but not what Universal needed as it lurched to bankruptcy.
A poster for Universal's
big bidget production
BAWDEN: Ive never seen your next picture, "Sutters Gold" (1936).
BARNES: Few people have. It was a last ditch chance by Junior Laemmele (studio boss Carl Laemmele Jr.) to save his dads studio. They brought in silent film director James Cruze, who only made flops in the talkie era. His direction was all over the place. It was about the Gold Rush in California in 1856. It cost $2 million to make with all those crowd scenes whereas a Universal picture was supposed to come in at $100,000 to $200,000. Remember the studio owned no theaters like the others and depended on volume business. When I saw it in a screening room all pulled together I sank in my seat. Some scenes were terribly acted. I must take some of the blame. But this picture ruined the Laemmeles at Universal. The studio went up for sale.
BAWDEN: You were saved by MGM.
BARNES: Louis B. Mayer took a shine to me. Told me Id never do leads at Metro but had a future as featured star. He tried me out in a Bill Powell spy caper. "Rendezvous," set in World War I and I clicked. I was never under contract to MGM. Mayer said it was cheaper to hire me picture by picture. He immediately borrowed me again for "Small Town Girl" opposite Janet Gaynor and a newcomer called Spangler Arlington Brugh. Yeah, Bob Taylor. Had simian features the first time I spotted him. Eyebrows grew together. They got plucked. A new hairline gave him more of a forehead and a widows peak. Capped teeth produced a minor miracle and he became the young juvenile lead.
BAWDEN: Didnt Universal keep trying to ditch you?
BARNES: Oh, yes! The new regime rounded up everyone they were trying to destroy and that included Ray Milland, the director Henry Koster, producer Joe Pasternak, who didnt have an office but had to work out on the lawn. They had this 18-year-old Deanna Durbin snatched away from MGM and the storyline was about me as an adventuress trying to snag her innocent daddy away from her mommy. It was sickening. Finally Koster said to burlesque the material because dramatically it didnt work. We got as wacky as we could manage. Alice Brady was my dotty mother. Mischa Auer was a bogus count. Look, it was made cheaply for teenaged girls. It was sweet, it was silly. I was a baddie and the girls in the audience would boo when I came on. Deanna had this glorious voice and a typical teenagers lumpy body. Released as "Three Smart Girls," it saved Universal studios. And it saved my career. Made me red hot and Ray (Milland) wound up with a top contract at Paramount.
BAWDEN: You finished your Korda contract with "The Divorce Of Lady X" (1938)?
BARNES: Another of Alexs attempts to turn Merlie (Oberon) into a scatterbrained comedienne. Audiences just didnt take to it. Larry Olivier was very standoffish with me, I wasnt of the legitimate stage, you see. I found him annoying as the solicitor. Or maybe I was just upset that Id starred in the original film ("Counsels Opinion" in 1932) and now I was in support and Merle had my old role. Now Ralph Richardson, who played my husband, was entirely different. Unlike Larry-O he was free of pretense and loved making movies. The film cost a packet because it was in Technicolor but the real reason it did poorly was that certain lack of chemistry. Larry and Merle simply didnt click. They went on to make "Wuthering Heights" and their mutual dislike is very plain for all to see.
BAWDEN: How do you remember "Holiday" (1938) with Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn?
BARNES: I dont. I spent about five days on that set and was in two scenes with the wonderful waspy Henry Daniel as my husband. It was a busy year for me. I made eight movies and was at one point doing two at the same time. Spent many months on "Marco Polo" and then five days sipping tea and watching Great Kate act up. She was always very bossy. Never saw the film until finally in my minds eye I thought it had been "The Philadelphia Story." After all, it was the same director, same stars, same upper class story. So I sat up one night when we were still in London to watch "Philadelphia Story" one night on the telly--only I wasnt in it and neither was Henry (Daniel). He was still living, so I phoned him up and complained wed been cut out and he snapped, Silly goose, we were in 'Holiday.' So I then watched "Holiday" when it came on telly and loved it and adored my extended bit.
BAWDEN: How did you fit in so many movies in one year?
BARNES: Two of them may have been made at the tail end of 1937. I only had two released pictures that year. "The Adventures of Marco Polo" (1938). I dont know when it started actually. I was paid by the week and collected my biggest ever salary. Sam Goldwyn saw it as a comedic take on all those advenure movies like "Beau Geste." So he had Gary Cooper as Polo but that only confused moviegoers. Coop after all is just Coop. (Director) Archie Mayo started it and after months of shooting ran into trouble so John Cromwell took over and reshot buckets of scenes. I remember John Ford was making "The Hurricane" around then and wandered over and shot for a few days. Bob Sherwood did the original story and we got rewrites every day. One day we were serious, the next day Sam shouted Make yourselves laugh! Gary was beside himself. The female lead was Sigrid Gurie, who was Goldwyns next folly, as icy a person as Sams last big new star, Anna Sten. I remember George Barbier waddling around as Kublai Khan, moaning about the heavy costumes he was forced to wear. Then a decade later I see it revived at the Westwood as Starring Gary Cooper and Lana Turner!: And she only has a bit! She told me they shaved off her eyebrows and they never ever grew back.
BAWDEN: "Always Goodbye" (1938) was the only time you worked with Barbara Stanwyck?
BARNES: In those days she was young and prettyand in love. And she could play all kinds of parts, too. "Always Goodbye" was envisaged by Fox as a programmer. I think Barbara got a lot out of the material. She suffered but there was always that glimmer in her eye. Later on she got so hard and tough she was hard to know by thenall business after Bob (Taylor) left her for a younger woman. It was a sort of follow up to "Stella Dallas." But Barbaras gaiety lifted us up. She kept teasing Herbert Marshall, who was an old fuddy duddy. So was Ian Hunter for that matter.
BAWDEN: You are a scream in "The Three Musketeers" (1939).
BARNES: One of my favorite pictures. Nobody can screw up the delicious character of evil Milady De Winter. Half the picture was serious: Don Ameche couldnt play comedy. But when The Ritz Brothers appear, its look out time. Allan Dwan directed and it was a huge box office hit. You know those brothers really adored each other unlike Abbott and Costello. And, yes, I could always tell them apart. Harry was always my favorite. It started out as a straight musical but the songs stank so Allan called us together and said to parody the material. In one scene Ive got a key the brothers want so they turn me upside down until it plops out of my bosom. Several takes were needed but I loved it. I told them to shake harder and harder and the scene always gets the biggest laugh of the movie.
BINNIE BARNES, left, with
HEATHER ANGEL in the
1936 film "Last of
BAWDEN: Describe life in Hollywood in the so-called Golden Age.
BARNES: It was drudgery. Up at 6 a.m. to get to the studios and be in full makeup by 9. Because of my background I had become an ace card player and I was invited into the big card games played at MGM on a Saturday night. All the big boys were there: Thau, Gable, Tracy, Mayer sometimes. I was the only woman permitted and I rarely lost. They even set up a cot for me in one of the dressing rooms for a little snooze because we played until dawn. There was very little glamour about any of it.
When I married Mike (Frankovich) in 1940, Louella Parsons reported that this nice little Catholic girl is marrying that awful Jew Frank Mikovich. She got his name backwards and I was the Jew! He subsequently banned her from the sets of all his pictures.
When I converted to Catholicism Loretta Young became my mentor, my godmother. I still call her ma. The church we all attend is calledby Roz Russell--Our Lady of the Cadillacs. Its not a gloomy religion, its given me strength to go on.
BAWDEN: For an English girl you really fit into westerns.
BARNES: I dont know. Is "Last Of The Mohicans" (1936) considered a Western or an Eastern? Its on TV all the time. And Im told is a very accurate version. Randy Scott was wonderful in the lead and Heather Angel and I were sisters. She was another girl friend Leslie Howard had ditched. When I made my film with him (1934s "The Lady Is Willing) I said, Leslie, keep your distance I know all about you. And he did!
I guess "Sutters Gold" was a western, too. But I really liked "Frontier Marshall," which was the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday story. We had the excellent Allan Dwan as our director and he squeezed a lot of atmosphere out of a production that hadnt the biggest budget. Randy was Wyatt and very good but Cesar Romero really made a mark as Doc, who is slowly expiring from consumption. I was the dance hall girl, Jerry, and got to perform numbers as Id once done in the music halls. Cranky Jack Ford remade it as "My Darling Clementine." Of course Dwans was a remake of a 1933 George OBrien flick. To disguise the studio sets Allan shot almost everything at dark. It has this spooky quality. And lets face it, I wasnt the beauty Linda Darnell was. (Darnell played her role in the Ford remake.) But Linda never could act. Well, she never had to.
BAWDEN: "Til We Meet Again" (1940) is a real weeper.
BARNES: Tell me about it. Warners offered it first to Bette Davis and she turned it down, saying shed already died in "Dark Victory"! Pat OBrien was winding up his Warners career with this one so they gave him under title billing. He told me in the previous movie hed been above George Brent, the leading man. Geraldine Fitzgerald was the understanding friend just as shed been in "Dark Victory." A melange to be sure. I was a fake countess and I made sure I looked lovely while I stood around absorbing the plot. On the first day Merlie (Oberon) comes by and says, Lovely to see you, Binnie. And I shout Likewise Queenie!" (That was her real name.) And she never talked to me again on set. At the preview screening the doctor tells Merle she has angina pectoris and nothing can be done and a guy in the audience shouts, Try nitroglycerine its been around for 60 years! A lady friend of mine recently saw it on TV and said she loved it as much as "One Way Passage." In fact, its a remake! You see it was a huge hit at the time. The Nazis had just invaded Belgium, France. People needed relief from the woes of the real world.
BAWDEN: Jack Benny asked for you several times.
BARNES: Getting a laugh, its all in the timing. Jack said I had a fake Mayfair accent that he loved. I was able to bat lines with him in such a way that he came out on top but I always got a laugh or two. He used me on his radio show and again in a film he co-financed called "It's in The Bag" (1945) with his great friend Fred Allen. Robert Benchley was also in that one and William Bendix. My sides hurt at night from all that chuckling. I wish more of that came across on screen. We were trying so hard to entertain each other we forgot about the audience. I was a dizzy dame named Eve Floggle and at one point when asked where I keep my old diamonds I say I throw all the old ones out every year because they get so very shabby. Young people see it on TV and dont get it because there are all these references to Jack's and Freds radio shows.
BINNIE BARNES, left, with
in "I MARRIED AN ANGEL"
BAWDEN: You were in the last picture of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy?
BARNES: "I Married An Angel" (1942). It had originally been written directly for the movies and was going to be their first film together. Then the censor balked and it went to Broadway instead. Jeanette said to me, It will be our greatest triumph! But it was a huge bomb with wartime audiences. Both stars were very plump by then and simply too old to play cute anymore. Anita Loos did the screenplay, the sets are lavish, we were months working on it. It just didnt jell. People cringed at the overly ripe treatment. A friend saw it on TV and told me she now knows what kitsch means. I did another operetta around that time called "New Wine" which was quickly made. And of course the critics could not resist using the phrase new wine in old bottles.
BAWDEN: You once told me your favorite studio was Republic! Why?
BARNES: Because they treated me right royally. Old Herbert Yates (studio boss) was crazy for talent and he ran this little studio out in the valley. There were five or six small soundstages and a tiny back lot. But it was a real family. Everything was spotless, the stages, the dressing rooms. The pace was surprisingly leisurely. Yates only had John Wayne and Roy Rogers as big box office stars. I went there after I got married and took some time off. Then my husband (Mike Frankovich) went off to war and I had to work and I was no longer in demand. So I was Big Johns leading lady in "In Old California" (1942) and loved it. And I loved him. When I was at a London party once I was asked who was the best actor Id ever worked with. Was it Olivier or Richardson. Neither, said I. Its John Wayne. But he cant do Shakespeare said one lady. Ah, I replied. But have Larry-O or Ralph ever been able to ride the range?
BAWDEN: I get these pictures mixed up: "Up In Mabels Room" (1944) and "Getting Gerties Garter" (1946).
BARNES: So do I. Made them one after another for that cagey producer Edward Small. Dennis OKeefe was in both,as was I. Boy, did the censors have a field day with these two. Gave us all kinds of publicity. The production was shoestring and the films ran for years afterwards whenever there was a hole in the double bill schedules of theaters. Allan Dwan did both of them and asked me to come over and have some fun.
BAWDEN: You also did an Abbott and Costello film which is considered their best.
BARNES: "The Time of Their Lives" (1946). Not really their kind of thing. It had an involving story. There was a lot of friction there. They really didnt play as a team at all. I remember I had one great line. I open the door, look to Gale Sondergaard and say Didnt I see you in 'Rebecca'? The audience roared during the preview I attended. Part of it was set in Revolutionary times and it was a success but not as big box office as their others. When Bud slapped Lou on the face repeatedly during many takes I could see he really hated his partner. And that hatred was reciprocated.
BINNIE BARNES in
piratical gear in
"THE SPANISH MAIN."
BAWDEN: Those Hollywood films set in Britain but made on the backlot didnt work as well in the Forties.
BARNES: Well, "The Man from Down Under" (1943) was actually set in Australia. Charles (Laughton) asked me to do it. But even he knew it was a miserable little comedy. He sort of gave up and gives one of his few bad performances. Then came "The Hour Before Dawn" (1944), which had Veronica Lake as a Nazi spy seducing pacifist Franchot Tone at his British stately mansion. I was an actress who had married into the nobility. It was from a Somerset Maugham novel hed written expressly for the U.S. market. The old bird was on set and I asked him why he forbade its publication in Britain and he said, Because, my dear, it is pure unadulterated shit. This failure really destroyed the momentum of Veronicas Paramount career. She never was the same. And she wasnt the nicest of girls to work with anyway.
Two more were "My Own True Love Came Back" (1947) with Phyllis Calvert and "If Winter Comes" (1947) with Deborah Kerr. Both were huge bombs, legendary stinkers.
BAWDEN: You soldiered on.
BARNES: Sort of. We adopted three little kids and I was a proud mummy. Hated working by then. Did just a bit of live TV. Then I was seduced into going to Broadway with David Niven as replacements for Gloria Swanson and Jose Ferrer in their successful revival of "Twentieth Century." We got among the worst notices ever. David had no stage training and I wasnt well prepared at all. It closed quickly and I wanted to run and hide. It was time to call it quits, I told myself, and thats exactly what I did. For almost 13 years I was a stay-at-home mum. And lets face it, there were no decent offers.
BAWDEN: Why the return in 1966 in "The Trouble With Angels"?
BARNES: Once when we were in L.A. and I was regaling friends with stories about arranging my daughters wedding, Donna Reed was in the room and had the tales wrapped into a TV episode of her show. That was 1963 and I did another episode with Donna in 1966, the year I made "The Trouble With Angels." During my retirement Id thrived as Mikes trouble shooter and I even produced one film on my own"Thunderstorm" with Carlos Thompson and Linda Christian. So on "Angels," I reluctantly agreed to be on the set because of anticipated problems. After all, we had a school full of naughty teenaged girls. The budget was tight and Roz Russell was suspicious of our director, Ida Lupino, who was known to take a nip or two on set. Hayley Mills was just plain obnoxious. Maybe she was a Method actress. But we got through with it after I followed Ida out to lunch one day and caught her tossing back margaritas with the cameraman across the street from Columbia. I told her she risked dismissal if that ever happened again and she came through on time and on budget. And it was a hugely profitable success.
Yes, there was a sequel1968s "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows." Hayley refused to return. She wanted to be a great dramatic star, she said. And that was the end of her stardom. Stella Stevens replaced her, Im not sure that was great casting. And we added such old pros as Robert Taylor, Van Johnson and Milton Berle. James Neilson was our harassed director. Im guessing we really needed Idas experienced hand. it didnt replicate the earlier films huge success. Sequels rarely do. But it was Rozs last hit movie and Bob Taylors last ever film. He died right after it. One day he came over to me at the lunch wagon and asked me if I remembered "Small Town Girl" and he just seemed sad, so sad.
BAWDEN: So how did you get to make your last film, "40 Carats" (1973)?
BARNES: Did it as a favor to Mike. Hed seen the Broadway smash with Julie Harris and paid big bucks to film it. His ideal lead was Audrey Hepburn. But Audrey hadnt made a film for seven years. She was 47 by then and was skittish. She still was enjoying her second marriage and finally she demanded that the whole thing be made in Rome so she could be near her second husband. Mike searched and searched for a glamorous substitute. Joanne Woodward? Too serious! Ann Bancroft? Even more serious! Finally he latched onto Liv Ulmann, who very definitely did not have that light touch. With the filming deadline nearing, he made what I thought was a catastrophic casting mistake. Liv was so very nervous during the entire shoot. Very unsure of herself. There was no chemistry with Edward Albert, who played the young suitor. Liv was playing a 40-year-old and that would have made her mother how old? Sixty-five to 70? Roz Russell said no. Loretta Young was outraged wed even ask. Finally, Mike turns to me and said, Youll have to do it! And I never had such a ball. Got to dance with Gene Kelly. Wore stunning gowns, got in some ace wise cracks just like the old days.
Mike asked me to play Flo Ziegfelds mom in his 1978 TV movie biography "Ziegfeld," but I felt Id had it. Best to get on with life. So these days I run up and down the sand dunes at Malibu. There are grand kids to look after. The business is ever changing and I dont want to change. I vowed when I got here in 1934 Id stay forever and it has happened. I want to go on and on until the Good Lord calls me home.
(Binnie Barnes died in 1998 at age 93.)
©2011 by Jim Bawden. This column first posted March 28, 2011
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