In 1939 an unlikely event came to our part of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Hollywood visited the Spencer’s Mountain area and for the first time we back country folks came face to face with the rich, the famous, with movie stars whose faces and names were known all over the world!
I was fifteen years old. Paramount Studios was making a film called "Virginia," a highly romantic and utterly unreal picture of rural life in our area in the late thirties. The location filming was being shot about six miles from my hometown in a village named Howardsville. I knew Howardsville pretty well. It was the meeting place of the James and the Rockfish River and the bridge at the edge of town led to Buckingham County where my father’s people, as tobacco planters, had settled originally and where cousins to the second and third degree still lived. We often spent our Sundays over there visiting relatives and always stopped in Howardsville to see a novelty – an albino squirrel which was kept in a big wire cage in the yard of a home along the main street.
Another family coincidence was that at the top of the mountain above the town was an area called Mount Alto. My Uncle Curtis Gianinni, my mother’s oldest brother, had a farm there which was destined to be immortalized in the film "Virginia."
Once news that the filming was underway, a whole pack of us youngsters hitchhiked down the Rockfish River Road to see what was going on. What was going on was HOLLYWOOD! And there were STARS!
An encampment had been set up consisting of private dressing rooms for the cast, limousines to deliver them from the Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville where they were housed, camera trucks, costume trucks, food trucks, make up trailers.
And - Oh the stars! In that part of the country we were just coming out of the tail end of The Great Depression. It had been a grim time and our day-to-day lives had seldom encountered such glamour and luster as the movies had celebrated. And suddenly right there in front of us were stars and they were giving off a glow. We country folks were in awe of such beautiful people. When they were not on camera they took it easy sitting in directors chairs, chatting among themselves, studying their scripts, giving autographs or going back and forth to their individual dressing rooms. There was an air about them. They moved with ease and grace. They were dressed in fashionable clothing. The ladies were gorgeous, the men were handsome. To those of us Blue Ridge folk they could have been gods and goddesses.
Madeleine Carol, a stunningly beautiful actress was being filmed supposedly arriving by train from New York.
Miss Carol was of British birth. In her time she was one of the highest paid female actors in the business. At one point, after the death of her sister during a German air raid, she gave up acting to entertain troops in the European Theater of Operations.
In the movie "Virginia" she was portraying a member of an aristocratic family returning to the old plantation to dispose of it. She had planned to make quick work of it until she fell in love with a local gentleman farmer, Fred MacMurray.
MacMurray in his career starred in over one hundred films, the most famous being "Double Indemnity" in which he starred with Barbara Stanwick. He is best known today as the father in the long running television series "My Three Sons."
In "Virginia" soon after falling for Fred MacMurray, Miss Carol meets a rich northerner, Sterling Hayden. She wavers between the two men, as one reviewer notes, "while the audience settles in for a good long nap."
In real life Madeleine Carol was to marry Sterling Hayden, according to studio publicist known as "The most beautiful man in the movies."
A man of action, he was always in love with the sea and ran away from home at seventeen to join the navy. He distinguished himself for his military service during World War Two.
Day after day we country folk flocked to Howardsville to watch the filming. At one point my Uncle Curtis and some of the local men were hired to work as extras, portraying farmer types sitting on a bench outside a county store. Curtis also made another extra couple of bucks by allowing the crew to film a sow in his pigpen that had just given birth to eighteen piglets.
When the film premiered in Charlottesville we all were there. Sadly the shot of Uncle Curtis had been edited out of the movie, but there was still occasion for elation. When the shot of Curtis’s pig came on screen, we rose in a body and shouted, "There’s Curtis’ pig!"
TWINKLE TWINKLE MOVIE STAR!
During my early years at NBC radio I worked with a good many stars, especially on the showcase NBC THEATER OF THE AIR where we adapted classic stage plays to a radio format. Most of the stars of our shows tended to be actors from the New York stage, often not well known except to the theater going public. But when I came to Hollywood I became exposed to a good many film stars.
Fred MacMurry, Sterling Hayden and Madeleine Carroll, the first movie stars I ever laid eyes on, were stars of the old school. It was a lifetime later before I came into meaningful, personal contact with Hollywood stars.
During the filming of "Spencer’s Mountain" I was introduced to Henry Fonda and Maureen O"Hara but I cannot say we actually worked together. I would run into Fonda at Delbert and Ann Mann’s Christmas Party each year. Later when we were casting "The Waltons" I offered him the role of John Walton, but he rightfully pointed out that the star of the series was John-Boy and in his words "I’m too old to play second fiddle to a fifteen year old boy."
One star I later came to know well was Patricia Neal. She was a joy to know and to work with, and there is a story about her in the archives of this blog that you might enjoy.
On "The Waltons" each and every actor was a star, but they were and are still young people and I am talking here about a special group of actors. Most of them tended to have some special quality that set them apart, a kind of luminous quality that the camera liked. Most of them were under contract to one of the major studios, their lives and reputations closely attended and guarded, their careers carefully crafted. The studios groomed them to be stars, paid them outrageous salaries, nurtured, and exploited them all the while their image was being carefully built by publicity agents. Bette Davis had that star quality, so did Barbara Stanwick, Katherine Hepburn, Lana Turner, Dame Judith Evans, Joan Crawford, Jane Wyman and Ingrid Bergman, to name just a few. John Wayne had it and so did Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Regan, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Lawrence Olivier.
It was when we cast Miss Jane Wyman as Angela Channing, the owner of Falcon Crest, a prosperous vineyard in the Napa Valley that I came to know a star from that special galaxy. And from her I learned a little bit about stardom, what it is like to be a star, what makes them shine and how they guard that luminous quality.
Miss Wyman was born Sarah Jane Mayfield in St. Joseph Missouri on January 5, 1917. Raised by foster parents she dropped out of high school at age 15 and came to Hollywood where she found work as a manicurist and switchboard operator before she started obtaining small parts in films. Small roles led to more important ones and her big break came in 1945 when she appeared in "The Lost Weekend" with Ray Milland. A year later she was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in "The Yearling." She was now able to choose her own films and was finally on her way to true stardom in such films as "Johnny Belinda", "The Glass Menagerie" "Magnificent Obsession" and "The Blue Veil" to mention only a few.
Miss Wyman married Ronald Regan in 1940 and they became the darlings of the press with every minute of their lives documented by the reigning queens of show biz gossip, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. They were divorced in 1949 due to what has been suggested as "political differences."
Miss Wyman was our first choice when it came to casting the matriarch, Angela Gioberti, owner of Falcon Crest Winery. I was already on location in the Napa Valley, but a day or so before we were to start filming, I went to the Sacramento Airport to met her and bring her to the valley.
To meet her in a manner commensurate with her stardom I had rented the longest, most impressive limo I could find. She smiled a greeting, stepped inside the limo, and after a few moments she launched into a discussion of her character that was right on target. Her remarks about the script were knowledgeable, informed and useful. Stars know what they’re doing! At one moment a gorgeous Napa Valley vineyard caught my eye and, I happened to look out of the window of the limo. She touched me on my arm and said, "Don’t look away when Mother’s talking. You might miss something!" From that moment on I knew she expected my undivided attention.
On the way to Napa I told her we had made arrangements for her to stay at the local country club. She said, "No, I want to stay where the crew stays." I rearranged her living accommodations so she lived at the Holiday Inn with the rest of us. It was a sound move. It put her in touch with the technicians, drivers, make-up people and costume people who would be looking after her. They liked her for being so democratic. That she was, but she in no time knew the name of every person on the crew and they adored her. It was a sincere gesture, but it was also a smart one.
Someone once asked why an actor of her standing, a woman who had once been married to Ronald Regan, someone who had no financial worries, would want to come out of retirement and take on the heavy burden of starring in a television series. For one thing Jane’s friends Barbara Stanwick and Loretta Young had already made such a move and it had not been professionally harmful. My own contention was that she was lonesome for the world she had known and probably bored with sitting alone in her luxurious apartment in Santa Monica gazing out to sea.
After the location filming was finished we returned to Los Angeles for the interior scenes, which we filmed at the CBS Studios in Studio City. Shortly I was to have a revelation about stardom.
I needed a private conversation with the lady so I called her and said that we needed to have a chat, and that I had made reservations at Jimmy’s, a restaurant in Beverly Hills.
"Good," she said, "They know me there."
I added, "And I asked for a table in the back so we could talk without interruption."
"Call them back and tell them to give us my usual table," she said. "I never sit in the back of the room." Star talk. Hollywood royalty.
At the dinner we were seated at the Number One table and managed not a word of the discussion we were supposed to have because of the friends and fans that stopped by to say hello or to ask for autographs. We discussed many things, but essentially Miss Wyman was a private person. Once when we were having dinner and I had more wine that then was wise, I asked "What was it like being married to a President of the United States." She answered, "I never discuss the gentleman."
"Falcon Crest" was fun and our cast was rich with great actors. Jane was without doubt THE star, but we also had such exceptional stars as Susan Sullivan and Robert Foxworth, David Selby, Ana-Alicia, and Lorenzo Lamas, Margaret Ladd, Abby Dalton and Chao-Le Chi. There was a feeling of camaraderie on the set, no professional jealousy over who gets the best lines, at least that I was aware of, and a sense of mutual respect for their fellow actors and members of the crew.
Excellent guest stars were attracted to the series. We were a hit, but big stars also came because Jane was our star and they knew certain standards would be set. Mel Ferrar became a running character, as did Caeser Romero. It became "the thing to do" for stars to take guest starring roles. Gina Lollobrigiga came over from Italy for a series of episodes. Kim Novak left her hide-away in Big Sur long enough to lend her enchanting presence.
One of the most controversial stars to join us was Lana Turner. Lana was a legendary actor in her time, first discovered at a soda fountain by the owner of The Hollywood Reporter. After his recommendation to a producer she soon became cast in a film. Known at first as "the sweater girl" she quickly became a major star playing opposite such male stars as Clark Gable and John Garfield. She was a skilled actress but she was equally known for her eight marriages and a messy affair in later life with a gangster name Johnny Stampano.
When Jane learned that I had cast Lana she said, "I wish you had mentioned you were casting her."
"Why?" I asked. "She’ll be good for the ratings. What’s wrong with casting her?"
"She’s not a lady," Jane replied.
Jane was polite, but distant when Lana came aboard. At one point the CBS photographer asked if he could take a shot of the two of them together.
Jane was in her chair on one side of the sound stage waiting for the next scene to be shot. Lana was seated clear across the stage some distance away. I explain to Jane what the photographer wanted and Jane said, "Sure, bring her over."
Trying a bit of hillbilly diplomacy, I next went to Lana and explained that the photographer wanted a shot of her with Jane.
"Sure," replied Lana obligingly, "Bring her over."
In the end the photographer got his picture. He took it just as the scene between the two of the ladies was ending and they were walking off the sound stage in chilly silence.
Although I enjoyed "The Waltons" it had been a demanding series. During its long run, in addition to Falcon Crest I had also created and produced two other series, "Boone" and "Apple’s Way" which had limited runs. I was tired and so I left "Falcon Crest" at the end of the fifth season.
Jane and I remained friends. I would stop and see her occasionally on the set, and we always visited at Harry and Pattie Harris’ Christmas party which was a tradition and which Jane always attended with her daughter, Maureen Regan. Toward the end of the series health problems made it necessary for her to miss some filming. It must have been painful for her because she had always been a "trooper," and dedicated to her work. When the series was over she moved to Rancho Mirage, and while we spoke occasionally by phone I was never to see her again. When I received the news that she had died I felt, not only that a star had fallen, but also that I had lost a friend.