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Recovering George Reeves

by Serena Enger

The reviews of Hollywoodland (2006) often refer to George Reeves as a B-level actor who despaired of his limited roles. One of the problems of contemporary film reviews, articles, and television documentaries about Reeves is that they tend to quote each other and fail to do original research and even review Reeves' career and films. Furthermore, researchers have to locate most of Reeves' pre-1945 films in archives or hope to see his films on cable television.

In fact, many of Reeves' pre-1945 films are well-made and acted and should be made available on DVD: The Mad Martindales (1942), Always a Bride (1940), Father is a Prince (1940), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), and especially two, spy thrillers, the Mickey Shayne series entry, Blue, White and Perfect (1941), with Lloyd Nolan as Shayne, and Man at Large (1941), arguably the first screwball spy thriller.

In Man at Large, Reeves proves that had the screwball comedy genre lasted through the early 1940s, he could have held his own with Cary Grant, Joel McCrea, Ralph Bellamy, and Melvyn Douglas, for charm, physical pratfalls, quick comic timing and rapid dialogue. The Harmonica Hall scene, in which Reeves and Marjorie Weaver don guises as a mind reader and his assistant, is a small comic masterpiece. Man at Large also displays the comic talents of Elisha Cook, Jr., as a hotel clerk caught up in a web of intrigue. The film is also noteworthy as one of the first films to use real-life accounts of Nazi agents working within the United States. The film's writer, John Larkin, would later work with Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr., on Fritz Lang's spy thriller, Cloak and Dagger (1946), one of the first films to depict the need to ensure the security of atomic energy research.

In Dave Kehr's review of the George Reeves Double Feature: Thunder in the Pines and Jungle Goddess, in the New York Times (January 2, 2007), Kehr generously and accurately compares Reeves' elegance and timing as an actor to the style of films directed by Lubitsch and Leisen. Since many viewers today don't have access to Reeves' pre-1945 films, it is unfair for reviewers of Hollywoodland to describe Reeves' acting ability based on a couple of truly B films he made when the studio system was collapsing due to the Paramount Decree (Reeves had various contracts with Paramount from 1943 through 1949) and post-war production changes that affected the careers and quality of scripts for A-level actors. Even Lyle Talbot, his co-star in Thunder in the Pines, made "A" level films, including a major role in Dore Schary's film version of his critically successful play about the Roosevelts, Sunrise at Campobello (1960). Actors also owe Talbot and his courageous fellow actors accolades for helping to found Screen Actor's Guild. Cary Grant's films from the early 1950s in which he attempted psychological dramas and light comedies, are barely remembered today. Hitchcock would chiefly save his career.

Recent articles in relation to Hollywoodland, and even Hollywoodland itself, ignore what made Reeves an appealing actor and person. They cite the couple of B productions from the 1940s and jump to his death in 1959. In fact, Reeves made many charming films in the early 1940s, including Blood and Sand, to be released in April, 2007, on DVD, with Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth, performed in over sixty productions at the Pasadena Playhouse from 1935 to 1953, always to good reviews in the Los Angeles Times, and devoted much of his personal life in the 1950s to charity work for children. He is known for raising money for children's causes, including the City of Hope in Los Angeles, for Myasthenia Gravis research, and advocating on the behalf of Mexican-American children in the Los Angeles area. He and his fellow actors from the Adventures of Superman signed autographs for white and African-American children in Memphis, Tennessee. Reeves, Noel Neill, Jack Larson, and John Hamilton rallied together by refusing to appear to a segregated audience which resulted in the original show being cancelled (Click here for more on this subject: The June 1954 Memphis Tennessee Appearance). For millions of children, from 1953 till present, Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman gave them a sincere, intelligent and courageous hero, who cared about children and doing the right thing.

Reeves would not have been cast as a major supporting player opposite Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, Hayworth in two films, in several Cagney films, opposite Claudette Colbert in So Proudly We Hail!, or been a memorable villain in Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious and a slick police detective in Lang's Blue Gardenia, had he merely been a "B" actor. (It's been reported that he and Lang called each other son and father. According to Patrick McGilligan's biography, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Lang was notorious for his poor treatment of his male actors.)

The Pasadena Playhouse gave him his training, his career, and a home to always return to for satisfying stage work, financial help, and camaraderie. In 1935, the Pasadena college graduate, began his apprenticeship with the famed theatre. Reeves would become a close friend and personal secretary of the Playhouse's co-founder, Gilmor Brown. During the late summer of 1937 and 1938, according to passenger lists, Reeves and Brown traveled to Europe to scout for potential dramatic properties for the Playhouse. Reeves would be among the few to have this privilege and opportunity.

In 1937, the Playhouse was designated by the California State Legislature as the Official State Theatre of California. The Midsummer Drama Festival in 1937 focused on the "Story of the Great Southwest." Reeves appeared in four of the seven plays in the cycle, Hauptman's Montezuma, Maxwell Anderson's Night over TAOS, Werfel's Juarez and Maximilian and his Rose of the Rancho. Reeves was also fluent in Spanish and could change his appearance to take on a Latin look, which helped his career.

Over the years, Reeves appeared in many plays, including those by Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, as well as contemporary works. Diane Alexander's book, Playhouse!, is a lively oral history of the Pasadena Playhouse, which highlights the camaraderie of its actors, crew, and supportive community of patrons. Actors praise Reeves as "the fastest study anyone knew."

In the absence of university acting programs in the 1930s, the Pasadena Playhouse gave many actors their training and their careers. By 1939 Reeves appeared as Stuart Tarleton in the famous opening scene of Gone with the Wind. Thus began his film career, but not without his fellow Playhouse comrades. Many would appear with him in film, stage, and television work, including the Adventures of Superman.

The noted stage and film actor, and occasional director for the Pasadena Playhouse, Victor Jory, has an interesting connection with Reeves. As professional colleagues, Reeves and Jory appeared in credited roles in Gone with the Wind, with a screenplay by the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright, Sidney Howard. They would appear together in seven films, including several Hopalong Cassidy films in 1943. Jory also directed Reeves as Jake Wallace in the Playhouse production of Belasco's The Girl of the Golden West in 1947. Jory appeared in hundreds of "A" films, westerns, and stage-derived films, like The Miracle Worker, and in important Broadway productions, over the course of his career. He also served on the board of The American Repertory Theatre, founded by Eva Le Gallienne and Cheryl Crawford, and acted to critical acclaim in several productions. Due to financial problems, the company dissolved after two years in the late 1940s, but not without trying to create a repertory focus for American audiences. They produced eight plays from 1946-1948, including Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Ghosts. Jory serves an example of an actor recognized by his peers and drama critics as a "serious" actor, who concurrently made countless "B" films or double-feature films, such as Hopalong Cassidy films, while starring in "A" films and in Broadway and West Coast theatrical productions.

After their Hopalong Cassidy work in 1943, Reeves would get his big break in So Proudly We Hail!, and then get another break as Lieutenant Thompson in the Moss Hart play, Winged Victory. Reeves had enlisted for military service on March 24, 1943, and was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Force's First Motion Picture Unit, which produced military training films, of which Reeves made an unknown number.

In October of 1943, he began rehearsing as Lt. Thompson in the military production of Winged Victory. The play, a morale booster for personnel serving in the U.S. military and their families, opened on Broadway on November 20, 1943, and closed on May 20, 1944. The U.S. Army Air Force then took it on tour.

Stephen Bach's biography, Dazzler: The Life of Moss Hart, features a photo of Hart instructing his cast on the play. Reeves and his wife, actor, Ellanora Needles, who appeared in the ensemble, and as a WAC, in the film version, can be seen in the fourth row, left side of the photo, belonging to the New York Public Library. [Also of note, on the opposing page, Gilmor Brown's other reportedly favorite actor he discovered, Victor Mature, is seen in his Broadway debut in 1941, in Moss Hart's ground-breaking play, The Lady in the Dark. One of the few publicity photos of Reeves in the 1950s shows him at the 1954 premiere of The Egyptian, which starred Mature, and featured in a bit role, Tyler McDuff, a Playhouse alumni, and known to Superman fans in the title role in a favorite 1953 episode, "The Boy Who Hated Superman."]

Winged Victory, in its day, was a big hit, because its plot supported the military and its families making psychological sacrifices for the common good. Reeves, following his greatest film role as Colbert's feisty and romantic love interest in So Proudly We Hail!, received a lot of press coverage in movie magazines, as can be seen in Lou Koza's CD-ROM slide show, Saving George Reeves, and in The New York Times.

Director Most Hart presents Winged Victory (1943) to his cast and crew.

George and Ellanora Reeves in attendance.

Photo courtesy of Lou Koza


Yellow Jack on Broadway

In renewing my childhood interest in Reeves following the premiere of Hollywoodland, I discovered The Adventures Continue website, dedicated to researching and recovering Reeves' life and career and providing information about the iconic television classic series, the Adventures of Superman. In reviewing older editions and its photos of the month archive, I became intrigued by a rare business card Reeves had made in September, 1949, while he was pioneering live dramatic television in New York. It led me to uncover stage work Reeves had done in the 1940s and have his credits and those of the production restored.

On the business card, Reeves states he played Dr. James Carroll in the play, Yellow Jack. This has gone unnoticed in any published information about Reeves. The Internet Broadway Database entry for the 1947 revival of Yellow Jack was incomplete. The 1947 Broadway theatre annual listed no other than Victor Jory as Dr. James Carroll. At first, I wondered whether Reeves served as Jory's understudy. In correspondence with The Playbill Company, I was told that understudies were not credited in Playbills from the 1940s. The representative kindly checked a 1947 copy of Yellow Jack and could not find Reeves listed. If anyone can confirm whether Reeves served as Jory's understudy, please contact TAC editor, Lou Koza.

A review of theatre books and articles about The American Repertory Theatre's history, Eva Le Gallienne, and the play's director, Martin Ritt, did not mention Reeves. The research librarian for, the website and online database archive of The League of American Theatres and Producers, kindly restored full production information to its entry, after I sent articles and reviews to confirm the production.

However, more research found an answer and a web of relationships. The play, about the courageous efforts of medical scientists to find a cure for Yellow Fever, ravaging Cuba and people involved in the making of the Panama Canal, was written by Sidney Howard, the screenplay writer for Gone with the Wind. The original 1934 Broadway production featured Barton MacLane as Dr. James Carroll. MacLane would later star in Bugles in the Afternoon (1953) with Reeves. William Cagney, who produced the film, had also made other films with Reeves in the early 1940s at Warner Brothers, including several with Jimmy Cagney such as The Strawberry Blonde.

Robert Shayne, known as Inspector Henderson on the Superman series, appears as Harkness. Shayne had a distinguished career on Broadway in the 1930s, and then would get his big break on film as one of Bette Davis's suitors in Mr. Skeffington. Lloyd Gough, the prominent stage actor, appears as a Laboratory Assistant. Gough and Reeves would work together as memorable outlaws in Fritz Lang's 1952 western, Rancho Notorious. Silvia Richards contributed the story idea. She had been Lang's companion in the late 1940s, and avoided being blacklisted, by cooperating with HUAC. Gough played Kinch, the man who rapes and kills Vern Haskell's (played by Arthur Kennedy, one of America's great stage actors) fiancée. Haskell, in seeking revenge, finds the hideout, run by Marlene Dietrich, for a group of assorted outlaws. At first, Haskell thinks Wilson, played by Reeves, a smooth ladies' man, with a big scar, is the killer. Gough's credit, despite the major role, would be dropped from the film, upon his subpoena and imminent blacklisting. Gough would later appear in Martin Ritt's The Front (1976), as a blacklisted television writer, who, like Gough, in real life, firmly declared himself a Communist. Ritt (blacklisted in the 50's) directed the 1947 revival of Yellow Jack, and, as we shall see, directed another version of it.

The 1938 film version of Yellow Jack also features Jonathan Hale as Major General Leonard Wood. Hale played the astrophysicist in what is perhaps the most beloved episode of the Adventures of Superman, "Panic in the Sky," in which Superman averts an asteroid collision at the cost of Kent losing his memory, if temporarily. Hale ably played the defense attorney in Fritz Lang's first American film, Fury (1936), which was produced at MGM with the advocacy of Eddie Mannix.

Brooks Atkinson, the powerful mid-century drama critic for The New York Times, in his review of the 1947 revival of Yellow Jack, credits Victor Jory and Philip Bourneuf as "the best actors in the cast," which included Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. [Bourneuf's wife, Frances Reid, starred in the 1945 production of The Wind is Ninety. Reeves pioneered live dramatic television, most notably as Don Richie, the ghost soldier, in the Kraft Television Theatre production of The Wind is Ninety, which aired on June 28, 1950. The NBC tapes are archived at the Library of Congress.]

A further search on The New York Times archive's database yielded proof that Reeves had portrayed Dr. James Carroll. On April 7, 1944, select members of the Winged Victory cast gave a one-time performance of Yellow Jack in abbreviated form at the 44th Street Theatre. Upon supplying with the information, they created a new entry in their database: Yellow Jack

Reeves did, in fact, portray the fiery Dr. James Carroll, intent on finding a cure for yellow fever. The military production also marks the directorial debut of stage and film director, Martin Ritt, who had served as an actor in Winged Victory. He got his chance to direct with a stellar cast, including Philip Bourneuf, Alfred Ryder, Olive Deering, and Gary Merrill. Bourneuf would reprise his role as Dr. Carlos Finlay in 1947, and Reeves's colleague, Victor Jory, would take on Reeves' character. Alfred Ryder, who played Jesse Lazear, was a critically respected actor and director, who was married to Pasadena Playhouse graduate, Kim Stanley, and performed in many major Broadway productions such as Ghosts, Rhinoceros, Hamlet, and The Entertainer. As Jan Alan Henderson said in Behind the Crimson Cape: The Cinema of George Reeves, Reeves was always in good company.

Ritt does not discuss Yellow Jack in any great detail in Martin Ritt: Interviews, but he does declare his admiration for the play and that it was a "big hit." He had hoped to take it on tour to hospitals and other social venues. In reviewing several newspaper and magazine archives, I am unable to determine whether the 1944 production toured in any capacity.

Olive Deering is featured in the 1944 production as the only female member of the cast. Reeves's fans will recall that Deering portrayed Odette, the French girlfriend of the G.I. in the 1950 Kraft Television Theatre's production, Kelly. Reeves plays Sargent Stivers, the best friend of Deering's wartime romance, Kelly. It is one of Reeves's few dramatic television performances to survive on tape.

Just prior to the April production, The New York Times featured one of those political petitions familiar to today's readers of national newspapers. On January 10, 1944, prominent actors, writers, and theatre producers, mostly known as progressive political activists, many of whom would, in a decade, be hounded by HUAC or blacklisted, signed a petition demanding that Congress pass legislation allowing members of the Armed Forces to vote! In a stand for full voting rights, supervised on the federal level, the petitioners criticized the Senate for rejecting the Green-Lucas Bill, "which provided for federal supervision of soldier voting."

Among the who's who of the progressive cultural community is the collective cast of Winged Victory, and fellow professional colleagues of Reeves': Victor Jory, Rita Hayworth, Moss Hart, and Pasadena Playhouse actor and fellow Paramount contract star, Laird Cregar. But that's not all. The producer, director and head writer for the popular radio program, the Adventures of Superman (1939-1951), Robert and Jessica Maxwell, and their voice of Lois Lane, Joan Alexander, signed the petition. After all, Clark Kent/Superman defended Roosevelt's America and agenda for progressive social reform.

Yellow Jack would continue to make the rounds, but now on the West Coast. Following the April, 1944 performance, Gilmor Brown devoted the Playhouse's Ninth MidSummer Drama Festival to the works of Sidney Howard. The eight Howard plays ran for a week each and concluded with Yellow Jack (June 25, 1944, The New York Times). The Times writer, Robert O. Foot, notes that Howard was a native Californian and that the Howard cycle set a record at the Playhouse for an eight-week season. It's possible that Reeves saw this Festival since he acted in the Cukor-directed film version of Winged Victory in the Fall of 1944.

Part Two: George Reeves, California Theatre Manager and Actor

Admittedly, 1946-1947 appear to be lean years for Reeves. He performed in Pasadena Playhouse productions and began filming Sainted Sisters in October 1947, after Sterling Hayden declined the part. In 1948, he made his B films for Lippert, Katzman, and Columbia. Remember that 1949 business card? Reeves says he "ran Newport Playhouse (coast)." A search in the Los Angeles Times archives yielded a surprise. Apparently Reeves learned from his mentors, and began managing the summer season for Repertory Productions, Inc. at Newport Harbour, California.

Three articles show that Reeves starred opposite one of the twentieth century's greatest stage actors, Eugenie Leontovich, in Dark Eyes, which Leontovich co-wrote with Elena Miramova in 1943. Dark Eyes enjoyed success on Broadway for 230 performances in 1943. Leontovich is known for her roles as the Dowager Empress in Anastasia, and in her adaptation of Anna Karenina, Anna K., and for the role Greta Garbo would glow in, Grand Hotel. She won a Tony for her performance in William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers in 1958, in which Reeves' friend from the Pasadena Playhouse days in the 1930s, Wayne Morris, would play the Duke.

The comedy opened on June 21, 1948 for a six-night run, at Newport Harbour High School Auditorium. Reeves earned praise in the Los Angeles Times as the Georgian Prince Nicolai Toradje (the business card states he can do Russian dialect), whose fiancée is played by his wife, Ellanora Needles Reeves. Rita Glover, a prominent stage designer and director, chiefly for the Pasadena Playhouse, was also singled out for her stage sets.

Following this production, five months later, a Los Angeles Times "Studio Brief," dated November 12, 1948, announced that George and Ellanora Reeves were shaping up "plays for the Newport Beach Summer theater in which they were interested this year." This indicates they managed the Repertory, Inc., for at least one season. In a March 12, 1949 article, the Times mentions in another "Studio Brief," that Reeves had previously directed at the Pasadena Playhouse and Playbox and was "interested in the Newport Beach summer theater." No further mention is made in the Los Angeles Times whether the couple appeared in other Newport productions or managed the 1949 summer season. Reeves did make many television drama performances, which, unfortunately, cannot be judged today, because they appear to have been lost or made live without taping.

Part Three: Clark Kent and Company

The stage never left Reeves, even during his seven-year run as the Man of Steel. "The Prince Albert Coat" episode affectionately uses an old-fashioned itinerant theatre actor as a character who uses the valuable coat for a performance. The first person saved by Superman on the debut episode, "Superman on Earth," is the actor, Dabbs Greer. Greer served as an actor and stage manager at the Pasadena Playhouse during the 1940s, before appearing on television and film throughout his long career. Greer would also appear in the last season in a dual role, in "The Superman Silver Mine."

Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen, with great comic gusto, received his stage training in the late 1940s at the Pasadena Junior College, a short distance from the Pasadena Playhouse.

Allene Roberts is memorable in three episodes of the series, in its first season, particularly, in episode two, "The Haunted Lighthouse," which featured audio commentary by Gary Grossman, Superman chronicler, on the DVD set. "The Haunted Lighthouse" has the style of a Gothic stage melodrama, not unlike The Red House (1948, available on DVD), in which Roberts, in a standout role opposite Edward G. Robinson, holds her own with two other notable dramatic actors, Dame Judith Anderson and Lon McCallister. McCallister had the lead role in the stage and film version of Winged Victory. His companion of the 1940s, William Eythe, would star with Reeves and Virginia Christine (a favorite actress of Stanley Kramer's, the wife of Fritz Feld, a stage director and film actor, and Mrs. Frank in "Lady in Black") in the B-film, Special Agent (1949). It's a "B" film, although Reeves's sensitive outlaw brother character reads Tolstoy, which turns out to be an important turning point in the film. Arthur Space, who plays the sheriff, would appear in three Superman episodes.

The Adventures of Superman may have been a low-budget, early entry for television, but Robert Maxwell knew that if it were to be a success, he needed to hire high quality character actors. It also seems likely George Reeves, despite telling Phyllis Coates during the filming of Superman and the Mole Men, that Superman was the bottom of the barrel for him, that he began to think otherwise, and played a role in recruiting stage actors and former colleagues from his 1940s films and stage connections: Anthony Caruso; Virginia Christine; Elisha Cook, Jr.; Frank Ferguson [Ferguson appeared in many films with Reeves, including the two Lang films]; Dabbs Greer; Creighton Hale; Jonathan Hale; Tyler McDuff; Damian O'Flynn; Elizabeth Patterson; Maude Prickett; Walter Reed; Hayden Rorke (on the Laguna Playhouse circuit in the 1940s); Dan Seymour (four Lang films and Lang's estate executor); and Victor Sen Yung.

Distinguished actors Richard Benedict, Peter Brocco, and Howland Chamberlain (memorable in Polonsky's Force of Evil) would make some of their last dramatic roles on TAOS before being black or greylisted. Chamberlain and Brocco appeared together in the 1950 Fritz Lang feature, House by the River, as did noted actress, Sarah Padden, who appears as Mrs. Carmody in "The Haunted Lighthouse" and in the Lang-Brecht collaboration, Hangman Also Die! (1943). Even Effie Laird from House by the River appears in this episode as Aunt Louisa. Gloria Talbott, who brightens season four in "The Girl who Hired Superman," made a memorable turn as Jane Wyman's daughter in Douglas Sirk's counter-culture classic, All that Heaven Allows (1955) which also includes TAOS actors, Hayden Rorke, Nestor Paiva, and Reeves's friend, Virginia Grey.

Would a man who really believed that Superman was the bottom of the barrel have gotten Maude Prickett, the wife of Charles Prickett, the respected manager of the Pasadena Playhouse, to star in the season one episode, "The Deserted Village?" Contemporary viewers will recognize her as Elsie the maid in North by Northwest, which features Robert Shayne and Frank Wilcox (Reeves' best man at his marriage in 1940, and fellow actor in eight films) in the same scene at the Plaza Hotel's bar, and Lawrence Dobkin ("The Man who Could Read Minds") as the CIA official.

It is true Reeves never got the kind of break that ensured leading man invincibility, but today's viewers and critics should keep in mind that many factors railroaded acting careers after World War II. The break-up of the studio-theatre chain monopoly, shifting tastes, the blacklisting of talent, the emergence of television, the decline of moviegoers, and a lot of good acting talent caused intense competition among actors. I would have wished Reeves to have played in more romantic comedies, which, I think, he was best- suited, Restoration-period comedies, or as a private eye with a wife as a partner.

America takes its heroes and superheroes seriously. By 1950, children ruled the media. Reeves didn't become like Gable, the King, but he became the beloved hero. Fifty years later, his face can be seen at bestseller kiosks on the DVD sets of the Adventures of Superman. His gracefully athletic take-offs and 1951 and 1953 flight sequences as Superman recall the poetic magical realism of Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet and Orpheus. His transformation scenes show his skill at conveying elemental mythical truths about childhood (and adult) wish fulfillment. Those simple special effects hold up better than the loud and aggressive continuous disaster sequences in many recent action hero movies. While we won't be able to view his stage work from over eighty productions, let's hope that his films from the 1940s are preserved and released on DVD in the years to come.

(All rights reserved by Serena Enger)

I hope you've enjoy this very interesting feature provided by Serena Enger. It is obvious she has a great interest in George Reeves and all that is connected to his acting career.

Serena has contributed several new television credits and production and cast information to Reeves' entry, and has several pending. She has also discovered a screen name, Sarah Spencer, that Ellanora Needles used in the 1950s. This is now included on the entry. Other film credits and facts are now pending.

Thank you Serena for bringing your special knowledge and interest to the readers of The Adventures Continue. I hope we come to enjoy more of your research.

Reader responses welcomed,. E-mail to:

Thanks for Watching.

Lou (February 27, 2007)


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