Patricia Morison and John Garfield in The Fallen Sparrow
Noir fans can get their kicks this weekend when the Aero shows a quartet of films by underrated 1940s director John Brahm. In the meantime, here's a recap of a Q&A with actress Patricia Morison from Noir City.
On April 16, 2015, The Egyptian Theater and the Film Noir Foundation's Alan K. Rode welcomed actress Patricia Morison, who recently celebrated her centennial, to introduce a screening of the 1943 noir The Fallen Sparrow, in which she starred alongside John Garfield and Maureen O'Hara. The movie played with Ride the Pink Horse (1947) as part of a double feature at Noir City 17 in Hollywood based on the works of author Dorothy B. Hughes. Morison, an accomplished singer, had been working on Broadway for years when she was spotted by a Paramount talent scout while performing in the short-lived Victorian operetta The Two Bouquets in 1938. Paramount signed her to a contract, brought her out to Hollywood, but...they didn't seem to know what to do with her! Morison was primarily a singer, but Paramount wasn't interested in doing musicals. "They had an idea of what they wanted me to be, and I went along with it," Morison said.
Rode quoted Morison as once saying that she "ate her way out of her Paramount contract." Morison elaborated: she was making money for the first time in a long time, she bought a nice home in Beverly Hills, invited her parents and two cousins from England to live with her, and she was living it up...and "also eating it up," she laughed. In her estimation, she probably missed out on a lot of roles because she got too 'heavy.' Rode touched upon a few of Morison's film roles, including her part in Kiss of Death (1947), which has screened many times at Noir City. However, if you try to find her in the film, you can't; Morison's part, which originally constituted a major role, was cut before release at the request of the censors. She played Victor Mature's wife, who, after Mature is sentenced to prison, leaves her baby at a church and commits suicide by putting her head in the oven. Morison received a letter from Darryl Zanuck praising her on such a "breakthrough role" that showcased how wonderful an actress she was, but unfortunately, the public was never able to see the performance.
Morison also divulged a juicy story about Louis B. Mayer to Rode right before the screening, which he then asked her to share with the audience. "You really want to hear that?" she asked. Of course, the response was an enthusiastic yes! The story starts with a friend of Morison's who worked in the story department at MGM and was also close to Mayer. On Sundays, Morison would go to her friend's house to work on her portrait, and on one particular Sunday, Morison's friend invited her to dinner at Mayer's house. Morison recalls entering Mayer's "fabulous" home and taking a seat at a huge table with Mayer on one end recounting how he started in the business. He talked about himself all night, but Morison was fascinated; after all, Mayer was one of the pioneers of the American studio system. That Sunday dinner turned into a weekly ritual, and after a while, one of Mayer's female friends called Morison up and asked her to come over to talk. She sat Morison down and told her that Mayer was very much in love with her and would like to marry her. She even assured Morison that Mayer would make financial arrangements for Morison's parents! Everything seemed to be planned perfectly by Mayer...except that he didn't ask Morison himself, nor did Morison have any inkling of his feelings. Consequently, she did not accept his offer.
Patricia Morison and Alan K. Rode
Rode then turned the focus on Morison's storied Broadway career. He began with Kiss Me, Kate and the role of Lilli, which Morison originated on Broadway. Morison owes her casting in that musical to two people: her agent and Cole Porter. The story goes like this: one day, Morison's agent drove her out to Brentwood to see Cole Porter. The meeting wasn't for any project in particular; he just wanted Morison to get used to auditioning. Morison sang for Porter, and he obviously liked what he heard, because he handed her the score for Kiss Me, Kate and instructed her to learn the music and get back to him. Porter had trouble raising the money for the musical; all his friends questioned who would want to make or see a show based on Shakespeare. Others felt Porter lost his touch, but of course, he proved them all wrong when Kiss Me, Kate became a smash hit. As an interesting aside, Morison returned to the subject of Louis B. Mayer and mentioned that when Mayer eventually remarried and was on his honeymoon in New York, it was reported that he stood in the back of the theater and caught every performance of Kiss Me, Kate for as long as he was in town. "That was nice to hear," Morison sighed. "These things happen." To that response, Rode exclaimed: "Not to everyone, Patricia. Just to you!"
Morison also talked about taking over the role of Anna in The King and I on Broadway. She starting rehearsing with Yul Brynner's understudy, because the star was on vacation. When he returned a few days before he was due back at work, Brynner entered the theater dressed in black leather, and he would do acrobatics while Morison rehearsed with his understudy on stage! After rehearsal wrapped, Brynner invited Morison to his dressing room. After knocking, Morison opened Brynner's door to a surprise: the actor was sitting in front of his mirror, naked. "I didn't take my eyes off his face," she admitted. In his defense, he told her that he had to "stay" in his body, to which Morison quickly replied that she understood. And with that, Brynner welcomed Morison to the show! "We ended up the best of professional friends," she recalled. "I said professional." According to Morison, Brynner was a very good actor and a nice man. "Naughty but nice," she added. To wrap up, Rode asked Morison if there was any one film that stuck out during her Hollywood career. Morison thought about it, but confessed that she never thought the movie industry "really saw me, you know what I mean?" In her eyes, it wasn't until she returned to Broadway that she really found herself and where she belonged.
-By Kim Luperi