By Stacy Jenel Smith
It's time for a re-appreciation - a major one -- of some of our most precious national treasures: the Golden Age stars among us.\
The 1970s brought moviegoers Jack Haley, Jr.'s "That's Entertainment" films - and a new generation discovered the dazzling artistry and inventiveness of Hollywood musicals of the 1930s through 1950s, and mega-stars like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller and Danny Kaye. Those stars, all of whom have since passed away, enjoyed a well-deserved round of applause from legions of brand-new fans.
But in 2004, unless they happen to tune in to Turner Classic Movies, how many young moviegoers have more than a bare awareness of the giants who are still in our midst, the likes of soon-to-be 84-year-old Mickey Rooney - for years America's No. 1 box office attraction -- and beloved recording, movie, and television star Doris Day, now 80 years young?
Day's work is such a part of the fabric of Americana, it's high time she's honored with lifetime achievement kudos at the Academy Awards, as Rooney was in 1983.
Earlier this summer, filmmaker Rick McKay observed, "There are a lot of younger people who are dying to work with this generation? It raises the bar to see how great someone was before you."
McKay spent five years tracking down the legendary performers that appear in his "Broadway: The Golden Age" documentary - and is in preproduction on "Time Will Tell," a film that will inter-cut short stories about different generations of talent.
McKay noted, "Every hipper-than-thou filmmaker brings Johnny Depp their screenplay, but when will he get a chance to work with Fay Wray? Depp worked with Martin Landau (in "Ed Wood") -- which had a huge effect on him -- and Landau ended up winning the Oscar."
Ironically, just a few weeks after McKay posed his question, his good friend Faye Wray - the multifaceted actress best-known as the first Scream Queen of the movies, ("Dr. X," "The Mystery of the Wax Museum" and especially, of course, "King Kong") -- died at 96.
"The Aviator" is on the way, and that can't help but bring to mind Jane Russell, arguably the last great pinup queen, who is now 83 -- and full of sass.
The lady whose fabulous face and form graced "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" with Marilyn Monroe was discovered by Howard Hughes - who made her the 19-year-old star of his "The Outlaw" and personally designed a special brassiere to show off her ample endowments. Though soft-spoken, Jane knows her way around a toe-curling remark here and there, including recently wondering aloud how someone as boyish as Leonardo DiCaprio could possibly portray a man like Hughes. Smart and determined, she created WAIF, an organization that made it possible for Americans to adopt war orphans after World War II.
Olivia de Havilland - double Oscar winner, superstar for decades, forever etched in the minds and hearts of moviegoers as saintly Melanie Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind" -- is 88 and living in France. She's been threatening to come out with her autobiography for years - and ought to be encouraged. What stories she could tell! As could her famous rival, sister Joan Fontaine, 86 -- who actually did spill some Hollywood dish in her best-selling "No Bed of Roses" autobiography. The "Suspicion" and "Rebecca" star's romantic escapades rivaled any modern film diva's, and elegant-looking Fontaine was also a licensed pilot, champion balloonist, prize-winning fisherman, fine golfer, licensed interior decorator, and Cordon Bleu-trained cook.
Kathryn Grayson, whose gorgeous voice and looks graced musicals including "Showboat" and "Kiss Me Kate," is actively involved in animal help organizations, and, at 82, is still very lovely.
Also still a beauty is Jennifer Jones of "Song of Bernadette" and "Portrait of Jennie," among many other films - or at least, she was as of a couple of years ago when we last saw the 85-year-old star. The woman who was once wed to movie producer David O. Selznick, and later to the late Norton Simon, one of the wealthiest men in the world, does not allow herself to be photographed.
Talk about a national treasure -- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once proclaimed that "as long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be alright." Shirley Temple Black, 76, has managed to protect the legacy of the beloved child she was, quietly persevering to ensure the proper video/DVD release of the films that made her nothing less than a national hero for helping a Depression-weary public smile again. Her compelling "Child Star" autobiography was made into a successful TV movie (with Shirley godmothering the project). And now Shirley, a grandmother herself, is writing part two of her memoirs, covering her amazing diplomatic career as U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, U.S. Chief of Protocol and later U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
Richard Widmark, Deanna Durbin, Glenn Ford, Margaret O'Brien, the fabulous one-and-only Carol Channing - treasures all.
And moving into stars who started making their mark a little later, we find the names of greats including Debbie Reynolds, 72, Shirley MacLaine, 70, Tony Curtis, 79, and ex-wife Janet Leigh, 77 - once Hollywood's top power couple - all of whom the public has been taking for granted.
Sadly, such is also the case for Mickey Rooney - Andy Hardy of old, Judy Garland's partner in crime, hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show, 300 movies, two special Oscars, eight wives including Ava Gardner, for crying out loud. That Mickey Rooney. He stood by painfully awaiting his turn for recognition by - ugh - Joan Rivers on the red carpet line at the last Academy Awards. As Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Barbara Cloud put it, "If ever we saw disrespect and lack of courtesy for an old-timer, it was the treatment of Mickey Rooney."
Time for a re-appreciation, indeed.