Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Departing Sensation.

In 1943, in an interview concerning his little-known, 19-year-old co-star of his upcoming turkey The Phantom of the Opera, iconic horror movie star Nelson Eddy (A man who made any movie he appeared in a horror movie. How iconic can you get?) described Susanna Foster as "A Coming Sensation."

No higher praise can be imagined, as a coming sensation is The Greatest Pleasure in Life. Even vodka comes in second, although vodka can inhance a coming sensation.

Of course, Nelson didn't invent the phrase. Nelson was not known for originality. He was quoting PMS chief studio publicist Pete Moss in 1915, describing me prior to the release of my debut film, Heat Crazed. So strongly was the phrase associated with me, that I titled the second section of my award-free autobiography My Lush Life, A Coming Sensation as well.

But sadly, on this, the Happiest Day of the 21st Century so far, we must bid a sad farewell to Susanna Foster, now a departing sensation, as she has died at the age of 84 of heart failure. It almost seems impossible. She survived a short, less-than-memorable film career, she survived hardship and want, she survived being homeless and living in her car in her late 50s, she even survived singing love duets with Nelson Eddy, but she didn't quite survive the Bush Administration.

Here she is looking on (undoubtedly appalled) at Nelson Eddy as he gets a little head from a white woman.

Her movie career encompassed only 12 films. Of those, only 2 are well-remembered: The Phantom of the Opera with Nelson, and with Claude Rains in the title role, a complete mangling of the story, with more opera than phantom, so the horror rested on Nelson and Susanna's endless singing far more than on Claude's spookiness (ironically, Claude's non-singing voice was the most memorable of the three), and The Climax, another musical horror movie which was basically a remake of the just-finished Phantom, in which she co-starred with my ex-husband, Boris Karloff, and with total sexy dreamboat, Turhan Bey.

Both films were in particularly garish Technicolor, which made them A-films, rare in mid-World War II pictures.
Phantom won two Oscars, and was nominated for 2 more. The Climax was nominated for one, but managed to lose. They must have been desperate in the 1940s, although not desperate enough to give me one. Oh sure, Phantom looked pretty in color, but what about me? What about my magnificent performance in PMS's utterly unforgettable Civil War epic East vs West?

Susanna, showing rare judgement (very rare judgement, almost none. How do you think she ended up living in a car?), turned down National Velvet. How embarrassing for her when Liz Taylor took the role she disdained and became one of the most beloved stars in the history of movies, second only to me? MGM dropped her contract. (Teenagers did not say "No" to L.B. Mayer.) Oh Susanna, were you too chagrined to confess you thought you'd been offered the title role?

At Universal, her primary function was as a threat to keep Deanna Durbin in line. Deanna turned down Phantom. I never realized Deanna was that smart. Maybe Nelson creeped her out too.

Of her performance in Phantom, Bosley Crowther wrote that Susanna sang "quite pleasingly." I am reminded of Lucia's comments on the opera singer Olga Braceley's voice in Trouble For Lucia, one of E. F. Benson's divinely hilarious Mapp & Lucia novels. Lucia "praises" Olga thusly: "Some notes lovely." (If you've never read any of Benson's Lucia books, do so right away. They are the purest comic joy.)

Here's a last look at Susanna, in The Climax, with my ex-husband doing all lovers of music and/or horror a huge favor. Now Prince Sirki has taken over for Boris forever.

Cheers darlings.

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