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Q-and-A with ginnyfan

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This is a special edition of Today's Topic. Recently, I had a chance to chat with ginnyfan about THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. What follows is our fun discussion, in two parts...

 

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Q-and-A with ginnyfan, part 1

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TB: In this column, I am chatting with ginnyfan from the Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society. I have been wanting to talk about THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, ever since I realized it is TCM’s most-played classic film. Why do you think this film holds up so well?

 

GF: Screwball comedies on screen depend on action and timing, I think, and the film always has something going on. While the Philip Barry play had been a huge Broadway hit, the screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart really tightens up the action. Stewart, in the cause of simplicity, removed brother Sandy Lord from the scene and made C.K. Dexter Haven the actual planner of the fiasco that ensues.

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TB: I haven’t read the play and wasn’t aware one of the main characters had been dropped. What do you think playing Dinah means in terms of Virginia Weidler’s legacy?

 

GF: As far as Virginia’s legacy goes, the role as Stewart simplified it is meant for her talents. I find it hard to imagine anyone else on the MGM lot playing that role. Believe it or not, though, from my reading of the original play, Virginia’s part would have been more central to the plot if Stewart hadn’t changed it. In the play, Sandy Lord really had invited the reporters to the wedding and Dinah invited Dexter to lunch at the house to get him in on things. Dinah’s final line of, “I did it all!” make much more sense if we know that Dinah invited Dex to horn in on the wedding.  

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TB: I agree that nobody else on the MGM lot at the time would have been as well suited to playing Dinah as she was. So since you are suggesting that Dinah is a bit of a buttinski or a cupid-type character, how should audiences react to her?

 

GF: The Dinah of the film is a young girl who doesn’t quite get everything that’s going on, but gets enough of it to know that what is scheduled to happen (Tracy marrying George) just shouldn’t be. She’s smart enough to know that George is kind of an empty suit and that if she liked Dexter then Tracy sure should like Dexter, too.

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TB: Yes, good point. I believe there was a recent showing of this film in Hollywood/Los Angeles. Can you provide details about it? 

 

GF: It was a part of the TCM Film Festival and played at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where it premiered seventy five years ago. Ileana Douglas and Madeleine Stowe were the presenters, and I am told that Virginia was cheered each time she hit the screen. Believe it or not, despite being ginnyfan, I have never personally seen a Ginnyfilm on a big screen. I certainly hope to one day.

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TB: It’s great how TCM was able to facilitate the 75thanniversary screening. Okay, when we come back, I am going to ask you tell us more about the film’s Broadway origins, and how Virginia was cast as Dinah…

 

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Q-and-A with ginnyfan, part 2

 

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TB: We’re back with ginnyfan, and I have more questions about THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. What can you tell us about the Broadway run?

 

GF: Barry’s play clearly instructs the producer that Tracy is twenty-four and Dinah fifteen. Since Dinah in the play is actively inviting men to lunch, this makes sense. Still when the play was cast Lenore Lonergan, a veteran Broadway juvenile, was chosen. Lenore was more than a year younger than Virginia and was playing the role when she was only ten! Lenore was, I have read, a very talented comedic actress whose trademark was a very hoarse voice. She later came to Hollywood as an adult actress and made a few films, most notably WESTWARD THE WOMEN where she played Maggie O’Malley. When the play was revived on Broadway during the winter of 1980-81, fourteen year old Cynthia Nixon played Dinah.

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TB: Yes. I wonder if Katharine Hepburn had a chance to see the revival. As most people know, she is the one who brought the property to MGM. Do you know how Metro came to assign Weidler for the movie version? Did Kate select her?

 

GF: I wish I knew more about the casting of Virginia for the film. Hepburn, as the owner of the film’s rights, held the right to reject a casting choice she didn’t like, although she wasn’t able to land her first choice for either Dex or Macaulay Connor. I assume that after the success of the play with the young Lonergan in the role, they wanted to go in a similar direction for the film. Virginia was just that particular girl at MGM at the time. It probably didn’t hurt that Virginia had already worked for George Cukor in THE WOMEN the prior year.

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TB: That’s right. Cukor had directed her as Norma Shearer’s daughter.

 

GF: And while I can’t imagine anyone else on the lot as Virginia’s Dinah, I wonder if someone like Ann Rutherford could have played a teenage Dinah, as the original script called for. I don’t know how Virginia got there for sure, I do know that Hepburn was always generous with praise for Virginia’s contributions.

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TB: Anything else you care to add about Dinah and how she rates with the other characters Weidler played?

 

GF: Dinah is by far the best remembered of Virginia’s roles. I’m glad for that, because without it she might have faced the fate of several of her contemporaries who were box office then and are completely forgotten today. People don’t always know Virginia’s name, but they remember Dinah!

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TB: Oh boy, do they ever!

 

GF: On the other hand, the success of the role changed how MGM viewed its “property.” Prior to THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, Virginia was getting a variety of roles, sometimes a one-note comedic character like in OUT WEST WITH THE HARDYS, but often far more nuanced roles like the resourceful orphan Patsy in BAD LITTLE ANGEL. After she hit it big in PHILADELPHIA, the studio tried to make her a Dinah clone over and over again. Then, MGM began to lose interest when Virginia began to age out, and wanted to get out, of such roles. They forgot how versatile the actress had been before she came to MGM and in her early years there as well.

 

TB: I agree. MGM started to typecast her.

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GF: All the roles that followed were mere carbons of the first. On the other hand, some of those copies are actually a little more fleshed out simply because the roles were larger and Virginia’s screen time is greater than it was in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Virginia’s mother took a lot of time with Virginia actually discussing why her character would do the things she did so that, even at a very young age, Virginia understood motivation. As a result, Virginia probably knew every thought these brat characters had since she had played so many of them.

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TB: Interesting observation. She not only had an understanding of these roles, but she also had gained valuable experience playing variations in earlier pictures.

 

GF: So while I’d rate Dinah top brat, I find a lot of Virginia’s other work more interesting. Just at MGM, I find the previously mentioned Patsy Sanderson from BAD LITTLE ANGEL, Jubie Davis from GOLD RUSH MAISIE and Virginia Johansen from BARNACLE BILL to be Ginny’s finest moments.

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TB: Well, that’s all the time we have today. Again I want to thank ginnyfan for being a guest and discussing THE PHILADELPHIA STORY as well as some of Virginia Weidler’s other films. Please make sure to visit the Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/VirginiaWeidlerRemembranceSociety

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I've been working on a follow up with ginnyfan...which I will be posting on the weekend. 

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Please check back for it.
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Checking in with ginnyfan part 1

 

Since we last chatted, ginnyfan has continued to search for all things related to Virginia Weidler.

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TB: Thanks for agreeing to do this again. I’ve been wanting to ask how the search for Virginia Weidler has changed.

 

GF: When I started in 2012, I knew so little and I didn’t even know how to really find out anything. People like yourself and others at the TCM forums were a big help. And I was lucky that one of the early members of the Society I started brought in Hollywood reporter Danny Miller; he’s been invaluable and is willing to ask people about Virginia while he’s interviewing them for his day job. The biggest change, though, is that progress is so much slower now. In 2012-13, Danny and I were posting 10 or 12 items from research daily. Now we may go weeks with nothing new. It has become more of just keeping Virginia and our efforts in the public eye now.

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TB: What are the big things you know about her, and what still seems unclear about her life? 

 

GF: The most surprising thing we found out was that Virginia’s father left the family in the early 1930s. Reporters and the studios always covered that fact up, they’d mention that her father was an architect working for Fox, but never mention he didn’t live with them. Virginia was truly the family’s breadwinner. A non-actor friend of Ginny’s, Pat Brown, told us that Ginny liked to go on outings with Pat and her father since she rarely saw her own.

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TB: Interesting. What about her motion picture career?

 

GF: I wish we had a little more information about the goings on between Virginia and MGM in 1943. The newspaper accounts of the time don’t really support the long standing claim that MGM dumped her for being awkward at age 15. It seems more likely to us that Virginia had tired of the typecasting as ‘the braided brat’ then didn’t really like the roles she was given after her teen makeover, either. She and MGM bickered back and forth with each other in the Hollywood columns while Ginny did a War Bond tour after BEST FOOT FORWARD wrapped. So the parting was a two way street, but we all know who ended up winning those in the studio era. MGM just called for the ‘next gal up’ and Ginny was done. If Hollywood saw her as complaining, that might have affected future employment as well.

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TB: She didn’t make any more films after she left MGM. I suppose that can be interpreted several ways.

 

GF: We know little about her post-movie career. She disappears from the news around 1954. After films, she played Broadway, vaudeville, did radio and even had her own local TV show in San Diego. In 1954, she and Constance Bennett served as acting coaches for a society theater group in Washington DC, both of their husbands were in the military there. I find that fascinating because she was in a scene with Bennett when she was only six years old. After that, the family went to Cuba and stayed there until the revolution came, as far as I can tell. Her husband, Lionel Krisel, was a Naval attache there.

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TB: Have you ever heard from Virginia Weidler’s relatives? 

 

GF: A couple of distant relatives have come forward, but they want to know what we know more than the other way around. Danny communicated with her grandson Jonathan Krisel briefly, but no information was obtained. He seems like a really nice guy.

 

TB: I wonder why they’re so quiet about her.

 

GF: I assume they, especially her two sons, feel they are honoring her wishes since she didn’t do any interviews after returning from Cuba around 1960. I respect that. I hope they are aware that we hold Virginia in the highest esteem and wish nothing more than to understand her life and career and to also get her some of the credit I think she has been denied.

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TB: What kinds of people visit and comment on your web pages? Besides TCM, how do they see her films?

 

GF: Most of the people are just regular folks, as classic film fans we tend to skew slightly older than the population and probably a little more female. Interestingly, we do have one of Ginny’s cousins, a couple of children and siblings of Hollywood actors, and even one former child actor on our rolls. Most either watch TCM, or have DVDs. One recently mentioned that she owned a colorized version of YOUNG TOM EDISON! I remember seeing it in color years ago, but I thought I had imagined it.

 

Next: Virginia Weidler’s legacy; and what a few former costars remember about her…

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Checking in with ginnyfan part 2

 

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TB: When we talked over a year ago, we discussed THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and THE WOMEN. Is it advantageous for Virginia Weidler to be associated with Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford movies? 

 

GF: The one thing that Virginia truly has over her contemporaries– and when I say contemporaries I mean Shirley Temple and Jane Withers since they were the same age– is that in her ‘A’ features, Virginia got to go head to head with the best. I don’t think the others can match that, at least not while still a child. Temple did perform with quite a few A-listers in the 1940s and Withers did so after her comeback in the 1950s, but Ginny had scenes with Gary Cooper when she was nine.

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TB: What is her legacy? 

 

GF: I’d love for her real legacy to be the wonderful work she did in the three films in which she was actually the top billed performer, especially GIRL OF THE OZARKS and BAD LITTLE ANGEL, but I know her legacy comes from the big pictures in which she appeared as a supporting player. It is in those that we see Virginia was a real character actor by the time she was eight. Additionally, the many programmers she did showed she could pull the most out of very ordinary scripts.

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TB: I know you’ve had a chance to speak with some former costars. I had the pleasure of working with June Lockhart on a show in the mid-90s, and she’s a great lady. What did June have to say about Virginia?

 

GF: June and I discussed the fact that she and Virginia were in ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO together, that they also worked on a War Bond committee in Hollywood and finally about Virginia moving to vaudeville. June stuck to legitimate theater whenever her Hollywood roles got sparse. About vaudeville June said, “She [Virginia] ruined her brand.” She explained that Hollywood would have seen the move as a step down and that it might have been hard for an actress who wanted to be seen as a future ingenue to overcome.

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TB: What did you learn from Tommy Dix, her costar in BEST FOOT FORWARD?

 

GF: Tommy kept me near tears during most of our interview. He only knew her for a few weeks, but was so touched by her. He is so sharp in his nineties and can even still sing! He said, “We were all newcomers and weren’t sure what we were doing, but Virginia and Lucille Ball always helped us and kept us on task.” They were the leaders on set and he also mentioned that Lucy once moved him during a scene so he could be out of a shadow and seen more prominently. How many stars will do that?   He also found it remarkable that Ginny turned sixteen while the film was being shot. He assumed her to be older.

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TB: Is there a Virginia Weidler screen performance you still have not seen? 

 

GF: I still have not seen the two RKO features that really made her known to movie audiences in the 1930s, LADDIE and FRECKLES. Neither has been on television since the 1960s. The Academy did have LADDIE restored and held a showing last year, so I still have hope. I also haven’t seen THE ROOKIE COP, but TCM is showing it in August and I’m very excited.

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TB: Looking ahead, where do you expect the search to take you and your webpage readers? 

 

GF: We still hope to make contact with an honest to goodness Weidler/Krisel before it is too late (I’m told that Ginny might have met Hemingway in Cuba and I’d love to know the story). I still send letters out to the few friends who survive Ginny, hoping to get more information. My biggest regret is that I didn’t become interested twenty years ago when most of her brothers and sisters were still around. I’ve been told that they were very outgoing and maybe they would have been willing to share some of the growing up stories.

 

TB: I want to thank ginnyfan for being a guest. Please make sure to visit the Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society on Facebook: https://www.facebook…embranceSociety

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It has been great reading this thread. I was a huge fan of ginnyfan's findings on the Classic Film Union. 

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This was wonderful! I first discovered ginnyfan a little while ago, and it's fantastic that there is someone else out there who wants to share Virginia with more people. I agree that Virginia was a definite talent and needs to be remembered for all the marvelous work she did in "the business." Thanks again for this!

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Thank you to Top Billed for a wonderful interview and thank you to Hep Classic and Nick and Nora 34 for remembering me. I guess I should start visiting again.

 

I have a new crazy idea I'm trying if anyone wants to help: getting the City of Los Angeles to recognize Virginia in some manner for what would have been her 90th birthday, March 21, 2017.

 

The details are here.

 

TB, I hope you don't mind my linking to my post.

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