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Dream Factory Time: Gail Patrick

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Posted: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 12:03 pm

As I walked up to the huge Hollywood Hills estate on a hot day in June, 1979, something curious came over me—I felt as if I were entering a scene out of Sunset Boulevard. Everything was of a lost era, from the statues of Greek gods to the basketball court overgrown with vegetation. Atop the hill above me was a sprawling mansion built in 1928 by silent screen star Dustin Farnum. There, standing at the door, wearing a beautiful white linen pants suit, was Gail Patrick. Born Margaret LaVelle Fitzpatrick on June 20, 1911 in Birmingham, Alabama, she was 68 years old. With her dazzling mane of white hair, she was certainly one of the most striking ladies I’d ever interviewed!

Never a big star, she nevertheless had an interesting career and made a lasting impression on screen. With her 5’ 7” height—tall for a woman at that time—cultured voice, and steely demeanor she was perfect playing strong but not always sympathetic characters, often the formidable rival of the female lead. Her big success came after her acting days ended, as she became a highly successful producer of one of television’s most lucrative franchises, Perry Mason. Married four times, her husbands included Robert Howard Cobb (1936 to 1940), Arnold Dean White (1944 to ‘45), Cornwell “Corny” Jackson (1947 to 1969), and John E. Velde Jr. (1974 to 1980). Here are highlights of our conversation.

James Bawden: So how did you get to L.A. from Alabama?

Gail Patrick: Oh, it was for a lark—in the summer of 1932. I tried out as a contestant in the Miss Panther Woman contest Paramount was exploiting. And I was a finalist and got train fare money to come out with my brother. I was 23 and a graduate of Howard, and planned in the fall to attend law school. I’d been acting dean of women at Howard, but that job was finishing. [Editor’s Note: Howard College was founded in Marion, Alabama

in 1841, and today’s Samford University in Homewood, Alabama is its successor. It should not to be confused with Howard University in Washington, D.C.]

Well, I didn’t win the contest. Kathleen Burke did, and it kind of ruined a career for her because nobody would take her seriously after that. But Paramount offered me a $50 a week starting contract, and I went in to Bill LeBaron who was running the studio and said, “No, I must have $75 and no cuts for up to a year.” His jaw dropped open, but he signed on the dotted line.

I did the usual grooming things. My Southern accent had to go. I walked around with a book on my head, things like that. And soon I was making pictures morning and night because Paramount was always on the brink of insolvency in those days.

JB: What was your first part?

GP: As a secretary in the movie If I Had A Million [1932]. And then I had fun in a western, The Mysterious Rider [1933]—as a Southern girl I could ride and shoot. I made eight movies in my first year, mostly in the background. I was as terrified as all get out. Then I got a good part in Death Takes A Holiday [1934] opposite Freddie March who was just plain wonderful as “Death”. I was the one attracted to him until I see into his soul—I really put my all into that one. Evelyn Venable was the one who actually wants to die with him. And it gave me a big career boost.

In Murder At The Vanities I was investigating a murder and became a corpse very early on up in the galleries of a working theater—I got to just lie there and observe the action all around me. It helped me understand the nature of movie acting. And by the end of that year I had edged up to leading lady to Randy Scott in the Zane Grey yarn Wagon Wheels.

JB: In 1935 you got your first loan out to MGM for No More Ladies. Any memories of Joan Crawford?

GP: I never saw anyone as absorbed in a career. Which is why she became such a big star. It was a big budget A picture with Bob Montgomery, Charlie Ruggles, Franchot Tone, Edna May Oliver, Reginald Denny. I was hired because I towered over Joan. She didn’t get temperamental—she simply expected blind obedience from cast and crew. The story was made a dozen times, but it had huge box office because of Joan. I was Teresa, the other woman, haughty and imperious, but I did get to introduce the song “All I Do Is Dream Of You” in one party sequence. It was dream factory time. Bob was completely bored with it and talked of getting meatier roles.

JB: Wasn’t there tension on the set of Mississippi [1935]?

GP: Tension isn’t the word for it. Bing Crosby was Paramount’s biggest male star outside of Gary Cooper. And Bill Fields hated taking second billing to anyone. Eddie Sutherland was the director, as he’d been on other Fields movies. But Bing felt he was being ignored so Wesley Ruggles came in and redid some key scenes to favor Bing’s character. I just sat around and observed. Bing was very meticulous and Bill would wander in at any time and he didn’t know his lines—he’d ad lib anyway. So, yes, words were spoken. And after one of Bing’s numbers Bill complained about “this incessant caterwauling” and that’s when things got nasty for a bit. It was based on a Buddy Rogers musical that had been made in 1930. And here it was five years later and Buddy was gone and forgotten by the studio. I can’t quite believe it, but in the original 1923 play the hero, Tom, was actually [played by] Leo Carrillo. But it never hurt to be in a first rate hit! I remember Rodgers and Hart were on the set, but thank goodness, I never had to sing in this one.

JB: How did you get to Universal for My Man Godfrey [1936]?

GP: My buddy Carole Lombard talked me up—I’d been in Rumba with her. A great friend always, she’d stay on the set all day playing cards instead of hiding out in her dressing room. And so, director Greg La Cava, he called me in for a talk and then arranged a loan out from Paramount. Greg was one of the best comedy masters and he always insisted on actors playing the character. He told me Cornelia had to be ultra serious at all times, he loved that I was so tall [5’ 7”]. She had to be bratty, mean, demanding, and no winks to show I wasn’t really like that.

Carole and Bill Powell had been married and were now divorced. I didn’t know what to expect, but they were always cordial to each other. Carole was supposed to be 18 in the first draft I read, while I was in my 20s. The whole point was, why would she chase after Godfrey who obviously was in his 40s at least?

The idea that we “improvised” a lot is crazy. The script was so beautiful, so specific. I have wonderful memories, but as with all my movies, I never saw it because I was bound to be disappointed. I can see that my shyness came across as nastiness and aloofness. But a few years back a friend sent me a cassette and dared me watch myself on the screen—for the first time. And I liked it—Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, Mischa Auer. And it’s the movie that typed me and the one I’m still asked about.

JB: Was there tension on the set of Stage Door [1937]?

GP: You know there was, or you wouldn’t have asked. Kate Hepburn just hated Ginger Rogers. It was pure green envy. Ginge was everything Great Kate wasn’t. The crews loved her [Ginger] and hated Kate for the airs she put on. And Ginge at the time was a bigger box office star than Kate. And can I add a better “natural” actress? I mean she had no training but she was so wonderful. Greg [LaCava] had asked for me again and RKO had to pay Paramount quite a lot for the loan out. I’d do a scene with Ginge—in the picture we hated one another as my character was Adolph Menjou’s mistress—and then we’d try it another way. With Great Kate every take was the same. She never took direction and she walked around with that haughty air. Or maybe she was just a Method actress, that’s the way her character was supposed to be. The wisecracks flew like crazy with Lucy Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller as co-stars. Eve kept complaining that not only did she have to zing out wisecracks, but with a cat perched around her shoulders. But at the end of the day there was only one Oscar acting nomination—to Andrea Leeds, and boy was Great Kate ticked off!

JB: In 1938 you played Deanna Durbin’s mother in Mad About Music (1938).

GP: I always played older. I was 27 at the time, she was 19 to 21 depending on who you talked to. A standard Durbin Miss-Fix-It part. Here she was cast as 14 and I was the movie star trying to disguise I had a daughter. It was a hit but people started assuming I was like ten years older.

JB: There seemed to be two Gail Patricks.

GP: I always thought that! Paramount had a completely different vision of me. In King Of Alcatraz [1939] I got first billing! I was a nurse who performs an operation at sea with the doctor instructing me on the wireless. In Disbarred [1939] I’m a lawyer who is trained by Otto Kruger to become a kind of female Perry Mason. I got first billing in these two.

I’d told Paramount I was leaving when my contract was up because I could make more money freelancing. Bill [LeBaron] warned me I’d never again work at Paramount, and he kept his word.

JB: And you started off with a bang in The Doctor Takes A Wife and My Favorite Wife.

GP: In Doctor Takes a Wife I was the meanie again and the film was a hit for Loretta Young who was also freelancing for the first time. I was Ray Milland’s overbearing fiancée but I think I overdid the gestures—Alexander Hall was the director. In My Favorite Wife I got co-starring billing under the title with Randy Scott. I just adored Irene Dunne who was very generous in giving her co-stars some of the laughs. Cary Grant had grown up since I knew him at Paramount.

I always felt the ending after Irene and Cary got back [together] should have included a romance between Randy and me. I suggested that, but the director [Garson Kanin] said I was going too far.

JB: In 1941 came my favorite screwball comedy of yours, Love Crazy [1941].

GP: Bill Powell pestered Louis Mayer until they hired me as the other woman threatening Bill’s marriage to Myrna Loy. We just had so much fun on the set. In the first scene Bill is returning home with flowers for Myrna and he starts humming the song Luise Rainer sang in The Great Ziegfeld—the movie where she won an Oscar and he didn’t. Then there’s the bit where they have dinner backwards beginning with dessert as watched by Bill’s mother-in-law, Florence Bates. It was very droll. Jack Carson was a horrible neighbor named Ward Willoughby and I was Isobel Grayson married to a very old man played wonderfully by Don MacBride—he was the “slow burn” king, and so funny also as the desk clerk in My Favorite Wife.

MGM was so flush in those days they built two entire stories of an apartment complex and mine was underneath Bill’s. I think everything in this apartment worked, certainly the shower had to where Bill gets soaked. In another bit we’re stuck in an elevator and I have to stand on his head to get out the emergency exit. They fitted me with piano wires because Bill was still fragile from colorectal surgery and I asked if I’d hurt him? “Only, my pride, Gal, only my pride,” he answered.

JB: Then came We Were Dancing [1942].

GP: Norma Shearer wasn’t the First Lady of Hollywood as books suggest. She was Empress of MGM. In the morning she appeared with a retinue of servants. She went behind the flats and gave Robert Leonard, our dear director, his notes for the day. She chose me because I was so tall and she was teeny weenie.

It was a bit of a mess. Who cared about a false Russian countess? Pearl Harbor had just happened. Our little story never had a chance. Many years later I met Norma at a party. She came over and hugged me. She’d never talked to me once back then. She was very sweet and very sad, and I included her in my dinners, and she seemed very glad just to get out of the house for a change.

JB: After that you did all sorts of strange parts.

GP: To stay in the game. Boy, did I miss my studio contract! I was considered a bit passé by then. Ginge got me a bit as her sister in Tales Of Manhattan (1942) for which I was grateful.

Oh, dear, I did Women In Bondage [1943] and it was a huge hit—the censors let us get away with murder! I’m a girl coming back to Germany and getting involved with all the Nazi customs from sterilization to paganism to mercy killings. The trailer had this line: “Blueprint For Shame!” It was a huge hit but Nancy Kelly was in tears over some of the awful dialogue. A lot of actors were in it for the pay—H.B. Warner, Gertrude Michael, Mary Forbes.

JB: It sort of made you hot again.

GP: Brewster’s Millions (1945) was another one made cheaply and it made a fortune. I did Claudia And David (1946) and that was upscale. One day, we were sitting around the set and dear, sweet Dorothy McGuire started chattering about her great pleasure in working with such veterans. Well, I was seven years her senior and Mary Astor was only 40 at the time. Mary bristled but I just kept on with my knitting and the film was a bit of a hit. In fact 1946 was my busiest year in ages—I made three other features: Rendezvous With Annie, The Plainsman And The Lady, and The Madonna’s Secret. But I’d already decided to get out of it—the business I mean.

JB: Why?

GP: For purely personal reasons. I’d had stillborn twins and that shattered me. And then from that shock I became diabetic. As is my temperament, I didn’t panic but found out as much about the subject as I could. And on bad days I’d have to take two insulin shots to steady my blood sugar. I’d already started a design business out of my home and finally moved to a shop on Rodeo Drive—it wasn’t quite as ritzy then as it is now. And I designed mostly for children. There’s even a short of me selling clothes to Maureen O’Sullivan who had many children. And I gradually stopped looking for work—Inside Story [1948] was my last. I never formally retired. I just quit, and it was a good time as TV started taking over.

JB: How did you get to produce the Perry Mason TV series?

GP: My husband [Cornwell “Corny” Jackson] was the literary agent for Erle Stanley Gardner and I got to know Earle through that connection. He was a bright but no-nonsense kind of guy, had a real schedule for writing one of his books. He meticulously researched all the points of law himself. He had a certain way of writing about Mason as a flamboyant sort at times, but absolutely loathed the Warners movies with Warren William which came out in the Thirties. In fact, he refused to license any more titles other than the original six books. We kept talking about what kind of a series he’d want and how much creative control he needed. I just think he came to trust me and I’d kept up my contacts in show business.

He wanted the focus on the crime and hated even discussing Perry’s private life which he said wasn’t relevant. We did build an apartment set, but never showed Perry going on dates, things like that. Perry should be fighting for the underdog. You must remember, Erle was in love with the law and its finer points.

I sat down and over a month read all the novels, of course, as background and it seemed to me Perry in the first books did twist the law on occasion. When I asked Erle, he agreed with me and said Perry had cleaned up his act somewhat, and that’s how he wanted him portrayed on television. We had to follow a certain pattern and often the case gets solved in the courtroom.

My first try [to sell the series] was to CBS, but the network wanted a live hour every week. That would have been impossible—it would kill the actor playing Perry. And I Love Lucy had taught the value of filmed reruns. So we filmed a pilot for CBS and absorbed the extra costs. We formed Paisano Productions between Erle and me and Corny. And I’ve just done the accounting of rerun rights for 1975 and can state we pulled in over $3 million that year—it would be even higher if we had always filmed in color.

JB: The casting was everything.

GP: We couldn’t afford a big star, and besides, big stars want big paychecks. Ray Burr came in and read for Burger at first. I’d been impressed with his job in A Place In The Sun. He was trying to get away from heavies, and said so. I told him he was perfect for Perry, but was at least 60 pounds too large. And he went on a starvation diet and a month later came back and tested as Perry, and when we started he’d shed 60 pounds.

I’d seen a brilliant little movie The Hitch-Hiker [1953] and had to have Bill Talman as Burger—and he never disappointed us. I told him to think that his character won his cases on the days when he was in another courtroom and wasn’t going up against Mason.

I was surprised Barbara Hale phoned us for Della Street. She was still a big movie actress, but she said with a young family she wanted to stay at home—no more long location shoots. Ray Collins came onboard as Lt. Arthur Tragg. He was such a wonderful actor—beautiful voice, trained in radio’s Mercury productions. We overlooked the fact that on an actual police force he would probably be long retired.

When Bill Hopper came in to read for Paul Drake he blurted out, “You hate my mother.” And that was Hedda Hopper. Well, I disliked what she stood for, but “hate” is something else—and anyway he was perfect as Drake, and we got him.

JB: You stacked each episode with great faces from the past.

GP: That was deliberate. Many were people I’d worked with in movies. They were grateful and delivered on time—and powerfully. Let me see your lists: Gloria Henry, Vaughn Taylor, Hillary Brooke, John Archer, Morris Ankrum, Don Beddoe, Fay Wray, Olive Blakeney, Paul Fix, Addison Richards. We also had newcomers like Darryl Hickman, Barbara Eden. The trick was to only use them once a year. People like Fay Wray came back several times, but as other characters.

And don’t forget the directors. Director A would be filming at CBS Studio Center, while Director B would be doing preproduction on next week’s episode. We shot 36 the first year. How? By using multiple cameras in the courtroom scenes. Ray had key lines written on his shirt sleeve cuffs and we bought him a huge trailer where he lived all night to prepare for those courtroom sequences which were usually shot in a day.

The directors all held to a formula style: Christian Nyby, did several in a row until he collapsed. Ted Post was great, so was William D. Russell, Laslo Benedek, Lewis Allen. Many had director’s credits in big movies.

JB: Could the show have gone on forever?

GP: I like to think so. CBS just got plain cocky. It irritated the suits to no end that Sundays at 8 was Ed Sullivan with his huge rating [for CBS] and then at 9 everybody switched to NBC’s Bonanza. Bill Paley [CBS President] would rant about this every time we met. Our slot had always been Saturdays at 7:30 which we won against such formidable competition as—you guessed it—Bonanza in 1959, 1960 until NBC moved it in 1961 and NBC bounced back Sunday nights.

In 1962 Paley moved us to Tuesdays at 8 and we took it [the time slot ratings] easily. Then for the September ‘65 season, he floored me by telling the affiliates we’d be going Sundays at 9 with a mandate to demolish Bonanza. Just like that. He finally let me shoot in color but we never had a chance. We improved ratings for CBS but Bonanza was the leader and Paley simply cancelled us completely in 1966. After nine seasons and 271 episodes we were dust. Gary Moore came in and bombed and then came the Smothers Brothers who held their own. Oh, CBS tried every ploy. After Sullivan retired, the CBS Sunday movie would go to 9:30 to try to cut into Bonanza’s audience—that was 1971 and that damned western only folded because key cast members retired or died.

JB: But Perry Mason did not die, did it?

GP: Now, I know you are going to ask me about the revival [in 1973-74]. My name was on it, but I wanted nothing to do with it. Corny was on his own. I can say these things because it didn’t last long, it couldn’t. Reruns of the original were all over the dial. I like Monte Markham, but he wasn’t Perry—he lacked that certain authority. And Sharon Acker, who is a darling, wasn’t at all like Della. And both [Monte and Sharon] were blondes! Wrong! These days CBS is angling to make some TV movies from the original novels. With Ray and Barbara. We’ll see. Bill Talman, Bill Hopper, and Ray Collins died early from tobacco smoking. I miss them every time I watch a rerun.

JB: You acted in the very last episode.

GP: That’s right, I played a spectator in the courtroom in the very final episode, “The Case Of The Final Fadeout”, and Erle was the second judge in the story. The director Jesse Hibbs bawled “It’s a wrap!” And we all were in tears. After 271 episodes and nine years we had nowhere to go the next day. The story was an inside joke about a TV series getting cancelled. And that was our fate.

Author’s Note: A full year after our afternoon together, Miss Patrick succumbed to leukemia which she’d kept secret from her friends for years. On the 4th of July, friends had gathered in the house as was the custom, but were told she was too sick with flu to attend. So they serenaded her from the courtyard, and two days later on July 6, 1980, Gail Patrick died in the arms of her husband, John Velde Jr.