Camp David


By • Oct 1st, 2006 • Pages: 1 2 3

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I first became aware that the legendary Academy awarding winning (first recipient of the best supporting actress award) actress Gale Sondergaard was indeed alive and well and living in LA, when the late Ron Haver screened the Bob Hope version of THE CAT AND THE CANARY at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the summer of 1980. At that time it was nearly impossible to see this sound version of the silent classic unless a screening like this was arraigned. Ron Haver was a tireless champion of film preservation as well as the guiding light behind Filmex in Los Angeles, a festival that brought international attention to Hollywood as well as the art of cinema. The night of the screening was a sell-out with many celebrities in attendance but none was more welcomed than the woman who played the sinister “Miss Lu” in this now classic horror comedy. Ms. Sondergaard was seated in the front row with Haver as the house lights dimmed and then went up again to reveal a still striking Gale Sondergaard who then introduced the film with humor and grace, remembering the cameraman and director for special praise while modestly accepting a standing ovation from the audience.

What was left unsaid by Ms. Sondergaard that evening was her personal dislike for the star of the THE CAT AND THE CANARY, a man she acted with on four occasions, the powerful comic icon Bob Hope. It seems that Hope had become so right wing and narrow-minded that he held a personal political vendetta against his former co-star until her death in 1985.

While most all of the Hollywood show business community is of the same mind in condemning the infamous blacklisting that destroyed lives in the 1950’s when Senator Joe McCarthy used his office and a young congressman from California named Richard Nixon to persecute many of the most respected Hollywood actors, writers and directors with his witch-hunt for communists, there were sadly many equally well known professionals in Hollywood who turned against their own and fanned the flames of suspicion and named names before the House and Senate committees during this time of shame. Men like Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Cecil B De Mille and Adolphe Menjou stood before committees, or even worse, took what these men had to say and believed it to be true. These men also helped create lists in shades of gray and black to make sure anyone under suspicion would never work in Hollywood again.

Gale Sondergarrd and David

After meeting Ms. Sondergaard that evening I asked Charles Higham, who escorted her, to introduce me properly, and we began a friendship that endured until Gale retired to the Motion Picture home in 1984. A few weeks later I was invited to her “compound” as she called it in the Silver Lake district, an area of old Los Angeles that has since become trendy and expensive. Gale Sondergaard could never be described as bitter or resentful of the past. Gale had a sharp and clever mind and did not suffer fools gladly. She was a very accomplished actress on both the stage and screen; she understood her limitations better than most directors and never thought in terms of stardom since her goals were always to perfect her craft rather than bask in the glow of one’s own publicity.

Gale was the widow of Herbert J.Biberman, a producer/writer/director who achieved national attention as one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten.” His refusal to testify led to his blacklisting and he was sent to jail for a year and fined $1000. Gale also refused to testify and her career ended on the spot in Hollywood. Gale relied on the stage after that and worked right through the blacklisting until she and her husband worked together once more on a retelling of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” which became the film SLAVES. Herbert Biberman died of cancer in 1971.

The artistry of her late husband was in abundance as I entered Gale’s home. She announced that all the furniture in the living room and hallway was pure “Biberman,” as he designed furniture as well. In an alcove sat her Oscar for ANTONY ADVERSE, giving me the thrill of holding my third Academy Award. (The other two being Groucho Marx’s honorary one and James Poe’s screenplay award).

Gale was a practical woman and her home reflected a deep love of gardening and an appreciation for art. She was a survivor and she knew every day was a blessing; she also had her sister living with her who was suffering with poor eyesight and stayed upstairs most of the time.

During my visit I attempted to ask about her film career and she did her best to make me understand that living had very little to do with studying old films and I could better serve myself learning more about life and less about Claude Rains! Gale did tell me that she did not get along with Gloria Holden the actress who I admired so much from DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. Gale was in the Paul Muni film with her about Emile Zola, and Gale felt Gloria was a snob and a bit too grand for her own good. Gale loved working with Paul Muni and especially Claude Rains, who she described as “One of the best actors Hollywood ever had.” “One of my best friends in the early years in Hollywood was Luise Rainer; she was just a lovely person and very sensitive. After I made THE LETTER people often confused us and complemented me for my work in THE GOOD EARTH and I always had to say no that was my good friend Luise Rainer.

When we got around to discussing the film she made unforgettable with Bette Davis, where Gale has no dialogue yet speaks volumes with her eyes and body language, (I am of course referring to William Wyler’s film of Somerset Maugham’s THE LETTER), this is where Gale began to talk about her distaste for Bob Hope. During the celebration of Adolph Zuckor’s 100th birthday party on the Paramount lot, where all the surviving stars of Hollywood made the mogul’s affair an event never to be equaled for the gathering of more stars than there were in the heavens, Gale was greeted by many of her former players, but none as warmly as Bette Davis, who said for all to hear “Oh Gale, you were luminous in THE LETTER, and with that planted a kiss on Gale’s cheek. As the two actress walked up ramp to the main table, the one just before the guest of honor himself, Mr. Zukor, Bette said to Gale “I hope you are sitting with us. Let me see where they have seated you.” Apparently there were several chairs yet to be occupied, however when Gale asked to be seated, the ushers told her to come with them back down to the bottom of the stairs. All of this confusion occurred because seated very near to Zukor was none other than Bob Hope who, after co-starring with Gale Sondergaard in four films, demanded she be removed from his table and placed in dishonor with a table at the bottom of the stairs for the “Commie pinko traitor” she was to him. An angry Bette Davis let her feelings be known and Gale was placed at Davis’s table away from Hope, but this was really the last straw, Gale could never forget his treatment of her that evening, nor the many things he did during the blacklisting to see she never worked anywhere in Hollywood. As Gale told me this, her face grew dark with anger and her fists were tight around her chair while she spoke. “There is nothing in politics that surprises me anymore, not even a man like Nixon taking the Presidency or Reagan! People must stay informed about their leaders”

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