Friday, January 15, 2010

Harvey and Peggy Dow (Rhoades)

“Harvey” Remains Peggy Dow’s Fav Film
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Do you believe in Pookas? C’mon, you know what a Pooka is, don’t you?

Well, Púca is an Old Irish name for a ghost. The basis for Puck, the mischievous nature sprite featured in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

But the Pooka you know best is that six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall invisible rabbit who palled around with Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) in the classic 1950 movie comedy “Harvey.”

Directed by Henry Koster, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Mary Chase, it tells the story of a simple-but-kind off-center guy who worries his sister (Josephine Hull) with his insistence about having a Pooka as his best friend. Too much drink or a touch of dementia?

Either way, his sister decides to lock him up in a sanitarium for his own good.

The good doctor (Charles Drake) commits the sister instead when she admits to possibly having seen this giant rabbit called Harvey herself. Meanwhile, the nurse is having her own problems in the romantic department with the distracted doc.

Nurse Kelly was played with great charm by actress Peggy Dow – who happens to be coming to Key West this Friday to host a special showing of “Harvey” at the Tropic Cinema. It’s part of the christening of the new Peggy Dow Theater wing at the Tropic (see accompanying article).

As the last surviving cast member, Peggy will share fond memories about working with Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull. “He was absolutely the dearest guy,” she says of Stewart. “He was so funny. He had not a narcissistic bone in his body. He was not glitzy. He was elegant, but he wasn’t a Hollywood type. He was a true hero, had several missions over Germany.”

Known these days as Mrs. Walter Helmerich of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Peggy Dow is the mother of the Tropic’s executive director Matthew Helmerich.

“Working with Jimmy was just magical,” she remembers. “My heart didn’t stop racing until the movie was over. He was so generous with young actresses and actors. And he was so funny. He’d challenge us to kiss our elbow or touch our tongue to our nose – he could! He was a scream. He kept all of us upbeat.”

Although Peggy confesses “Jimmy was never quite satisfied with his performance in ‘Harvey,’” the America Film Institute rates it as the seventh Best Fantasy Film ever made.

The nurse in “Harvey” turned out to be her most famous role. And her favorite. “I have to tell you, I got the part because of Walt Helmerich,” she refers to her husband. “I’d just received notice that I was going to be an Indian princess in a picture with Van Heflin and I was going to be the second lead. Typical of what Hollywood does, I was to play an Indian maiden and I’m Norwegian looking. So I was going to get a black wig and all kinds of dark markup. Of course I was a perfect Indian! And Walt came into the little setting with my agent, and they said, Guess what, you just got the part of Nurse Kelly in ‘Harvey.’ And I said, I don’t won’t the part of Nurse Kelly in ‘Harvey.’ That’s a secondary part. Here I am, the lead in a great cowboy movie and I’ll be the Indian princess. And Walt said, You idiot, you’ve got to do this, it’s going to be a classic. It’ll be shown 50 years from now. And he was right.” With a wink, she adds, “That once.”

Born Margaret Josephine Varnadow on March 18, 1928, in Columbia, Mississippi, Peggy’s family subsequently settled in Louisiana. “My mother felt that every girl should learn to play the piano, speak French, know all kinds of verse, and cook an eight-course meal,” she says. So she attended a girls’ finishing school in Gulfport, Mississippi, then went on to college (Louisiana State and Northwestern State University), majoring in drama and appearing in several college plays.

After a brief stint of modeling and some radio experience, she was spotted by a talent agent and cast in a TV show in February 1949, a sitcom episode called “The Mummy’s Foot.” Shortly after that exposure, Universal-International Studios offered her a seven-year contract.

“We were all so excited about it,” she says of the seven-year deal. “We didn’t think about the consequences of how long that might be.”

Those were the days when studios ruled their contract players. “The studio made all the decisions,” she explains. “They decided who you’d be seen with, where you would go. We all had drama lessons, and we had speech lessons, and we had horseback riding, tap dancing, ballet, almost everything.”

The contract players were divided up into classes. “In our group, Rock Hudson was there, and Tony Curtis. A young actress by the name of Piper Laurie, Peggy Castle, Dorothy Hart.”
She describes Rock Hudson as the perfect date: “He was a great dancer, made wonderful conversation, and after dinner would drop you off at your door.”

In her first movie “Woman in Hiding” (actually released as her second picture after “Undertow”), she co-stars with Scott McNally, Howard Duff, and Ida Lupino. “I called my mother and said, Mom, I’m so thrilled. You will love this. I have a wonderful part in a movie and it’s the other woman. And there came a great silence, I didn’t hear a word. I said, Mom, are you there? She said, You know this is terrible, you’ve got to get the good girl part. I said, I would but Ida Lupino already got the good girl part. Then I said, Mom, don’t worry, Bette Davis got started that way. She replied, I don’t know Bette Davis.”

Despite a promising career as an actress (“so much going for her -- beauty, brains and talent,” notes her biography on IMDb), after three years in Hollywood she gave it all up and retired to a domestic life as Mrs. Walter Helmerich.

How did an Oklahoma oilman woo a movie star who would appear on the cover of Life Magazine? Peggy grins at the memory. “I had come to New York for the first time in my life. We were making a movie that was called ‘Night in the City,’ about drugs in Bellevue Hospital. I was twenty or twenty-one at the time. They put us up in the Waldorf Astoria. Well, I just thought I’d died and gone to heaven. They were having parties for us, just the best time. We’d go to dinner at the 21 Club.

“One night I got a phone call from my friend Nina Foch. She was engaged to Richard Conte’s brother and Richard was in the movie with me. She said, I know you don’t do blind dates but I want you to go with us to see the opening of the play ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ starring this new girl Carol Channing. Afterwards we’ll all go to a party at the St. Regis and wait for the reviews.

“My date was a Broadway producer named Tony Farrell, a very nice guy, a real angel. We’re at the St. Regis and sitting across the table from me are Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Jessica Tandy and her husband Hume Cronyn, writer Edna Ferber, and that loud singer – what was her name? – Ethel Merman. It was just fabulous. I couldn’t believe we were really there.

“And here comes this blonde babe, this Lana Turner type with too much décolletage, sweeping down the stairs, flanked by two really good-looking young men. One was movie columnist Army Archer and the other one was Walt Helmerich. I thought I’d seen him somewhere before, but couldn’t place it.

“We were just absolutely mesmerized as she works her way to my table and said something rather nice to my escort like, Tony Darling, I want to be in your next play. And proceeded to look down at me and say, Oh excuse me, dear. And I looked up and here was this young man that I could have sworn I’d seen before and he said, Hi, I’m Walt Helmerich, would you like to dance? And I looked over at Nina and she said, Watch out, dear. So I said, All right, I’ll dance one dance. As it turned out, my escort was occupied, so we danced a lot.”

“Then I remembered where I’d seen him before. I went to a girls’ school in Gulfport, Mississippi, near Kessler Field, during the war. I was about fifteen years old and we all thought it was wonderful to sit up in this big high smoker room about the third floor and watch all the dates come in. And Walt Helmerich would get out of his convertible and put his gray coat collar up and swagger down with an officer’s hat on and take out some Oklahoma City girls And we’d shout, Who’s the lucky one tonight, honey? And guess what, there he was dancing with me at the St. Regis. It’s a small world.”

“Well, next morning Walt sent me a four-page telegram of flight numbers showing how I could come through Tulsa on my way back to California. I asked my mother what should I do? He’d been terribly nice to me in New York. She said, Well, Sweetheart, if you want to stop, pick out a short time so you won’t be committed. So I picked out a thirty-minute slot. The plane landed and he was there and I said, Oh gosh, it’s nice to see you, we just have time for a Coke. And we were sitting there drinking a Coca-Cola when this voice comes on the loudspeaker and says, I’m sorry but Flight so-and-so to Los Angeles will be delayed, we have some mechanical troubles. I looked at him and said, Did you do this, Walt? He laughed and said he wished he had the power. So I was there four hours. I met his mother, I met his father!”

At this point, Walter Helmerich speaks up. “She fabricates a lot,” he chuckles. “When I went to Harvard Business School, you could live off-campus. Three of us guys had this house. I saw this picture of this beautiful Hollywood actress in the Boston Globe and I cut it out and put it on my wardrobe where I would see it every morning as I dressed. My roommate’s dad had produced ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ so we got invited to the premiere. There I am at the party and who do I see but the girl from the picture on my wardrobe – Peggy.”

Two and a half years later -- “after a very bumpy courtship,” she jokes – they were married.
She credits her co-star Dick Powell with the success of her 58-year marriage. “Oh, he was so funny and just darling. He was married to June Allyson. And they used to ask us up to their hilltop home. And Natalie Wood would walk in, she was fifteen. And Robert Wagner … was cute as pie ... they were so beautiful and so young and really fun.”

Dick Powell had been married several times. “He kept saying to me, What are you doing in this business? For heavens sake, go away, don’t stay in this business. And I’d say, Wait a minute, I’m going to be a great actress. And he’d say, Can you think of about five people on one hand that are still married and haven’t been married 14 times to different people? When I thought about it, I couldn’t. So I quit Hollywood.”

But she left us with “Harvey” and a dozen or so other films.
[from Solares Hill]

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