Elisha Cook Jr. dies of a stroke in Big Pine, California, 1995. He was called Hollywood’s lightest heavy, a career character actor largely defined by the neurotic, cowardly criminal types he played throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s. Cook was at his best in The Phantom Lady (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Shane (1953), The Killing (1956)—his personal favorite—and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But it is his turn as runty gunsel Wilmer opposite Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) for which audiences perhaps best remember him. "[Cook] lived alone up in the High Sierra, tied flies and caught golden trout between films,” said his Maltese Falcon director John Huston. “When he was wanted in Hollywood, they sent word up to his mountain cabin by courier. He would come down, do a picture, and then withdraw again to his retreat." The five-foot-five-inch actor appeared in a total of 106 pictures, beginning in 1930 with Her Unborn Child through to 1984 with Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse.
Arbor Day has come and gone, and, for some reason, we remained oblivious to the raucous celebrations surrounding that tree lovers’ holiday. And so, in belated honor of woody perennials everywhere, we crafted a short little movie salute where trees figured into the plot, or at least provided a lovely backdrop. Enjoy the video…and go plant a sapling.
Gary Cooper dies of prostate cancer in Beverly Hills, 1961. A veteran of extra work and bit parts, Cooper’s stardom seemed inevitable with his first major role in 1926’s The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), playing ranch hand Abe Lee vying for the attention of the rancher’s daughter. In 1927, a two-minute cameo in the year’s most heralded picture sealed the deal. The film was Wings, a saga of World War I pilots directed by William Wellman and starring Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen and Clara Bow. In his brief scene, Cooper plays Cadet White, who chats with fellow flyers Rogers and Arlen just moments before his death in a plane crash. He’s affable, handsome, tall and departs the film just before Wellman gives him an extended close-up, a “Who the hell is that?” moment that quite understandably made audiences want to see more. They didn’t have long to wait, as the actor went on to appear in eight features in 1928 alone.
Katharine Hepburn is born in Hartford, Connecticut, 1907. Prior to her big comeback in The Philadelphia Story (1940), Hepburn was labeled “box office poison,” in no small part because of the John Ford-directed Mary of Scotland (1936), which opened to lukewarm critical response and disappointing box office. It was the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her return to an England under the reign of growing rival Queen Elizabeth I. Signing Hepburn to play Mary was the easy part. One of the biggest challenges was casting the role of Elizabeth, with Hepburn going so far as to suggest she tackle both parts, prompting costar John Carradine to ask her, “But if you played both queens, how would you know which one to upstage?” Bette Davis was mentioned, Ginger Rogers tested for it, and Ford campaigned for Tallulah Bankhead, but in the end it was Florence Eldridge, the wife of costar Fredric March, playing Earl of Bothwell, who nabbed the part.
Wrote critic Frank Nugent of The New York Times, “[A]lthough Katharine Hepburn's Mary Stuart shines brilliantly through most of the film's two-hour course, we were conscious of definite defects in her characterization…Miss Hepburn comes to it in a petitioning mood, pleads for justice and—even after she discovers Elizabeth's grim hatred—contents herself with a defy that is almost reproachful in tone. Mary Stuart was more inclined to show her claws than her tears…Miss Hepburn's performance is…at variance with the accepted notion of Mary in those moments where boldness, implacability and high resolve were needed; but she is altogether admirable in those scenes where the Queen was womanly, tender, impetuous and of high courage. Had she been able to meet both moods, she might have counted it her greatest characterization.”
Joan Crawford dies of a heart attack in New York City, 1977. In later years, the movie star’s movie star took to acting in less than stellar projects—I Saw What You Did (1965) and Berserk (1967) among them. “They were all terrible,” Crawford remarked, “even the few I thought might be good. I made them because I needed the money or because I was bored or both. I hope they have been exhibited and withdrawn and are never heard from again.” She saved the worst for last, a 1970 science fiction monstrosity called Trog that saw her playing nursemaid to a unkempt, cranky troglodyte with potential.
“I realized one morning that Trog was going to be my last picture,” said Crawford (above, enjoying a Pepsi with her costar). “I had to be up early for the shoot and when I looked outside at the beautiful morning sky I felt that it was time to say goodbye. I think that may have been a prophetic thought because when I arrived on the set that morning the director told me that due to budget cuts we would wrap up filming today. The last shot of that film was a one-take and it was a very emotional moment for me. When I was walking up that hill towards the sunset I was flooded with memories of the last 50 years, and when the director yelled cut I just kept on walking. That for me was the perfect way to end my film career, however, the audiences who had to sit through that picture may feel differently.”