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Lost Angel

Lost Angel(1944)

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teaser Lost Angel (1944)

Building stars was an economic necessity for the studios in Hollywood's golden age, and nobody did it better than MGM. The 1943 comedy Lost Angel offers two examples of how they did it. For Margaret O'Brien, her role as a child genius who learns about the real world from a brash reporter, his singer girlfriend and a good-hearted mobster was the first in a series of specially developed vehicles. For Ava Gardner, whose sultry beauty had won her a contract two years earlier, it was one of several small roles MGM used to help her learn how to carry herself on camera until the right part came along.

After witnessing her powerhouse dramatic performance as a British war orphan in 1942's Journey for Margaret, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer sent word to the writing department that he wanted a script that would make O'Brien the next Shirley Temple. It didn't hurt that he also had a crush on her mother, a beautiful brunette who was the only stage mother on the lot who could get away with marching into his office and demanding more money. He allegedly even offered Mrs. O'Brien $1 million to marry him.

Theatrical legend Angna Enters took time out from her pioneering work in modern dance, pantomime, teaching and writing novels to pen the story "Mama's Angel," which became the basis for Isobel Lennart's screenplay. If it was a new Shirley Temple that Mayer wanted, that's exactly what they gave him. As in many of the earlier child star's films, O'Brien's character was so precocious and heart melting that she managed to change the lives of all who met her. And just as there was a vaguely seductive air to Temple's scenes with her father figures, so O'Brien even got to act jealous when she first encounters the girlfriend (Marsha Hunt) of James Craig's reporter. It's no wonder that when reviewing the film, the New York Times' Bosley Crowther complained that she had been "Shirley Temple-ized....Maybe little Margaret in her trim clothes and her comic-kewpie hat is closer to the American mother's ideal, but for us, she is a creature worked with strings."

O'Brien was presented to audiences with the usual MGM luster thanks to producer Robert Sisk, a recent import from RKO, where he had worked on such hits as Tom Dick and Harry (1941), starring Ginger Rogers, and Five Came Back (1939), with Lucille Ball. He surrounded her with a strong cast who could survive playing second fiddle to the moppet. The adult stars, Craig and Hunt, were talented actors who rarely received their due at MGM. Craig had been hired as a threat to Clark Gable, a position that limited him mostly to minor films that didn't exploit the early promise he had shown as the farmer who sells his soul to the Devil in All That Money Can Buy (1941). With the exception of her showcase supporting turn as Greer Garson's suicidal sister in Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Hunt was rarely used as more than a decorative presence at MGM. When she finally started breaking out as a free-lance actress, her career was squelched by the anti-Communist blacklist of the late '40s and early '50s. For the professors out to keep their child prodigy untouched by the outside world, MGM assembled a who's who of character actors, including Philip Merivale, Henry O'Neill, Donald Meek and Alan Napier, with Andy Hardy's Aunt Milly, Sara Haden, as her teacher.

Sisk also assigned some well-chosen beginners to Lost Angel. Director Roy Rowland and cinematographer Robert Surtees were just graduating from shorts at MGM. With Lost Angel, Rowland would establish his talent for directing children, which would bring him assignments on two more O'Brien films, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) and Tenth Avenue Angel (1948). He would go on to direct one of the most original children's films ever made, the cult classic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953). Surtees would become a mainstay at MGM, where he would win Oscars® for King Solomon's Mines (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Ben-Hur (1959), before helping build a new Hollywood with such innovative films as The Graduate (1967) and The Last Picture Show (1971). Also new to MGM was Keenan Wynn, Ed Wynn's actor son, who had only signed with the studio a year earlier. Although a mainstay of the studio's '40s and '50s films, he had actually appeared in one MGM film of the '30s, doubling for Joan Crawford by driving her character's speed boat in Chained (1934).

Ava Gardner's unbilled appearance as a hatcheck girl hardly counts as a showcase for new talent. You have to look closely to even catch a glimpse of her but it was typical of her assignments at MGM at this point in her career. Although she had generated press coverage as Mickey Rooney's first wife, she was still a year away from on-screen billing at her home studio (she was billed earlier that year in a loan-out to Monogram for the Bowery Boys comedy Ghosts on the Loose). Her marriage to Rooney would end while Lost Angel was in production. Ironically, her father-in-law, Joe Yule, also had an unbilled bit in the film.

Of course, Lost Angel wasn't designed to promote Gardner. In promoting O'Brien, however, it was a smashing success. Despite Crowther's misgivings, it won strong reviews, particularly for its junior-league star, and justified Mayer's belief in her. Within a year, she would be voted a special Oscar® as outstanding juvenile and would receive a major pay raise from MGM in recognition of her rise to star status.

Also benefiting from the film was another child performer, Bobby Driscoll, who made his film debut as a child so adorable that the mere sight of him makes Craig aware of his love for O'Brien's character. Driscoll's mother had taken him around to all of the film studios on the advice of his barber, whose son was also a child actor. Within a few years, Driscoll's emotional responsiveness and good looks would win him a contract at the Disney Studios, where he was the first human performer ever signed to a long-term contract. Like O'Brien, he would win a juvenile Oscar® (for 1949's The Window). Unlike O'Brien, who lived a fulfilling life after her years of stardom were over, his inability to work as he grew older destroyed him, eventually leading to the drug addiction that took his life in 1968.

Producer: Robert Sisk
Director: Roy Rowland
Screenplay: Isobel Lennart
Based on an idea by Angna Enters
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Lynden Sparhawk
Score: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Principal Cast: Margaret O'Brien (Alpha), James Craig (Mike Regan), Marsha Hunt (Katie Mallory), Philip Merivale (Prof. Peter Vincent), Keenan Wynn (Packy), Alan Napier (Dr. Woodridge), Henry O'Neill (Prof. Pringle), Sara Haden (Rhoda Kitterick), Donald Meek (Prof. Catty), Elisabeth Risdon (Mrs. Pringle), Kathleen Lockhart (Mrs. Catty), Robert Blake (Jerry), Bobby Driscoll (Boy on Train), Kay Medford (Operator), Mike Mazurki (Fighter), Ava Gardner (Hat Check Girl), Joe Yule (Tenant).
BW-91m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Frank Miller

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