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Melvyn Douglas - Star of the Month
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,Melvyn Douglas

Robert Osborne on Melvyn Douglas

Our Star of the Month for September, the often over-looked and underrated Melvyn Douglas, could have boasted (if he'd been the type, which he wasn't) of having not one, but two of the best careers of any actor in motion pictures: he spent the first half of his career in films (1931-51) as a suave, classy, leading man, sharing scenes and clinches with some of the movies' most celebrated and beautiful ladies including Greta Garbo (three times), Joan Crawford (four teamings with her), Joan Blondell (also four), Claudette Colbert (three), Roz Russell (two) and single shots with Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck, among many; he then spent his last two decades in the movies (1962- 81) as a brilliant character actor, almost unrecognizable from his debonair days but playing parts that gave full vent to his exceptional acting chops, winning two Academy Awards® in the process (for 1963's Hud, which we'll air on September 24, and 1979's Being There, which launches our Douglas salute on September 3).

It's worth noting those early "he-was-born-in-a-tuxedo" roles brought Douglas fame, fans and a fat bank balance, but it was not until he began playing character parts that he received his first flicker of recognition from Academy voters. He is, for the record, no relation to Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas or longtime TV host Mike Douglas. Couldn't be. He was born Melvyn Hesselberg, just as Kirk wasn't born a Douglas, either, but instead Issur Demsky. (To keep the record straight, Paul Douglas of A Letter to Three Wives fame came into the world as Paul Fleischer.)

Melvyn Douglas had, from the start, been besotted with acting on stage; motion pictures had never made much of a dent in his attention span and throughout his 80 years--63 of them spent as an actor--he continually returned to the stage, most often as an actor but also as a director and/or producer. A workhorse he also was, rarely making less than three A-budget movies a year during the 1930s-40s. In several years he made as many as five, and in 1938 he starred in seven. The output only slowed down when he was busy on Broadway, or when, at age 42, he joined the Army as a private in World War II and spent those war years serving in the Burma-China-India battle areas.

Something which also slowed down his career on occasion: his politics, and the backlash he and his wife-actress Helen Gahagan Douglas received during and after WWII when they began to be very verbal and active in fighting anti-Fascist causes, then threats of Communism on U.S. soil in later years. (From 1945-1957 she served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.)

Because Mr. Douglas lacked the matinee idol looks of Cary Grant and the twinkling handsomeness of William Powell, many today have trouble understanding why Douglas was considered to be on the Grant-Powell level as a popular farceur among leading men throughout the 1930s and 40s. He was. And we have many shining examples that we think will make that popularity of his crystal clear to you this month on TCM. If you're not already a fan of Melvyn Douglas, whether in his younger or older days, or both, I suspect you very soon will be.

by Robert Osborne

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