DENNIS MORGAN—Earl Stanley Morner
Born: December 20, 1908 in Prentice, Wisconsin
Married to Lillian Vedder (5 September 1933—7 September 1994)
Died: September 7, 1994 (age 85) in Fresno, California (respiratory failure)
(Photo courtesy of FindAGrave.com)
This biography, courtesy of Classic Images, can also be found in the publications section.
Classic Images • No. 277 • July 1998
DENNIS MORGAN: WARNER’S REGULAR GUY, PART I
By Laura Wagner
Dennis Morgan is certainly one of the most fondly remembered actors of the ‘40s. An extremely versatile actor, he was good in any genre: musicals, comedies, westerns, war, or drama. Sadly, he was (and still is) a highly underrated actor. Popular for his curly haired good looks and melodious tenor voice, he also displayed a natural spontaneity with his acting. Ginger Rogers’ description of her two time co-star fit his image perfectly: “[Dennis] was the personification of the Arrow Collar man. He was extremely handsome, intensely romantic, without manufactured overtones.”
In the 1940s, Dennis Morgan was Warner Bros.’ highest paid actor, as well as one of their most popular stars. It wasn’t always so. When Dennis started in the ‘30s, there was a real problem with his casting, and he worked in Hollywood for nearly five years in ordinary bit parts and leads in “B’s,” until Kitty Foyle with Ginger Rogers came along, making audiences (and studio execs) take notice.
Since he played at Warner Bros. at a time when all their male stars were predominantly of the Irish nationality, it was understood that he was too. Add to that a number of “Irish” roles, such as his hugely successful My Wild Irish Rose (as Chauncey Olcott), naturally he has been associated with the Irish for many years. His fans still fancy Dennis to be of true Irish descent—in spite of the facts.
Dennis Morgan started out with the very un-Irish name of Stanley Morner on December 20, 1910 . He was born and raised in the small town of Prentice, Wisconsin, the second of three children. Older brother Kenneth died twelve days before Dennis was born, and the Morners would later have a daughter, Dorothy. Sorting out his ancestry, which bore no trace of Irish, Dennis said: “Dad was a Swedish extraction; my mother was a Van Dusen, of Pennsylvania Dutch origin. Her mother was Scottish.”
He had a normal childhood and a very stable one. His father, Frank Morner, was a banker who later became a supplier for lumber camps, and his mother, Grace Morner, studied music at Lawrence College before she married. Her love of singing was quickly passed on to her son. Dennis was given singing lessons early on by his maternal aunt and subsequently sang in church (which he continued to do all his life), at town socials; and he even played trombone with the school band.
The Morners moved to Marshfield, Wisconsin when Dennis was in high school, and it was there he met Lillian Vedder, the town physician’s daughter. It was love at first sight for Dennis, but it took awhile to approach the young girl, who was selling flowers to passerby on a war veteran’s benefit day. “I was selling poppies,” recalled Lillian recently. “After we really became acquainted, he told me he was too shy to come over! I was interested in him from the start.”
It was because of Lillian that he entered Carroll College in Waukesha. “We both attended Carroll College. His mother never forgave me; she went to Lawrence College, and she wanted him to go there, but he didn’t want to go there and have me go to Carroll.”
Singing was also a big concern in Dennis’ life, and he performed wherever he could, including singing between movie shows at a local theater. Acting wise, he appeared in some Carroll College productions, opposite Lillian in some. An active member of the Carroll College Glee Club, he performed with them around the Midwest. His vocal ability was so good, he won the Atwater Kent radio contest twice—1930 and 1931.
By 1930, he had graduated college and was soon touring the Midwest in a light opera production of Faust, which also featured his voice coach from Carroll in a main role. Meanwhile, Lillian went home to Marshfield and taught school nearby in Shawano. After his tour, Dennis went searching for a steady job so they could eventually marry.
Dennis found a spot at radio station WTMJ in Milwaukee. “One hour he would be ‘The Prince of Song,’” remembered Lillian, “and maybe in the afternoon, he would be ‘The Joyful Cavalier.’ He also read poetry. He was [at the station] morning to night for a year.” Contrary to many accounts, Dennis never was a sportscaster for the Green Bay Packers, although Lillian does recall one broadcast Dennis did at WTMJ for a baseball game.
From Milwaukee, he went to Chicago in 1933. He and Lillian were married on September 5, 1933, back home in Wisconsin, since he landed a prolonged engagement with Vernon Buck’s Orchestra at The Palmer House in Chicago. “He was at the Palmer House for seven months,” says Lillian. “He was there longer than any other entertainer.”
Not only was he getting lucky with his career (he also appeared at The Chicago Theater and The World’s Fair), but he was also lucky in love. He and Lillian were very happy, and their marriage was a long and successful one—producing three children: Stanley, Jr. (1934), Kristin (1937), and James (1943). Dennis and Lillian led a quiet life among the glitter of Hollywood, many labeling them “Hollywood’s Family Next Door.”
Lillian Morner remembers well the circumstances surrounding Dennis’ introduction to films. “He was appearing with an opera company, and when [opera singer] Mary Garden heard him, she said he should be in movies, and that she could get him an audition with MGM. He was signed by MGM, and he went out to Hollywood in 1935. By the time, we had our first little baby, and so we went out there in an old Packard. His sister went with us, and his voice coach Victor Chernois. We were real pioneers!”
Yet, the initial excitement turned to frustration when they learned that MGM had no real plans for Dennis. “They just kept him as a threat to Nelson Eddy—because if Nelson Eddy refused to make a movie, they would put my husband in it. They never did, and it was most frustrating.”
The movies Dennis made from MGM in 1936-1937 never showcased him. He was loaned out to producers Victor and Edward Halperin (under the banner “Academy Pictures”) for a leading role in I Conquer the Sea (1936), which seems to be his first film. It was a dreadful story about Portuguese fishermen and very minor. After Dennis’ success in the ‘40s, it was re-released with the title Sea Bandits in 1947.
Back at MGM he was inexplicably relegated to bits: in Suzy with Jean Harlow, he was a WWI officer; Robert Montgomery’s starrer, Piccadilly Jim showed Dennis as a bandleader. Loaned out to Warner Bros., he is barely noticeable in Down the Stretch; at MGM, the same could be said for his bit in Old Hutch. Song of the City was a ghastly semi-musical in which, fifth billed, he showed up at the end as a yachting guest—singing nary a note. He vaguely romanced Betty Furness in the Alice Brady vehicle Mama Steps Out; and in Navy Blue and Gold his nearly minute spot consisted of him dancing with Billie Burke, who talked his ear off.
There exists a short subject, however, from this time period that gives Dennis an opportunity to sing, Annie Laurie, co-starring with Ann Rutherford. Unfortunately, this singing role was an odd occurrence as his next would prove.
The Great Ziegfeld was MGM’s golden movie of 1936. It was a dazzling spectacle, telling the story of showman Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) and his Follies. The film’s big production number was “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” and the staging was elaborate, earning Seymour Felix the 1936 Oscar for “Dance Direction.” A beautiful display of a huge wedding cake revolved on the stage, surrounded by just about every girl contracted to MGM at the time. In the middle of this elegance was Dennis, dressed to the nines, looking gorgeous, singing the wonderful Irving Berlin song—except he wasn’t singing. For some unexplained reason, Allan Jones’ voice was on the soundtrack, while Dennis mouthed the words. It’s a mystery since everyone at MGM knew he could carry a tune. Much speculation has been made through the years concerning the reasons why, but no one seems to agree. Dennis was an unknown in 1936, and it seems unlikely MGM would trust in him a big song in an important musical sequence. It’s very likely that Allan Jones recorded the song with every intention to film it but at the last minute wasn’t available. MGM, in a corner, subbed in the attractive Dennis. The music track was already laid down, so no new expense was added to the movie’s already large budget for Dennis to re-record the number.
Besides work in bit parts for MGM, he also appeared in concerts as “Stanley Morner from MGM,” which probably confused a lot of people since he wasn’t a star. He also found work on the stage in the Los Angeles Opera production of The Student Prince, in the lead.
The truth was, however, that MGM was simply not interested in developing him for bigger roles, and it was a terrible time for Dennis. “He was so frustrated about not doing anything,” says Lillian. “[MGM] wouldn’t let him go. [Dennis] begged them to release him [so he could] go to another studio.”
That other studio was Paramount, who signed Dennis in 1938 to a six month contract and changed his name to Richard Stanley. Paramount was no better, and they threw him into bit parts which did nothing for his career: Persons in Hiding, Illegal Traffic, Men with Wings, and King of Alcatraz.
Dropped by Paramount, Dennis was quickly signed by Warner Bros. With a new studio came another name change. “When Dennis went to Warner Bros., Jack Warner said: ‘Stanley Morner?!’ Morner sounded too sad… and it was changed,” laughed Lillian. The publicity mill was churning with thoughts of the Irish: “Since he’s a singer and because he’s Irish, let’s give him a name that sounds like an Irish singer,” one release falsely stated. It seemed like there was a prerequisite at Warners that their male stars be Irish, but Dennis never complained one bit about the “confusion,” once telling a reporter, “While I’m very proud of my Swedish ancestry, I must admit—I’m crazy about the Irish!”
Still, there was a problem of how to cast him. Dennis wasn’t the gangster type or a fast talking Pat O’Brien clone, although he tried. On the plus side, Dennis was playing leads, brightening up Warner’s “B” line up with his naturalness and beautiful presence.
The films he made in this early period were fast programmers blessed with excellent casts and breezy performances, and it was marvelous training for him. Warners tried the tough guy image on Dennis with Waterfront (1939) and fairly succeeded in convincing the audience he was indeed, as one character put it, “the toughest longshoreman on the coast—and proud of it!” His two-fisted performance was interrupted several times to show how romantic he was with Gloria Dickson. That appearance came across better than the rough one. Dennis was teamed to good rapport with Wayne Morris in The Return of Doctor X (1939), as they set off to solve some mysterious blood drainings. They meet up with zombie Humphrey Bogart, who, hungry for blood, goes after Denny’s sweetie, Rosemary Lane. The film, often cited as the mistake of Bogart’s career, is actually very exciting, funny, and wholly entertaining. True to Warner form, it was fast.
On the downside, No Place to Go (1939) did no one any good with its pointless story of a son (Dennis) wanting his father (Fred Stone) to leave the old soldier’s home and live with him and his wife (Gloria Dickson). For reasons known only to the studio, Dennis was oddly given nothing to do and “no place to go.”
Starting the ‘40s with a flutter, he was presented with Three Cheers for the Irish (1940), but not as an Irishman. He was a Scottish cop, and his accent was very romantic sounding in his lovely scenes with Priscilla Lane. The film relied too heavily on ethnic sparring, with an exhaustive amount of “dumb Scotsman” barbs from nasty Irishman Thomas Mitchell, playing Lane’s father who’s opposed to any romantic entanglement between his daughter and Dennis. The movie is worth sitting through, however, if just to hear an extremely romantic Dennis tell Lane she’s a “bonny lass.” They’re a sweet couple, who deserved a sweeter movie.
Like many “B” stars toiling in Hollywood at the time, he was given small parts in “A’s.” The “A” being James Cagney’s The Fighting 69th (1940), which told of the exploits of a famous Irish regiment during WWI. As a Lieutenant with the company, Dennis is not even a part of the main story line—the cowardice of Cagney under fire—and he has no sustained scenes. After a few nondescript movements in the beginning, Dennis shows up briefly near the end to die heroically, saving his commanding officer, George Brent, from a sniper’s gun.
He was better served in his next picture and was allowed to sing for the first time in a feature film for Warners. For the love of a girl (Gloria Dickson again), Dennis decides to join the police force in Tear Gas Squad (1940), but finds opposition in rival John Payne for his girl’s affections. The film shows some minor training sequences and had a rousing fisticuffin’ finale, but the movie is notable for being the first real showcase for Dennis’ musical ability. In the course of this brisk 56-minute yarn, Dennis gets to warble four full songs, including a gorgeous, “You, Darlin’,” which melts Dickson’s heart as well as the audience’s. He especially makes the Irish proud by singing a captivating “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
Showing vast amounts of charm, Flight Angels (1940) had Dennis as a pilot with a roving eye for the ladies, which distresses Virginia Bruce. Also in the cast were Wayne Morris and Jane Wyman, the latter becoming Dennis’ most frequent (besides Jack Carson) co-star—even though many times they weren’t paired romantically. Flight Angels, the title referring to stewardesses at an airline run by Ralph Bellamy, contains a confident performance by Dennis, as he works hard during the film to perfect a stratosphere plane with buddy Morris—while also combating failing eyesight. Morris has his own problems, in the form of “angel” Jane Wyman. When not insulting Morris, she’s after him to marry her. As for Dennis, he and Bellamy both want Virginia Bruce, with Dennis winning (by a long shot) with the help of the underscored song “Devil May Care.”
Although critics were not kind (“as obvious as the nose on your face and typical Grade B second feature fare,” noted one annoyed reviewer), the script by Maurice Leo was bright with some fun one-liners. Although the movie ran a trifle over long, it featured a “Devil May Care” Dennis ready for stardom in a big way.
He had to wait: his next was still of the “B” variety. River’s End (1940) gave him an interesting dual role, playing a man wrongly accused of murder who takes over for his dead look-a-like Canadian Mountie to clear his name. He promptly falls in love with his “sister” (Elizabeth Earl), which causes the viewer to feel slightly creepy over the situation. It was a good action packed “B,” despite the love interest.
With each movie, his style developed more to that of a nice, regular guy, who was a very personable ladies man. A “boy next door” he wasn’t; he was in no way wholesome in his apparent eye for the opposite sex. Hearts were definitely starting to beat a little faster as he began to form his screen identity.
Warner Bros. did have some major ideas for Dennis in the beginning when he had no “name.” Before Rafael Sabatini’s The Sea Hawk started production, with an early but discarded script by Delmer Daves, Dennis was set to star in the swashbuckling tale—until wiser heads decided upon the more ideal Errol Flynn. Another prime chance would have been his playing of George Custer in Santa Fe Trail (1940), a notion that was soon abandoned; Ronald Reagan ultimately was cast in this Errol Flynn western. Dennis incidentally became good friends with fellow Warner’s star Flynn, and he paid tribute to his pal at his 1959 funeral by singing a Robert Louis Stevenson poem.
Alas, Warners still saw Dennis as a handsome ornament for their “B” pictures and short subjects (The Singing Dude, March on Marines, and Ride, Cowboy, Ride—among others) until a loan out changed everything.
Dennis’ part in Kitty Foyle (1940) was a hard fought battle for him. He knew how important the leading role in this major production would be for his career, which was stuck in the “B’s.” There were two things against him; the film was being shot at rival studio RKO, and he needed permission for the loan-out, and, more importantly, he wasn’t a top name or even in the running for the substantial role opposite Ginger Rogers. He conquered one of those hurdles when he reasoned with Jack Warner that if he made good, it would help Warners in the long run. With Warner’s OK, Dennis next approached producer David Hempstead and director Sam Wood. Dennis was initially offered the part of the poor doctor (eventually played by James Craig) but flatly refused—nothing but the rich playboy role would suit Dennis Morgan. He was fighting for his career, and he knew what he wanted. Finally, everyone concerned realized Dennis was perfect—and they took the gamble. They created a star.
Kitty Foyle was Ginger Rogers’ ticket to the dramatics she craved, after her light comedy/musical roles of the ‘30s. She was finally taken seriously as an actress when she won the Academy Award for this portrayal of a young working girl who finds love with her rich boss (Dennis). He has “competition” from doctor James Craig, and she must ultimately choose between the two men.
There are some very romantic moments required of Dennis, who aptly proves his worth with his substantial part. Asked by the bewildered Ginger, when they are reunited after a long separation, “How did you ever find me?” Dennis responds, in a most romantic manner, “I just followed my heartbeat!” Who could help but fall in love with this handsome charmer? On the night of his marriage proposal to her, Dennis rents out a club for the night, and they dance until the wee hours to the strains of “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Admiring Ginger’s appearance, he tells his blushing bride-to-be, “You look like the wrapping around the neck of a champagne bottle!”
Of course, such happiness cannot last, and they divorce soon after the marriage due to his rich family’s disapproval of her modest background. They part but still love each other at a distance, and she seriously considers going away with him at the conclusion—but, then, there’s her dedicated doctor.
According to columnist Sidney Skolsky: “After he was seen [in Kitty Foyle], the fans took care of the rest. His fan mail at the studio is larger than even that of Errol Flynn. The fans howl for him,” Skolsky added: “He is big—6 feet 2 inches tall, weighs 175 pounds, has blue eyes and brown curly hair and a smile that sets him with the gals.”
Warners had a new heart-throb, and they started giving him some very romantic leads in “A” pictures—and never took the chance to loan him out again. Dennis Morgan had become a very bankable and significant star at the studio. He was young, good-looking, and fit easily in anything the studio decided to give him.
The first of his romances was a delightful comedy, Affectionately Yours (1941), in which Dennis costars with two lovely ladies, Merle Oberon and Rita Hayworth. Oberon, for one, wasn’t particularly pleased with the finished results, later shuddering to an interviewer, “[It was] a real dud. I hate it,” although she conceded that her children did enjoy it. Her dissatisfaction with the film is obvious: her part is the weakest of the ladies. The best roles went to Dennis, displaying a pronounced flair for light comedy, and Hayworth, who seemed to enjoy herself immensely as “the other woman” threatening Dennis and Merle’s chance of remarriage.
Humphrey Bogart was originally cast in Bad Men of Missouri (1941) in the part of “Cole Younger,” but was put under suspension when he refused to report to the set. Dennis replaced Bogart, and it marked the beginning of his westerns. Largely a routine story, painting the Younger Brothers as misunderstood criminals, it nonetheless boasted an excellent cast: Jane Wyman, Arthur Kennedy, and Wayne Morris; and had a very tragic performance from Dennis. The reason for their path of crime is the killing of their father (Russell Simpson) by nasty Victor Jory. For other personal reasons, Dennis is distraught over the death of his beloved Faye Emerson (in a brief but moving scene). The film contained “plenty of excitement” (Variety) and likable playing from all, even though Wyman (who gets Kennedy) is unduly neglected by the camera which was too often focused on shoot-outs.
Kisses for Breakfast (1941) seemed suspiciously like “B” territory, and judging by Dennis’ appearance (with handsome mustache added), the movie looks to be made slightly earlier. The laughs were all A’s, however, with Kenneth Gamet’s screenplay (based on Seymour Hick’s play) flying off risqué dialogue and situations to great fun. It tells of a concert singer (Dennis) who marries rich Shirley Ross, but on his wedding day gets amnesia and disappears. While everyone thinks he’s dead—including his new bride—he ends ups on the southern plantation of Ross’ poor cousin, Jane Wyatt. Ross goes on with her life, and one year after Dennis’ “death” decides to marry her lawyer, Jerome Cowan (who calls Dennis “a muscle-bound canary”). Wyatt attends the wedding with Dennis, whom she married just hours before. Ross is unsure of Dennis’ identity (he looks exactly the same but has a name change, hence Ross’ confusion!), but tries to separate the newlyweds before they can consummate their marriage. That’s when things get wild.
The film is a riot, with director Lewis Seiler keeping the pace lively, and he is helped by a game cast. Shirley Ross and Lee Patrick are perfect partners in mayhem, as they set the household on its ear trying to get Dennis and Jane Wyatt’s mind off all things amorous. Led by Patrick’s fun quip (“I don’t know what you’re up to—but I’m all for it!”), they succeed. Dennis is properly romantic, sings great, and is totally confused when he learns he’s a bigamist and must decide between two different lifestyles.
1942 would be a busy year for the popular star, and it started with an announcement in The Hollywood Reporter on January 5th: “Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan will co-star for the third time in Warner’s Casablanca, with Dennis Morgan also coming in for top billing.” Although none were ultimately cast, Dennis would have been perfect as the strong resistance leader eventually played by Paul Henreid. He had no time to be disappointed: Warners had him everywhere on the screen to keep him busy.
His next was another first—his first foray into war films, in which he was very successful. Recounted producer Hal Wallis in the book “Starmaker”: “In the spring of 1941, we began work on Captains of the Clouds, suggested to us by two people: Joseph W. Clark, of the Canadian Department of National Air Service, and John Grierson of the Canadian Film Board. They outlined the plans for the picture to illustrate the gallant work of the Canadian air force in the war against Germany. The film would show bush pilots at work, turning their skills to military uses in wartime. To this end, we bought a property entitled Bush Pilots, a magazine story by Arthur Horman that had been brought to my attention by the Canadian actor, Raymond Massey.”
Captains of the Clouds (1942) was an important film, but getting it on the screen was tough going, especially since its main star, James Cagney, wasn’t keen on the script and had to be talked into accepting it. “Making [the film] proved to be by far the most extensive and difficult venture in location work undertaken by Warners since the silent period,” Wallis claimed. “We had to shift an entire unit—cast, crew, and colored film stock—to Canada,” which was where most of the shooting took place. They confronted many problems during the filming: injuries, illness, terrible weather, and delays.
Despite the hardships, Captains of the Clouds was certainly worth Warner’s effort, and although lengthy, it was colorful entertainment with sincere playing by Dennis, Cagney, Alan Hale, George Tobias, and Brenda Marshall. The heart of the story lies with the rocky relationship between Dennis and Cagney. The latter steals Dennis’ girl (Brenda) away because he recognizes she is materialistic and only out for excitement. A riff is developed early on and continues when the two men find themselves in the RCAF (The Royal Canadian Air Force). Cagney, a “fly by the seat of his pants” pilot, is kicked out after a prank turns deadly, while the more serious Dennis disapproves. Dennis’ role was not as flashy as Cagney’s, but he’s capable and heroic in his routine part. Variety saluted: “timely, topical, and strongly patriotic in theme, it zooms along at a zestful attention-arresting pace.” Equally patriotic, the New York World-Telegram agreed, saying “This one literally roars with excitement. The flying scenes are breathtaking and will leave you limp with suspense. The color is excellent, the direction fast, and the acting first-rate.”
After the sleeper success of The Maltese Falcon (1941), Warners was happy to put director John Huston back to work with In This Our Life (1942) a wild adaptation of Ellen Glasgow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “This Our Life.” It was a film that Huston regretted, telling an interviewer: “I felt rather ashamed of the way I got into In This Our Life. [Warner’s producer] Bryan Foy said, ‘You don’t really rate as a director until you’ve worked with the stars and show how you can make out with them!’ With In This Our Life, ambition stepped in. It was laid out on a silver platter—the biggest stars in Warner Bros. all together: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, George Brent, Dennis Morgan, Charles Coburn. I thought, oh boy, I’ve arrived! [After reading the script I realized] it was not my kind of picture at all—more of a soap opera. But here was a chance to work in the ‘big time.’ So I did it because it was good for my career. Balls! One should never do anything that’s good for one’s career. Every time I’ve done that, I’ve fallen right on my ass.”
Bette Davis said afterward, “When I met [author Ellen Glasgow] later, she said she had hated what we had done to her book. I had to agree.” Bette added she found the screenplay by Howard Koch “too hysterical,” although the same could be said for her wild performance. Despite Huston’s dislike for the film and Davis’ own denouncement, the movie is great fun, never boring and very interesting. It also enabled Dennis to really act, giving him his strongest dramatic role of his career. He plays the weak-willed husband of de Havilland who is fooling around with her sister (Davis). Dennis is hooked by this very selfish woman, and when he expresses regret over his decision to leave his loving wife—all Davis has to do is bat her eyes seductively, whispering: “I adore you, Peter”; Dennis is a definite goner! They run away together, leaving a bitter de Havilland and Bette’s discarded fiancé George Brent to discover each other. Soon after his marriage to Davis, Dennis riddled with guilt over leaving the woman he sincerely loved and realizing Davis is just the opposite of what he believed—finally commits suicide.
Reviews were basically negative, but most agreed with Time when they offered: “The hard-working, competent cast is too high-powered for the picture.”
Another 1942 release was a war drama, without combat scenes, Wings for the Eagle, co-starring with Ann Sheridan and, the first of many times, Jack Carson. The action takes place at Lockheed, where all the principals are factory workers turning out new airplanes for the war effort. Dennis plays “a two bit cynic” who’s against getting into the war. Dennis and Carson are not buddies in this one, as they fight over Ann—she’s married to Jack. In the midst of the triangle (which is never resolved), Dennis learns the importance of why we fight and joins up. Typical flag-waving fare brightened by the players.
Another wonderful (but rare) dramatic part came to Dennis with The Hard Way (1942), directed by Vincent Sherman and co-starring Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie, and Jack Carson. The story centers on Lupino as the mothering older sister of Leslie who wants to help her younger sibling become a success in the theater. Dennis plays an experienced traveling musical performer who sees Lupino as a manipulator who will do anything to get what she wants. He wants his partner Carson, who marries Joan, to take his wife away before she turns into “a first rate tramp.” No one counts on Lupino’s driving power, however, and she finally forces a rift between Carson and Leslie, which results in Carson’s suicide. Years later, when Dennis and Joan realize their feelings for each other, Lupino again tries to step in to take control. By then, the strain of her sister’s constant meddling and pushing becomes too much for Leslie.
By no means a typical film, it shows a very dark view of fame and the unhappiness it can lead to. All principals do some of their best work on film in this neglected classic. It is just recently that The Hard Way has gotten any kind of recognition. Director Vincent Sherman related in his memoirs (“Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director”) that when they were filming the movie, “Irwin Shaw, who had written the screenplay, had asked that his name be removed from the film because he did not like what I was doing with his script. Ida Lupino yelled at me at the end of the first week of shooting, ‘This picture is going to stink, and I’m going to stink in it!’ Jack Warner had viewed the rough cut and said, ‘Boys, I think we’ve got a flop on our hands.’ Sherman’s faith in the project is justified today, and it has many new fans who enjoy this dark side of fame. One person in the film who didn’t dislike the finished result was Joan Leslie who confessed: “That was the best chance I got at a performance.” It certainly showed in her multi-faceted portrayal.
As for Dennis, whom Sherman called “an underrated talent,” he turns in a knowing performance that is likewise multi-shaded. Joan Leslie (like many) enjoyed working with him, here in the first of three pictures together, and lovingly recalled: “Working with Dennis? Well, I’ll tell you—Dennis had the charm of a little boy and had it all his life, I’m sure. He never lost it. He liked to kid people, he liked to be kidded. He and Carson, of course, had such fun together.”
Many critics labeled Dennis’ acting as “wooden.” Joan Leslie, like all Morgan fans, thinks otherwise; “As far as acting goes,” Joan said, “he was always well prepared. It never appeared that he was making an effort to be so—but he was well prepared. So, it was utterly natural. I don’t think he ever did an unnatural thing in a picture.” Leslie was a top actress at Warner Bros. in this period, starring with the best of them in such classics as High Sierra, Sergeant York, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, while still a teenager. “[Dennis] was like a person my age,” continues Joan. ”Up to that time, it seemed everyone I played with was a great deal older—Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Fred Mac Murray—all great guys. I was lucky as I could be to work with them, but Dennis seemed more like my kind of sweetie, you know? I have a very special place for him in my heart. Dennis was just a sweet guy—just a sweet guy.”
Again teaming with Joan Leslie, they appeared as the main characters in the all-star Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943). Although chock full of Warner stars, many of whom weren’t known for their musical abilities, it wasn’t a throw-a-way film dependent on its all-star line-up. Dennis is a singer wanting to make it in show business helped by would-be songwriter Leslie (her big song is “Moondust”) and by tour guide Eddie Cantor. In this light fare, Dennis and Joan are a sweet and engaging couple, and they sing two songs together, which are highlights of this song-packed movie. The first, “I’m Riding for a Fall,” is an extremely catchy novelty that is performed with the help of Spike Jones’ orchestra. The other is “No You, No Me,” sung in a restaurant. After many attempts, Dennis lands a spot singing “Good Night, Good Neighbor” in a “Cavalcade of Stars” benefit, which, of course, features a slew of Warner stars.
Thank Your Lucky Stars was Dennis’ first real musical film, although the studio crammed everyone else in it. With his next, though, Dennis Morgan would have a whole musical to himself—with a little help from his musical leading lady! (Continued next issue…)
Classic Images • No. 278 • August 1998
DENNIS MORGAN: WARNER’S REGULAR GUY, PART II
By Laura Wagner
The year 1943 featured on the Warner roster The Desert Song (1943), the studio’s first film to perfectly showcase the musical talent of Dennis Morgan. With his strong rousing tenor he made his “Red Shadow” come to life.
Based on the Sigmund Romberg/Oscar Hammerstein II 1926 operetta, The Desert Song was first filmed in 1929 with John Boles and Carlotta King. The piece turned up a third time (1953) with Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson. This version, directed with style by Robert Florey, was shrewdly rewritten by Robert Buckner (Jezebel and Yankee Doodle Dandy) to make it topical for ’40s’ audiences. The story (filmed in Gallup, New Mexico) now has an American entertainer doubling as “El Kabar—The Red Shadow,” whom one critic poetically described as “a masked Robin Hood of the desert.” He helps the Riffs combat Nazis who are attempting to build a railroad through the Morocco desert. By updating the story to 1939, Warners succeeded in making a truly original musical war film.
Dennis’ co-star, Irene Manning played ‘Margot,” an American singer who eventually helps with the cause. Manning, an excellent singer with a theater and opera background, was ideally cast with Dennis, and they sang the classics “One Alone” and “The Desert Song” beautifully together. Warner Bros. was not interested in making operettas, so they missed their chance at repeating the success of the Manning and Morgan teaming.
According to Irene Manning, the idea for The Desert Song was at Warners since 1938. “For five years they tested every possible soprano in the USA to play the leading role in The Desert Song,” says Manning, “and then they finally got around to me, and I turned it down. After my audition they were interested, but I had a chance to do the leading role in a new musical called Gentleman Unafraid by Kern and Hammerstein, and it was going to Broadway.” The promising show did not reach Broadway as expected. Manning was rediscovered by Warners singing at the Civic Light Opera and would appear in The Big Shot (1942) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) for the studio. The Desert Song was already in production when she redid her audition. Luckily for Warners, they had decided to wait for her to join the cast, her patrician beauty mixing well with Dennis’ virile charm. The Desert Song was made a full year before it was finally released in December ’43.
“Dennis was just a marvelous person,” raves Manning. “I enjoyed working with him, and I also became good friends with him and his wife. He was a wonderful person and an excellent singer. Of all the people I ever worked with, Dennis and James Cagney—those two just stand out. Absolutely tops!”
Dennis was definitely hitting his stride at Warners, and his films did extremely well. He was an engaging romantic presence in his films, and in his next he was given not only one of his best romantic films, but also one of his best screen partners. To be sure, The Very Thought of You (1944) is a very bittersweet film. There is a rough road for our two lovebirds, Dennis and stunning Eleanor Parker. Her family, for one thing, is out to break up their marriage, but as The New York Times related: “At the end of 99 minutes spent with one of the most quarrelsome and obnoxious families the screen has spawned in some time, love emerges triumphant.”
The wonderful love scenes in The Very Thought of You have the sweet poignancy of wartime romance. The war separates them, but their love triumphs. It’s an unheralded gem. An interesting footnote to this film: in the scene where Dennis and Eleanor sit talking in a car, they listen to the lilting title song on the radio. The singer sounds very much like—Dennis Morgan!
Making her film debut in The Very Thought of You was a talented newcomer named Andrea King, playing Eleanor’s sister who’s out to cause trouble. The still beautiful Andrea King remembers her co-star (of three pictures) on this first movie as being “very warm and very generous. [He was] very ‘welcome, welcome—I know you’ve just been put under contract.’ Just a charming man. He was such fun—just like his smile! Nothing disturbed him. He was very professional. I mean, when they called action—he was right with it. I adored him. We used to have lunch together at the Lakeside Country Club—Ann Sheridan, Dennis, and Jack Carson.”
Back to musicals, because fan response warranted it, Dennis teamed again with good friend Ann Sheridan for the glorious Shine On Harvest Moon (1944), which also featured Irene Manning and Jack Carson again. Dennis plays songwriter Jack Norworth, and Ann is musical comedy star Nora Bayes, who strike it big in vaudeville. It’s one of the best musicals of the ’40s, with its fine, mostly fictional, script by Sam Hellman.
The film has some choice moments: Sheridan’s fun “How Do They Know I’m Irish?”; Dennis and Ann dueting on “I Go for You”; and the touching ending. In the film, Ann is being blackballed by former boss Robert Shayne because she refuses his advances. When she and Dennis marry, jobs become scarce because Shayne starts buying up theater chains. Hoping Dennis can do better alone, Ann leaves him. Dennis becomes distraught until one night Sheridan catches one of his performances in a burlesque house. Singing “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” with his voice faltering, and looking every bit the broken man, Dennis is a pathetic sight on stage. Suddenly, Ann shows herself. Invigorated by the sight of his lady, he belts out a song, as she joins him on stage, singing. There is a quick cut to the stage of The Follies of 1907, where they both sing a medley of songs. A tuneful and fun musical all the way—with plenty of heart.
Veteran “B” movie director Robert Florey again showed himself a fine director when he helmed Dennis’ next, the controversial World War II drama, God Is My Co-Pilot (1945), which began filming three days after The Very Thought of You. Based on the book by Flying Tigers pilot Col. Robert Lee Scott, the story tells of his exploits fighting the Japanese invasion of China. Dennis gave an excellent showing of himself, turning in a thoughtful performance. In the film, Col. Scott, a non-believer described as a “one man Air Force,” is challenged by a missionary (Alan Hale), who tells him that our lives depend on God, just as a pilot depends on his co-pilot.
In addition to the religious message, there are many exciting scenes of aerial combat, directed with verve by Florey. Richard Loo makes a nasty nemesis, as he contests the sky with Dennis. Fascinating beauty Andrea King, this time Morgan’s leading lady, has a thankless role (she filmed all her scenes in one day) as the Colonel’s wife, suffering at home while her man is away.
One of Dennis’ favorite movies was Christmas in Connecticut (1945), co-starring with Barbara Stanwyck. A favorite classic on television today, it’s an unpretentious romantic comedy. Dennis told author Doug McClelland in “Forties Film Talk”: “It was a good script, and Peter Godfrey was a fine director.” Of his leading lady, Dennis said, “Although people today seem to think of Barbara as a dramatic actress, she was also a very good comedienne. We worked well together.”
Well, indeed. Their screen chemistry is very strong. When Stanwyck greets the newly arrived Dennis for the first time, a spark ignites as she coos, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Jones.” Later, they have some lovely scenes together, especially when they ride in a horse drawn carriage. “Where should we go?” asks Dennis. “Where do you generally go in your dreams?” she responds wistfully. This is the kind of scene that makes us cherish the classics.
The story has Barbara writing for a magazine headed by Sydney Greenstreet, whose motto is “print the truth and obey my orders.” The trouble is that Barbara, who is depicted as “the perfect housewife, cook and mother,” is none of those things; she writes her recipe column with help of her chef friend (S.Z. Sakall). For the holidays, Greenstreet, smelling publicity, invites a serviceman (Dennis) and himself to Christmas dinner with Barbara and her “perfect family,” which she must now produce. In the course of this delightful farce, Dennis even gets to show his vocal ability by singing “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” and a new song written by Jack Scholl and M.K. Jerome, “The Wish That I Wish Tonight,” a beautiful song mirroring the couple’s feelings for each other.
Reviews were generally good, with The New York Times commenting that “[Dennis] is in there smiling his engaging best.” This Christmas fare, released in July of all months, was Warner’s biggest moneymaker of the year. It was later remade for TV, but the sparks that flew in the original were not evident in the remake. Besides the undeniable romantic touch Dennis and Barbara gave the proceedings, the stars both showed deft comic touches.
A dreary, One More Tomorrow (1946) cast Dennis in a role originally handed Leslie Howard in The Animal Kingdom (1932). Neither version was very interesting. The original was over-sexed and heavy handed, while this one was simply flat. Based on the Phillip Barry play, it had “poor” Ann Sheridan and wealthy Dennis in love, he knowing it before she does. In the meantime, he marries money-hungry Alexis Smith and almost loses sight of his humanity, before realizing where he really belongs. The romantic title song (by Ernesto Lecuona, Eddie De Lange, and Josef Myrow) was an added plus, although not sung by Dennis. Jack Carson was cast as Dennis’ butler buddy, and Jane Wyman was sadly wasted as Ann’s friend. Although the cast was likable, they couldn’t save a dull script.
Happily, a better movie arrived with Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946) —the first official teaming of Dennis and Jack Carson. Their timing and rapport was fine tuned in four prior films, and led to a lasting genuine friendship off screen.
Jack is a taxi driver, engaged to Joan Leslie, who befriends a European prince (Dennis) who wants to have fun as a “normal person” in Brooklyn for 24 hours, before returning to his princely duties. He changes his name, pretends to be from Milwaukee, and falls in love with Joan, who’s also interested. Soon, Dennis sees how democracy works in America and plans to bring it back to his country for a try.
Of course, the whole movie is fun, with Dennis and Jack performing at ease with each other. They did so, according to co-star Joan Leslie, off screen as well. “Carson and Morgan were like a couple of kids at play,” Joan happily recalled. “When they worked, they would tease each other, play jokes on each other all the time. A lot of times, they would take off for lunch and go over to Lakeside Golf Club, which is just across the way [from Warners], and maybe they would tee off or maybe they would have lunch. They’d dawdle over lunch, and sometimes they wouldn’t come back at the end of the hour. The director [David Butler] would say, ‘Do you know where they are?’ I’d say, ‘No, I don’t know where they are!’ And they would call Lakeside—and they would say, ‘No, they’re not here,’ and after two hours, they came in the big soundstage door, eating ice cream cones—’Oh! Were you looking for us?!’ That’s the kind of thing they did, and who could get mad at that? Who could fire the two movie stars when they come walking in like that, being so darn cute! I think that happened more than once!”
Not messing with success, Warners gave the team a musical, The Time, the Place, and the Girl (1946) to show off, not only Dennis’ fine voice, but also Jack Carson and Janis Paige, as well. It was a bright and very pleasing musical comedy, possessing a tuneful and popular score by Arthur Schwartz and Leo Robin: “Oh But I Do,” “A Rainy Night in Rio,” “A Gal in Calico,” “Through a Thousand Dreams,” “A Solid Citizen of the Solid South,” and “I Happened to Walk Down First Street.”
The fun script was done by Francis Swann, Agnes Christine Johnston, and Lynn Starling. It’s a lighthearted story of nightclub owners Morgan and Carson, who are forced to shut down because next door neighbor Florence Bates, a former classical singer, can’t handle the noise. Her sheltered niece, the pretty and vivacious Martha Vickers, also sings the classics, but she almost immediately falls for the smooth swing-oriented Morgan. In a romantic scene, Dennis sings “Oh But I Do” to her on a crowded dance floor, sweeping the sopranic miss off her feet.
Kicked out of their club, the boys decide to put on a Broadway show, which is financed by Vickers’ uncle (S.Z. Sakall). In the course of this swing vs. classical romp, which produces some laughs, the songs are wonderful and the playing is energetic. Anyone who accuses Dennis Morgan of being wooden should watch him in the production number, “I Happened to Walk Down First Street.” He is relaxed and having fun—which is what this sparkling musical is all about.
Dennis’ two 1947 releases were vastly different. Cheyenne (retitled The Wyoming Kid for TV), was set in 1867 and had Dennis as a card shark who is forced into unmasking a robber named “The Poet” to save himself from jail. Dennis’ romantic interest is Jane Wyman, who just happens to be married to “The Poet,” and there is a nice competitive edge to their relationship. In fact, they fight continually within the film. Stuck together for the night in an old cabin and sleeping next to each other, Dennis playfully mocks, “Put your foot where it belongs!” Wyman growls back, “Don’t tempt me!”
The film did not do well with critics, moviegoers, or the players, who all seemed to agree to dislike it. Seen today, the film is pleasant entertainment, with winning interpretations from all the cast members including Bruce Bennett, Janis Paige (who gets to sing two songs), and Alan Hale. Dennis is in fine masculine “jaunty” (The New York Times) western hero form, and he is totally believable with his quick draws. Alan Hale is right when he comments about Dennis: “He [doesn’t] look like a man you can stop easy.”
Where Cheyenne failed, My Wild Irish Rose scored, doing incredible business. It remains Dennis’ most popular and best remembered film, and was one of his personal favorites. Filled with great Irish songs (“My Nellie’s Blue Eyes” is just one highlight), Dennis plays real life Irish balladeer Chauncey Olcott. Whether the screenplay (by Peter Milne) was fact or fiction, it mattered not. The movie was a joy from start to finish. Dennis, solidifying his Irish screen image, is in perfect form—his singing renewing the traditional songs for another generation. The cast is superb, with the luminous Arlene Dahl making an enchanting film debut as the colleen who wins Dennis’ heart. Another standout is Andrea King showing poise as a commanding Lillian Russell (Virginia Bruce was originally set), who helps Olcott by giving him a job singing opposite her. Sara Allgood turns in an affecting portrait as Olcott’s mother, and in the film’s most touching moment, Dennis sings “Mother Machree” to her. Yet, the best is “A Little Bit of Heaven,” where Dennis wins over a hostile audience who paid to see another singer—William J. Scanlan (played with emotion by William Frawley). As the yelling audience hushes, and Dennis’ clear tenor soars with this lovely song, we understand why My Wild Irish Rose scored heavily with viewers.
Andrea King revealed an off-camera tidbit that tells much about Dennis’ sterling character. “Everyone fell in love with him. There were a few temptations at the studio,” King commented. “Nothing serious—everybody fell in love with him. Arlene Dahl . . . she had a crush on him. Dennis was smitten, but nothing came of it. His family came first. He was a good boy!”
After the success of My Wild Irish Rose, Dennis had the idea of doing the life story of Scottish poet/minstrel Robert Burns, but as he told Doug McClelland years later, that idea was nixed by the studio. “A writer friend and I got together on a treatment for a biographical film about Burns,” recalled Dennis. “I told him, ‘You better make it interesting enough to convince [Jack] Warner.’ And he made it very interesting. I hoped I would be able to star as Robert Burns. When Jack Warner read our synopsis, he called me into his office. ’We can’t make this,’ he said. ’The American public will think we’ve done a movie about a cigar!’”
With this disappointment behind him, Dennis took over a role originally written by Richard Brooks as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart in To the Victor (1948). To quote Dennis’ co-star, Viveca Lindfors, “The character was much tougher than the sort that Dennis, a wonderful, warm fellow, was used to playing.” Despite criticism about this against type role, some think Dennis handled himself well. There is much emotional depth in his characterization, and To the Victor counts as one of Dennis’ best dramatic opportunities.
The taut story deals with Lindfors’ decision to testify against her husband, who betrayed France to the Nazis during World War II. Dennis is an ex-soldier/blackmailer who falls in love with this woman with a shady past. In Louella Parsons’ “In Hollywood” column shortly after the movie’s release, Dennis explained about the making of the picture: “To the Victor is really a semi-documentary story, and we made the real shots in Paris. I was afraid that Delmar Daves, our director, would lose us in his eagerness to put Paris on the screen. We had to cut a lot, because he shot so much.” Of his Swedish-born leading lady, Dennis raved, “I think she’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen and an excellent actress. She enjoyed working with me because I talked Swedish to her.”
From a serious drama to another cheerful movie co-starring again with buddy Jack Carson, Two Guys From Texas (1948). The two guys were having fun, as usual, in a plot that had them as traveling vaudevillians who get stranded in the Lone Star state. Just an excuse, of course, to meet up with two beautiful women (Dorothy Malone and Penny Edwards) and sing a new batch of (soon-to-be-a-hit) songs written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn: “Every Day I Love You Just a Little Bit More,” “Hankerin’,” “I Don’t Care If It Rains All Night,” and “I Wanna Be a Cowboy in the Movies.” This romance among the tumbleweeds is spirited and funny, and Dennis’ voice never sounded better, as he tries to woo sweet Dorothy Malone. The plot is slight, but the cast, the music, and the comedy make this David Butler-directed film a delight.
Again with Dorothy Malone as his leading lady, Dennis remade 1941′s The Strawberry Blonde and turned it into One Sunday Afternoon (1948), which in turn was the title of the original 1933 version. Both the 1941 and 1948 movies were directed by Raoul Walsh. With music added, this one is a treat, and arguably better than the previous films. The strawberry blonde everyone is after is Janis Paige who marries Don DeFore much to Dennis’ regret. He “settles” for sweet home-oriented Malone, whom he finally realizes is the right girl for him.
The songs by Ralph Blane were lovely, especially Dennis’ rendering of “Amy, You’re a Little Bit Old-Fashioned,” and Malone singing “Girls Were Made to Take Care of Boys.” The older “In My Merry Oldsmobile” by Vincent Bryan and Gus Edwards showed off the talents of all the leading players and was a spirited number staged by LeRoy Prinz. Dennis has a marvelous moment, in the beginning, when he sings the title tune; setting the tone for a highly enjoyable musical.
It’s a Great Feeling (1949), Dennis’ following movie, came about when Jack Warner promised theaters a new “Two Guys” film would be released with Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. In fact, he had already booked the film without a script in hand. He called upon writers Mel Shavelson and Jack Rose to quickly come up with a suitable script. According to author Ted Sennett, they approached director David Butler with their idea: “Since there’s no time to build new sets, we’ll have Morgan and Carson play themselves, making a movie at the studio. They discover Doris Day, who is a waitress in the commissary, and put her in the movie. We can have all the Warner Bros. stars do walk-ons.” The plot was approved by everyone, but then Warner found a problem. Dennis had been on suspension, and in the meantime, his contract had expired. Desperate, Warner Bros. ended up giving Dennis a new contract with a much higher salary.
Again, the songs were by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, and they outdid themselves with the lovely ballad, “Blame My Absent Minded Heart,” sung by Dennis and Doris Day. The story has Doris pretending to be “Yvonne Amour,” a French musical star set to appear in Jack Carson’s production of Mademoiselle Fifi with Dennis. The complications that arise are amusing, making this a fun view of moviemaking at a major studio.
After this big hit, It’s a Great Feeling was followed by The Lady Takes a Sailor (1949), co-starring with Jane Wyman for a final time on screen. It wasn’t the best film they ever made, but a little better than its reputation. Called The Octopus and Miss Smith during production, Jane plays a woman who has built her whole life on the truth. As director of a buyer’s research institute, she is a very respected woman, but when she tells everyone she took a ride in a one man submarine/undersea tractor with a mysterious man who claims he is researching worms, she is held up to ridicule. It is up to her to clear her name by finding the man (Dennis) to support her story. The lightweight comedy is saved by the cast, which in addition includes Eve Arden (dryly quipping as usual), Tom Tully, and Allyn Joslyn, who commented to author Lawrence Quirk that he thought director Michael Curtiz wasn’t interested in making the picture. “I felt his mind was elsewhere all through it,” remarked Joslyn. “Mike was a dynamo usually, but he seemed to slink through this one with a hangdog air, as if Jack Warner were punishing him for something or other. And the results showed it.” Box office showed it, as well.
The 1950s started not too promising for Dennis. He remained a top star, but his films were slowly declining in quality and were greeted with mixed response by his fans. This, according to Lillian Morner, was done on purpose. “Jack Warner wanted to break his contract and he would send him these terrible scripts,” she remarked.
Perfect Strangers (1950) reteamed him with Ginger Rogers as they played jurors who fall in love during a trial. Their chemistry was not dulled by the years, and it’s the best of his ’50s’ films script wise. He was stuck with Betsy Drake in Pretty Baby (1950), an overly cute tale of a girl (Drake) who carries a doll pretending it’s a real baby to get a seat on the subway. Off camera seemed more interesting than the plot when Cary Grant (who was filming MGM’s Crisis) visited. “At the time, [Betsy Drake] was married to Cary Grant,” remembered Lillian, “and Cary would come there to pick her up and watch the moviemaking. He was a little jealous of my husband playing opposite her. He wanted to do movies with her only.”
Raton Pass (1951) is dreadful viewing, with usually reliable Patricia Neal as the power hungry wife of rancher Morgan, who ultimately betrays him for greater wealth. Neal acts demented throughout and with good reason: “I didn’t want to do that [movie] at all,” Patricia Neal explained. “Eleanor [Parker] was smart to turn that part down. I wish I had!” One consolation for Neal was that: “I liked Dennis. He was a nice man.”
Dennis’ part was weak and not very focused, but he does get one delightful moment in the beginning. At his wedding to Neal, he breaks out in song for the guests; too bad the rest of the film wasn’t as spontaneous. The ending of this western says it all. The battle for land is over, and Dorothy Hart consoles Dennis with this profound thought: “It is good to forgive, but better to forget.” She was obviously speaking for the cast members.
Thankfully, Dennis was back to musicals with Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951), again directed by David Butler. The story centers on Las Vegas showgirls Virginia Mayo, Virginia Gibson, and Lucille Norman looking for millionaires. Same old story, but boosted by a great cast that also featured Gene Nelson. The score was made up of great old (mostly Warner Bros.) songs, and that helped a great deal in making an enjoyable light movie.
Dennis’ last two films for Warner Bros. fizzled. He was given a great star, Joan Crawford, to act with in This Woman Is Dangerous (1952), but that’s all. The scripting was muddled, with murder, jealousy, and delicate eye surgery sharing 100 minutes of pure torture. Crawford plays an ex-convict involved with shady dealings who finds her eyesight is failing. She goes out of town to have surgery, performed by dedicated doctor Morgan, while her rough boy friend (David Brian, who else?) stews. There’s a lot of kibitzing about her eyes, and soon she and Dennis are in love. Brian, meanwhile at home, has suspicions. The movie is just too much. The simple story of Joan and her relationship with Dennis and his little daughter would have sufficed, but the added melodramatic mayhem bogged everything else down. Dennis comes across as strong and determined, but little else. A lot of talent wasted.
Cattle Town (1952) was no better. Dennis’ contract with Warners was in its final stages, and since he was the highest salaried actor at the studio, Jack Warner sent him the worst script he could muster—it had to be rejected. He wanted to suspend Dennis for the remaining time on his contract. Only it didn’t work. To everyone’s surprise, Dennis accepted the dreadful screenplay. Why? “Do you think I’m going to pass up my salary?” responded the very practical star.
With Noel Smith directing, Dennis is called on to stop a cattle war (“The state of Texas sure spoils a lot of fun for me,” complains Denny when called to duty). This slim plot is stretched out to 71 minutes with heavy padding by the director. There are numerous songs by Dennis, which are usually welcome, but here come across as irritating. One unintentionally funny moment occurs when Dennis starts singing in a clearing to Rita Moreno and some settlers. Two men (and a group behind them) are ready to sneak attack, when one of them wearily complains, “There he is … singing … again!” The whole movie is sloppily done, complete with footage of the great barroom fight from Dodge City (1939) thrown in. Quick action poses of Dennis inserted into the fight make this scene absurd. There’s even what seems to be an outtake. In the middle of the fight, a bad guy sneers to Dennis, “Aren’t you biting off more than you can chew?” Dennis looks at him and laughs, saying, “That’s a fine thing to be telling a Texas Irishman!” With that, they both laugh as Dennis strolls back into the fight!
The best, however, is the scene Ted Sennett describes in his book on Jack Warner, “Clown Prince of Hollywood,” on the final cattle stampede, meant to be the climax of the movie: “Cattle Town was undistinguished except for what may have been the longest cattle drive in film history. The town itself had been built on Stage 7, and the script called for herds of livestock to rampage through it. A hundred steers and cows were assembled in the street outside. The north stage door opened, and the cattle were raced through the western street and out the south door. Then the herd was directed around the stage and into the north door again. The cattle continued their loop until the set was almost demolished.”
Dennis was off screen in late 1952 to 1955. Much of this time was spent doing TV work on such shows as G.E. Theatre, Pepsi Cola Playhouse, Fireside Theatre, Ford Theatre, Stage 7, and Best of Broadway.
In 1955, Dennis wanted very badly to star in 20th Century-Fox’s production of A Man Called Peter, about the Reverend Peter Marshall who became U.S. Senate chaplain. “It was a shame he wasn’t allowed to play in A Man Called Peter,” Lillian laments. “Catherine Marshall [Peter’s widow] herself wanted him to play him, and our minister at our church tried to help [him get the role]. They all couldn’t get over his resemblance—he just looked like Peter Marshall. [Fox] wouldn’t even give him an audition.” Richard Todd was cast in the part.
It seems no one took Dennis seriously in Hollywood for dramatic roles, even though he proved himself capable in the few serious movies given him. He had the image of the smiling Irishman working against him. The roles he was offered in the ’50s were frivolous, and he did them solely for the money. Dennis didn’t foresee a future in films, and besides, it didn’t matter much. He had a loving home life, a working ranch, and a firm belief in God to see him through.
Virginia Mayo, who starred in Painting the Clouds with Sunshine and Pearl of the South Pacific with Dennis, remembers him very fondly. “Dennis was a really lovely person” Virginia reminisced. “We went to the same church [Hollywood Presbyterian] at the time. We did a play at the church that the minister had written about people in the Bible and excerpts from their lives. He was in it, my husband [Michael O’Shea] was in it, and Rhonda Fleming went to that church. She was in it. He [Morgan] was a very wonderful, lovely person. A very good man, very conscientious about religion. I loved him very much. He was a darling person. He and his wife were very devoted.”
Dennis’ last real western was The Gun That Won the West (1955), made at Columbia. It was an extremely dull western where the Indians stole the show. Directed by, of all people, William Castle, it touted—throughout—the need for Springfield rifles (the guns that won the West), but they don’t see real action until the closing minutes of the movie. Nor does Dennis see real action, and although he looks great in buckskin—he doesn’t get the girl, pretty Paula Raymond. She has a drunken husband, Richard Denning, who suddenly reforms for her. Surprisingly, it’s a film Paula Raymond liked: “It was a very pleasant experience. I was so sorry at the time that I was getting out of my contract at Columbia because that was the first good part I was given at that studio with Dennis Morgan and Richard Denning. I was so sorry that I went back to my husband [in the movie] instead of “settling” for Dennis Morgan,” laughs Raymond. “He had a beautiful voice, an underrated talent,” Paula added.
This was followed by two truly awful movies: Pearl of the South Pacific (1955) for RKO and Uranium Boom (1956) made at Columbia with Patricia Medina, again directed by William Castle. These did no one any good, and Dennis returned to the small screen for better chances. He did Star Stage, Telephone Time, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and briefly had his own series 21 Beacon Street in 1959.
The 1960s had more TV (Saints and Sinners and Dick Powell Theatre) and a new role would develop with the loss of a great friend.
“When Jack Carson died of cancer [in 1963],” says Lillian, “my husband was very active in fighting cancer. He spoke all over the country.” Spurred by his best buddy’s untimely death, Dennis became the traveling spokesman for “The American Cancer Society” for many years, giving lectures to raise money in memory of his friend, Carson.
In 1968 Dennis was seen in Rogue’s Gallery (Paramount), a crime yarn originally made for television but released theatrically. There was also a spot on TV’s Petticoat Junction that same year.
However, films were no longer a top priority in the life of Dennis Morgan and his family. He lived comfortably from his years as a movie actor but opted to retire from that medium (except for a bit in 1972′s Won Ton Ton, The Dog That Saved Hollywood). Instead, when not lecturing for the Cancer Society, he performed on stage back home in Wisconsin—just because he enjoyed doing it. He never forgot his old hometown and visited whenever he could.
He made several appearances with the Campus Community Players at the University of Wisconsin Center, located in Marshfield-Wood County, in the ’70s. Dennis did Paint Your Wagon and The Pleasure of His Company twice.
To the locals of Wisconsin he was an unchanged man. Dennis was as humble as he was when he was a young man just starting out. When Dennis passed away on September 7, 1994 (of a heart attack), the newspaper The Park Falls Herald paid tribute to him: “Morgan and his wife spent summers in the Lac du Flambeau area. He was a good friend of Mike Aschenbrener, [who] owned The Tower Bar and Restaurant there and said Morgan would join in with the organist and sing a few tunes.” Other remembrances said Dennis would put on a pair of boots and help make cheese. Said Aschenbrener: “That’s the kind of guy he was. As famous as he was, he was still down to earth.”
Dennis’ last TV appearance was on The Love Boat in 1980, which reunited him with Jane Wyman after many years. At the time of the making of this show, Dennis told Bob Thomas of The Associated Press what he was doing: “I have a ranch between Fresno and Yosemite where I spend a lot of time. I travel for the cancer society, and I do an occasional play; I filled in for Pat O’Brien in Chicago when he got sick a few years ago.” In short: he was a happy man.
Joan Leslie remembered the last time she saw her old co-star. It was at “The American Cinema Awards” in 1989 that benefited the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital. “We sat together and visited, and I can’t tell you when I’ve enjoyed anything so much; we were poking each other and laughing. It was Bette Davis who was honored that night. She received her award and said, ‘Let’s sing a chorus of ‘Auld Lange Syne’—which was a charming idea! No one ever thought of something like that. All of us ex-movie stars were there, and she got us to sing it, and here I was standing next to Dennis Morgan with his magnificent tenor voice singing out ‘Auld Lange Syne’ with all the heart you can imagine. It was very warming, and he said, ‘I’ve got to go back and see Bette.’ And he did, and she greeted him very warmly. That is the last memory I have of being with him—at that dinner.”
Very few top stars are remembered with such affection as Dennis Morgan. He was a genuinely nice man who knew what was important in life. He was never believed the “movie star” nonsense. Dennis liked to act, but his family was more important. He was a rarity in Hollywood—a faithful husband and family man who sang in church every Sunday and often served as lector.
He projected these things into his screen image. He was a regular guy on and off screen. Audiences have always responded to that when they watched the charm and easy-going manner of Dennis Morgan. Early in his career he said, “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to be a success in Hollywood and still be the ordinary husband and father.” It might not have been easy, but he succeeded. A more likable fellow never existed on screen. It’s nice to know Dennis Morgan was really like that in real life.
I wish to thank the following actresses who very graciously talked about Dennis Morgan: Joan Leslie, Andrea King, Virginia Mayo, Paula Raymond, Irene Manning, and Patricia Neal. I am also greatly indebted to Dennis’ widow, Lillian, for her generous contribution to this two-part article. Thanks to: Dan Van Neste, Marvin Paige, Doug McClelland, Hal Snelling, and most importantly—Dorothy Mann for lending me some material from her collection on Dennis. —Laura Wagner, Classic Images