Hollywood Then & Now • June 1990
by Colin Briggs
When thinking of the male superstars and sex symbols who dominated the Warner Bros. product of the 1940s, the names Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn come first to mind. But there was another matinee idol who, along with the aforementioned twosome, kept female hearts aflutter with his clean-cut good looks and lyrical singing voice. For ten years, Dennis Morgan was the highest paid star on the Warner Bros. lot.
Born December 20, 1910 , Dennis was the son of a Swedish lumberman and banker. He was educated at Carroll College, The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and The American Conservatory in Chicago, where he was awarded a scholarship by former Paris Opera official, Victor Chernois, then head of the Chicago Musical College. Chernois introduced him to Mary Garden, the operatic star. When Mary’s plans to have Dennis as her leading man in “Carmen” fell through, she kindly arranged an introduction for him to MGM executives in New York. That meeting led to a screen test, which resulted in Dennis’ first movie contract.
Dennis first acted under his real name—Stanley Morner—in “I Conquer the Sea” (1936), then did “Annie Laurie,” a short at MGM with Ann Rutherford. He went on to do “Suzy,” with Jean Harlow, and mimed to Allan Jones’ singing in “The Great Ziegfeld.” His own voice was heard in “Song of the City” (1937) with Margaret Lindsay [Actually, it was heard in “Mama Steps Out” (1937) not “Song of the City”]. After making “Navy Blue and Gold,” Dennis quit his contract to play “The Student Prince” on stage. Acting under the name Richard Stanley, Dennis moved to Paramount for “Persons in Hiding” (1938) with Patricia Morison, followed by “King of Alcatraz” and “Men with Wings.” When a screen test for Warner’s brought no response from the studio, a discouraged Dennis and his wife packed up and moved back to their home town of Prentice, Wisconsin. But the young couple soon received a wire from Warner’s, enthusiastic about the screen test, and asking Dennis to return to Hollywood and sign a long-term contract.
Dennis soon became a popular leading man, beginning with “Waterfront” in 1939; “The Return of Doctor X” with Humphrey Bogart; “Three Cheers for the Irish” [with Priscilla Lane]; “Affectionately Yours” with Rita Hayworth; “Kisses for Breakfast” with Jane Wyatt; and “Flight Angels” (1940). Dennis’ co-stars in “Flight Angels” were the lovely Virginia Bruce and, as her pal, a cute, blonde actress named Jane Wyman. Jane would become a good friend and co-star in six more pictures with Dennis. She would also appear with him during his last acting assignment, an episode of television’s “Love Boat” series (1980).
On load to R.K.O., Dennis played a rich, snobbish, anti-hero in “Kitty Foyle” with Ginger Rogers. Ginger won an Academy Award for her performance, and the film catapulted Dennis Morgan to stardom. Now Warner Bros. considered him a valuable property and assigned him to only their best productions.
Dennis’ role in “In This Our Life” (1942) gave him a rare opportunity to go dramatic, as the doctor husband of Olivia de Havilland who commits suicide after running off with wanton Bette Davis. In “The Hard Way,” also in 1942, starring Ida Lupino in a role which netted her the New York Critics Best Actress award, Dennis played Ida’s only love who causes her to take her own life when he prefers her sister, Joan Leslie.
Dennis finally got to sing in the all-star “Thank Your Lucky Stars” and in the Technicolor “The Desert Song,” opposite Irene Manning, and “Shine On, Harvest Moon” with Ann Sheridan, Irene Manning and Jack Carson. Dennis and Jack, who had known each other in Milwaukee, were teamed in several films, including “One More Tomorrow” with Ann Sheridan, Alexis Smith and Jane Wyman; “Two Guys from Texas” with Penny Edwards and “It’s a Great Feeling” with Doris Day.
The role which probably showcased Dennis’ talents best was that of Chauncey Olcott in “My Wild Irish Rose,” a big-budgeted Technicolor extravaganza with Arlene Dahl, Andrea King and Penny Edwards. “Rose” is one of Dennis’ personal favorites and not only because it featured his daughter, Kristin. Dennis’ long-time marriage to high school sweetheart, Lillian Vedder, whom he wed in 1933, also blessed him with two sons, Stanley and James, and now—grandchildren.
“God Is My Co-Pilot,” again with Andrea King, presented Dennis with a difficult and controversial role, while in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945), he made a fine comedy foil for Barbara Stanwyck. Less successful was “One Sunday Afternoon,” a Technicolor musical remake of the play and “The Strawberry Blonde,” with Janis Paige and Dorothy Malone. “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” teamed him with honey-voiced Lucille Norman, with whom he recorded an album in 1951. He recorded a second album “The Merry Widow,” with Rise Stevens. On the radio, Dennis did “Swanee River” with Frances Gifford and “The Vagabond King” with Kathryn Grayson. The film “Perfect Strangers” reunited him with Ginger Rogers.
Dennis’ final films at Warner’s were westerns: “Raton Pass” with Dorothy Hart and Patricia Neal; “Cattle Town” with Rita Moreno, and a Joan Crawford melodrama, “This Woman is Dangerous” (1952). He made numerous television appearances, with “Stage Door,” opposite Diana Lynn, perhaps his most prestigious TV outing. In 1959, he had his own series, “21 Beacon Street.” He did his final film, “Rogues Gallery,” in 1968. Shortly afterward, he began working tirelessly as a volunteer for the American Cancer Society, occupying at different times both chairman and presidential positions.
A few years ago, a car accident caused the loss of an eye [Not the loss of an eye—some of his sight in one eye from an accident in 1983], but Dennis and his wife recovered and reside on their ranch with younger son Jim. Today, Dennis is as handsome, genial and debonair as ever. In fact, the 6’2” tall actor is in fine shape, with that unmistakable boyish grin and laugh always at the ready. —Colin Briggs, Hollywood Studio Magazine