Outdoor Guy

Movie Show • June 1946
OUTDOOR GUY
by Lynn Bowers

Finding out what makes Dennis Morgan the top ranking male star of Warner Brothers is as fascinating a pastime as I’ve run across.  In fact, Dennis is as fascinating a young man as I’ve run across.  One of his most intriguing qualities is that he’s elusive.  You call up, make a date to meet him tomorrow.  Comes tomorrow, but Dennis doesn’t.  This may happen not once but several times.  Not that he has any high-flown ideas about being hard to get, but, by gum, if he takes a notion to go fishing in Wisconsin lakes and streams or hunting in Nevada, you’ll have to wait until he gets back with a mess of speckled trout or a supply of venison for the family larder.

However, he’s worth your wait, this tall guy with the jade green eyes, the curly brown hair and the big grin.  You begin to see why he’s Number One Boy at Mr. Warner Brothers’ box office.    It can be told in a much-used five-letter word—charm.  Not the kind of charm that a movie star turns on and off at will, but the kind that makes him aces with the caddies at Lakeside Golf Club, the choir of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, the GI who talks to him on a train but doesn’t know he’s Dennis Morgan until later, and the proprietor of the general store in La Canada who sells him groceries and notions.

I found this out when I met him at Lakeside for lunch.  He was there waiting, passing the time of day with some golfers and their caddies.  He gave with the big smile and the big handshake.  We strolled through the club and out to the swimming pool.  “My little girl has the mumps,” Dennis said as he dusted off my char with his clean handkerchief.  “My mother can’t remember whether it was my sister or I who had ‘em when we were kids.  Did you ever have them?” he asked.  I nodded, my jaws aching reminiscently.

Dennis smothered a yawn and said apologetically, “Since Kristin’s hand the mumps, my three-year-old boy, Jimmy, has been sleeping in the room next to mine.  He got me up at 5:30 this morning and we were dressed and downstairs for half an hour before I looked at the clock.  Then we marched right back to bed until seven, which is when we usually get up.”  I was about to ask why the heck he got up so early, when a young man came over with some photographs of a wedding party, taken at the Morgan establishment the night before.  As we looked at the pictures, Dennis explained he’d invited a young flyer and his fiancée who were strangers in Hollywood, to be married at the house.  I said I supposed the couple were thrilled to Have Dennis sing at their wedding.  “Oh, I didn’t sing,” he said with un-hammy nonchalance.  “The groom made a deal with a buddy of his when they were still overseas.  He did the singing—and darn good, too.”

Getting back to the early-rising routine, Dennis explained: “Living out in the country, we don’t stay up late.  And we have to be up early to get the kids off to school.”  I asked him how come they’d moved so far away from the gaiety of city life which so many people find indispensable.  “I’m a small-town boy and when I saw this place it reminded me so much of the Wisconsin country where I was raised that I couldn’t resist it.  There are two hundred pine trees on the place.   Not like those,” Dennis said, pointing to some tall, pine-like trees on the Lakeside grounds.  “Those are deciduous.”  (That’s what the man said.  Or something like that.)  Dennis knows his trees.  His idea of a happy school vacation was to work as a lumberjack in his dad’s lumber camps, which not only developed his muscles for track and football but also allowed him to practice singing against the background noises of ringing axes and crashing trees.

It’s a wonder he ever left the big outdoors he loves so much, but his interest in a singing-acting career was aroused in dramatic classes in high school and at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin.  Not to mention an extracurricular interest in another dramatic student named Lillian Vedder, whom he married in September of 1933.  Before Dennis, who was then known by his real name, Stanley Morner, could do much about proposing to his girl, he had to try his luck on the stage.  The lucky wasn’t very good.  First he traveled the Chautauqua circuit until one fateful night, in the role of a gun-totin’ character he dropped his six-shooter.  It went off and the hall was cleared of all its paying customers in nothing flat.

His next job, which didn’t call for firearms, was singing on the radio in Milwaukee, augmented from time to time on Sundays by soloing at any Milwaukee church that would hire him.  He was also on the graveyard shift as a radio announcer, which was as grim as it sounds.  Then he went on the road with a vaudeville single for a while and later found his way into an operatic stock company.  The great Mary Garden, star of the company, put in a big pitch for Dennis at MGM.  They tested, signed and promptly forgot him, except for occasional small parts.  Once he was given a singing role in a big picture, but the voice that came out of his mouth belonged to Allan Jones.

Stanley Morner turned up next at Paramount as Richard Stanley, but he probably didn’t bring a nickel to the box office in one “heavy” he played that year.

As Dennis Morgan, Warner’s high man on the popularity poll, he brings in nickels by the ton.  Although he and his studio bosses may differ occasionally over a choice of picture, the association is usually quite satisfactory.  But Dennis would rather take a suspension than accept a picture he feels would lower the box office boom on him.

He loves to work in good pictures like “The Time, the Place and the Girl,” “Christmas in Connecticut” or “Two Guys from Milwaukee,” but he also loves the between-picture intervals when he can stay home and explore his four acres.  He doesn’t attempt any kind of garden, but keeps wild ducks and his chickens lay enough eggs to supply the family.  He did have a large flock of turkeys, but admitted there were only ten left.  The kids raise rabbits and the corral housed two horses until one of them died.  A few peacocks and two watchdogs complete the menagerie.

A competent caretaker looks after the grounds and a couple do the rest of the work.  On their day off, the Morgans take over.  Dennis is as good at frying fish as he is at catching them and has been known to help with the dishes.

Besides the main house, there’s a play room, guest house and caretaker’s cottage.  Mrs. Morgan’s mother and sister live in the guest house, which is far enough away so the two families don’t trip over each other.  Dennis says they visit back and forth about once a week.  The caretaker, according to Squire Morgan, has the best view of the place.

When winter rolls around Dennis takes Stanley, his 11-year-old, Kristin, and Jimmy up in the snow to ski.  It’s very handy to have snow up there in the foothills, ten miles above Pasadena.  None of this business of long trips to Arrowhead for the Morgans.  They have winter sports practically in their front yard.

In warm weather, they’re equally well situated for amusement in the form of horseshoe pitching, croquet, tennis, and swimming in the 75-foot heated pool.  And they don’t have to travel anywhere.  It’s all right there at home.  There are other advantages, too.  “Since we moved up there, I’ve discovered again that there are such things as dawn and twilight and stars,” Dennis said in a gratified voice.  (When you look at the sky in town, the reflection of the gaudy neons makes you think of the Chicago fire.)  “And what a climate!” he continued.  “You sleep like a bum under a haystack.”

Dennis and Lillian have no difficulty luring guests up to La Canada for an afternoon or evening of fun.  Their biggest party was given for the choir of the First Presbyterian Church, which numbers 70.  After they’d all exhausted themselves swimming, pitching horseshoes, playing croquet and tennis, they got together in the immense living room and sang songs from “Oklahoma” and “The Desert Song.”  The chorus, with Dennis as soloist, recently made a recording of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Lost Chord” for Columbia.  The proceeds go to the choir.  Dennis expects to do some out-of-town concerts with the choir, a capella fashion.  (Which means, kiddies, that they sing without accompaniment.)

Dennis has been shopping several years for a grand piano and he’s been darn choosey about buying one.  Just recently he found the one he’d been dreaming about.  It’s forty years old and “just a small one—only a seven-footer” is the way 6’ 2” Morgan describes it.  The big ones are nine-footers.  Dennis is not a pianist himself, but Stanley is.  Stanley and his dad have worked out several numbers together.  It’s quite a nice arrangement, especially when guests prevail upon their host to sing.  Dennis isn’t coy about performing, but neither is he over-eager.

The large Mediterranean house is an ideal one for Dennis, who likes room to move around, but he and Mrs. M. are finding it a bit difficult to buy appropriate furniture.  “Most stuff looks as though it has been made for the Seven Dwarfs when you get it in our place, but I just bought furniture for the dining room that’s colossal,” Dennis said, with a collector’s gleam in his eye.  “It’s a hand-carved 19th Century Italian set with a huge table, twelve chairs and several big sideboards for large quantities of silver and china which we don’t have.  It was on display at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.”  How he came to acquire it is interesting.  Charles Arnt, a character-actor neighbor of Dennis’, inherited it from his father and sold it to the Morgans because their dining room is the only place he’d ever seen that is big enough to display the beautiful and valuable pieces properly.  Part of the bargain is that Dennis will invite Mr. Arnt’s father over for dinner when he comes to California for a visit.

Dennis, Arnt, and two other neighbors bought a power saw recently to cut their wood supply.  They divide the labor and the fuel equally.  Dennis doesn’t charge anything extra for the technical knowledge he acquired in the Wisconsin woods and he occasionally splits a few longs just by hand to reassure himself that he’s still sharp with an axe.  He doesn’t play golf at Lakeside to keep fit.  He doesn’t need to.  Golf comes under the heading of plain old fun, particularly when he gets his pal, Jack Carson, out on the greens with him.  Jack is an excellent golfer too and their games are deadly serious, even if their conversations while playing are not.  Although they’re very close friends, neither Jack nor Dennis can say much about the other beyond a remark like “he’s a swell guy” and the publicity department goes crazy trying to get them to tell gags on one another.  On the other hand, Dennis will talk a lot about another close friend of his, Jimmy Cagney.  He has great admiration for him, both as an actor and a person.  “Jimmy will bend way over backwards to help another actor,” Dennis said, illustrating with his hand just how far back Mr. Cagney bends.  Which is far!

About half the people around Lakeside call Dennis “Stan.”  The other half call him “Denny.”  The dual identity doesn’t bother him at all.  He knows he’s both people.  The kids and Lillian use the name Morner and so does Dennis, except for movie and business purposes.  Popular belief is that Denny is Irish.  Shure and the luck of the Irish has been with him ever since Warner’s re-christened him in a broguish manner.  But he’s actually Swedish and Scotch by descent and pure Wisconsin otherwise.

It got to be lunchtime, so we went in to an elegant buffet table, where Dennis selected a conservative, nonfattening plate of half rare and half well-done roast beef, a small salad, and black coffee.  He considers 195 pounds enough to weigh and doesn’t want to outgrow his extensive wardrobe.  His clothes were strictly informal that day—brown flannel slacks, beige sport coat, blue plaid sport shirt, blue bow tie, brown ribbed socks and brown oxfords.  He looked very sharp.  During our conversation, Dennis had about six telephone calls, which was probably a good thing because he’s a restless guy with lots of energy and sitting still is not one of his favorite things to do.

As we lunched on the glassed-in porch overlooking the golf course he got paged again.  “Hey, Denny” or Hey, Stan.”  He came back from this last call with a pleased expression on his handsome puss.  “I gave one of the club members a couple of wild ducks the other day.  He just gave me a dozen pre-war golf balls.  Boy, what a nice present that is!”

Out at Warner’s, Dennis Morgan is a very important piece of property, but away from the studio, Stanley Morner is quite properly regarded as just a neighbor—and a darn good neighbor, too.  Everyone likes him.

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