"Combine Greer Garson, Joan Blondell and Charlotte Greenwood; give them a combined age of 26, mischievous blue eyes, curly blonde bangs, a dash of peppery vivacity, the merest hint of a double chin (Gee, Celeste, ain't I mean!) and you have an inkling of Celeste Holm" (Handsaker).
That's not bad. I can see it.
Reporter Gene Handsaker wrote that in his "In Hollywood" column in 1946. Celeste Holm had already come to fame, but until then if you wanted to see her you would have had to have gone to New York. Now the hot Broadway property had just completed her debut film and Handsaker was talking to her during production of her second. She'd win an Oscar on her third.
Celeste Holm died Sunday, July 15, 2012. She had turned 95 earlier this year. She began her career over seventy years earlier.
Let's Hope They Come in Fours
The great site migration comes with an unexpected twist. It gave me an opportunity to take my time in remembering the late Celeste Holm, an actress I'm mostly familiar with the same way you might be; in supporting roles in wildly successful classic films like The Snake Pit (1948) and especially All About Eve (1950).
Classic film fans have had a lot to mourn lately. A friend, noting the old adage of deaths in threes, recently wondered who'd be next. I corrected him, saying we were safe for now as this round of mourning began back on June 11 with the passing of Ann Rutherford.
There was no doubt Ann Rutherford would be remembered by this site. The Andy Hardy movies are a big part of the era I tend to spend most of my time in and Miss Rutherford was Andy Hardy's girlfriend.
I wavered over the decision of whether or not to remember Andy Griffith in this space when he passed on July 3. No insult towards the iconic Andy, but most of his legendary status sprouted from the the small screen. Still, A Face in the Crowd is an all-time favorite and while the film itself is at the outer boundaries of the time period covered here, it is an important one to me.
While Immortal Ephemera rarely peeks beyond the World War II era, how could I possibly cover the death of Andy Griffith without remarking upon Ernest Borgnine who had a more substantial film career with a slightly earlier rise to fame? Borgnine died July 8.
Like Borgnine, Celeste Holm enjoyed a lengthy career that spread the decades. She was already working and had her major breakthrough back before Borgnine even began his career!
And while Celeste Holm had retreated from the spotlight since her late nineties run on the television program Promised Land, she did continue to rack up a few guest appearances and is currently listed on the IMDb as being in the cast of two feature length films yet to be released.
Beginnings to Broadway Breakthrough
"Egos? What is this ego crap? I don't understand. If you're really sure of yourself, confident, you give up the games. Keep it for the tennis courts. Life is so difficult you have to help each other every step of the way." -- Celeste Holm, 1979 (Johnson).
That sounds like a New Yorker to me! Sure enough Miss Holm was born there, died there and rose to initial prominence under its bright lights. She would secure her immortality on the big screen out West and spend much of her life performing in the smaller cites between coasts.
Born in New York City, April 29, 1917, Celeste Holm seems to have had it pretty good growing up. Her father was an insurance adjuster for Lloyds of London, her mother a portrait painter. Holm traveled a lot as a child and attended schools in the U.S. and Europe. Such an environment sounds like one which could nurture Holm's own love of the arts while staving off any fears of starving!
Her career began as a teenager playing with a summer stock company in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. From there she was understudy to Ophelia in the road show of Leslie Howard's Hamlet. An interesting bit of trivia, Holm's fourth husband, character actor Wesley Addy, whom she did not marry until 1966, actually played Marcellus in Howard's Hamlet once it settled in on Broadway. Addy was married to Holm longer than any of her other four husbands in a union that lasted just over thirty years until his death in 1996.
Holm started gathering press clippings during a 1938 tour of Clare Booth's The Women, in which she played home wrecker Crystal. She picked up her first bit of national press coverage in the part by acting in a bathtub on stage, a real stunner for audiences. Or at least journalists. This led to Broadway, where in 1939 Holm made her hometown debut in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life.
Success, wild success, came in 1943 when she originated the part of Ado Annie in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! at the St. James Theatre. An evening poring through Holm's press clippings and it's impossible to notice that until Holm became an Oscar winner she spent the bulk of the 1940's being referred to as Oklahoma's! Celeste Holm or Celeste Holm of Oklahoma!.
She was given the lead in her next show, hit musical Bloomer Girl, which in turn led to her screen test for Twentieth Century-Fox. Her Broadway reputation preceding her, Holm was cast in a pair of Fox musicals, Three Little Girls in Blue (1946) and Carnival in Costa Rica (1947) to begin her film career.
But then, much like Oklahoma! shot Holm to stardom on stage, she'd reach an all new level of celebrity when cast in blockbuster Best Picture Gentleman's Agreement (1947) starring Gregory Peck with Oscar winning direction by Elia Kazan. Did I mention Oscar? Yes, Celeste won hers in Gentleman's Agreement as well for Best Supporting Actress.
Gentleman's Agreement was the first of a few titles that rained down in quick succession, 1947-1950, but absolutely highlight Holm's film career.
She played with Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde in Jean Negulesco's noir thriller Road House (1948); Holm next provided memorable support to Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948); Oscar nomination number two came alongside Loretta Young in the classic Come to the Stable; in the delightful comedy Champagne for Caesar (1950) Holm co-stars with fellow 1948 Oscar honoree, Ronald Colman; Holm the received her third and final Oscar nomination, all for Best Supporting Actress, in the film which will continue to best call her to mind for generations to come, as Bette Davis' friend in All About Eve (1950).
Then she bought out her contract and headed back to Broadway!
A Little Bit of Everything
It seems wrong to write that after All About Eve Holm's best days were behind her, but by the same token between legendary Broadway status in Oklahoma! and about the most impressive four years of screen credits anyone is capable of putting together, those were some halcyon days!
Celeste Holm continued to act in films. And on stage. And in the new medium, of course, television.
Holm had her own TV sitcom, Honestly, Celeste!, premiere in the Fall of 1954. It didn't make 1955. She returned to the big screen that year though and scored big twice in the musicals The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1955).She made a ton of television guest appearances over the next several decades and took to performing live in small towns with fourth husband, Wesley Addy, in the early 60's.
Addy and Holm would perform their Interplay, described by Holm as "a program of theater and music, which explores the relationship between men and women based on the writings of playwrights, novelists, poets and composers" (Raidy).
Holm claimed the idea came as the result of the unsatisfying experience of seeing a performance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway. Holm and her husband were turned off by the mean spiritedness of the production and wanted to "bring our type of theater to America."
Reporter William A. Raidy, catching up with Holm on the road in 1975, comments that the most fascinating live performances were those when Holm either sang a song or just talked to audiences. Raidy writes that, "Audiences are exceptionally enthusiastic and often she appears in auditoriums which have 3,500 filed seats."
Holm continued to appear in the occasional movie. In the 1960's she played mother to Tuesday Weld in Bachelor Flat and Sandra Dee in Doctor, You've Got to Be Kidding. There was another television series opportunity in 1970, but White House comedy Nancy was another TV flop lasting just seventeen episodes. Back to the big screen for the musical Tom Sawyer (1973), which brought no Oscar nomination for Holm's Aunt Polly, but three overall for the film.
More TV for Celeste Holm in the 1980's which saw some of her most memorable appearances come in a recurring role as Stephanie's grandmother on Archie Bunker's Place and as Anne Archer's mother on Falcon Crest for a few episodes in 1985. Later in the decade she had a small part in the hit film Three Men and a Baby (1987), which I seem to recall as being a whole lot bigger than you'd ever think it should have been!
In 1986 she spent a few weeks playing a homeless woman on the daytime soap Loving. Her husband, Wesley Addy, had starred on Loving since its debut three years earlier and Holm took the part basically because the work was local and the issue was worthwhile. Holm also got a kick out of the fact that "People don't think of me in this way" (Hughes). She recalled rummaging through garbage one moment and then kicking back to read the Wall Street Journal after finishing her scene.
Social issues became a big part of Celeste Holm's life and she was involved in many causes. She was a lifetime member of the Governing Board of the National Mental Health Association and even traveled to give speeches in its support as recounted in one lengthy feature piece. She was also Vice President of the New York and Business Council and a huge supporter of the United Nations' UNICEF fund, for which she donated both time and money.
She had her greatest television series success in the Touched by an Angel spin-off, Promised Land, which ran for three seasons at the end of the nineties. At the turn of the century cop drama The Beat came and quickly went.
Unfortunately since that time Holm has garnered most of her press clippings because of her private life. Her fifth and final marriage was to a much younger man, Frank Basile, a union which caused a rift between Holm and her children.
Holm's views on her personal life were best brought out in, of all places, a 1974 interview for a fashion article! "I don't talk about my husbands or my marriages ... It's not relevant. I want to be an actress who plays nuns or whores without the audience whispering, 'Is she really like THAT?'"
So true. Celeste Holm achieved her fame through her craft, not the scandal sheets. In that same interview she offered up Elizabeth Taylor as example of what she didn't want to become: "Her work has never been anything but a constant reflection of what's going on in her private life."
And so Celeste Holm is recalled in this space for her work.
Celeste Holm Remembered Elsewhere
Laura also comments on what a tough month or so it's been for classic film fans in her tribute to Holm at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings. Laura remarks that two of her favorites with Holm are the mid-50's MGM muscials The Tender Trap and High Society.
Over at Radio Spirits, Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. (of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear) opens with recollections of an early Holm radio appearance on The Fitch Bandwagon. An interesting slice in time, post-Oklahoma, but pre-film career.
Dawn at Noir and Chick Flicks remembers Celeste Holm through a biographical piece that takes us from the University of Chicago in the 1930's straight on through to Promised Land, the late 90's television series.
Backlots had to come up for air from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to remember Celeste Holm, but had not a doubt about doing so. The Backlots piece also touches upon Holm's controversial final marriage to Frank Basile.
- Christy, Marian. "After a fashion: Celeste 'collects' happy people." Salina Journal 3 Mar 1974: 22. Web. Newspaper Archive 16 Jul 2012.
- Gibson, Gwen. "Celeste Holm alive, well on Broadway." Wisconsin State Journal 3 Jun 1991. Web. Newspaper Archive. 16 Jul 2012.
- Handsaker, Gene. "In Hollywood." Daily Globe. 5 Jul 1946: 5. Web. Newspaper Archive 16 Jul 2012.
- Hughes, Mike. "Celeste Holm balances social life with being bag lady on soap opera." Santa Fe New Mexican 21 Dec 1986: 47. Web. Newspaper Archive 16 Jul 2012.
- Johnson, Stephanie L. "Celeste Holm transcends actress role." North Adams Transcript 23 Jul 1979: 4. Web Newspaper Archive 16 Jul 2012.
- Raidy, William A. "On the Road with Celeste Holm." Kingston Times News. 9 Mar 1975: 42. Web Newspaper Archive 16 Jul 2012.