It's no coincidence that this is my third interview with Scott Allen Nollen on Immortal Ephemera. Besides just generally being a swell egg, Scott is one of the most prolific film book authors on the scene. I first talked to him in 2011 about his Boris Karloff biography, A Gentleman's Life. He was back in early 2013 to discuss Three Bad Men, his look at the intersecting careers of John Ford, John Wayne, and Ward Bond. In this interview he says he'll be slowing down soon (I always have my doubts!) and talks a little about his upcoming final book and other activities centering around film history.
But the heart of this discussion is Glenda Farrell, subject of Scott's latest from Midnight Marquee Press, Glenda Farrell: Hollywood's Hardboiled Dame.
Scott reveals an actress as versatile as, well, as versatile as Scott is! It's no mistake that when I ask Scott to name some of his favorite Glenda Farrell roles, he responds with a bit about SIXTEEN different titles, and that's only counting Torchy Blane once. The rest of Scott's answers tease us towards the more complete telling of Glenda's life offered in his book, as they reveal a woman as fiercely independent as many of those characters she played on screen. Just not as hardboiled.
All accompanying photos were supplied by Scott from his own collection. Photo captions were also provided by Scott.
1) Scott, I know this was a passion project for you, but for fans who already have your books about legendary figures such as Boris Karloff and John Ford lining their shelves, I have to ask: Why Glenda Farrell?
Over the past 35 years, the subjects of my books have always either been well-known figures who were misunderstood in some way or not sufficiently known and therefore very underrated as artists. Sometimes a particular person fit both of these criteria.
While early 1930s actresses like Jean Harlow (sound film’s first sex symbol) and Bette Davis (a fine actress known for her rebelliousness) always have received great recognition, Glenda Farrell preceded Davis as a sort of proto-“women’s libber” (but in a natural, non-political manner), while also possessing equally natural sex appeal that emerged from her personality without the overt mannerisms of Jean Harlow or Mae West (to whom Glenda has sometimes been erroneously compared).
I first was attracted to Glenda naturally, at age 18, when I saw her play the conniving gold-digger who betrays poor Paul Muni in Warner Bros.’ 1932 “social problem” masterpiece I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, directed by Mervyn LeRoy from a novel based on the real-life experiences of Robert E. Burns, a decorated World War I veteran, who subsequently endured a lengthy, horrible series of experiences on various Georgia chain gangs after being arrested for hanging out in the wrong place at the wrong time.
2) What are some of your favorite Glenda Farrell movies?
I will have to recommend titles from each of the different types of films in which Glenda appeared. Unlike a “movie star,” who is a performer essentially presenting variations on his or her own persona, Glenda was an “actor,” a person who alters and transforms his or her persona into those of a variety of different characters.
Glenda was definitely an actor, or actress, whichever term one wishes to use, but she preferred the term “character person,” which is very apt for her. She learned her craft by honing her natural gift in a variety of roles with a prominent stock company, which is what many fine actors did during that period. Her versatility, combined with a seemingly effortless sense of timing, allowed her to be equally successful in drama and comedy, and all sorts of variations in between.
My favorite drama in which she plays the ruthless gold-digger is the aforementioned I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), which is the subject of my next (and probably final) full-length book, another project I’ve been planning for decades. With her in a less devious, and far more sympathetic, version of the gold-digger role, I am quite fond of Girl Missing (1933), a very clever and witty murder mystery directed by Robert Florey, and pairing her with the lovely Mary Brian, Glenda’s closest friend from her early days at Warner Bros. During this same period, she again worked with Mervyn LeRoy on Heat Lightning (1934), an interesting forerunner to The Petrified Forest (1936), with a variety of strong female characters played by Glenda, Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak and Ruth Donnelly.
From her “unofficial” series of films costarring another of her close friends, Joan Blondell, my favorite is the underrated comic masterpiece Havana Widows (1933), directed by Ray Enright and featuring several other hard-working members of the Warner Bros. “stock company,” including Frank McHugh, Lyle Talbot, Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins and the peerless Guy Kibbee, another chameleonic actor who played cops, curmudgeons and comic goofballs with equal aplomb. Glenda and Joan superbly intertwine their respective timing (especially rapid-fire wisecracks) to create a comedy crescendo culminating with their whole band of American tourists given the choice of either sailing from Cuba within 24 hours or facing stiff terms in a rather unpleasant slammer!
Several other Farrell-Blondell pairings are also quite delightful, but were released after enforcement of the Production Code, which began in July 1934. Regardless of this challenge, however, Kansas City Princess (1934), We’re in the Money (1935) and Miss Pacific Fleet (1935), all of which costar master comic Hugh Herbert, are all well worth watching, in part because of the creative material the writers were able to get past the censors.
Alternating comedies with dramas, social issue stories, and even a classic horror film, Glenda also plays important leading or top female supporting roles in the still-creepy Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), starring Lionel Atwill (later remade by Warner Bros. as House of Wax  with Vincent Price); Hi, Nellie! (1934), another of Warners’ classic newspaper exposes, again pairing her with Paul Muni (this time as his colleague and friend); the marital drama Personality Kid (1934), in which she gives perhaps her most moving performance, opposite Pat O’Brien; and the entertaining and quite touching gambling drama Dark Hazard (1934), costarring Edward G. Robinson (with whom she had appeared in Little Caesar ).
After appearing in important roles in nearly every genre, Warner Bros. offered Glenda her own series, the seriocomic “Torchy Blane” newspaper films, in which she plays a very capable, morally strong and indomitable “girl reporter/detective” who invariably outwits and solves crimes for the local, rather obtuse police, headed by Lieutenant Steve McBride (Barton MacLane), who also provides her romantic interest, usually amounting to numerous foiled attempts at marriage.
Halfway through the “Torchy” series, Glenda didn’t renew her Warner Bros. contract, but the studio unsuccessfully continued the series with other actresses (Lola Lane, Jane Wyman) until she agreed to star in two more films after completing some much-welcomed stage assignments.
For the remainder of her acting career, Glenda primarily focused on stage, and then a lot of television, work, but occasionally appeared in some fine feature films, including the gangster drama Johnny Eager (1941) for old friend Mervyn LeRoy and costarring Robert Taylor, Lana Turner and Van Heflin (in an outstanding, Oscar-winning performance), and the brilliant comic drama The Talk of the Town (1942), directed by George Stevens, with Glenda joining the dream cast of Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Roland Colman.
Of her later films, I recommend the Paddy Chayevsky drama Middle of the Night (1955), starring Fredric March and Kim Novak as a romantic couple troubled by the generation gap (with Glenda playing Novak’s mother), and the insanely chaotic The Disorderly Orderly (1964), directed by comic specialist Frank Tashlin and featuring Glenda as a hospital administrator and genuinely sympathetic supervisor of the cataclysmic Jerry Lewis!
3) Glenda’s professional debut is cited as a youthful performance as Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Were you able to discover any information about that early job and did she take on any other acting work before going to work for Virginia Brissac’s stock company as a teenager?
Glenda was seven years old (which would have made the date of the performance 1908; though previous sources list her birthdate as 1904, she was born in 1901, as indicated by official U.S. census and Social Security records) when she was chosen to play “Little Eva” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (actually an amateur production) at the Elks Club in Wichita, Kansas.
Glenda’s mother, who had dreamed of becoming an actress, put all her hopes into her daughter, who had turned 12 after moving with her family to San Diego, where she then was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Brissac Stock Company, where she learned her craft very quickly in a great variety of youthful roles in quite a large number of plays. Virginia Brissac was one of the finest local touring stock company performers and mentors to aspiring thespians, and she had a number of excellent director-teachers who worked with her.
4) Glenda didn’t really seem to play many traditional leading lady type roles. There was Little Caesar, and I honestly don’t care for her much there, but otherwise she’s typically a tough talking dame, whether she’s the lead or out for herself in a supporting role. What role(s) originated and cemented this unique type?
Actually Glenda didn’t think much of her character or performance in Little Caesar, although Edward G. Robinson, who was a very kind, erudite person off-screen, enjoyed working with her very much. Olga in Little Caesar was her film debut in an actual role, and much of the anxiety she displays in the film was quite real. She really had no experience acting for the motion picture camera at that point; so, considering this fact, I’ve always thought she did much better than she believed. It’s not a great performance, but far better than many of her contemporaries who made just a few films during the early sound period and then “disappeared” (in one way or another). (Interestingly, Glenda played what might be considered a “dumb blonde” character only once. She primarily didn’t play “traditional female” roles because she was naturally so unique.)
She was far more successful after returning to Warner Bros. in 1932, to recreate her standout supporting role in the film version of the Broadway play Life Begins, which is set almost entirely in a hospital maternity ward. In an impressive cast including Loretta Young, Eric Linden, Aline MacMahon, Preston Foster and Frank McHugh, Glenda steals the film as a former showgirl who has no intention of keeping the twins she soon will deliver. (As in the later Personality Kid, she convincingly segues from brash humor to sincere despair in the blink of an eye.)
5) Which did she prefer, acting in the movies or on stage?
Like many performers who are serious about acting, and care very little about stardom (but earning enough to put food on the table), Glenda usually preferred the stage, although she did enjoy having the steady Warner Bros. contract job until the late 1930s, when the long hours and stale material began to wear on her a bit.
Glenda was a rare female filmmaker during the early 1930s, being that she was (and wanted to remain) an independent single mother who not only could make enough to support her son (including putting him through an excellent military school), but also buy two homes: one for herself and Tommy, and another for her widowed father—and Tommy when he stayed with his grandfather while she worked long hours at the studio, appearing in a large number of films each year.
In real life, Glenda was a very strong, independent woman, unlike many of her contemporaries, who married time and again. She waited until she had completed her Warner Bros. contract before marring the very successful and notable West Point physician Dr. Henry Ross in 1941, which allowed her to work on a freelance basis and accept only those roles she really desired.
During World War II, she spent as much time on home-front fundraising and charity activities as she did on the stage or in Hollywood, where she returned only when really impressed with a particular part she had been offered. She was a very intelligent woman who made good, practical decisions—but nothing like the “hardboiled dame” she often played on the screen.
Her association with those hardboiled roles developed because she was so good at playing them—somewhat like how a kind, intelligent man like Boris Karloff became so popular playing monsters and maniacs! That’s how Hollywood worked in those days: Be careful what you’re good at, because you may be doing it for the rest of your career. (A great many careers and jobs, having nothing to do with show business, are this way, of course.) But, like Karloff, Glenda was shrewd enough to use what stardom she did achieve to be able to showcase her versatility—actually more successfully than did Karloff, who became a true star, but really had to run away to Broadway and wartime service as an air-raid warden to escape being a monster for a time!
6) Let’s say someone just watched Torchy Blane and was inspired to seek out more Glenda Farrell. Which movies would you point them to after they finished up the Torchy series?
The first obvious film would be Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), in which Glenda originated that female newspaper-reporter character, which she later reprised for the “Torchy” series (and inspired every other studio to begin making its own “girl reporter” films, the most obvious being His Girl Friday , Howard Hawks’ remake of The Front Page , which made a gender switch by changing the original male character played by Pat O’Brien into a woman’s role, played so well by Rosalind Russell). His Girl Friday is consistently lauded for pioneering this “feminist” angle, when Glenda already had done it many times, beginning seven years earlier.
And then Glenda indirectly brought things full circle when the creators of the Superman comics chose her as the model for Lois Lane, using her as the inspiration, and a combination of the name “Torchy Blane” and that of the actress “Lola Lane” (who played Torchy after Glenda briefly defected to make several films at Universal) for the moniker of Clark Kent’s colleague and companion.
7) Torchy co-star Barton MacLane seemed like quite a character, at least from what I read about him in Cagney’s autobiography. He seems well matched with the Glenda we see in the movies, though I know the real life Glenda was much more reserved and said to have little in common with her best known characters. Did Glenda and Barton MacLane get along when the camera wasn’t rolling?
Oh, yes, Glenda got along splendidly with Barton MacLane. In real life, MacLane was a bit of a colorful, sometimes mock-profane, jokester, but from all accounts, he really was a very nice and thoughtful man. I also have read Cagney’s accounts of MacLane using the word “f—k” in every other sentence, but I think James (being a bit of a rascal himself) could have been exaggerating a wee bit! (Many years ago, Dr. John McCabe, who wrote the foreword for my first book—on Laurel and Hardy—back in 1987, always gleefully liked to drop Cagney’s name into conversations; and on one occasion, he claimed to me that he “ghost wrote” that autobiography. McCabe and I had quite a falling out over some of his rather antiquated social views, so that’s all I’ll say about it here—although he is no longer with us.)
8) Any Elvis stories?
I actually have a lot of first-hand and unpublished stories about Elvis, as I was a very close friend of the late writer-director Mike Hoey, who just passed away last August. When I stayed with him at his home in San Clemente, we talked at length about the conversations he had with Elvis while working with him on six films that were directed by Mike’s mentor, Norman Taurog. Mike also knew and worked with Glenda’s brother, who, like Mike, was a Hollywood editor. From all accounts, Glenda loved Elvis, and he treated her with great respect and admiration while they were shooting the ridiculous Kissin’ Cousins (1964).
Of course, Glenda knew the film was not the best project she could have been involved with at the time; and, by then, she only worked if she wanted to, but she did it to be able to have some fun with Elvis, who—according to Tommy Farrell, who also is in the film—was given the same maternal treatment that he received from his own mom!
9) You had originally intended this to be your final book, but you recently announced that you’re coming back for one more project. Could you tell us anything about the next one?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, it is going to be an entire book about the inspiration, pre-production, making, and response to the legendary I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), one of my all-time favorite films; and, as I said, my original introduction to the fabulous Ms. Farrell.
Chain Gang is so well done that its sheer guts and power actually helped spur changes in penal laws after its release; and the film is still as powerful today as it was 83 years ago. And this fact is due to a remarkable series of incidents and factors that led to its actually being made at Warner Bros., where the always gutsy Darryl F. Zanuck vowed to do just that.
The story of the pre-production phase of this project would itself make a great film, since Zanuck and Jack Warner actually had to engage in some, let’s say, “extra-legal” activities to get the actual Fugitive to Hollywood to work as an advisor and coach for Paul Muni on the film. And the ending that Zanuck added at the last minute still sends chills up the backs of viewers today.
When I realized that this was the only book I always had planned to do (another 30-year dream) and had yet to do, I could not abandon it, even if writing it sends me back to the ER!
I already have more work than I should handle. I’ve always been a person who doesn’t say, “No” to requests for work dealing with subjects that are dear both to my head and heart, but the current state of my health is making this more necessary, unfortunately. I plan to write Chain Gang (for McFarland), with the help of a wonderful research assistant (a former director) in Los Angeles, and then just confine myself to essays and speaking engagements after that (requests for which keep growing as my health continues to go in the opposite direction!). But, as long as there’s another day, that’s another day of doing the work I love—as long as I’m able! (It’s my job to try to share all this interesting stuff with whomever is interested in it.)
10) I know you’ve been doing some work for the Library of Congress recently. Would you care to share what you’ve been doing for them?
I was very honored to be asked to join a select group of scholars who are writing the “official essays” for the titles that have been added to our country’s National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. (I previously worked for Uncle Sam from 1991-2001.) I was chosen to write about several of my favorite films which involve the subjects of two of my books: John Ford, of course, my all-time favorite director, including Stagecoach, The Quiet Man, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and Paul Robeson, in The Emperor Jones, which warms my heart due to my lifelong interest in and commitment to Civil Rights. (I also just spoke on a show about Louis Armstrong for Ireland’s Talk Radio in Dublin, which was another great honor.) These are the types of requests I cannot turn down as long I’m still breathing reasonably well!
11) Anything else you’d care to add?
Yes, thanks so much again, Cliff, for your interest in and support of my work, and for inviting me to do another of these Q&A sessions. And, also, hey folks, Glenda Farrell: Hollywood’s Hardboiled Dame is published by Midnight Marquee Press (www.midmar.com), whose book prices are very reasonable ($25 retail); and at the sale price at which it’s now being listed, I again have to remind myself that I do what I do strictly for L-O-V-E!
And there are loads of lovely photos, most of them scanned directly from my personal collection, filling this book!
My Best Wishes to You All—S.A.N.
Thank you again, Scott! As always, you've provided a fabulous contribution to the Immortal Ephemera site, and to repeat myself from up top: I hope some other subject so enchants you after Chain Gang, that you cannot resist taking on another book!
In addition to his latest subject, Glenda Farrell, Scott Allen Nollen has written books about: Three Bad Men (John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond), Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra, Paul Robeson, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Louis Armstrong, Jethro Tull, Robin Hood on film, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on film, and Warner Wiseguys: All 112 Films That Robinson, Cagney and Bogart Made for the Studio.
I recommend picking up Scott's latest, Glenda Farrell: Hollywood's Hardboiled Dame direct through Midnight Marquee Press ($25, currently on sale for $18), though you'll have better luck shopping his entire back catalog from his author's page on Amazon.