Geneva Sawyer never made an impact as an actress, but turned around her career by becoming the only female dancing director and choreographer in Hollywood – and a highly successful one at that. Known as a woman who could teach even the clumsiest actor/actress the most complicated dance moves, she educated a whole lot of classic stars and earned her keep in Tinsel Town for more than a decade.
Geneva Norma Sawyer was born on October 26, 1910, in Colorado, to Thomas Sawyer and Norma Spence. Her older sister, Frances, was born in 1909.
The family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Geneva grew up and attended high school. She started dancing in her early teens, and was soon a formidable tap dancer. Her parents divorced in the mid 1920s.
Norma, Frances and Geneva moved to California in the late 1920s, and in 1930 were living in Los Angeles. Geneva was dancing professionally by this time, making good money. After appearing in revues and nightclubs, she got into movies at 20th Century Fox.
Like many fellow dancers, Geneva landed in Hollywood hoping for serious dramatic roles, but keeping in the chorus to work steadily.
It’s Great to Be Alive is one weird, weird movie. As a lover of the mindscrew genre, I like confusing, multilayered movies, but not all jigsaw movies are good ones. As one reviewer wrote:
“It’s Great to Be Alive” is basically a dirty joke, spun out to second-feature proportions. It’s worth seeing, just to get an idea of how weird Hollywood movies could become during the Depression. Just listen to the premise: “An aviator who crash landed on an island in the South Pacific returns home to find that he is the last fertile man left on Earth after an epidemic of masculitus.” What? No comment needed. On top it all, it’s not a very good movi either.
Arizona to Broadway is another one of those movies that have all the right elements but none fo the right combinations. We have a plethora of good actors, from the leads to the supports, a not to shabby story and even some music numbers, but in the end, you get nothing really. The comedy never comes, Joan Bennett is wasted in a simplistic role, and simply, it’s just not good.
Dancing Lady is a hit 1930s Joan Crawford musical. Let’s face it, Joan was god in anything she appeared in,. She had the sass, and be it drama, comedy or musical, it showed on the screen. She carries the movie, but has more than decent support: Clark gable, Franchot Tone, Winnie Lighter. While the plot is basically a rags to riches Cinderella story Joan did a hundred times in the movies, . I’m a sucker for movies where the lady is recultant to get involved, but the man is so smitten, he would chase her to the ends of the earth to get her to say “Yes” (especially if the man is Franchot Tone – love that man!!!). So yes, I prefer Franchot in this movie to Clark, but both do their job admirably. There are some good dancing sequences, and a special plus to see Fred Astaire in one of his earliest movie appearances.
Ginger gave Geneva the biggest role of her career up to them. Now, we all know that Jane Withers was a dead ringer for Shirley Temple, and that she was signed for that sole reason – to become a child moneymaker for Fox. The question: is Jane Withers better than Shirley? It’s open to debate and of course, depends on the person you ask, but there is no denying that Jane had something, that she was so sparkly, vivacious and happy-go-lucky that it’s impossible not to like her. Ginger, in the best vein of Shirley Temple movies, is cute, touching, endearing, no big brainer, but it plays on your emotions more than your intellect at any rate. It’s great that an old school top line character actor, O.H. Reggie, is given a chance to shine as Ginger’s uncle, a brilliant Shakespearan actor, but an alcoholic to boot. It’s a simple, slice of life story, and if you like such movies, worth taking a look.
Music Is Magic – the same old story. It’s one of those movies you don’t watch for the movie itself, but rather for the things in it: the stars, in this instance. Here, we have Bebe Daniels and Alice Faye, both dependable, sturdy actresses, giving fine performances.
Captain January is one of the most beloved Shirley Temple movies today. As I am not generally a fan of movies with cute leading ladies who melt the hearts of the audience despite a thin script, I’ll try to abstain from my comments. Shirley was sure cute and likable enough, but I generally rate her int he same category as Sonja Henie and similar astars, who had the ropes to enchant viewers, but never made great movies.
To Mary – with Love is an atypical movie for Myrna Loy of the period. Loy, known for playing comedies, was finally given a chance to play a serious dramatic role. Un cinephile blog, who reviewed the movie, wrote this very illustrating passage about it:
Myrna Loy wrote in her autobiography that this film was a welcome dramatic change from all the breezy characters she had been playing at MGM (she was loaned out to 20th Century to make this. Loy had great range as an actress and it is a very nice welcome change to the light characters MGM constantly had her playing since her success in The Thin Man. She was so moving in the scene at the hospital where she just quietly turns her head away from Warner Baxter after she hears the news their baby died. Years later Loy met up with the producer of the film and he told her “You didn’t become hysterical. All you did was turn your face away from him. You turned your face to the wall and it was devastating.” And let me tell you because she turned her head the scene did become devastating. This whole scene could have been played so overdramatic had it been any other actress but Loy was not in the habit of over acting. She replied to the producer “I just felt that was what I should do. I didn’t want him to see what was going on” and she goes on to say “Oh I could have cried all over the place in many of my films, but it just didn’t feel right” and she was smart for never doing so. In the fifty films I have seen of Myrna Loy’s I think there were maybe three times she ever over acted a scene and she does so in this one when Jack tries to explain Kitty’s compact. The over acting does not fit her at all and when she does it is humorous.
Kudos to Myrna, as the 1930s Hollywood really had a general problem of their actors overacting even the most trivial roles. The more 1930s movies you watch, the more I understand this. While you can give excuses with the old “it was a transition period, it took time!” I still think that
On the Avenue is a gorgeously photographed film that didn’t quite make it. Yep, it’s another movie that had all the right cards, but did not come tot he winning hand. The tunes by Irving Berlin are superb, the cast is above the fold. So why? Nobody knows. While I’m not a true fan of musicals, I would watch the movie for Madeleine Carroll alone (as I already said, I love Madeleine, such a lovely, strong actress!):
Geneva’s last acting job was in Johnny Apollo. It’s another “straightening up act”, this time not for Myrna Loy but for Tyrone Power. Power was a pretty boy who was cemented as a swashbuckling, charming star of action movies from his earliest roles, and was stuck int he mold for quite some time. Johnny Apollo gave him a chance to uise his dramatics muscles. Tyrone plays a trust fund baby who ends up with nothing after a lifetime of hedonism and devil-may-care attitude. of course, in a typical overtly dramatic Hollywood style, he ends up a gangster and so on.
Though Power, in the lead, stays less than persuasive as a menacing mobster – he’s too much of a pretty-boy, and lacks the acting resources to turn himself into a pretty-boy psychopath – the rest of the cast compensates
But, this did not mean the end of Geneva’s career in Hollywood. In fact, she entered a even more lucrative field, being a dance director. by 1937, she was the only female dancing director in the city, a great achievement! How did this happen? Well, Shirley Temple, the leading star of the time, was tutored by Bill Robinson, one of the foremost tap dancers of all times. When Robinson embarked on a vaudeville tour, Geneva was chosen to replace him as Shirley’s tutor. Being connected to Shirley in any way possible at that time was a winning ace – and soon, after Shirley reacted favorably to Geneva, she was promoted to associate dance director, and later just to dance director.
Some of her coreography credits are: In the Meantime, Darling, Home in Indiana, Blood and Sand, Down Argentine Way, The Blue Bird, Swanee River, The Little Princess, The Arizona Wildcat, Straight Place and Show, Hold That Co-ed, Little Miss Broadway, Josette, Battle of Broadway, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Sally, Irene and Mary In Old Chicago Love and Hisses.
Geneva’s last credit is In the Meantime, Darling, a movie that is neither a comedy nor a musical. Like many Jeanne Crain’s movies, it has an moronic name, but deals with some serious issues (it is a Otto Preminger movie after all!).
Geneva retired from Hollywood in cca 1944.
Geneva was quite superstitions – she never went to dance without her “lucky” penny in one of her dancing slippers. She was educated in the Fox FIlm School for newcomers when she first hit the movies. In the early 1930s, she gave this beauty tip in the papers:
A good bleach that is not harmful to the skin is a mixture of lemon juice with glycerin and rose water in equal proportions. First wash the face or hands with tepid oatmeal water and then apply the mixture.
Geneva married Los Angeles businessman (specializing in real estate) James J. Warrick in about 1934/1935. They divorced in January 1936. She testified in court that he kissed a maid on New Years Day 1936, and then admitted he did not love her anymore.
She continued her bacholorette life not long after, dating Dick Foran and Malcolm St. Clair in 1936. In 1938, she was seen around town with the 20 Century Fox executive, Sam Ledner. Later that year, her beau was Nat Young. In early 1939, she was associated with Frank McGrath.
Being a dancer was not an easy job, and Geneva was outspoken about it to the papers. She told abut the threat of muscle knotted legs (they had two masseuses on the film sets at all times), and in 1938, she was doing a tap dancing routine on the glass table when the thing cracked and she had to have six stitches in her knee. During her chorine years, or whenever she was actively dancing, she went once a month to a chiropodist. She held her legs in high regards, even telling a reported once: “Women make a serious error when they spend hours on their face and forget about their legs”, claiming that men love the legs just as much.
In 1936 while still a chorine, Geneva gave an interview to the press. She said:
“I’ve been in stock in this studio for 22 months and it’s true I sometimes wonder will I ever get out of the line. I’ve had bits in a few pictures but mostly I’ve just been atmosphere or in the chorus. We get 75$ a week on a guarantee of 20 weeksor work over a period of six months. The studio can lay us off when is pleases and call us in a moments notice. I figure my pay has averaged about $56 and some cents.
But, I’m not going to give up. Why. I’m a success already and I can prove it. I’ve received six fan letters, five of them from friends who saw me in Ginger, the other from Oklahoma oil worker who saw me in the line in Redheads on Parade. You wait and see – I’ll be doing picture with Ronald Colman and Warner Baxter yet!”
This tongue in cheek attitude, while sometimes annoying, pushed Geneva to exit the chorus girl area and achieve higher echelons of movie work.
As somebody who actually made it as a dancer in Hollywood, Geneva took a motherly interest in the younger chorines. Always full of sage advice, she took care that they ate properly and were not underweight (she even issued a edict that the chrorus girls but get fatter or the wouldn’t be permitted to dance – as the majority of the were underweight.) She was also very encouraging but realistic, often explaining in interviews how the life of a chorus girl looks like, how there are periods where work is abundant and periods when the work is scarce, and even encouraging them not to give up on their career if they get married.
Geneva dated Freddy Fox, brother of Virginia Zanuck, for about two years in 1941 and 1942. When he joined the army to fight in WW2, she often telephoned to him overseas. Later, he gifted her with a diamond and ruby necklace. The relationship was pretty serious, but did not culminate in marriage.
Geneva married Ward Allen Soladar on June 4, 1949, in Thurston, Washington. Soladar was born on July 3, 1917 in New Yersey. He moved quite a lot with his mother, and attended college in Monroe, Florida in 1940.
The couple lived in California. By this time, Hollywood was but a distant memory for Geneva, but she continued dancing, mostly as a hobby this time around.
Geneva Soladar died on September 3, 1965, in Orange, California.
Her widower, Ward Allen Soladar, died on June 28, 1990 in Glendale, California.