Eleanor Prentiss

Eleanor Prentiss is one of those actresses who came to Hollywood owning to her looks, with absolutely no acting experience, and then fell in love not with the glitz and glamour of Tinsel town, but with the gentle art of acting itself. Eleanor thus became an serious theater actress and went into self imposed movie exile, without achieving any Hollywood success and frankly not even caring about it. Let’s learn more!

EARLY LIFE

Eleanor Josephine Johnson was born on October 7, 1911, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Edward H. Johnson and Ruth Stockman. She was the oldest of three children – her younger siblings were twins Wallace and Olive, born in 1913. Her father was an attorney.

She attended public schools in Fort Dodge, and then went to Iowa State College. While at university she majored in physical education. After graduation, she went to live and work in Chicago. In 1933, wearing the colors of the Lake Shore Athletic club, won the fifty yard dash in the Central A. A. U. swimming championships for women. Due to her exquisite blonde visage, Eleanor was selected by a group of prominent artists to represent a large soap company at the Chicago Fair.

Upon completing this assignment she decided to try her hand at acting and went to Hollywood. Her first contract was with a company producing Western pictures and she was starred in two of these films. Unfortunately I could not find any information about these movies, as she made them under a different  name.

Her all ’round athletic prowess stood her in good stead. An excellent horsewoman, it was predicted that she would be the greatest female Western star, but fate intervened again and she was chosen in a Los Angeles newspaper contest as the girl with the most beautiful face in California. This led to another motion-picture contract and here we go!

CAREER

Eleanore’s first known movie on IMDB is Thin Ice, the oh-happy -happy-happy Sonja Henie musical. You probably know by now, if you read this blog, that I am not a big Henie fan and find her movies brainless and only mildly entertaining. Thin ice is probably better than most, but still not good enough. Luckily, Eleanore’s next movie is a better type of musical (IMHO) – Something to Sing About, starring none other than the incomparable James Cagney!  Cagney always nails it as a dancer, and the same is true here – his wild kinetic energy just slips of him in doves when he does anything physical, especially dance! The plot is simple enough (a New York hoofer becomes a Hollywood star), and the solid music, good dancing and a decent cast make this a minor hit.

Her next movie, In Old Chicago, wasn’t too shabby either 😛 . A typical old school movie of quality, it boasts a very effective love triangle in the form of Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Don Ameche, and an intriguing story based of the great San Francisco fire of 1871. Pair that with good production values and sturdy film making, and we have a winner!

Eleanor’s last movie, made in 1943, was Let’s Face It, a funny and breezy Bob Hope/Betty Hutton vehicle. Originally a very risqué comedy with plenty of sexual subtext, (the plot says it all:  if jealous wives pretending to have their own love nest to get revenge on their philandering husbands. Involved in their schemes are soldier Bob Hope and fat farm proprietor Betty Hutton, creating marital discord and getting hope in hot water with the army.). Sadly, it was watered down to a benign and not especially smart comedy, but Bob Hope make sit work.

And that was it from Eleanor!

PRIVATE LIFE:

Eleanor married her first husband, Earl Cooke, in Champagne, Illinois, in 1934. The marriage broke up by early 1936, and in 1937, so frequently seen with Nat Pendleton that people started to think the two were pretty serious. Pendelton aside, Eleanor filed suit for divorce charging her husband with punching her on the chin without provocation. She won her divorce in May 1937, claiming her husband threw her down the stairs on their first wedding anniversary. It seems that Eleanor managed to escape an abusive man, and good for her!

In 1940, Eleanor married for the second time, to Herschel Bentley. Born James Herschel Mayall on September 25, 1907, he was a noted theater actor from the late 1920s. The couple lived in New York.

After her movie career ended, Eleanor carved a theatrical career for herself in New York. Here is a short excerpt:

Most ordinary people would have been contented with this rather meteoric rise in their affairs, but not Eleanor. She wanted to become an actress and be known for her acting ability rather than her athletic qualities. In respect to this she says, “I put the cart before the horse and now I have to try and reverse it.” Suiting the action to the desire she got a release from her contract to come to New York to study dramatic art and in addition to her modeling she attends classes at the Moscow Art Theater three days a week. She has made a great deal of progress and now has a contract with a summer stock company for this season. At the present time she feels that her great love. is the theater and until she has become a success on Broadway she says she will not return to the movies, no matter how attractive the offer may be.

Eleanor also continued to do modeling assignments:

Eleanor came to our office with the same determination to be a success in this business that she has to be a success on the stage. She says that next to the stage she prefers modeling, because she finds that it gives her a real chance to display her dramatic ability. Artists like her particularly because she is a great help to them in improvising interesting poses. She is one of the few girls whom we didn’t have to tell how to make up. She is natural in her appearance and knows the value of it. She has excellent posture and she thinks that these two things are more than half the battle. “Walk with chin up and shoulders back and people will notice you. Be slovenly and you are one of the mob.” That is her advice to all women.

Eleanor settled into the summer stock/theater life and seemed very happy with it. Unfortunately, her marriage with Herschel disintegrated in 1948, and they divorced in 1949. Herschel remarried in 1952 to Isabella Hunnewell Lee Livingston and died on August 15, 1991.

Eleanor acted in her last Broadway play in 1948, and from then on she did some regional theater until her retirement.

Eleanor continued living in New York after her retirement. As far as I can tell, she didn’t remarry and had no children.

Eleanor Johnson Prentiss died on August  14, 1979. She was buried in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

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Margo Woode

Margo Woode is great proof that it’s sometimes better not to take Hollywood too seriously, and try to bend its rules to suit your needs rather than the other way around – after some minor success, Margo left Tinsel town, devoted herself to family and other pursuits but still returned to movies when she had a chance. Let’s learn more about her!

EARLY LIFE

Margo Ketchum was born on April 11, 1922, in Phoenix, Arizona, to Raymond Ketchum and Alma Odell Bumph. Her older brother Raymond Sr. was born on October 6, 1920 and died four days later. Her father worked as an embalmer and undertaker. Newspapers later claimed that  Margo was of royal Indian descent , the great-granddaughter of a full-blooded Cherokee princess. I didn’t go that far in the family tree to try to verify it, but it’s entirely possible.

Margo grew up like any normal, happy child in  Phoenix and attended North Phoenix High School.  Luckily for Margo, her uncle was prominent dance teacher, Gene Bumph, and she studied at his Gene Bumph School of Dancing. She was discovered when she was 18 by Fred Astaire and began her film career that year under the direction of Hermes Pan. Darryl F. Zanuck signed her to a 20th Century-Fox contract and of she went to Hollywood!

CAREER

Margo had an uncredited role in Springtime in the Rockies, a cheery musical, in 1942, and then took a hiatus until 1945, when her career really took steam (eh, it didn’t blow full steam like with Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, but it’s better than most others). She appeared in The Bullfighters, a lesser Stan Lauren/Oliver Hardy comedy, the classical musical State Fair and had all of her scenes deleted in The Spider, but fortunately for Margo, the movie turned out to be mediocre and is more or less completely forgotten today.

Then, suddenly, Margo made a string of three movies that woodlice remain her only claim to fame in any shape or form. From an uncredited glorified extra, she actually had solid roles in solid pictures.

Somewhere in the Night remains Margo’s masterpiece. The movie itself is a minor classic, and Margo gave the bets role of her career in it. Somewhere in the night is one of those rare few noir that never reached cult status, but remain stunningly good films, with a strong metaphysical undercurrent and almost archetypal storytelling. Joseph Mankiewicz took a solid story, spins it the right way and made a dark, compelling and intense movie. What starts as a story of a traumatized veteran soldier ends up a meditation on identity and consequences of war. Unfortunately, this is still a B production, and what it lacks is a top-level leading man – John Hodiak is good, but he never managed to make a lasting impression, at least to me, in any of the movies I saw. Same for the leading lady, Nancy Guild, as stunning beauty but not a smoldering femme fatale at any rate (although she does play the good girl, but these characters tended to be boring). Yet, the supporting cast is excellent. Here we see the full power of the Hollywood studio system – so many good characters actor sin one place!

Margo appeared in another B effort, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog. This one is more of a curiosity than a particularly good movie – made right after the war ended, we have this neither here nor there period when women still stood up for men in various jobs that would, just a few years later, become forbidden fruit. It is interesting to see Carole Landis as a female police inspector. In 1947, Margo appeared in Moss Rose, a serviceable 19th century drama/action movie with the alluring Peggie Cummings in the leading role. Just when Margo gained some momentum, it all stopped. She took an acting hiatus to give birth to two children an never made a movie that topped these three.

She returned to the Hollywood fold in 1950. She had the smallest role in No Sad Songs for Me, a cry-your-eyes out soaped with Margaret Sullavan (the woman was a dynamo, that’s for sure), then in When You’re Smiling,  a cheap and so-so Columbia musical with Frankie Laine. And then Margo disappeared again, to live in Phoneix, Arizona.

She did some minor television work in 1952, and then returned to Phoenix once again. She was Hollywood bound in 1957, and appeared in two movies – Bop Girl Goes Calypsoa kitschy, tasteless, cheap calypso musical, the sole reason to watch is to see Judy Tyler on-screen (she died at the tragically young age of 23 so not a lot of her movies left), and Hell Bound, a much better  film noir – despite it’s very humble C movie roots, it’s actually a powerful mediation on the world after WW2. John Russell is very good as a mobster hell bend on getting a cargo of drugs the military want to get rid of so he can sell them and get major money pretty quick. Margo plays his girlfriend who gets up her neck in trouble. Margo had a knack for playing in film noir, but sadly this proved to be her last foray into the genre. She sis some minor Tv work, and returned to film only in 1961, with The Touchables, a low-budget nudie movie. Margo’s last movie, Iron Angel, was made in 1964.

PRIVATE LIFE

When she came to Los Angeles, Margo began studying with acting legend Maria Ouspenskaya and caught the excitement of true acting. She ducked her dancing contract and made a bid for an acting contract, and this determined the course her career took later.

There was a bit of drama in Margo’s love life. Namely, her first serious Hollywood beau was Les Clark, a former vaudeville actor who rose to become a movie actor and ultimately a dance director. He was born in 1905, making him a bit older than Margo. They kept their relationship under wraps, but the general consensus was that they were going to get hitched sooner rather than later. Here is an article about I.

Reason pretty Margo Woode won’t play ball with studio publicists is because she’s secretly engaged to Les Clark, an actor

And then, all of a sudden… On July 22, 1948, Margo married proficient manager Bill Burton. They got engaged in April 1948. Literary a few months after making the papers with Clark, she was first engaged and them married to another man. Whoa, I would love to have heard what happened behind the scenes here, what made Margo make such a 180 turn. Here is a very revealing article form the period:

Les Clark, the dance director, and Marion Marshall, the Fox Star let, are going steady. He’s the lad his pals thought would marry Margo Woode until Bill Burton moved in

So, Les was probably blinded-sided with the breakup. Poo guy, but then again, who knows what exactly happened in the background. Anyway, little is known about what Les did afterwards, except that he lived for a time in the UK and died in 1959 in London.

Margo and Bill Burton honeymooned in New York. Margo also requested from her lawyers to end her contract to 20th Century-Fox. It seems a movie career took second place to something else. Burton was Margo’s manager – he was formerly manager for Dick Haymes, Maureen O’Hara, Margaret Whiting, Ray Noble, and Piano Students.

On May 3, 1948, Margo gave birth to a son, Niles Bruce. Margo gave birth to a daughter, Karen Nini, at Santa Monica on August 31, 1949. When Karen was about one year old that they decided to give up the hectic Hollywood lifestyle for something more family friendly and laid back. Burton as an agent had an especially gruelling schedule and as he was getting older, it was deemed that for his health, he should take it easy. So they decided to move to her hometown, Phoneix, Arizona.

Margo gave up her career last year so that her children might grow up in the “friendly warmth” of Phoenix. Burton, restless as he was by nature, didn’t last long in retirement he held out six weeks. And took the reins of KPHO as an executive-producer.

Margo commuted to Hollywood when it was needed. Sadly, her husband died n the late 1950s (could not find the exact date, but I’m guessing about 1959 or 1960).

After Bill’s death, Margo continued her acting career, but she was in Hollywood only sporadically. During one visit, she met another former student of her uncle, Ron Beckett. He was dancing in “Damn Yankees,” “Silk Stockings,” and on the Guy Mitchell Show. They hit it of right away, and married not long after. After their marriage, they decided to come back to Phoenix (where it’s fun to raise children), and take over Gene Bumph’s dance school. Thus, Margo and Ron were co-partners in their dance studios. Here is a short article about their school:

Margo Woode, Dancer, Star Of Pictures And Television, Local Housewife with Betty Grable and Harry James in “Springtime in the Rockies.” And for those who’ve lived here not quite that long, she was the wife of our first television station manager, Bill Burton in the midst of all the excitement our first television caused around here. “I’ve retired from show business half a dozen times,” laughs the pretty matron, mother of Gigi, 2, Bruce, 16, and Karen, 14. “I just keep slipping back into it.” man, or any other, or you will find yourself 21 years old with TWO failures. Now she runs a dancing school with her husband, Ron. Margo and Ron believe that dancing is wonderful for children, parents, and grandparents. Their-youngest student is 3, their oldest 83.

Beckett-Bumph School of the Dance was located at the 4741 N. Central Ave. The Beckett were great professional partners, but their private life also blossomed. Their daughter Gigi was born on August 3, 1962. It seems that it was a good life, in sunny Phoneix.

According to IMDB, Margo is still alive today, at 96 years old.