A Celestial Evening with Ms. Holm at the Egyptian
A little over two months after moving to the L.A. area, I finally was able to see a star in the flesh last Monday night, during the Egyptian Theater’s tribute to film and theater great Celeste Holm. Between showings of two of her top films, 1955’s The Tender Trap and the iconic All About Eve, the 91-year-old legend took the stage for a discussion of her stage and screen career with Miles Kreuger, President of the Institute of the American Musical, followed by a Q&A session with the audience. With the assistance of her husband, Frank Basile, Holm reminisced about some of the many highlights of her long career as a performer.
Just before Trap got under way, I was surprised by the sound of applause. Looking around the theater, I saw Ms. Holm entering the theater and talking a seat with the rest of us mere mortals to watch one of her best performances (A gentlemen with a keen eye also spotted veteran 1940’s MGM contact player Marsha Hunt coming in just ahead of Holm). Proving she still has a performer’s instinct, Holm received the first laugh of the evening before the movie even started. The lights dimmed to signal the start of the picture, and they stayed dimmed as the projectionist attempted to get the Cinemascope production rolling. After about thirty seconds of the audience politely sitting in the dark, a feisty “C’mon!!” emitted from Holm’s section of the theater. Guess Celeste knows how good she is in Trap, and wanted others to see her work in the breezy comedy, pronto.
After the movie was enjoyed by one and all Kreuger, who was well versed in anything and everything having to do with Celeste Holm’s career, spent the next half hour or so talking to Holm and her husband. It was mentioned Holm got her professional start with the original touring company of The Women back in the 1930’s, then did some work with George M. Cohan before she become a Broadway star several years later in Oklahoma. Regarding Rogers and Hammerstein’s seminal musical, Holm stated she hadn’t sung onstage before the 1943 production, and she auditioned for and won the part of Ado Annie after performing a “Suee-ee” hog call (Holm then did an impressive “Sueee-ee” demonstration for the audience). A starring role in 1944’s hit Bloomer Girl followed (putting Holm on the cover of Life magazine) before Holm secured a contract with 20th Century-Fox and headed west to start her film career with a standout part (singing “Always a Lady”) in 1946’s Three Little Girls in Blue. The star then stated Moss Hart gave her a copy of Laura Z. Hobson's Gentlemen’s Agreement shortly before Fox started production on the 1947 film version of the successful novel. Impressed by the book, Holm was eager to make the film, playing “any part they wanted to give me.” Holm explained she was ready to prove to audiences she could pull off a dramatic role outside of the light musical comedies that had made her famous. An Agreement Oscar for Holm resulted, and the actress told us she was proud to be a part of a film that dealt with important issues.
Holm related an amusing story regarding her meeting with director Anatole Litvak in an elevator during this time. Holm seized the opportunity to pitch for a role in his upcoming production of The Snake Pit by stopping the elevator between floors. When Litvak exclaimed “We are stuck,” Holm replied, “Yes, because I want to talk to you,” then proceeded to tell the director of her interest in the film, only allowing Litvak to escape the current pit he found himself in after she had secured a meaty role in the tense, successful 1948 drama. So much for agents.
Concerning her burgeoning post-Oscar career, Holm simply and charmingly replied, “Well, you’re busy.” As for Eve, Holm claimed she got on fine with later on-the-set nemesis Bette Davis upon their initial meeting a couple weeks before shooting begin. Pleasantries were exchanged, and the two talented women looked forward to working together on a great script (and, quite possibly, the greatest script). Holm then related how things went south during their first encounter on the set, after Holm offered a cheery “Good morning!” to the cast and Davis shot back with, “Oh shit, good manners.” (on the Eve DVD, Holm stated she never talked to Davis off camera again). Kreuger wondered why Holm abruptly headed back east after scoring three Oscar nods and an Academy Award in three years time. Holm’s response was simple: she wasn’t being offered the type of roles she wanted in Hollywood, so back to Broadway she went (fortunately, Frank Sinatra would beckon Holm and her charming persona back to the silver screen to costar with him in Trap and 1956’s High Society, in two of her very best roles).
After the discussion, Holm took some questions from the audience. Asked about how she felt working with Sinatra, she stated, “He was what you would expect. Funny, fun, and not interested in rehearsing.” Holm explained Sinatra liked sticking to his ‘one-take, and that’s it’ approach, but she had other ideas: “Frank wanted to do a take once, then go home for lunch, but I liked to prepare for our scenes- I won.” The star bristled when asked to name her favorite work on film or in the theater, clearly not interested in dwelling too much on past glories (however, it was mentioned Holm loved playing the Fairy Godmother in the enduring 1965 television version of Cinderella). As the conversation was winding down, I finally thought of something valid to ask Holm (thank you, dear Stinkylu). Outside of mentioning she’d gained an Oscar nomination for her work in the film, no one had said anything about Come to the Stable, so I asked Holm if she had any recollections of working with Loretta Young on the 1949 film (although I was composed during my query, I admit I’m a big enough movie geek that later in the evening I thought, “OMG, tonight I asked an Academy Award winner a question!”). Holm and Basile then related a juicy tidbit concerning a “cuss box” Young had set up on the set. Whenever anyone working on Stable said a bad word, he or she had to contribute twenty-five cents to charity via the cuss box. One day Ethel Merman was visiting the studio, and heard about Young’s fund. Marching onto the Stable set with a twenty dollar bill, Merman shoved the cash into the box and bellowed, “Okay Loretta, why don’t you go f--- yourself!” (well, I guess the set WAS stable until “the Merm” showed up). Holm brought down the house with this bawdy punchline, and I was very glad I’d asked her about the movie.
Discussing more recent work, Holm received another big laugh when Kreuger mentioned Holm had played a cameo role in a yet-to-be released film with Mickey Rooney, Drive Me Crazy. Holm quickly retorted with, “He did, too. That was a long two days, working with Rooney.” The conversation ended with the host mentioning how so many people are able to view the work of Holm today through DVDs and television, whereupon Holm stated the fact audiences would still be loving her films had “never occurred to me- it’s wonderful.” Holm then returned to her seat to watch Eve with us, and it boggled at least one audience member’s mind that he was actually watching this all-time classic with one of its stars. Thank you for a special and delightful evening, Ms. Holm.