Sunday, October 17, 2010
Do You Know a Dyed Hair Woman?
In real life, our latest Mystery Guest, Ona Munson, was a pale, fragile, blonde beauty; on screen, she's forever immortalized as the lusty, extravagantly auburn-tressed Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939). If her role as Atlanta's madam-with-a-heart-of-gold secured Munson a place in film history, it unfortunately didn't guarantee her lasting success or stardom. She had actually begun her career on the stage, scoring her first hit as the ingenue in the original production of No, No, Nanette (1925). Two years later, she introduced the song "You're the Cream in My Coffee" in the show Hold Everything. Hollywood soon beckoned, but Munson's first starring role was in the poorly-received Joe E. Brown vehicle, Going Wild (1930) -- originally filmed as musical, which would have better shown off her talents, but then edited with all the musical numbers deleted.
Munson retired from the screen following a handful of other, inconsequential films, but came back to Hollywood in 1938, second-billed in the Columbia quickie Scandal Sheet, and far further down the cast list in Universal's male-driven B flick, Legion of Lost Flyers. She won the role of Belle Watling following publicity stunts announcing such outlandish choices as Mae West and Tallulah Bankhead for the part; despite Munson's physical dissimilarity to Watling as described by author Margaret Mitchell, her whiskey-voiced sexiness, acting skills, and the film's skillful hair, makeup and costuming made her the perfect Belle.
From there, it was back to the B's -- often in low-budget westerns like Lady from Louisiana (1941) with a young John Wayne, and Roy Rogers' Idaho (1943). One interesting, if not exactly A-list, departure from type was Drums of the Congo (1942), which cast Munson as Dr. Ann Montgomery, leading a safari which is seeking a meteorite which has landed in Africa. (No, really.) There, they meet, among assorted natives, Dorothy Dandridge as "Princess Malimi"! We absolutely must see this movie.
One potentially prestigious boost to Munson's quickly fading career was to have been Josef von Sternberg's $1 million fever dream adaptation of the play The Shanghai Gesture (1941). If Belle Watling was a departure from the actress' actual appearance -- as they say, you ain't seen nothin' yet. As the evil Chinese madam "Mother" Gin Sling (originally named Mother Goddam in the play), a slant-eyed Munson was preposterously costumed and coiffured with such gleeful abandon to make Gale Sondergaard in The Letter (1940) look like a Back Bay matron.
Not surprisingly, The Shanghai Gesture has become a camp and cult classic, but at the time, it was a complete misfire. By the end of the 1940's, work had dried up for Munson; her last film was 1947's The Red House, in which she appeared haggard and worn, virtually unrecognizable from only a few years prior.
A stormy personal life (three failed marriages; numerous bisexual affairs) and ill health did little to help Munson's flagging career; she made two documented television appearances in 1952 and 1953, and played for five performances in New York in a revival of First Lady (1952) at City Center. On February 11, 1955, Ona Munson committed suicide, leaving behind a note which read, "This is the only way I know to be free again...Please don't follow me." She was 44 years old.