Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Behind the Mask
The first word that springs to mind when speaking of that delightful star of stage, screen and television, Miss Arlene Francis, is "charm." Miss Arlene had it in spades, and at the risk of minimizing her very real talent and keen intelligence, charm was the foundation upon which her long, versatile career was built.
Born Arline Francis Kazanjian on October 20, 1907 in Boston, MA, the daughter of an Armenian immigrant, the future "First Lady of Television" began her career determined to become a serious actress. A New Yorker since the age of seven, Arlene was well-positioned to make the rounds as a Broadway hopeful, and she first graced the boards in the 1928 flop, La Gringa. It was a disaster, running for only 13 performances, but Arlene's charm and perserverance carried her through; after her 1932 film debut in Murders in the Rue Morgue (playing a prostitute terrorized by Bela Lugosi!), Arlene was rarely left wanting for work. (Her La Gringa co-star, one Claudette Colbert, did pretty well for herself, too.)
Arlene was kept busy during the 1930's with a score of Broadway credits, including the original run of Clare Booth Luce's legendary bitchfest, The Women (1936). The work was steady, if not spectacular; but a big break came in 1942, with The Doughgirls, George Kaufman's warmly-received comedy about four women living together in wartime Washington. Arlene's comic timing was given full reign in her role as Russian sniper Natalia Chodorov, described as a woman "who has shot 397 Nazis, [and] is a vigorous, forceful woman who, for exercise, takes short hikes to Baltimore and back."
Perhaps as a direct result of this smash hit (The Doughgirls ran for 671 performances), in 1943 Arlene was asked to be the "femcee" of a new radio game show, Blind Date, which preceeded The Dating Game by over twenty years. The premise had two servicemen vying for the affections of one lucky young lady, with Arlene graciously presiding over the proceedings. Following the end of the war, the format was tweaked slightly, with non-enlisted men from various professions or colleges as the competitors. In 1949, the show was simulcast on television; and Arlene remained the hostess until 1952, although the show carried on for another year with Jan Murray taking Arlene's place.
Arlene's reasons for leaving Blind Date may have been varied, but one is eminently clear: another show she was involved with was taking off like a rocket. In 1950, Arlene appeared on a new quiz show hosted by the urbane, intellectual John Charles Daly, called What's My Line? She took her place on the panel on the second episode ever broadcast, and, of course, the rest is history: What's My Line? remains perhaps the greatest of all television game shows, and Miss Arlene Francis finally became a superstar, remaining with the program until its network cancellation in 1967.
Less successful, but ultimately more innovative and audacious, was Arlene's foray into daytime television, Home (1954-57). Conceived as NBC's complement to their early morning Today and late night Tonight shows, Home pioneered the "magazine" format that would become popular in the 1970's. Although its target audience was female, Home eschewed (for the most part) the stereotypical frivolity of other daytime "women's" programs like soap operas, and aimed for a serious, educational tone, with a feminine slant.
As a well-known celebrity in her own right, as well as being the wife of the polished actor/producer Martin Gabel, Arlene Francis was already "typed" as the quintessential New York sophisticate when she signed on to host Home. The NBC brass was concerned that she might be too cosmopolitan for the average, middle American housewife; to Arlene's credit, her effortless charm never came off as elitist or snobbish, and her quick wit and theatrical training came in handy when, as so often happened on live television, mishaps occured.
Ultimately, though, Home fell victim to the ratings game and its own exorbitant production costs. Competing against the popular, lightweight entertainment of The Garry Moore Show and Arthur Godfrey Time, Home simply couldn't survive. Typical of her positive, but pointed, wit, Arlene later quipped that she "was born in Boston, raised in New York, and died in daytime television."
If Home's cancellation made Arlene want to retreat and lick her wounds, she didn't have time; What's My Line? continued unabated as America's most popular quiz show, and Arlene was soon appearing on Broadway in what would be her most popular star vehicle, Once More with Feeling, opposite screen legend Joseph Cotten.
This production also ushered in a new phase in Arlene's public persona; although she had always presented herself as tasteful and sophisticated, her appearance trod the conservative, matronly line. Suddenly, at the age of 50, Arlene transformed into a sleeker, more seductive vision of high fashion style. It's been alleged that she had a face lift performed around this period; if so, Arlene had the best doctor in town, as her beauty increased tenfold, while never looking artificial.
By the end of the 1950's, Arlene Francis was one of the highest paid women in television, as well as being one of the most famous; TV Guide and Newsweek proclaimed her to be the third best-known woman in the country. She even briefly reignited her film career with two showy, well-received supporting roles in One, Two, Three (1961) with James Cagney, and The Thrill of it All (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner.
After What's My Line? ended its prime time run in 1967, Arlene kept busy with summer stock and television guest appearances; and when WML went into syndication from 1968-75, Arlene Francis was right back where she belonged, on the panel. She penned her memoirs in 1978, and continued to work well into the mid-1980's. In 1986, Martin Gabel, Arlene's husband of forty years, passed away; two years later, the iconic heart-shaped necklace which Gabel had given to Arlene, and which she wore on nearly every episode of What's My Line?, was snatched from her neck as she exited a taxi on Madison Avenue. It was never recovered. Soon after, Arlene Francis retreated from public view, as she battled with both Alzheimer's and cancer. She died, with her son Peter Gabel by her side, on May 31, 2001, at age 93.
We adore Arlene Francis, not only for her charm, but also for her unflappable humor, positivity, and graciousness. We also truly admire anyone who is not a conventional beauty, yet makes themselves beautiful through personality, application, and the thorough embracing of glamour. And, we suspect that Miss Francis was probably as much fun to socialize with as she appeared on the screen.
The lovely Miss Arlene was, as many of you correctly surmised, our latest Mystery Guest; the enigmatic JohnnyLovesRecords was the first to guess correctly. Have those S&H Green Stamps ready, and pick out your magnificent gift, Johnny!