Tuesday, November 30, 2010

That Gibson Girl

SSUWAT's good friend Michael O'Sullivan of Mike's Movie Projector recently posed the query: "Who is Virginia Gibson?"


Frankly, we had no idea. But you asked, Mike; we researched. It would seem that Virginia Gibson is the former Virginia Gorski (born April 9, 1928) of St. Louis, MO. A triple-threat singer, dancer and actress, Virginia became a Warner Brothers contract player in 1950, making her debut in the Doris Day box office bonanza, Tea for Two. A year later, Gibson was appearing in a straight, non-musical role with an even more formidable star, none other than Joan Crawford. Goodbye, My Fancy (1951) was a misfire, with a miscast, leaden Crawford in a role originated on the stage by the patrician British beauty Madeleine Carroll.

Lulu Hubbard and Madeline Carroll in the stage version of Goodbye, My Fancy (1948)


Joan Crawford and Eve Arden in the film version of Goodbye, My Fancy (1951)

Perhaps the miscasting as a congresswoman visiting her alma mater had Crawford even more on edge than usual; instead of taking the young actresses playing the fictional university's co-eds under her wing (a la her championing of Ann Blyth, who played her daughter in Mildred Pierce), Crawford went on the attack, famously calling out Janice Rule in front of the cast and crew: "Miss Rule," Queen Crawford intoned icily, "you'd better enjoy making films while you can. I doubt you'll be with us for long." Gibson apparently played it safe by staying as far out of Crawford's immediate eyesight as possible: that's her in the below still, to the very far right, next to a rather apprehensive-looking Miss Rule.


The atmosphere was undoubtedly sunnier on the sets of Gibson's next few films: friendly, cheerful, inconsequential, low-budget musicals presumably churned out to finance Doris Day's extravaganzas: Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951) with reliable B-unit bombshell Virginia Mayo; About Face (1952), about hidden pregnancies at a military academy (!), teaming Gibson with Gordon McRae; and Stop, You're Killing Me (1952), a slight Damon Runyon tale with old pros Broderick Crawford and Claire Trevor as Gibson's parents.

Lucille Norman, Virginia Gibson and Virginia Mayo in Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951)



Bill Hayes, Virginia Gibson, Claire Trevor and Broderick Crawford in Stop, You're Killing Me (1952)
Gibson traded up from Warners to go to Metro in 1954, immediately landing a role as one of the lucky seven in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. She was paired with the New York City Ballet star Jacques d'Amboise, who, in the full flush of his youthful virility, may have been even prettier than she at the time.

Seven brides: Jane Powell, Virginia Gibson, Norma Doggett, Ruta Lee, Betty Carr, Nancy Kigas, Julie Newmar






Her next MGM feature, Athena (1954), cast Gibson as one of three sisters, once again with Jane Powell, and this time with the indefatigable Debbie Reynolds to round out the trio. Athena is one of those supremely weird, cobbled-together musical curiosities that Metro was putting out at the time, as it flailed wildly in an attempt to do battle with television; the refreshingly straightforward, old-fashioned Seven Brides was, sadly, an exception to the rule in 1954. If Athena is remembered at all today, it's for the campy presence of such bodybuilding talent as then-Mr. Universe, future Hercules Steve Reeves and Mae West plaything Dick DuBois.

Dick DuBois, Debbie Reynolds and Steve Reeves

Jane Powell and Steve Reeves
Once the gold standard of movie musical making, MGM made some of the worst ever between 1954 and 1955, including Athena, Kismet, Jupiter's Darling and Hit the Deck. Obviously, the timing couldn't have been worse for a new musical talent like Virginia Gibson to join the payroll; she was let go, although judging from her imdb.com entry, Gibson was kept fairly busy through 1956 with steady television work, including a regular gig on The Johnny Carson Show (1955-56), a precursor to his work on Tonight.

Virginia Gibson, Johnny Carson and Joan Carson

From there it was to Broadway, and perhaps Gibson's finest hour: the ill-fated, yet still-talked about Ethel Merman vehicle, Happy Hunting. Although it had tremendous advance sales, and was a respectable hit, the show became more famous for its backstage battles than for anything happening in front of the audience. The bickering between Ethel and her devastatingly handsome leading man, Fernando Lamas, is legendary; he responded to her characteristic scene-stealing, as well as her personal antagonism, by wearing his costumes so tight, that the audiences literally gasped at the sight of his manhood. Even The Merm couldn't steal focus from that. On April 7, 1957, Lamas appeared as the Mystery Guest on What's My Line?; starting at the 3:51 mark, that naughty, naughty Arlene Francis slips and slides around the subject of Fernando's costumes and his manliness, while Mr. Mahvelous himself jokingly quips that the censors wouldn't allow him to be seen on television as he did on stage.



The score, too, had its share of naysayers (the most vocal of whom was Merman!), although in retrospect, it's as bright, entertaining and hummable as any other hit or near-hit show of the period. "Gee, But it's Good to Be Here" is classic Merman all the way, and her duet with Gibson, "Mutual Admiration Society," was popular and catchy enough to become a minor standard on its own. Gibson was nominated for a Tony as Best Featured Actress in a Musical, and the show ran for a healthy (if emotionally draining) 412 performances. And, because the ghost of Kay Thompson seems to running amok around here lately, we feel compelled to mention that Ethel quietly brought Thompson and Roger Edens in to "spruce up" Matt Dubey and Harold Karr's score, adding "I'm Old Enough to Know Better (and Young Enough Not to Care)" and "Just a Moment Ago" to the song list. Also, Gibson made a final, fleeting film appearance with the divine Kay as one of Maggie Prescott's assistants in Funny Face (1957), which was filmed just before Happy Hunting opened on Broadway in December 1956.




After that, Gibson made a handful of dramatic television guest appearances, before settling in for a nine year run as the host of the ABC Sunday morning children's show, Discovery (1962-71). Presumably, that was more benign than the Merman-Lamas battling she had endured. After that, the trail goes cold; perhaps some SSUWAT-er out there "in the know" can tell us what ever happened to Virginia Gibson?

7 comments:

  1. Bravo indeed! I salute you. One wonders what happened to these starlets glimpsed among the Marilyns and Tonys - Virginia then had a career of sorts and may have been quite happy!

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  2. I love those Whats My Lines .... Esther waxes lyrical in her book about Fernando's refusal to wear underwear, and overhearing his and Lana's endeavours in the dressing room next door to her at MGM, so she decided to bag him for herself. No wonder she sent her children to stay in a different house ....

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  3. Wow! I had no inkling of who Virginia Gibson was. neat to see that she was there all along, sometimes in things I've seen such as Seven Brides and Goodbye My Fancy. If only there were stills out there of Fernando in his Happy Hunting glory... Though they are hell to live through, I love those backstage battles such as one that Merv Griffin had with Helen Gallagher and then the whole Bette Davis vs Margaret Leighton and Patrick O'Neal showdown!

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  4. Well darling, when posed with a challenging queery, you certainly deliver the goods! Fab post!

    I was also thinking how much Gibson and all other starlets had to content with the fierce competion from one another. I'm sure she never dreamed that one day in a biographical blog post she would be so upstaged by beautiful boys!!

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  5. Thankyou so much for writing about Virginia Gibson! Seven Brides is my favourite musical and I've always wondered about several of the characters. Jacques was a dream, had a serious crush on him for most of my life. Like most of the male and female brothers/sisters he was a ballet dancer. I also heard that Julie Newmeyer only got into the film because she slept with the director, but who cares? She and 'Benjamin' were gorgeous. Even if they were put in the back of every dance sequence.... If you made a post on this movie I would just die of happiness.

    I LOVE your website, it makes me happy every day!

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  6. I think you mean "Jupiter's Darling" not "Neptune's Daughter." The latter is from 1949 -- still during MGM's musical peak period (more or less). Jupiter's Darling was Esther Williams' last MGM outing and, apparently, a dud.

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    1. Duly noted, and updated! When I rushed this out three years ago, I know that I meant Jupiter's Darling, but as so often happens, my fingers are faster than my brain. Thanks for pointing it out!

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