Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Gray Pride

No, this is not our most recent Mystery Guest (we promise the reveal tomorrow, darlings!), but today, we just had to recognize one of our very favorite performers on their birthday: Miss Dolores Gray!

Extravagant, opulent, campy, vampy, glamorous: all of these adjectives could accurately describe Dolores Gray's outsized persona. She was singing in nightclubs by the age of 14, encouraged by a formidable stage mother who, as Gray later recalled, "...once said to me, 'It's not a very happy life unless you make it very big.'"

Gray's first major triumph was being chosen to star in the London production of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun in 1947, after the Broadway star, Ethel Merman, declined to reprise the role. Gray made her West End debut on her 21st birthday, and was an immediate smash, staying with the production for two years and 1,304 performances.

With this triumph under her belt, Gray was wooed back to Broadway, where she had previously co-starred in two ill-fated shows: the Cole Porter flop Seven Lively Arts, and Are You with It? -- the answer to which was "no." This time, Gray was co-starred with Bert "the Cowardly Lion" Lahr in a slick musical revue, Two on the Aisle.

The show opened on July 19, 1951, and was a modest hit, running for 276 performances. However, it marked the beginning of a series of contretemps between Gray and her leading men: she and Lahr detested each other, and each would pull all the stops out to upstage the other during the performance. Given the showy nature of the songs by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, one can easily imagine that this one-upmanship merely served to entertain the audience; Gray's showstopper was the deliciously wordy "If You Hadn't (But You Did)," which further crystallized her wink-and-nod maneater image.

It was inevitable that such an explosive performer, described as being "a sexy Ethel Merman" and "the Esther Williams of the stage when it comes to shapliness," with "more sudden curves than Niagara Falls," would eventually turn her attention to films. Gray caught the eye of Arthur Freed, head of production for MGM's fabled musicals, when she performed out-of-town previews of the Broadway-bound Carnival in Flanders in Hollywood and San Francisco. When the show finally opened in New York on September 8, 1953, it lasted a mere six performances; but Gray, as had become custom, won rave reviews, introducing the standard "Here's That Rainy Day," and even won a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical -- going down in the history books as having performed the briefest run in a production to still win a Tony.

Audrey Hepburn, Dolores Gray and Jo Van Fleet at the 1954 Tony Awards

Gray signed her contract with MGM in 1955; had she arrived at Metro even just five years earlier, lightning might have struck, but the timing was all off. Musicals in general were on the wane, and the new, no-nonsense head of MGM, Dore Schary, had little interest in maintaining the glamorous images of MGM's veteran superstars or creating any new ones. Gray's first film, It's Always Fair Weather (1955), could have been a hit, pedigreed as it was with star/director Gene Kelly, co-director Stanley Donen, and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had worked so well with Gray on Two on the Aisle. The film itself had a darker, more cynical edge than audiences expected of a glossy Metro product; but even if the movie may have caught 1955 audiences off guard with its satirical bite, what really sank it at the box office was MGM's complete lack of promotional support: it was quietly released on a double bill with the bleak noir-Western, Bad Day at Black Rock, of all things.

Dolores Gray and Gene Kelly on the set of It's Always Fair Weather (1955, MGM)

For her part, Gray decried her role as uber-glamorous television hostess Madeline Bradville as "an ageless, sexless caricature"; but it's undeniably her most enduring performance for latter-day audiences. Despite the lack of success of It's Always Fair Weather, Gray might have ridden out the storm if she hadn't immediately found herself in two complete clunkers: Vincente Minnelli's Kismet (1955) and The Opposite Sex (1956), the infamous musical reimagining of Clare Booth Luce's classic catfight, The Women. Once again, Gray was superb, even with the formidable shoes of Marlene Dietrich (who played Gray's role of Lalume in the 1944, non-musical Kismet) and Rosalind Russell (the definitive Sylvia Fowler in the 1939 version of The Women) to fill -- but the scripts and productions were stacked against her.

Dolores Gray and Howard Keel in Kismet (1955, MGM)

Dolores Gray, June Allyson and Joan Collins in The Opposite Sex (1956, MGM)

In 1956, Gray was also strongly in the running for the Diana Vreeland-inspired role of magazine editor Maggie Prescott in Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. She turned the role down, feeling that it was yet another "sexless caricature" -- but it would have been a showcased role in a wildly successful, ultimately classic film. Instead, Gray wound up her all-too-brief MGM tenure as "the other woman" in the stylish, non-musical comedy, Designing Woman (1957). She looked splendid in her Helen Rose costumes, and sparred nicely with Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall, but it was too little, too late to save her floundering film career.

Dolores Gray and Gregory Peck in Designing Woman (1957, MGM)

Once again taking on a Marlene Dietrich role, Gray returned to Broadway in 1959 with a musical production of Destry Rides Again, which had been Dietrich's 1939 film comeback. She was paired with Andy Griffith, with whom she reportedly did not get along. The show was directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd, who had co-starred with Gray in It's Always Fair Weather; but if either expected a happy reunion, all hopes were dashed when Kidd called Gray "a slut" in front of the entire company, and his leading lady hauled off and slapped him, then stormed off the set. In spite of the backstage tensions, the show did well, running for 476 performances.

Gray kept busy for the first half of the 1960's with numerous television appearances, her celebrated nightclub act, and regional theater performances. In 1966, the 42-year-old married for the first time, to Andrew Crevolin, described in newspaper reports as a multimillionaire horsebreeder and landowner. Although their marriage legally lasted until his death in 1992, and they remained lifelong friends, Gray and Crevolin's actual union only lasted a few years. In 1967, she made another splashy return to Broadway in Sherry!, a musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Despite high hopes, the show was a failure.

The 1970's saw Gray perform more frequently in her beloved London, both in her cabaret act, and succeeding Angela Lansbury in the 1973 revival of Gypsy. Throughout the years, she remained an outrageous, glamorous, larger-than-life personality, delighting the press with her penchant for carrying no less than 36 pieces of luggage (packed with 120 pairs of shoes and 25 evening gowns); booking a private cabin on the Queen Elizabeth solely for her Persian cat; and, on one trip to England, traveling with a dozen full-length mink coats -- and two full-time bodyguards to protect them.

Gray enjoyed one last major London hurrah when Stephen Sondheim personally asked her to come out of retirement to appear in the 1987 revival of Follies. She agreed, and once again, brought down the house as Carlotta, putting her own stamp on the done-to-death "I'm Still Here."

Dolores Gray in the 1987 London production of Follies

Flamboyant and outspoken to the end, Gray continued to be a glamorous addition to Manhattan nightlife, squired about town by friends and fans like John Epperson, a.k.a. Lypsinka, and holding court in her plush Upper East Side apartment (described by Epperson as being decorated in gold, purple and leopard skin!). Dolores Gray passed away in 2002 of a heart attack at the age of 78; but, here at SSUWAT, she is still a living, breathing icon -- no gray area there.

June 7, 1924 - June 20, 2002


  1. a sexy Ethel Merman!?
    The mind reels.
    But based on this still alone I may just have to rent "The Opposite Sex"...just to see those gowns in action.

  2. Marvellous ! I loved The Opposite Sex as a kid - there was a Lux soap advertisement in the magazines at the time with all the ladies lined up in those fabulous frocks, it seemed the height of glamor to me. I also cherish her Madeline and her tv show "The throb of Manhattan" in Its Always Fair Weather, and she is indeed a splendidly catty Sylvia in Opposite Sex, and of course that scene tipping the plate of ravioli into Greg Peck's lap !
    I put some glamor on my ipod by installing her "Warm Brandy" album.

  3. Amen about "Warm Brandy": the ultimate in hushed, stripped-down 1950s make-out music alongside the likes of Chet Baker and Julie London. I love the song "Close Your Eyes" and her version of "You're My Thrill" with the bongo accompaniment.

  4. Hooray for Gray! So maybe it was her birthday coming up that had me thinking about her lately. As always thanks for the superb bio info TJB!

  5. Obviously, I don't know how to travel! Although, my husband would probably have a heart attack if I went out and bought 36 cases and twelve mink coats!

    Thanks for sharing photos of all those fabulous costumes. I love the "Parisienne" dress with the wrap neckline. Fabulous!

  6. A delightful woman - and such a camp gay icon!! Jx

  7. Spot on as usual. My two favorite numbers are Thanks Alot But No Thanks from It's Always Fair Weather and her amazing rendition of Not Since Nineveh in Kismet. A highly unique looking woman, she always reminded me of those marionettes that were big in the sixties. She had a beautiful unreality to her face. Thanks for the tribute.

  8. A nice tribute to Dolores. Thank you. I have heard that she indeed hated playing the Madeline Bradville character from "It's Always Fair Weather" but she loved performing "Thanks A lot But No Thanks". Then again......how could she not?

  9. "Kismet" and "The Opposite Sex" aren´t clunkers. They are wonderful movies.


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