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Hollywood’s Veterans: The beloved surviving stars of the Golden Age

Goran Blazeski

If we go back in time to see how movies were made in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s obvious at once that these films set the standard. Making movies was more than just a business, and the industry worked for the people and not the other way around.

In the times before Netflix and on-demand films, going to the cinema was quite an event for families, couples, friends, everyone.  It was definitely the best way to escape from the unpleasant reality of the Great Depression. Hollywood’s Golden Age began in the late 1920s and while there is some dispute on when it peaked, most everyone agrees it was over by 1968.

Movies had purpose and passion in the classic years. They weren’t made only to escape from everyday life, they evoked genuine emotion in the audience: laughter, sadness, happiness, you name it.

While everybody knows that many people take part in the process of making a film, from directors to caterers, it’s the actors and actresses who draw the most attention.

It is their job to make the film come alive. Back then, actors and actresses were immortalized by the roles they played; it was the time when the term movie star actually meant something.

Hollywood movie studios, 1922.

Hollywood movie studios, 1922.

While most of them are now sadly gone, there are some who have stood the test of time, quite literally in this case, and witnessed the turn of the century. Here are some of the veterans of the Golden Age of cinema.

Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas

With an incredible career in the movie-making business that spans nearly seven decades, Kirk Douglas is among the last living legends of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He celebrated his 100th birthday on the 9th of December last year.

Born Issur Danielovitch on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, to Russian-Jewish parents who immigrated to the United States in 1910, Kirk Douglas grew up poor and had to work his way through by selling newspapers.

He was a natural born actor and made his Broadway debut in 1941 as a singing telegraph boy in Spring Again. As soon as he entered the Navy during World War II, Issur Danielovitc changed his name to Kirk Douglas and upon his return, he made his first Hollywood film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. By 1949, he had already earned his first Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Midge Kelly in Champion. From this moment on, there was nothing that could stop him from becoming a Hollywood icon.

Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

He went on to star alongside some of the greatest stars to come out of Hollywood, including John Wayne, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, and Doris Day, but what defined his acting career and forever cemented his place in the history of Hollywood is undoubtedly his role in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. 

Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland

Another centenarian and an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood is actress Olivia de Havilland. Most people know her as Melanie from Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic Gone with the Wind, but that is just a tiny part of Havilland’s remarkable acting career.

Born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916, Olivia de Havilland moved to California early in her life following her parents’ divorce. She showed particular interest in acting while young, mostly thanks to her mother, Lilian, who was once a stage actress herself and encouraged her children to pursue an acting career.

De Havilland debuted on stage in Alice in Wonderland and by the time she reached her late teens, she had also made her screen debut as Hermia in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Together with Errol Flynn, she went on to form one of the most attractive and dynamic romantic on-screen pairings in Hollywood, starring in movies such as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Dodge City. 

Doris Day

Doris Day

Doris Day

Born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff on April 3, 1922, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Doris Day was America’s sweetheart and one of the most popular movie stars of the 1950s and 1960s.

A woman of many talents, Day was destined to become a major part of show business. She was attracted to music and dance early in her life. However, her dream of becoming a professional dancer ended in 1937, after she suffered serious injuries in a car crash. After the accident, Day focused more on her singing and soon established herself as one of the top vocalists in the United States.

Her popularity as a singer didn’t go unnoticed by Hollywood and already in 1948, she made her film debut in Romance on the High Seas. In the following 10 years, she became one of the most prolific actresses in the United States, appearing in more than 20 movies, including The Pajama Game, Calamity Jane, and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

Marsha Hunt

Marsha Hunt

Marsha Hunt

Marsha Hunt is about to join the company of Kirk Douglas and Olivia de Havilland and become the third centenarian among the surviving Golden Age movie stars.

Born Marcia Virginia Hunt, on October 17, 1917, in Chicago to Earl and Minabel Hunt, Marsha Hunt always dreamed of becoming a famous actress. She started her career as a fashion model and singer but signed a contract with Paramount Pictures in her teenage years and soon debuted on the big screen as Mary Lee Calvert in Edward Sedgwick’s The Virginia Judge. 

Hunt appeared in 12 pictures at Paramount in the following three years but it was her contract with MGM that would truly launch her career. She worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, including John Wayne in the 1937 movie Born to the West. During the McCarthy era, she was one of the many Hollywood actors blacklisted by the House Committee.

Carol Channing

Carol Channing

Carol Channing

Although she worked primarily as a comic stage actress and is dubbed the First Lady of Musical Comedy, Carol Channing also embranced the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Born on January 31, 1921, in Seattle to George and Adelaide Channing, Carol attended Bennington College, where she majored in drama and dance.

Channing made her stage debut in No for an Answer in 1941, and the following year she made her Broadway debut in Proof Through the Night. She debuted on the big screen in William Dieterle’s 1950 film Paid in Full, playing a dress-shop patron.

Channing went on to appear in several other movies, including The First Traveling Sales Lady, in which she starred with Clint Eastwood. However, the role that defined her big screen career and earned her the Golden Globe Award and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress nomination is that of Muzzy Van Hossmere in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Janis Paige

Janis Paige

Janis Paige

Born Donna Mae Tjaden in Tacoma, Washington, on September 16, 1922, Janis Paige was destined to make a career in show business as she proved to be a talented singer early in her life.

Her singing and good looks were what caught the attention of a talent scout who helped Paige launch her acting career. Signing a contract with Warner Brothers was the next step and during the next several years, she appeared in movies such as Bathing Beauty, Hollywood Canteen, Of Human Bondage, Two Guys From Milwaukee, Romance on the High Seas, The House Across The Street, Two Gals And A Guy, and The Time, the Place and the Girl.

She was not pleased with how her movie career developed and decided to head east, where she appeared on Broadway and became a huge hit for her performance in Remains to Be Seen. 

Rhonda Fleming

Rhonda Fleming

Rhonda Fleming

Dubbed “the Queen of Technicolor” for her flaming red hair, Rhonda Fleming has appeared in over 40 motion pictures.

Born Marilyn Louis to a theatrical family on August 10, 1923, in Hollywood, Rhonda Fleming started her acting career during her high school years. The famed American Hollywood talent agent Henry Willson noticed her for the first time as she was walking to Beverly Hills High School and a star was born.

She appeared in several movies at the beginning of her career, but it was her appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound that launched her career. Over the years, Fleming went on to star alongside some of the greatest actors of the era, including Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Donald O’Connor.

She once said, “Mine was a very rare and wonderful Cinderella story that could only have happened during the studio system era of Hollywood.”

Angela Lansbury

Angela Lansbury

Angela Lansbury

Best known for her role as Jessica Fletcher in the 1984 series Murder, She Wrote, actress Angela Lansbury spent seven decades of her life entertaining audiences as one of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Dame Angela Brigid Lansbury was born on October 16, 1925, in Poplar, East London, to Edgar Lansbury and Moyna Macgill. Her mother, who was herself a well-known actress and starred in several movies. always encouraged her to pursue an acting career.

Her father’s early death would leave a lasting mark on her life as she was only nine years old when he passed away. Both her sister and Angela attended acting school before they fled the war and emigrated to the United States. It was a whole new beginning for Angela and her family.

About four years after Angela and her family moved to the United States, she made her debut on the big screen as Nancy Oliver in George Cukor’s Gaslight and in 1945, she starred in The Picture of Dorian Gray. She couldn’t have wished for a better start to her acting career. She is especially remarkable for her versatility, gripping audiences in  The Manchurian Candidate and charming them in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Ann Blyth

Ann Blyth

Ann Blyth

Actress and singer Ann Blyth became a radio star at the age of six and a Broadway delight in her teenage years. It was her mother who had a great influence on her, always encouraging Ann’s love of singing.

Becoming a star seemed easy for the multi-talented teenager and she was soon offered a contract with Universal Studios. Blyth debuted on the big screen in 1944, appearing in the teenage musical Chip Off the Old Block, alongside Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan.

However, she made her big breakthrough in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce, starring as Veda Pierce Forrester, the daughter of Joan Crawford in the title role. The young actress made quite an impression and the role earned her a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

That same year, Blyth suffered a serious back injury but made a great comeback after she recovered and appeared in numerous other movies, including Another Part of the Forest, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, Rose Marie, The Student Prince, and Kismet. 

Jane Powell

Jane Powell

Jane Powell

Just like her colleague Ann Blyth, Jane Powell started singing and dancing at an early age and performed on stage before she debuted on the big screen.

Born Suzanne Lorraine Burce on April 1, 1929, in Portland, Oregon, Jane Powell became a star in her hometown early in her life, mostly because of her singing talents.

In the early 1940s, she and her family moved to Los Angeles, where Jane landed a part on the radio show Hollywood Showcase, hosted by Janet Gaynor, and the talented teenager was soon offered an MGM contract.

In 1944, she appeared for the first time on the big screen as Jane Powell in S. Sylvan Simon’s musical comedy Song of the Open Road and took that as her stage name. During the next 14 years, Jane Powell starred in 19 movies for MGM movie studios and appeared in several more for other studios.

She secured herself a place in the history of classic musicals, starring opposite Howard Keel in Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Dean Stockwell

Dean Stockwell

Dean Stockwell

Born into a family of entertainers, Dean began his professional acting career at the age of seven and became quite popular as a child actor in the 1940s.

Born on March 5, 1936, in North Hollywood, California, Dean Stockwell rose to fame early in his life, mostly due to his roles as Robert Shannon in The Green Years and as Gregory Peck’s son in Gentleman’s Agreement. 

Growing up didn’t mean that Stockwell was about to quit his acting career and he went on to become one of the most prolific actors in film history. Dean had roles in countless TV series of the 1950s and 1960s and his movies have included Long Day’s Journey into Night, Blue Velvet, Married to the Mob, and The Player.

Margaret O’Brien

Margaret O’Brien

Margaret O’Brien

Dubbed “America’s Sweetheart,” Margaret O’Brien was one of the most popular child actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Born Angela Maxine O’Brien on January 15, 1937, to Lawrence O’Brien, a circus performer, and Gladys Flores, a flamenco dancer, O’Brien rose to fame during the 1940s, appearing in 15 films.

She was only four years old when she debuted on the big screen in MGM’s Babes on Broadway (1941). However, her big breakthrough came the following year, when she was cast in W. S. Van Dyke’s Journey for Margaret. It was after this movie that she changed her name to Margaret.

She won an Academy Award for “Outstanding Child Actress” for her touching portrayal of “Tootie” in Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 musical film Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland.

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Margaret O’Brien continues to act in movies and television series, right up to 2017, with a role in the upcoming Beverly Hills Christmas II.