Saturday, December 19, 2009
The Christmas Album: Arlene Dahl
Day eleven of our hike through the backlot of Christmas Past in Hollywood presents us with the doll-like perfection of Arlene Dahl, circa 1947. The actress with the porcelain complexion, the Titian hair and a blazing desire to get out of Minneapolis, where she was born in 1928, (or maybe it may have been 1924...you know how imprecise actresses can be about such details) was just beginning her career.
Of Norwegian descent, Dahl became "Miss Rheingold" in 1946, a post that ensured the public's awareness of her presence among them, since the beer company advertised heavily throughout their distribution area. Having your image emblazoned on the side of beer trucks may seem to be a rather circuitous route to fame and a chance to act, but other winners were Jinx Falkenburg, Tippi Hedren, Hope Lange, and Grace Kelly, all of whom enjoyed fairly high profile careers. Dahl's belief that "with enthusiasm anything is possible" may have helped her endure the path that she continues to negotiate to this day.
Arriving at Warner Brothers that same year for a screen test, the young woman impressed the studio as well as actor Gary Cooper, a young John F. Kennedy and the visiting Shah of Iran, each of whom asked for her company in her early years in Hollywood. Oh, yes, she was also asked to sign on as a contract player briefly at Warner's before ascending to MGM, a studio where her beauty and grace might have been expected to receive their proper setting. Garbed in turn of the century duds, Dahl first appeared opposite then big star Dennis Morgan when he played Irish tenor Chauncey Olcott in Warner's My Wild Irish Rose (1947-David Butler). Though the neophyte actress has since claimed that she "always wanted was to be was a musical comedy star" this film demanded no display of her vocal gifts. This first credited appearance on film was considered a success since critics noted her "sweetness" and were especially taken with the way that she was photographed in "velvety Technicolor".
Moving over to Metro as a contract actress in the late '40s, Dahl began to show signs that she might be a slightly more formidable individual than producers could immediately discern, though their casting her as a model in Scene of the Crime (1949) and in the musical Three Little Words (1950) took full advantage of her dazzling looks--if not her talent. In Anthony Mann's Eagle Lion-Walter Wanger production, Reign of Terror (1949) aka The Black Book, the director and his brilliant cinematographer John Alton applied film noir techniques to a baroque story of suspense and unusual violence for the period set during the French Revolution's most violent phase. Dahl's elegance and beauty, as well as her intelligence blended well into this low budget movie. Her mien had once been described by Sir Charles Mendl as "belonging to the 18th century", and in this story her character's duplicity and skills as a spy and adventuress were revealed in the black and white drama. Dahl was often photographed from below in this movie, allowing the audience to catch sight of, as one critic described it, "a dangerous light glinting off the white of her eye like shards of a diamond."
That same blend of dazzling femininity and canniness added greatly to several pictures we would now tend to classify as stylishly noirish, including No Questions Asked (1951-Harold Kress), Slightly Scarlet (1956-Allan Dwan), Wicked As They Come (1956-Ken Hughes) and She Played With Fire (1957-Sidney Gilliat)--almost all of which invariably taught the viewer the somewhat trite lesson that a beautiful face does not necessarily hide an equally lovely soul--though they managed to present this moral with dashes of fun, vicariousness naughtiness and a touch or three of camp. While it might be fun to see Dahl sashay her considerable self through these movies, but in a movie such as Woman's World (1954-Jean Negulesco), an enjoyable potboiler examining the folly of climbing the corporate ladder, she may have been the most compelling character as a flamboyant striver not above foisting her charms on big cheese Clifton Webb (of all people!) on her husband's behalf. By the time Dahl appeared as the beautiful companion of James Mason in the Jules Verne tale, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959-Henry Levin), her time in the movies was nearly over, though she would appear occasionally in television. Her business and personal interests proved to far outweigh the lure of the silver screen.
In addition to being highly decorative in these films, the actress felt compelled during this period to describe the censors of motion pictures "fussy old maids" and to pursue her own interests as well as those of her employers. Despite signs that she might not be as malleable as hoped, the young woman was already noted for her entrepreneurial skills, which led her to set up Arlene Dahl Enterprises early in her Hollywood years. Her business activities ranged from continuing to recommend Rheingold beer to the public in advertisement, writing a column on beauty tips that was syndicated for years in American print as well as writing about astrology, hawking something called a "beauty cap" to be worn at night, and eventually selling wigs to the masses.
In between these activities, Arlene Dahl also married six times, including Lex Barker, Fernando Lamas, and noted wine expert Alexis Lichine, becoming the mother of three children, including actor Lorenzo Lamas. Her current marriage to business man Marc Rosen is still going strong after 25 years and is also her longest lasting union. Dismissing her years in front of the camera, despite the fact that Ms. Dahl occasionally appears at film festivals to discuss her work, she once said that "I considered the years in Hollywood nothing but an interim." It may be difficult to recall her Minnesota roots at times, given her cosmopolitan life and career, but, according to some who attended her holiday fetes in the past, her Scandinavian roots showed best at Christmas time, when an invitation to her house meant a traditional smörgåsbord, many toasts with gløg, and a demonstration by the hostess of what it means to have an appetite for life.
Please click here for previous entries in The Christmas Album series on this blog.