Behold! The Cinema Dilettante’s entry for The Loretta Young Birthday Blogathon. This post started out in a whole different way, which actually matched the working title from the roster. Then, a little writing muse said I was being a bitter old hen and needed to change it all.
In the last year, I’ve heard and read many reactions to the mention of Loretta Young. Most are warm memories with many smiles and fond recollections. Some people remember Julia Brougham, who brought a little bit of Heaven to Earth. Some recall a frozen damsel named Claire Blake. The largest percentage, and I’ll dare say happiest memories, however, go to a glamorous lady who twirled into living rooms each Sunday night.
Louis B. Mayer warned her against it. He said she may never be able to find work on the big screen, again. Many friends echoed the same warning- television would be a deadly blow to her film career. Indeed, it would turn out to be, but there would be no tragedy in that. Loretta Young would finally have the full control over her image that she’d worked for over her already nearly 25 year career as a leading lady. As her sister, Sally Blane, said- at an age when most women would be slowing down, Loretta took on a new challenge. Headstrong and with great dignity, she would clear the path for many female television stars, to come.
“What Loretta says she will do, she does. What she says, she means. What she learns, she remembers. And- let’s face it- what she wants, she gets.” (Anonymous Associate, Screenland Magazine, May 1959)
The story goes that one evening, the family was watching television, and the program was so disturbing that, by the end, the children were in tears. This inspired an idea, in Loretta’s mind- after all, shouldn’t TV be capable of doing something better than what she’d just seen? Perhaps there was a way for her to get one good idea or lesson presented to the public, each week.
Tom Lewis, Loretta’s then-husband, and a writer came up with a plan. The show would be called Letters To Loretta, and in every episode, she would be given a letter to read, while dressing, which she would answer by way of acting in a short teleplay regarding the issue at hand. Loretta wasn’t crazy about that idea, but eventually agreed. Several episodes were shot in that manner and aired (the first review stating “It was so bland, it won’t last one week.”), until a meeting was held with the corporate sponsor, Proctor & Gamble. They also expressed their dislike of the format, and Loretta had a small victory. Thus, The Loretta Young Show was born, and from 1953 to 1961, Loretta Young would charm and provide inspiration and insight to audiences, with only a small leave, due to illness, in 1955.
The idea for the glamorous introductions to each show was all Loretta. She wanted the chance to play every character she was capable of, but for those few minutes of time book ending each show, she would be dressed by the best and brightest. That iconic entrance, however, was what one might call a creative “accident.” When she had entered the set through those double doors, she walked straight ahead, wearing a gorgeous dress by Marusia. The designer expressed her disappointment that, though the gown was lovely from the front, no one would see the equally lovely back. Loretta made the entrance again, this time with a swirl, creating what is still, perhaps, one of the most copied entrances in TV history. Though it came about by accident, she was serious about it being her “signature.” When someone close to Loretta expressed the desire to make a sweeping swirl entrance on a TV program, in later years, sister Sally Blane advised against it. “You mustn’t do that- Loretta takes that very seriously!”
It is said often that, in an act of loyalty, Loretta would hire friends and formers associates, but in an interview, she was adamant that loyalty had nothing to do with it. She, as anyone else in her position would, wanted the best and set about getting it. She had made many friends over the course of her career, and perhaps it was their loyalty to her that should be considered. From her pick of any director she thought right for a show, to having access to any costume she might need, Loretta had it. The real fact here is that Loretta was loved, not only by her audience, but by her friends and associates.
These, of course, are all well known facts about The Loretta Young Show. After the departure of Tom Lewis as producer, that became another hat in her vast collection. Producing, writing her own introductions, even costuming the shows out of her own closet- Loretta had a hand in just about every aspect of the show which bore her name. Yet, here we are, with so much information readily available to us, and so few giving her the credit she deserves. She made a seamless transition into a new format of entertainment, tackling not simply one character, but hundreds! As The Museum Of Broadcast Communications so aptly states, “Loretta Young is probably most important to television’s history as a woman who blazed a path for other women as both an actress and a producer.”
Loretta Young would never call herself a victim, I’m sure of that. She would not fault some vast anti-feminist conspiracy as a reason for her contributions not being properly celebrated. While that sometimes may seem to be the case, especially when one finds grown men gleefully patting themselves on the back for pointing out how “power hungry” she was, I find that, as in other instances, it is more of a matter of us not quite understanding Loretta. In listening to and reading interviews where she talked about her show, I’ve discovered a woman who was proud of her work, but was deeply humble about the sheer magnitude of what she was doing. For Loretta, it was just “what anyone would do, in the same situation.” In many cases, I listen to her and think that she’d feel the same way if she was a lady pilot or engineer. This was the talent that God gave her and the skill she had artfully built on top of that, and she used those to spread the joy she got in doing it. As much as a few apparent members of the He-Man Women Hater’s Club would lead you to believe, Loretta Young wasn’t knocking on Hollywood’s doors to tell them how great she was, how innovative she was, how she was really just the best at everything, and like she totally did the whole show herself, she actually was all of the actors and crew. She was, as one of her sisters would later say, “regular people.” She lived a life of grace and gratitude, happy to have had the opportunity to make her show her own.
I have a confession to make, everyone. In a fit of anger or angst or, I don’t know, being mad about having run out of bagels, I wrote a long diatribe about how the damn establishment was just bringing lady folk down. While that certainly is true, the more egregious omission is the one that we lady folk commit, ourselves. We will talk ten ears off about the pioneering roles of ladies like Lucille Ball and Donna Reed, but we don’t bring up Loretta. Why don’t we do that? Are we looking at her glamour and assuming that we can’t relate to her? Are we committing a lady code violation of letting our subconscious go, “LOL back up, you’re too pretty to do things that the boys’ club likes to think they’re best at.” Do we disagree with her show’s message, therefore find her behind the scenes contributions null and void? I don’t like baking pies or being domestic, but I still think Donna Stone was a pretty rad character.
Loretta Young was, as that beacon of modern femininity Tina Belcher would say, “a smart, strong, sensual woman.” I propose that those of us who recognize that fact simply do our best to spread the word. She would not want anyone sitting on their hands, bemoaning the fate of her legacy and using it as a sort of sad anecdote of what happens to strong females. Sure, we need to recognize that she has been overshadowed and that there are “scholars” out there who read half of a legal decision and decided that Loretta just kicked her husband to the curb and wouldn’t let him back near her show. Then we simply correct it, with the poise that Loretta displayed throughout her life, and go on. Most of all, I think everyone could do with remembering that, even if we’re thinking, “Oh, I so do not agree with this message that is being shared in episode 33,” it doesn’t take anything away from the real and wonderful effort that Loretta put forth. Our girl did the work of three men, and it’s up to our generation to remind people of that.