Douglas, Melvyn (1901-1981)

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Douglas, Melvyn (1901-1981)

Although he acted in motion pictures from the early 1930s to the late 1970s, Melvyn Douglas was never especially fond of most of the more than three score and ten movies in which he starred. He much preferred the theater and returned to the stage whenever he got the chance. A versatile actor, he excelled in both dramatic and comedy roles. He appeared in horror films, mysteries, and melodramas, but is best remembered for playing opposite Greta Garbo in the comedy Ninotchka (1939). Later in his screen career, when he'd ceased doing dapper leading man roles and was showing up in character parts, Douglas earned two supporting actor Oscars. A dedicated liberal, he was active in politics and his wife, Helen Gahagan Douglas, ran against Richard Nixon for the United States Senate but was defeated.

Born Melvyn Hesselberg in Macon, Georgia, he grew up in the Midwest. He served in the Army during World War I, but never went overseas—"The closest I personally came to death was in the kitchen, narrowly avoiding a meat cleaver thrown at me by a furious cook," he remembered in See You at the Movies. After the war, he joined his family—his father was a modestly successful concert pianist—in Chicago. Douglas hadn't yet picked a career and had "no idea what to do with my life." By the early 1920s he'd decided on the theater and was touring the Midwest. After several years of this, with an assortment of companies, he reached Broadway in 1928 in A Free Soul. He played the gangster, a role that made Clark Gable a star when he appeared later in the movie version.

Melvyn Douglas's work in the 1930 Broadway comedy Tonight or Never changed his life in two important ways. It was in the play that he first met Helen Gahagan, his costar, and fell in love with her. And when the play was filmed, Douglas repeated his role in Hollywood. He went on to make several films in the early 1930s, including The Vampire Bat (1933), The Old Dark House (1932), and As You Desire Me (1932), in which he first starred opposite Garbo. Unimpressed with the movie business, the actor left Hollywood for a time to return to the New York stage. "I had gotten disgusted with being photographed at close range," he later explained, "with a microphone down my throat."

He soon was lured back to Hollywood and began working again in a wide variety of films. He played such reformed rogues as the Lone Wolf and Arsene Lupin and a range of sleuths in mystery movies such as Fast Company (1938), Tell No Tales (1939), and There's That Woman Again (1939). He also began to shine in a successful string of screwball comedies. He worked opposite Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild (1936), with Marlene Dietrich in Angel (1937), and with Myrna Loy in Third Finger Left Hand (1940). In 1939 he made Garbo laugh in Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka.

Douglas said that he didn't become politically active until "just before Roosevelt's reelection in 1936." His wife was a singer as well as an actress and he'd accompanied her on a tour that took her to Germany. Once they saw Hitler's campaign against the Jews first-hand, Helen Douglas cancelled her tour and they returned home. Melvyn Douglas joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, worked for the rights of migrant workers, campaigned for the Democratic candidate for governor, and in June of 1938 he organized the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, the earliest group of movie people to campaign for a specific political party. Never a Communist, Douglas found himself attacked by the local members of the party when he called Russia as big a totalitarian threat as Germany and Italy. And for his criticisms of Nazi Germany he was labeled a "premature anti-Fascist." When Helen Gahagan Douglas ran against fledgling politician Richard Nixon for the U.S. Senate in 1950, some of Nixon's campaigners introduced a strong note of anti-Semitism. And in speaking of his opponent, the future President of the United States would often refer to her as Mrs. Hesselberg. One of Nixon's more extreme supporters, the racist Gerald L. K. Smith, told his followers that they must " not send to the Senate the wife of a Jew."

During World War II Douglas enlisted in the Army and was eventually stationed in the China-Burma-India war area. He returned to the movies after the war—notably in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. But after 1951, he concentrated on the stage again, winning a Tony for his performance in Gore Vidal's political drama, The Best Man. Older, and letting his age show, Douglas reentered motion pictures once again in the early 1960s. He made over a dozen films in his last years, including Hud (1963) for which he won his first Oscar, and Being There (1979) for which he won his second.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Douglas, Melvyn and Arthur, Tom. See You at the Movies. Lanham, University Press of America, 1986.

Mitchell, Greg. Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. New York, Random House, 1998.

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Douglas, Melvyn (1901-1981)

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