Updated: Aug 30, 2020
Inspecting 16mm prints from my film closet.
The Lady or the Tiger (1942)
Going Viral in the Gilded Age
“That Lady or Tiger riddle / That routed the Sphinx herself / And parted the world in the middle” – so wrote journalist Rollin Lynde Hartt concerning a nearly forty-year-old chestnut. Frank Stockton’s short story The Lady, or the Tiger? created a small sensation when it was published in 1882. The writer, mostly known for humorous children’s stories, builds up a tense situation, a sort of perverse Let’s Make a Deal-style game orchestrated by the king where a prisoner must choose between two doors. Behind one door a lovely lady waits and there will be a wedding ceremony, behind the other is a bloodthirsty tiger and the crowd will enjoy an old-fashioned evisceration. The crux of the story is the king’s daughter—"with a soul as fervent and imperious as his own”—is madly in love with prisoner. The much-anthologized story is readily available to read or listen to online if you are curious what the decades of hubbub were all about. Hartt described it as “the wildest practical joke ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting creation.” Newspaper obituaries of Stockton maintained the mystery, lamenting the fact that the author took the secret of the story to his grave. William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers boldly claimed to have the key to the riddle and provided intriguing, if somewhat dubious, evidence. Nevertheless, the audacious and mischievous story maintained its hold on the public’s imagination long enough to spawn a well-traveled comic opera, a 1908 Edwin S. Porter film for Edison’s company, an Encyclopedia Britannica classroom film in 1969, and the movie under inspection here, a MGM one-reel “Miniature” directed by a young Fred Zinnemann.
A Miniature Movie
M-G-M’s mid-30s short films are like a charming, if staid, photo album from the post-Depression era. James Fitzpatrick’s colorful and exotic Traveltalks, Pete Smith’s guided tours to every aspect of American life, the earnest warnings against lawlessness that are the “Crime Doesn’t Pay” series, along with a spate of cartoons, musicals, and newsreels served as opening acts for the feature films. The “M-G-M Miniatures” series had an established personality serve a slice of gentle Americana. Charles ‘Chic’ Sale and Robert Benchley lent their comedic personalities while writer/producer Carey Wilson, a Hollywood stalwart since the silent days of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and He Who Gets Slapped, brought a wide variety of yarns from the uplifting to the strange. The producer of a great number of these shorts was Jack Chertok. In his autobiography, Fred Zinnmeann recalls that the M-G-M producer used the one and two-reel shorts as “a reservoir and testing ground for budding directors and writers—Jules Dassin, George Sidney and Jacques Tourneur were among the tadpoles.” The Lady or the Tiger? is a low-risk, quickly shot, studio-bound film peppered with familiar veterans: ex-vaudevillian Vince Barnett, silent stars Mitchell Lewis and Barbara Bedford, and the Queen of Ubiquity herself, Bess Flowers. Besides recalling the Frank Stockton short story (and the disturbance it caused the writer--he is portrayed in the film besieged with demanding letters), the short’s main reason to exist is as a screen test for prospective stars Marie Windsor and Douglass Newland. Windsor, playing the wicked princess, should be familiar to most film fans if not for her incredible run of crime films (The Narrow Margin, Force of Evil, The Sniper, The Killing) and westerns (The Showdown, The Tall Texan, The Bounty Hunter) then for the garish trash her presence elevated (Cat-Women of the Moon, Swamp Women, The Girl in Black Stockings). As for Newland, playing the prisoner, the unclear and incomplete information available on his short career led me down a rabbit hole ultimately raising more questions than answering.
Call Me Anything You Want, Just Give Me a Callback
One of the initial obstacles in researching Mr. Newland is the sheer number of names he went by in his short life. Was he Douglass Newland Lamy, the name that appeared in the society pages when he eloped with an heiress? Or was he simply Douglass Newland as he appeared in his first feature 1941’s The Vanishing Virginian? Maybe he was Douglas Drake as Columbia Pictures billed him? Or was it Douglass with the extra ‘s’? A couple obituaries use Douglas Lamey. To simplify matters, let’s give Bette Davis the final word. She suggested he go by Johnny Mitchell, the name of the character he played in Mr. Skeffington. This name stuck for his final two roles before his career in Hollywood came to a premature end and he moved back to Manhattan.
Another obstacle is that Johnny Mitchell, whether through some combination of defects in his personality or bad luck, only made it so far in Hollywood. He was a bit player amongst hundreds of bit players. There are giant holes in the following tale, including his time in the Air Force and any details of his two children—I’m not sure if it would be possible to get the whole truth at this point.
Johnny’s towering height, baritone voice, and winning smile were effectively employed for laughs in his last major role playing opposite Ida Lupino in the armed forces screwball comedy Pillow to Post. This impression made the disturbing newspaper article written two months prior to the film’s release so incongruous. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Douglas Drake” had allegedly drew a pistol on his wife and pulled the trigger, the hammer falling on an empty chamber. This homicidal threat combined with the violent destruction of $3,000 worth of furniture were ample cause for a divorce suit. His wife went by the name Veronica Drake in the article most likely to shield her influential and famous family from embarrassment. The brunette pictured in the article intensely staring at the camera, a crucifix necklace conspicuously worn along with a conservative jacket, was actually Veronica Stearns, daughter of Robert B. Stearns founder of Bear Stearns investment bank. She was the granddaughter on her father’s side of Isaac Sterns, a German-Jewish immigrant who, along with his two brothers, built up one of the most famous department stores in New York. Stern’s was known for their Paris fashions and famous clientele. On her mother’s side she was granddaughter to Marcus M. Marks, a Manhattan Burrough President who helped usher in daylight saving time in the U.S., and Esther Friedman, a well-known suffragist. While Veronica’s family had impressively firm control of money, time, and the vote, she eluded their grip. She eloped with the actor in 1939 when she was 18 and he was 20.
By 1941, the couple was in Hollywood under the guiding hand of M-G-M’s talent scouts Al Altman (famous for discovering Joan Crawford, James Stewart, and Ava Gardner among others) and William Grady, Jr. A flurry of uncredited roles, The Lady or the Tiger?, a role in the B-movie boxing comedy Sunday Punch, and an ‘A’ role in Borzage’s The Vanishing Virginian showed increasing promise. From 1942-43, Johnny was employed by Columbia Pictures, receiving second billing in the Jinx Falkenburg comedy Laugh Your Blues Away, supporting roles in a couple low-tier Charles Starrett westerns, and a spot in a Vera Vague short. His final venture in the movies was with Warner Bros. and the aforementioned Bette Davis and Ida Lupino films and a small role in Busby Berkeley’s Cinderella Jones. Hedda Hopper wrote rather ambiguously in a 1945 column that he was “all washed, scrubbed, and clean for his divorce from the Stern department store heiress.” Then nothing.
The terse newspaper articles describing the actor’s death in January 1951 are shocking to read now. The Chicago Daily Tribune placed significance on what he was wearing—riding breeches and a red T-shirt. The Washington Post described a framed picture of Veronica and their two children next to the body. But with the conciseness of a telegram, the New York Times reported: “Melancholy because of estrangement from his wife and children, Douglas Lamey, 32-year-old former Hollywood model and movie bit player, shot himself fatally shortly before 3 a.m. yesterday in his apartment at 419 East Fifty-Seventh Street. The police reported that Mr. Lamey placed a shotgun between his knees, pressed his forehead against the muzzle and pulled the trigger.”
Perhaps I should have taken a cue from Frank Stockton and avoided the tragic ending.