Obituary: Marguerite Chapman

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A PROMINENT leading lady in Columbia films of the Forties, Marguerite Chapman was a beautiful, blue-eyed brunette who looked particularly ravishing in colour. A former model who virtually learnt to act in front of the cameras, she was at her peak when good film roles became scarce and she turned to television. Later she was to speak with refreshing honesty about the effect her beauty had on such prominent moguls of the period as Howard Hughes and Harry Cohn, who were to help her establish an acting career.

Born in Chatham, New York, in 1920, Chapman began her working life as a typist and switchboard operator in White Plains, New York, but, at the urging of friends who praised her beauty, she left her job and went to New York City in search of modelling work. Hired by the influential John Powers agency, she soon began appearing on magazine covers. "I originally had no intention of becoming an actress," she said later. "When I began to think of what I would do in the future I decided I might like to become fashion editor for Vogue or something like that."

Chapman's boyfriend at the time was Sherman Fairchild of Fairchild Aircraft and Cameras, and he was a friend of Howard Hughes, who was an aeroplane enthusiast. Fairchild took Chapman to a party given by Hughes, and shortly afterwards she was told that Hughes wanted her to do a screen test at his Long Island studio - he was looking for an actress to star in a film he was planning, The Outlaw. "It was a visual test, no dialogue. Hughes liked the test, and signed me to a contract with an option. I arrived in Hollywood on Christmas Eve afternoon, 1939. Hughes had arranged for Pat di Cicco, Cubby Broccoli and Bruce Cabot to squire me here and there.

"When I met Ruth and Hoagy Carmichael, they gave me advice appropriate for a young girl visiting Hollywood for the first time. They told me to keep away from my three escorts and to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I did everything they told me not to . . ."

After some sessions with a drama coach, Chapman did a full screen test directed by Hughes. "It was a very ladylike test - it was a scene from an Irene Dunne picture - and afterwards Hughes told me, `You're too much of a lady for me and too much of a lady for the film. I'm going to send your test to Joe Schenck, chairman of 20th Century-Fox pictures.' " Signed by Fox, Chapman was coached at their drama school on the lot, and made her screen debut in On Their Own (1940), one of a series of B movies about the exploits of the Jones family (the studio's answer to MGM's enormously popular Andy Hardy films).

She next played a girl reporter in Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940) but after six months her option was dropped. Later the actress stated that the decision may have been affected by something that happened when she first met the studio's production chief Darryl Zanuck at the night- club Ciro's. "Zanuck, who was short, asked me to dance. I said, `I'm sorry, I don't like to dance with men who are shorter than I am.' That was a mistake."

Moving to Warners, where she stayed for a year, she played several small roles, notably in The Body Disappears (1941) in which her wealthy fiance discovers her mercenary nature after he is rendered invisible, and the musical Navy Blues (1941) as one of the "Navy Blues Sextet", a group of glamorous starlets (all former Powers models) who also appeared in morale- boosting short films which were sent to the troops. Leaving Warners, Chapman had her best role to date as the heroine of Republic's serial Spy Smasher (1942), based on the Whiz Comics adventure series ("SEE Spy Smasher - as a human tornado - sink the German U-Boat!" promised the ads) with Kane Richmond in the dual role of the costumed hero and his twin brother, both battling a Nazi menace called the Mask.

Few serial heroines successfully made the transition to major features, but Chapman was the exception. When Columbia signed her, they immediately gave her leading roles in a series of B movies as training for promotion to "A"s. In Parachute Nurse (1942) she was top- billed as a new recruit to a team of nurses who parachute to aid men injured on the battlefield. Variety described her as adequate, adding "though patently a newcomer and a bit awkward".

Submarine Raider (1942) was another propaganda piece in which, as a shipwrecked heiress, she is picked up by a submarine which then sinks a Japanese carrier to score the navy's first victory after Pearl Harbor. Appointment in Berlin (1943) was publicised as the first film to deal with a "Lord Haw-Haw" situation, with George Sanders as an apparent traitor broadcasting anti- British diatribes which in fact contain coded messages of vital information. Its pessimistic ending - Sanders, along with a German who aids him (Chapman) and a British spy (Gale Sondergaard) all die - made it unpopular with audiences, while the New York Herald-Tribune chided the film for "its considerable wishful thinking in its glorification of the British Intelligence".

Chapman was next given her first lead in a major film, Destroyer (1943) starring Edward G. Robinson and Glenn Ford. "With this film, my career finally took off," said Chapman. "Robinson was a charming man, but I remember that he grew increasingly concerned because he was shorter than I, and he spoke to the director about it. If you look at the film, you'll notice that I'm sitting down a lot."

Chapman's performance as Robinson's daughter was well received ("By now, I had done many films and had gone to several drama coaches") but she was featured in several more B movies before being given the prestigious female lead in Counter-Attack (1945) opposite Paul Muni. Based on a Russian play, Pobyeda, it was almost entirely set in a bombed-out factory's basement where Russian soldier Muni and Russian guerrilla Chapman hold off a septet of German soldiers while they await rescue. "A lot of girls had tested for the part of `Comrade Lisa', including Nina Foch. I went to see the producer Zoltan Korda with no make-up and straggly hair. He said, `You're just what I want. You look like a boy, but I know there's a woman underneath all that.'

"The first scene we shot had to be done over again, because I had my hair swept up. Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, had a real thing about hair. He wanted my hair down, and that's how we did the scene."

Filmed in 1944, when America was pro-Soviet, but released in the spring of 1945 when, to quote the historian Bernard F. Dick, "Russophobia staged a comeback", the film did not do well, and a few years later when Muni, his co-star Larry Parks, script-writer John Howard Lawson and Columbia supervisor Sidney Buchman were all named by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the film was used against them.

Chapman had a welcome change of pace with her next film, Leslie Fenton's deft comedy Pardon My Past (1945), with Fred MacMurray playing dual roles in a sparkling tale of mistaken identity, Chapman playing the girl who ends up with the worthier of the two MacMurrays. Like most Columbia employees, the actress was not happy with her pay, and later recalled that the night the film was finished she attended a dinner party at Cohn's house. "I was wearing this cute little dress and Harry asked me where I got it and then asked, `How much did you pay for it?' In front of the other guests I replied, `I paid $75, my week's salary. Aren't you ashamed?' I always talked like that to Harry. He was always calling me into his office. I think he enjoyed sparring with me."

One of their discussions was about her name. "Harry always called me Margaret. `My name is Marguerite,' I told him. `You spend all that money putting me under contract and spelling my name out on marquees, so at least pronounce it right, Uncle Harry.' `From now on,' Cohn assured me, `I will always call you Marguerite, Margaret.'"

In Mr District Attorney (1946), based on a popular radio series, Chapman played a murderous gold-digger, then she starred opposite Lee Bowman in a good thriller, The Walls Came Tumbling Down (1946) which suffered from its resemblance to The Maltese Falcon, the sought-after items in this case being two bibles and a painting, with Chapman a beautiful socialite who may not be all she seems. "All I can recall of that film," said Chapman, "is Lee Bowman refusing to take his hat off in the elevator, which the director did not like. Lee didn't want to put on his hairpiece."

A western with Randolph Scott, Coroner's Creek (1948), and a roisterous swashbuckler, The Gallant Blade (1948), with Larry Parks, were both filmed in Cinecolor and demonstrated how well the actress's looks responded to the colour camera. They were followed by one of her finest films, Relentless (1948), co-starring Robert Young. Chapman said:

Don "Red" Barry, the western actor, told me that he had found this book Three Were Thoroughbreds, which Gene Rodney and Robert Young were going to produce as a major Technicolor western for Columbia release. Don said, "Marguerite, you're just right for the tomboyish leading lady." I thought, "That's my studio, I'll push myself", so I went to see Gene and Bob at Columbia. "If you don't give me this part," I said, "I'm going up and tell Uncle Harry." I had never done anything like that before, but I knew it was a good part. We filmed in Tucson,

Arizona, under George Sherman's direction, and it turned out to be one of my best pictures. Bob Young was very warm, a real pro, and many years later I appeared on his TV series Marcus Welby, MD, with him.

Though Relentless was a success, it was to end Chapman's career at Columbia, and she decided to freelance. At Universal, she co-starred with Audie Murphy in Kansas Raiders (1950), but the following year she was at the budget studio Monogram starring in Flight to Mars (1951) as Alita, a Martian who falls in love with a reporter (Cameron Mitchell) who has crash-landed on her planet with a group of scientists.

In 1952 Chapman and George Brent, whose star was also fading, made a film in England, Terence Fisher's The Last Page, an efficient thriller (called Man Bait in the US). By 1955 she was playing a supporting role as a secretary in Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch. Since 1951 she had been appearing frequently on television, guest starring in many popular series including Four Star Playhouse, Studio 57, Climax and Perry Mason. She attempted a cinema comeback in 1960, starring in Edgar G. Ulmer's The Amazing Transparent Man, but the film's unconvincing special effects (the title character, supposed to be invisible, was often easily seen) doomed it to failure.

Never having set foot on a stage before, Chapman began to work in small theatres, and won praise for her portrayal of Sylvia, the bitchy gossip of The Women in a Fort Worth production. One critic praised her "ribald comic flair" while another commented, "Here is another great performer with versatility spilling over in ebullient delight with every line and movement on stage."

Chapman enjoyed painting (her pictures have been exhibited at the Beverly Hills Art League Gallery), golfing, and decorating her house in Woodland Hills, California, where she is memorialised by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Two years ago the director James Cameron asked her to audition for the role of the elderly survivor in his film Titanic, but she was too ill to do so. Talking of her Hollywood career, she said recently, "I acted in just about everything possible in those years - `A's, `B's, serials, short subjects, even trailers. And I loved every minute of it."

Tom Vallance

Marguerite Chapman, actress: born Chatham, New York 9 March 1920; married first Bentley Ryan (marriage dissolved), second Richard Bremerkamp (marriage dissolved); died Burbank, California 31 August 1999.