Gale Storm: Actress and singer who became the leading lady of choice for the 'Poverty Row' studio Monogram

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:20

One of the most prolific B-movie actresses of the 1940s, Gale Storm purveyed a fresh-faced wholesomeness that made her a reliable leading lady in musicals, westerns and thrillers, and for most of the decade she was the leading female star of the "Poverty Row" studio, Monogram, for whom she made more than 20 films. She was to become the studio's highest paid star and the only one they kept under contract. "If I had worked at a large studio like MGM," she later said, "I might have been one more little fish in a big pond. But at Monogram, I was the only fish they had." When her film career ended, she moved with great success to television – in 1953 she was second to Lucille Ball in popularity – and she also had a notable career as a recording star, with three records in the top 10.

The youngest of five children, she was born Josephine Owaissa Cottle in Texas in 1922. She was only 13 months old when her father, a potter, died, and her mother took in sewing to support her family, later opening a millinery shop.

At school Storm displayed flair in dramatic and musical productions, and her teachers recommended that she enter the heats of the Gateway to Hollywood nationwide talent contest, which was broadcast on CBS radio on Sunday evenings, the winning actor and actress to be given contracts with RKO, plus the preconceived names Terry Belmont and Gale Storm. In 1939, Storm and her co-winner Lee Bonnell, a handsome student from Indiana, arrived in Hollywood. Bonnell, who later reverted to his own name for his sporadic acting career, was to become Storm's husband in 1941, and after giving up acting worked in insurance. The marriage, which lasted until his death in 1986, produced three sons and a daughter.

A small role in Tom Brown's Schooldays (1940) marked Storm's screen debut, but she had a leading role as an expectant mother in One Crowded Night (1940), a brisk coincidence-laden melodrama set in a desert motel where her escaped convict husband seeks refuge. RKO then let her go, but other studios swiftly gave her parts – at Republic she supported Roy Rogers in three westerns, including Jesse James at Bay (1941), in which James is depicted as a gallant Robin Hood-type character. Unfortunately, she hated horses. "Being from Texas you're supposed to be at least familiar with horses, but I was scared to death of them."

Her first film for Monogram was Let's Go Collegiate (1941) in which she was sixth-billed, but had a song solo, "Sweet Sixteen", and she followed this with a supporting role in Smart Alecks (1941), one of the popular series featuring the "East Side Kids". Of Lure of the Islands (1942), which was entirely shot in the studio, Storm said "They threw up a few thatched huts and palm trees and we were an island."

Storm had her first leading role at Monogram when she played Johnny Mack Brown's sweetheart in Freckles Comes Home (1942), then she played a nightclub singer (the first of many such roles) in Foreign Agent (1942), in which Nazis try to steal a searchlight filter invented by a Hollywood technician. Made just after the US entered the Second World War, it featured Storm singing, "It's Taps for the Japs." Rhythm Parade (1942) was a lighter affair which benefited from having the Marx brothers' foil Margaret Dumont in a key role, and in Campus Rhythm (1943) Storm sang several songs including "Swing Your Way Through College".

By now, Storm had become the studio's biggest star and films were being created especially for her, including Nearly Eighteen (1943), an amusing comedy in which aspiring singer Storm, a few months too young to get a job in a nightclub, instead pretends to be younger than she is in order to enter a music academy with an age limit of 14. "We called the pictures six-day wonders, because that's how long it took to shoot them", recalled Storm. "I did one six-day picture they never finished, but released anyway. Regardless, I liked being there. There was a family-like atmosphere on the lot, and you felt people wanted you to succeed".

She had one of her strongest dramatic roles in Where Are Your Children? (1943). With so many of the country's men away at war, and women working in defence plants, juvenile delinquency had risen, and the film took an uncompromising look at the problem, with Storm and Jackie Cooper playing two wild youths. With a higher budget than usual for the studio, and a good supporting cast, the film won critical praise and proved a big money-maker.

Storm received top billing in three films released in 1945, Forever Yours, in which she played a polio victim, G.I. Honeymoon, a comedy in which she and Peter Cookson were a newly married couple living on an army camp, where they are constantly prevented from consummating their marriage, and Sunbonnet Sue, a musical set at the turn of the century and liberally peppered with hits of the period sung by Storm and the Irish tenor Phil Regan.

Swing Parade of 1946, co-starring Regan and the Three Stooges, was Storm's last Monogram release. The studio's president, Steve Broidy, realising that the niche for B-movies was declining, phased out Monogram while using a wholly owned subsidiary company, Allied Artists, to release more ambitious features. The first for Storm under the new banner was It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), in which she played the daughter of a millionaire who lets a tramp use his mansion in the winter while he is out of town. The good-natured, if overlong (at nearly two hours) comedy received an Oscar nomination for the year's best original screenplay, and was to become a Christmas perennial on television. Storm followed it up with one of her best films, Kurt Neumann's comedy The Dude Goes West (1948).

In 1949 she moved to Universal, where in a final burst of film activity she made some of her best films, such as Abandoned (1949), which dealt with the traffic in babies of unwed mothers forced to sell their children for adoption, and The Underworld Story (1950), a gripping drama in which ruthless city reporter Dan Duryea is exiled to a small town where he transforms the local newspaper (Storm is the proprietor's daughter) and uncovers corruption.

Now the mother of three growing sons, Storm retired the following year, but in 1952 she was asked to star in a television series, My Little Margie. It featured Storm as the daughter of an eligible widower (Charles Farrell) whom she is constantly trying to save from the machinations of various women. Intended as a summer replacement for I Love Lucy, the series was derided by critics, but viewers warmed to it, and it ran till 1955 with a total of 126 episodes, though it was not shown in the UK.

Storm followed it with another hit series, The Gale Storm Show, later renamed Oh, Susanna (1956-60), in which she was a singing social director on a cruise ship (the Bonnells named their fourth child Susanna). Her TV success led to a singing engagement in Las Vegas and a recording contract with Dot records. Her first disc, a rhythm and blues number, "I Hear You Knocking", reached No 2 on the Billboard chart, and she had further hits with "Teenage Prayer" and "Dark Moon".

In the Sixties she starred in dinner theatres in such musicals as South Pacific and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but a career decline ("When you've enjoyed success so long, you don't know how to be aggressive") led to alcoholism, as she revealed in her autobiography, I Ain't Down Yet (1981). "I had hidden it socially, never drank before a performance," she confessed. She attended several hospitals before undergoing detoxification followed by aversion therapy and counselling, later praising the support of her husband. "It was an absolutely great marriage," she said.

In 1988, two years after Bonnell's death, she married a television executive, who died in 1996.

Tom Vallance

Josephine Owaissa Cottle (Gale Storm), actress: born Bloomington, Texas 5 April 1922; married 1941 Lee Bonnell (died 1986; three sons, one daughter), 1988 Paul Masterson (died 1996); died Danville, California 27 June 2009.

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