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Happy Birthday, Ona Munson!

The effort to cast the motion picture adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel Gone with the Wind is almost as epic as the content itself.  For the role of madam Belle Watling, producer David O. Selznick considered such actresses as Tallulah Bankhead and Billie Dove…and even at one point during pre-production (though many have surmised this was a publicity stunt) suggested Mae West portray Belle.  Eventually, the part of Rhett Butler’s lady friend was awarded to Broadway veteran Ona Munson—born Owena Elizabeth Wolcott in Portland, Oregon on this date in 1903.  Munson’s show business career encompassed both stage and screen, and she even dabbled in television before her unfortunate passing in 1955.  Old-time radio fans know that Munson shone in the aural medium, however, appearing before the microphone in such venues as Suspense and The Cavalcade of America.

Ona Munson’s show business career blossomed on Broadway.  She was a chorus girl in the 1919 revue of George White’s Scandals when she was only sixteen, and received her “big break” playing the titular role in No, No, Nanette (1926; taking over from Louise Groody).  Munson would then go on to grace the casts of successful stage musicals such as Twinkle, Twinkle (1926), Manhattan Mary (1927), and Hold Everything (1928)—it was in this latter production that she introduced the Cole Porter standard You’re the Cream in My Coffee.  Even after she ventured out to the West Coast for moviemaking, Ona would return to her stage roots with roles in Hold Your Horses (1933) and Petticoat Fever (1935), and she tackled a more serious role in Ghosts in 1936.  Her final Broadway work would surface in 1952, with a small part in a revival of George S. Kaufman-Katharine Dayton’s First Lady.

Ona was anxious to establish herself in motion pictures…and relished her first starring role in Warner Brothers’ Going Wild (1930).  Wild had been fashioned as a musical, but the tunes in the movie were excised to placate the moviegoing public, who had soured on musicals because of so many having been released the previous year.  Munson would later get the opportunity to ply her musical stock-in-trade in The Hot Heiress (1931), which allowed her to sing a few numbers alongside her co-star, Ben Lyon.  In Broadminded (1931), she was reunited with Wild star Joe E. Brown, and that same year she played cub reporter “Kitty Carmody” in the splendid Five Star Final (1931), starring Edward G. Robinson and Boris Karloff.

Munson’s movie resume also includes vehicles such as His Exciting Night (1938), Scandal Sheet (1939), and Legion of Lost Flyers (1939)…but for most classic movie fans, her turn in Gone with the Wind (1939) remains her best-known role.  Producer Selznick took a novel approach in giving Ona the gig—in the book, the reader gets the impression that bordello proprietor Belle Watling was stacked like a burlap bag filled with bobcats…while the actress herself was of much slighter build.  But Ona made the role her own, and was so convincing that she would later portray another madam in the persona of “Mother Gin Sling” in the 1941 cult oddity The Shanghai Gesture (directed by Josef von Sternberg).  Critic Chuck Stephens described her cinematic turns in Wind and Gesture as “the defining extremes of Ona Munson’s on-screen career” in a January/February 2013 essay in Film Comment, noting her performance as Mother Gin Sling was “Medusa in antennae braids and hairpins of ancient jade.”

Her Five Star Final co-star Edward G. Robinson tabbed her to replace Claire Trevor in the role of Lorelei Kilbourne in the hit radio drama Big Town in 1940, on which Eddie G. also starred.  Ona would appear on the program until 1942, when Robinson decided to leave the series…but she declined to follow the show when it was revived in the fall of 1943, originating from the East Coast.  Munson kept busy in radio; she guest-starred on such anthologies as The Screen Guild Theatre and Family Theatre, and was the host of Ona Munson in Hollywood, a popular program that dished up plenty of Tinsel Town gossip.  (Ona also headlined CBS Open House; a surviving June 19, 1949 broadcast has her conducting an interview with actor Howard Culver, the last old-time radio personality to get a birthday shout-out on the blog.)  One of Munson’s most interesting radio jobs was producing the wartime series Victory Belles, a CBS variety program that featured Mabel Todd, Martha Mears, Wilhelmina Gould, and Jean Ruth Hay (a.k.a. “Beverly” of Reveille with Beverly fame).

Fittingly, Ona Munson’s cinematic swan song was The Red House (1947), a movie starring her Big Town compadre Edward G. Robinson.  While Ona gave solid performances in such films as Lady from Louisiana (1941—with John Wayne), Idaho (1943—with Roy Rogers), The Cheaters (1945), and Dakota (1945—another with John Wayne), the actress suffered from turmoil in her personal life and was in ill-health in her final years.  In spite of that, she managed to make inroads on the small screen, appearing on such TV favorites as The Armstrong Circle Theatre and Martin Kane, Private Eye.  Tragically, Ona would take her own life with an overdose of barbiturates on February 11, 1955 at the age of 51…leaving behind a note that read: “This is the only way I know to be free again…please don’t follow me.”

Despite leaving us too soon, Ona Munson left behind an amazing legacy of movie memories; Gone with the Wind fans love her performance as Belle in that iconic film, and speaking only for myself I highly recommend the movies she made with Edward G. Robinson, Five Star Final and The Red House.  (The Shanghai Gesture is pretty wild and way out, too.)  Here at Radio Spirits, Ona is present and accounted for in our Big Town collection, Blind Justice, featuring vintage broadcasts from the popular newspaper drama series (including a few rarities).  We extend hearty birthday greetings to Ona…because without question, she’s the cream in our coffee.

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