Saturday, August 16, 2008

Virginia Weidler: wise old teen

Virginia Weidler yo-yos her way into my heart as Dinah Lord in The Philadelphia Story.

I suppose if one needs to have a favorite child actor mine would be Virginia Weidler. Most of the time, it's enough if they don't ruin the movie, but every once in a while a young actor comes along whose performance is one of the highlights of a film. Virginia Weidler's role as Dinah the precocious younger sister in The Philadelphia Story is one such performance. Perhaps Weidler would stand out even more in a movie acting with mere mortals, but as such she was unlucky enough to give her best performance with gods and goddesses and about half a dozen of the best darn character actors the movies had on offer in their golden age. That she held her own with the likes of Hepburn, Stewart and Grant is one thing, but that she stands out as being memorably funny and stealing scenes from them is another thing entirely. I think her cracked vision of a young society deb is one of the funniest things in the movie. After pirouetting around the room and babbling in French she plunks herself down at the piano and bangs out a lusty version of" Lydia the Tattoed Lady."

Weidler was at her best portraying wisecracking youngsters, a type that can annoy as easily as it amuses. In Philly Story, she also showed off another side of her comic persona, that of the terribly earnest pre-teen trying to understand and fit into the adult world. Dinah's version of the events on the evening of Tracy's wedding are that of a child who doesn't quite understand what she's witnessed except to know that it was something grown up and important.

I recently saw one of Weidler's last movies, her only starring role, "The Youngest Profession (1943). Just three years after Philly Story she had to carry a movie all by herself, though she had the help of half a dozen cameos by major MGM stars. She plays a comically earnest teen whose attempts to enter the adult world cause nothing but trouble for her family. The topic is star chasing and autograph hounding. Weidler's Joan Lyon is so obsessed with movie stars that she takes the realization that she is "in love with" William Powell almost as seriously as the possibility that her parents marriage maybe in jeopardy. As a fellow William Powell fanatic, I can relate, Joan. There are a number of similarities between The Youngest Profession and Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, which came out several years later. Had they worked the stars into bigger parts as with the latter film, The Youngest Profession would have been a much bigger hit.

Weidler failed to make the leap to stardom. After one more supporting role in a Lucille Ball musical, "Best Foot Forward" she lost her contract at MGM and retired from showbusiness at the wise old age of 17. I've read theories as varying as Louis B. Mayer being unhappy with her chest development to MGM neglecting her in favor of the far more popular Judy Garland. I think it was just a case of teens being perfectly happy with watching movies with grown-ups at the time, as the character in The Youngest Profession proves by being in love with Robert Taylor one minute and William Powell, the next. I recently read an interview with Gary Cooper in the early forties in which he complained that the movie scripts were too skewed toward the young market. Kids write fan letters but grown-ups go to see movies, too Coop said, but was too polite to mention that grown-ups have to act in them as well. If grownups were making movies for teens, then teens could really only be supporting characters. It seems that MGM had that figured out later in the decade, too late for Virginia Weidler. In today's youth driven movie market, a good actress like Virginia Weidler would be a household name like Hanna Montana. She would be churning out Disney films and her wise teen characters would have a lot of fans, I think.


kda0121 said...

Virginia Weidler is always fun to watch. I know her predominately from The Philadelphia Story, but have seen her in a few other movies, whose titles escape me. Just out of her natural screen charm, I thought she stole all the scenes she was in from Philadelphia. I haven't researched it, but it would be interesting to know who played Dinah on Broadway. Hard to believe that Joseph Cotten played Dexter and Van Heflin as Mike Connor. Two actors I like, but hard to see after watch Cary Grant and James Stewart in the respective roles.

Jennythenipper said...

She was also in "The Women."

I don't know who played Dinah on Broadway. A quick search turned up nothing.

I can't imagine Joseph Cotten and Van Heflin in those parts either, nor Clark Gable and Spenser tracy whom Hepburn wanted. I've always thought it was a pity Jimmy and Cary didn't have more movies together. They are so great in their big scene together.

kda0121 said...

How could I forget The Women? One of my favorites. Virginia was very good in that also. I loved her confrontation scene with Joan Crawford in the bathtub.

As to others in the Cary and Jimmy roles in Philadelphia, I could possibly see Spencer Tracy because he and Hepburn were so dynamite together the following year in Woman of the Year.

I like James Stewart immensely, but really thought he should've won the oscar the year before for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Jimmy was good as Mike Connor, but it seemed like such a supporting role to Hepburn's. Then I looked at it in a different light in that in that same year of Philadelphia Story, Jimmy was also in The Mortal Storm and The Shop Around the Corner, which were both outstanding performances in two outstanding movies; either of which were oscar worthy. So, if I look at his academy award as recognition for those cumulative performances, he was indeed worthy.

kda0121 said...

I have a book called The Films of Katharine Hepburn, by Homer Dickens. In addition to her films, it lists Kate's stage appearances, with the cast listing. In the stage version of Philadelphia Story, Dinah was played by an actress named Lenore Lonergan. She was born in 1928 and died in 1989. She has several film credits, with one them being the Ginger Rogers' comedy Tom, Dick and Harry. She played a character named Butch, which is probably the tomboy sister of Ginger. I have Tom, Dick and Harry and will have to view it again to jog my memory.

astrogirl said...

The first thing I saw Virginia in was Peter Ibbetson from 1935. She played the child version of Ann Harding's character and she did it beautifully. Not more than 10 minutes into the film, she had me in tears as she cried for her little friend (the child version of Gary Cooper's character) after his mother died.

She was a good actress and it's a shame she had a short career.

AbbyNormal said...

I have nothing to add to this wonderful dialogue other than I thought I was the only one completely in love with her in "The Philadelphia Story". I could write a book on this movie alone, I adore it so.

Jennythenipper said...

Oh, Astrogirl, I just got Peter Ibbetson the other day. I can't wait to see it.

Nancy "Beaky" Bruce said...

Oh... Peter Ibbetson -- Nipper give it all your attention. Sappy sappy sappy and worth every minute. :-)

If anyone doubts the importance or value of Weidler's abilities or the Dinah role in The Philadelphia Story, take a look at her successor in the musical remake High Society. An absolute shame.

Weidler was wonderful in all I've seen her in. I hate that I missed The Youngest Profession the other day. The fact that she seemed totally unimpressed with the stardom part of it all and was completely in the scenes was a credit to her abilities. Makes me think of Mae Whitman today, in that respect.

Nancy "Beaky" Bruce said...

Sad to read she passed away at the early age of 42.

About Java Bean Rush said...

According to the Internet Broadway Database, Lenore Lonergan played Dinah on Broadway.

howie14 said...

I love this post. Over the last several months I've been trying to research Virginia's life and I've looked it up a few times.

It never fails to rally my spirits and remind me why I want to uncover more about this almost forgotten actress.

Thank you.

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