Time: Summer, 1959
by Jack Le Moine
|Publicity still from sometime in the 1940’s.
Public domain image from Wikipedia.
The phone rang. Loretta Young answered it. It was bad news. She was dropped.
Her sponsor, Proctor and Gamble had warned her repeatedly for years. Last time they had sent a member of their corporate Board of Directors to deliver their ultimatum. Either stop with all these religious themed episodes or they would drop their sponsorship of The Loretta Young Show. He explained that the company kept getting complaints. They did not like complaints. Large quantities of complaints they liked even less. Large quantities of complaints hitting them year after year, they liked even less still. A top network television show cost a lot of money. Sponsors want to get goodwill and sales for all that money. Sponsors don’t want to spend lots of money to receive badwill.
Loretta Young decided to open the show’s seventh season on NBC with the most ambitious episode yet, a story about a troubled woman’s trip to France and then Spain that got sidetracked to Lourdes, the town where the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared to Bernadette, the town of miracles.
She was filming in Paris when the ax hit. She was dropped. Networks cancelled shows with no sponsors. She was in Paris, with a top crew, lots of expenses, no sponsor, and no money to pay them. She decided to continue on even if she had to borrow and spend the rest of her life paying off the debt. And she prayed.
This was not her first crisis. In 1939, Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century-Fox had had her blacklisted. In 1945, Columbia Pictures had fired her. Each time, Loretta Young had survived.
She had started out in films in the 1910’s.
In the 1920’s she had made the transition from child star to adult star and then had made the even more difficult transition from the silent screen to the talkies. She had survived. And each time her success had been bigger.
In the 1930’s she had been one of the top stars in Hollywood. She starred in Call of the Wild and in Cecil B. DeMille’s Crusades. By the end of the decade, she had starred in around 90 movies.
In the 1940’s she branched out into radio becoming the second most frequent performer on Lux Theater. She continued her movie career winning an Oscar for The Farmer’s Daughter and another nomination for Come to the Stable.
The movie Cause for Alarm (1951) is a film noir which passed into the public domain but remains one of her best.
During the Loretta Young Show’s run from 1953 to 1961, she bossed the show and starred in the show both. Either job burned out executives and stars. She did both jobs simultaneously.
In her day, she was the only woman to boss a major network drama show. It was not just a title. She was a micro-manager. She presided at story conferences, approved camera work, lighting, sound, and even sat next to the editor during final film editing. Sometimes she drove the final film to the airport for overnight express to NBC in New York.
A television show does well to last five seasons. The Loretta Young Show lasted eight on NBC. CBS did another season of a revamped Loretta Young show a year later.
But I get ahead of myself. Back to Paris.
A few days later, another phone call. Not just one but two sponsors signed on; the episode was paid for. The Road to Lourdes became Loretta Young’s most important work.
Her legacy to history was not just in her longevity at the top or the awards she received. She contributed to America’s culture by pushing the artistic boundaries.
Normally when one hears that one thinks of performing artists pushing boundaries, it is in the direction of sexual freedom or of vulgar language and behavior. Loretta Young pushed in another direction, towards spiritual values and humanity’s relationship with God. Doing that while engaging and keeping the continuing interest of a mass audience continues to trouble filmmakers.