Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Singing, Dancing, Mystery-Solving Actresses of the 1940s

Ann Rutherford has died.

This may not mean anything to you. But because Ann Rutherford starred in Gone With the Wind, I had to take note of her passing at work. I researched her life a bit. I found out what else she did during her life aside from play Scarlett O’Hara’s sister, Carreen, she with the car accident verb name. It turns out that Rutherford had a rather rich body of work, and she played roles as diverse as the Ghost of Christmas Past in an adaptation of A Christmas Carol to Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. As near as I can tell, the best role of her career didn’t occur onscreen, however, but in a book: According to Wikipedia, Rutherford in 1942 starred as herself in the Nancy Drew-esque mystery novel titled Ann Rutherford and the Key to Nightmare Hall.

Rutherford didn’t write the novel, nor was the novel about “her,” strictly speaking. Instead, it’s about what amounts to an alternate universe version of her in which she’s not famous and leads a life wholly different and more skeleton key-rich to the one she led in actual 1942. It’s not as ridiculous as it might initially seem. Really, didn’t the Olsen twins have an entire line of books based on this very concept? (And if they somehow didn’t, shouldn’t they have?) In spite of the strangeness of this concept, the book was not unique. It was just one entry in a series of similar books — not centered around Rutherford but a who’s-who of actresses popular enough but not so prestigious that they’d be above lending their likenesses and names to a story in which they’d be imperiled but presumably not killed. The Whitman Authorized series, as these books are known, often pitted its actress-sleuth protagonist against various Axis powers, sometimes even mentioning how the heroine performed for the troops between detective escapades. (Patriotic! Emulatable!) 

There are sixteen books in all:

The best titles, by far, have to be Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak (because “Hey! Way to do something more than just dance!”), Shirley Temple and the Screaming Specter (because “Hey! Way to extend that career beyond the ‘child actor’ years!”), and Gene Tierney and the Invisible Wedding Gift (because “Bitch, who brings an invisible gift to a wedding?”). In a different way, it’s also amusing to see titles like Jane Withers and the Swamp Wizard and Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island, because I feel like these books would be the modern-day equivalent of Rachel Leigh Cook and the Haunted VHS — in short, no one knew who the hell the protagonists were approximately ten minutes after the books were published. (Alternate jokes: Leelee Sobieski and the Demonic Dial-Up and Stacey Dash and Fiendish Furby.) But far funnier than any just-short-of-modern-day equivalent is the fact that these books actually existed. Really, can we look as the beyond-child-stardom Shirley Temple on the cover of Shirley Temple and the Spirit of Dragonwood?

What kind of World War II-era, dragon-symbolized, anti-Japanese adventure could pseudo-Shirley Temple possibly have gone on?

And then there’s also Judy Garland. Now, for everyone else featured in these books, the stories were purely fictional, but given Garland’s history, I prefer to imagine that The Hoodoo Costume is actually a nonfictional account of her investigating such mysteries as “Who the hell drank all my rum?”, “Why won’t the doctor prescribe me more pills?”, “What day is it?”, “Toto? Where are you, Toto?” and “Where the hell do I live?” I mean, look at the illustration below. I think she’s actually trying to find her own house.

And what the hell is she carrying? Some sort of Basset Hound-skin handbag that matches her coat? The world’s wrinkliest muff? Does she just have one long arm? Where the hell is Liza?

I’m clearly already committed to this world of star-studded mystery. In closing, I’d like to express my hopes that we all one day become entangled in an actress related mystery.

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