A Book a Week: Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

As promised, here is my review of the biography of child singing star Gloria Jean, written by Scott and Jan MacGillivray. The sub-title is A Little Bit of Heaven. Presumably this was chosen because That Awkward Moment When I Caught a Skin Rash From Bing Crosby, Mel Torme Proposed, and Donald O’Connor Hugged Me So Hard He Broke My Ribs would’ve run a tad long.

Although this isn’t an autobiography, Gloria is generously quoted from interviews conducted by the authors, so her own voice still comes through clearly. And what a treat it is! Gloria Jean is one of those people you’re not likely to have heard of. She never attained the legendary status of a Shirley Temple, and most of her work is out of print. But once you get to know her, you’re very glad you did.

Gloria was born in 1926, and it was clear from a very young age that she had been blessed with a special gift. By the age of 7, she was moving people to tears with her rendition of a Hebrew song called “Eli, Eli” at a temple benefit. This feat was doubly impressive because, not being Jewish, she had to communicate the music effectively in an unfamiliar language. The awed words of one local reporter (surnamed Feldman), captured the moment best: “It was so quiet during her presentation that to us in the wings it was almost possible to hear the heart-thumps in the first few rows. Then, one by one, the handkerchiefs came out and the audience proudly wiped away its tears.” This story grabbed me right from the start, and it brought back fond memories of my own singing as a child.

At age 12, she began rigorous training as a coloratura, which deprived her of normal childhood pleasures. But it bore fruit a year later when she landed her first film role in a production called The Under-Pup. Although her family couldn’t afford to dress her up like a doll for the audition, she instantly left a good impression when she walked in and refused to sing because the piano was out of tune. Under the gentle guidance of director Joe Pasternak, her angelic singing and spunky personality made her an overnight sensation. However, to get the maximum selling potential out of their new star, the studio marketed her as two years younger than she really was. The illusion even extended as far as binding her chest flat when she began to mature. In later years, she would regard it as a small triumph when she was finally “allowed” to be her own age.

From there the biography chronicles the whirlwind Gloria’s life became as she was whisked out of small-town Pennsylvania into the mad, mad world of child stardom. Her story is by turns moving, entertaining, and sad. Media attention became so intense that the family couldn’t even take a vacation without being followed to the beach. On one occasion, Gloria saw paparazzi cars approaching her own house and daringly swam across a lake to escape, only to be caught by them again later that day. In 1941, the family successfully defended themselves against a fraudulent lawsuit by someone claiming to have discovered her, only to lose everything to the IRS shortly afterwards through income tax errors.

Through it all, Gloria maintained a professional work ethic and a generous spirit. She became known as “one-take Gloria” for her uncannily efficient singing, which was a godsend to Universal as they worked under tight budget and time constraints. In one instance, she recorded a song scene with a bad cold and was assured that she could re-dub it later, only to be told later that there was no time for a re-dub after all. As a perfectionist, she was very distressed, but her talent was such that even the “bad” recording had turned out well. She remembers playing it back and hearing someone remark “I’m going to get a cold all the time if I can sound like that.” Her professionalism is also manifested in the fact that never evinces jealousy or resentment in recalling times when another actor was given the spotlight over her.

I also enjoyed reading the older Gloria’s reflections on the current state of singing and the music business. She follows shows like American Idol and notes perspicaciously that there is a serious lack of original voices in today’s musical landscape. As she correctly points out, most of the singers seem to be carbon-copies of each other. I was also cheering when I read her candid evaluation of how today’s singers handle a melody. Preach it sista!

 When you hear somebody sing, they never carry the melody. They’re either up above it or they’re noodling around it. Some people overdo it, they over-sing, and I don’t think it’s necessary to shout and scream. I can’t believe that the singers today don’t really sing. To me, it isn’t music.

One profound, recurring theme is how the character of her various co-stars was reflected in their treatment of her. There was just something about this girl, an unspoiled sweetness that seemed to bring out the best and tenderest side of so many famous people. She and Bing Crosby instantly hit it off when each discovered that the other couldn’t read music but compensated by ear. In those days, they had to work closely over one mike (hence her catching of his contagious skin outbreak, which he still managed to find humor in). Bing took a fatherly interest in her and was very concerned that she remain innocent despite her early stardom. “I’m so afraid that you’re going to listen to the wrong person. No matter what they try to do, stay close to your family. You’ll find they’re the most precious thing you have.” She celebrated a birthday shortly after shooting wrapped and recalls that he threw her “a party like no other.”

Bing’s words would be later echoed in her young adulthood by none other than Groucho Marx. At 21, she still had a youthful face and an innocent demeanor, and people would run their mouths behind her back to the effect that she needed to become more “worldly-wise.” Gloria remembers well how Groucho angrily confronted them one day: “Do you realize what you’re doing to this girl? Let her live her life.” Privately, he strongly urged her to ignore their pernicious tongue-wagging.

Gloria even melted the heart of the hard-drinking comedian W. C. Fields, who had a notorious reputation for hating children, dogs, fluffy bunnies, etc. But a little research reveals that he secretly harbored great personal pain because he was estranged from his wife and son. When their picture was completed, he embraced Gloria in front of the astonished crew and said, “You’re the daughter I never had.”

The very young Donald O’Connor (of “Make ‘Em Laugh” fame) also comes off delightfully well in this memoir. He and Gloria made a batch of popular high-school musicals for Universal, years before Singin’ In the Rain put him on the map. Whenever she had to do a bit of dancing, he took it upon himself to draw her aside and patiently show her the steps. In later years, she confessed that she had been in love with him but was too shy to say it (whereupon he exclaimed “Now you tell me!”) One incident seemed to confirm that the feeling was mutual: After she was featured on a stirring gospel number in the movie Mr. Big, an overcome Donald said “Come here, I want to do something.” Taking her behind the set, he threw his arms around her and planted a kiss on her lips. “There. I just wanted to tell you how crazy I am over you.” (Indeed, you can see how taken he is with her performance in the footage.) But the thrill was short-lived, as Gloria realized that Donald had broken several of her ribs in his youthful ardor. The studio came to the rescue with a phony story that she broke them while being manhandled by a different actor in a movie scene. She felt too bad to tell Donald the truth. They remained friends through their teens and reunited decades later in their old age.

O’Connor wasn’t the first or the last smitten boy to profess his affection for Gloria. Entertaining troops during World War II, she was beloved by the military men as the “girl next door.” She began a tradition of sending an inscribed poker chip in reply to her volumes of fan mail. One soldier sent his chip back in pieces, explaining that it had saved his life when a bullet shattered it instead of piercing his heart. Other male fans went so far as to send her marriage proposals. And future singing legend Mel Torme startled her by popping the question in all seriousness after they finished a picture together. She turned him down but cherishes the memory. Her work with Torme also gave her a chance to watch songwriting history in the making, when he noodled around on her family piano with the tune that would become “The Christmas Song.” She still remembers the day when he excitedly announced that Nat King Cole was going to record it, and he felt sure it would become a standard.

After the war, Gloria Jean’s career gradually slipped away through a combination of poor handling, shifting studio fortunes and simple lack of parts.  She attempted to go on the road but abandoned a European tour in complete exhaustion. By 1953, she was adrift at the ripe old age of 27. These sections are sometimes painful to read. All her attempts to network with old friends ended in bitter disappointment, particularly when she made contact with the man who first discovered her, Joe Pasternak. Now she saw another side to him when he rebuffed her like a stranger, coldly asking “What do you want to get back in the business for? You’ve had your day.” She continued to scrape the bottom of the barrel through the 50s, accepting any opportunity that came her way. One star who doesn’t shine so brightly in these pages is Jerry Lewis. In 1960, he promised her a part with a singing number in one of his pictures, but like many other people he disappointed, she discovered that he wasn’t one to keep his promises. Meanwhile, she was quickly learning as a grown woman that not all men approached her with the sincere intentions of her old high-school flames. One chapter non-graphically describes some hair-raisingly close calls that highlight Gloria’s canniness and presence of mind.

The saddest few pages of the book deal with her brief, unhappy marriage to a man who seriously misrepresented himself and left her with a child. (However, this is done delicately and not dwelt on.) Having a child was the catalyst for Gloria’s ultimate choice to give up on show business for good and accept a desk job at a cosmetics store. This grounded her and gave her a sense of contentment. At long last, she could live like a normal person. She recalls occasionally feeling the old tug to wade back in, but more than one wise acquaintance assured her that she would be happiest staying right where she was. One of these was Roddy McDowall, a former child star himself. In his words, “Listen honey, it’s all rejection… You don’t want this… You’re happy with what you’re doing—keep it.” And she did.

Today, Gloria Jean has a website where she has made copies of her out of print films available for those who write and request them (catalogue here). There you can also purchase rare CD recordings of her music and radio specials with characters like Abbott & Costello and Fats Waller. If you want my recommendations, I particularly enjoyed her B musicals with Donald O’Connor, especially Mr. Big, which you can’t find clips from on Youtube. I have not seen her debut project The Under-Pup, but that looks like a good piece of work too.

My main criticism of this biography is that Gloria’s story is often interrupted with in-depth synopses and behind the scenes details of every film she made—good, bad and embarrassingly bad. The MacGillivrays are talented writers who try to infuse each synopsis with some sparkle, but after a while I began skimming over these parts. There’s already an index with full cast and production credits for each of her pictures, and in my opinion many of these synopses would have fit better there. There are also a few superstitious touches in her story that may raise some skeptical eyebrows, but this isn’t over-done. Another thing to note is that Gloria briefly and matter-of-factly relates a couple of brushes with performance groups of gay men. No problem for an older reader, but it’s not appropriate for young readers completely new to the concept of homosexuality.

Overall, this is a very well-written, thorough and engaging account of a interesting life lived well. I recommend it for anyone with an interest in show business, classic film, and/or classic singing, but I also recommend it as a good human story.

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One thought on “A Book a Week: Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

  1. Pingback: Dancing in the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part I of III) | Yankee Gospel Girl

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