Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The hard-boiled canary


Hollywood soprano Susanna Foster has died at the age of 84.
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Best remembered for Universal's lush Technicolor remake of The Phantom of the Opera (1943), and, the following year, the rather similar The Climax with Boris Karloff, hers was a short and troubled career set in a long and troubled life.
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Interestingly, of all major versions of Phantom, only this one cast a trained singer in the role of Christine, as a result a lot of screen time is given over to her vocal performance. And when she's not singing, Nelson Eddy is, meaning that Claude Rains's Phantom sometimes looks like a guest star in his own movie. As a result the film is not wildly popular with horror fans, and suffers somewhat in comparison with the still amazing silent version, and the almost equally fine Hammer remake. But audiences of the time were much taken with both Foster and the movie; even so, she abandoned her film career in 1945.
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As so often, behind the movies was a hell of a life story. From Ronald Bergan's Guardian obituary:
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Her earnings from her Universal Studios contract enabled her to rescue her family from poverty. Yet, 13 years later, she was struggling to survive and bring up her two young sons, and her financial and mental situation worsened over the years.
Foster admitted that she was partly to blame for her changed circumstances, saying that she had made the wrong choices, including leaving films at the height of her popularity, walking out on her marriage and, when only 12 years old, turning down the title role in National Velvet because "there was no singing in it"...
In 1948, Foster made her stage debut in the Victor Herbert operetta Naughty Marietta, opposite the baritone Wilbur Evans, whom she married. They toured together in a number of operettas and musical comedies, trading on her name as a film star. However, it was Evans who got a huge break, playing Emile de Becque to Mary Martin's Nellie Forbush in the 1951 London production of South Pacific. A few years later, Foster suddenly left Evans, who was 20 years her senior, and whom she claimed never to have loved, taking her two young sons with her.
There followed years of living on and off welfare, and from hand to mouth. While trying to ensure her children were fed, she also attempted to help her alcoholic, widowed mother and mentally unstable younger sister. Foster, too, suffered depression and had problems with alcohol. In 1982, in order to save rent, she lived in her car at the beach in California. She was rescued for a while by a film fanatic, who let her share his squalid apartment, and she later cared for him when he lost his sight. In 1985, her younger son, who had become a drug addict, died of liver failure. Her surviving son, Michael, brought her back to the east coast, where she spent the last years of her life living in a nursing home.