Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Moon in the Gutter Q&A with Author Sean Kinder on actress Susan Peters

Author Sean Kinder has been a colleague and friend of mine for several years, and I was thrilled recently to read a wonderful article he co-wrote on the late Oscar nominated actress Susan Peters in an issue of Films of the Golden Age. Sean has kindly agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule to share some thoughts about this special undervalued actress for Moon in the Gutter.

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MOON IN THE GUTTER: Sean, Thanks so much for doing this. Can you please start out by giving just a little background information on yourself.

SEAN KINDER: First, Jeremy, let me thank you so much for the opportunity to answer your questions about the wonderful, but sadly forgotten Susan Peters. She truly was a fascinating lady, and it was a pleasure doing research on her and co-writing an article about her with my friend and colleague Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker. Speaking of Therese (or Terri as her friends call her), she's not here today to answer your questions, but I do want to make sure she gets mentioned and acknowledged for her contribution to the article. She did as much research and writing on the article as I did, the whole experience being a collaborative effort.

Okay, now a little background on me. I am a librarian at Western Kentucky University. My research interests are quite varied, but two areas that I particularly like are biography and film history, especially Hollywood's Golden Age. Researching Susan Peters was an excellent way to combine both interests.

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MITG: How did you first become interested in the career of Susan Peters?

SK: I first learned about Susan in a rather unusual way. I was leafing through Quinlan's Illustrated Directory of Film Stars (1986), when I stumbled across the brief entry about her, which left an indelible impression on me. Here was a woman who had been poised for major stardom when fate dealt her a cruel blow, robbing her of her promising career. The more I thought about Susan's story, the more it fascinated me. I knew that I had to learn more, so I began the research process. It wasn't long before I realized there wasn’t that much written about her. I thought this might be a great publishing opportunity, so I approached Terri, who is also a classic film aficionado, to see if she might work on it with me. She
readily agreed, and the rest is, as they say, history!

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MITG: Can you give us a little background on Susan and her career?

SK: Susan was discovered by a talent scout during her senior year at Hollywood High school and not long afterwards, Warner Brothers signed her to a three year contract. The studio didn't know what to do with her, so she was given mostly insignificant roles, which never gave her a chance to shine. When Susan’s contract was up for renewal, the studio dropped her. Fortunately, directors S. Sylvan Simon and Mervyn LeRoy recognized her potential, and M-G-M signed her. Under that studio's fine tutelage, Susan's star began to rise, and she blossomed into a fine actress. In her third film for the studio, she was nominated for an Academy award for best supporting actress.

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MITG: What are her key works and what are three films you would perhaps recommend as ideal starting points for new fans?

SK: If I had to recommend three of Susan's performances, I would say Tish (1942), Random Harvest (1942), and The Sign of the Ram (1948).

Here a few remarks about each choice. Tish might seem a rather odd choice, as Susan is billed under three actresses--Marjorie Main, Aline MacMahon, and Zasu Pitts—who dominate the screen with their silly, side-splitting hijinks. Director S. Sylvan Simon, however, also manages to spotlight Susan, whose innocent and naïve character carries off some of the most poignant and affecting scenes in the film. This film, Susan's first effort for M-G-M, showed what Simon knew all along--Susan had true screen presence, and with the right material and direction, she could develop into a fine actress.
Any lingering doubts about her talent were put to rest in her next film, Random Harvest, for which she was nominated for an Academy award for her portrayal of Kitty. Be sure to watch for her key scene, the one when she meets fiancé Ronald Coleman in the church and talks to him about their relationship. The way she emotes and allows an epiphanic moment to play across her face is sheer magic and worthy of the nomination.
Finally, The Sign of the Ram is important because it reveals how much her craft has evolved over time. It also shows her skill in using her real life pain and adversity to shade and modulate her portrayal. The result is compelling, courageous, and even a little disconcerting.

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MITG: I'm intrigued by her stage career, specifically the version of The Glass Menagerie she did. Can you give us just a little information on this?

SK: After completing her last film, The Sign of the Ram, Susan continued acting on stage and even starred in her own television series. One stage role she was keen to play was Laura in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Unfortunately, her physical condition prevented her from playing Laura exactly as Williams had written her, so she wrote to the playwright, asking his permission to play the character a little differently. He gave his consent.

MITG: Your article is fascinating in the information it sheds on her, sometimes tragic, personal life. Are there any thoughts you would like to share on that here as an introduction to your article?

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SK: Jeremy, up to this point, you may have noticed that I have carefully danced around Susan's personal tragedy, shying away from disclosing the details of what exactly happened. That was a deliberate choice because I thought that perhaps some of your readers might want to read the whole story of Susan's life and career, and I don't want to spoil it for them. Let me just say that Susan's tragic accident changed her life forever, shortened her career, and even lead to her premature death.

MITG: What are your hopes for the article and how do you see it fitting into her legacy? What would you most like to see come out of it?

SK: Unfortunately, if people have heard of Susan Peters, they probably only remember her tragic accident. That is so unfortunate because Susan deserves to be remembered for so much more. She was a sweet, beautiful, vibrant, hard-working young lady who was incredibly talented. It is my hope that this article will stimulate more interest in her and her all-too brief career. If the article encourages readers to watch Susan's films, then it will have served its purpose.

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MITG: Can you give us some information on your research methods? How long did the article take from genesis to completion and are you happy with the final product? Also are you still gathering material on her for any possible future projects?

SK: Terri and I began by trying to gather as much information about Susan as we could. We soon learned that some sources of information would be hard to come by because of their rarity, inaccessibility, or limited availability. We placed interlibrary loan requests to obtain some of these items, and most libraries filled our requests. In addition, we scoured books, reference materials, and the Internet, tracking down as many resources as we could find. Plus, we tried to locate photographs of Susan. Most of the photographs that you’ll find in the published article came from our personal collection.

Next, we attempted to find and watch as many of Susan’s films as we could. Some were shown on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), while others we found on Ebay or through private vendors. We took notes on every film we watched, and Terri created binders to help us organize our ever increasing amount of material.

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Then, we sat down to write the article, dividing the writing in half. When we both finished our respective section, we read them aloud, allowing the other person to comment and provide constructive criticism. I think that this type of “editing” process was essential because it helped give the article a uniform feel and consistent voice. We didn’t want the article to sound like two distinct voices thrown together. We wanted them to blend and complement each other, and we tried to make a conscious effort to merge them into a smooth, cohesive whole.

The whole process took around 9-12 months, from start to finish, and it was a very rewarding experience. We have been very impressed with what Bob King and the rest of his team at Films of the Golden Age did with our article, and we hope to supply another article for him soon.
Perhaps our only disappointment in the research stage was that we weren’t able to speak with Susan’s son. We tried to find him for an interview, but weren’t successful.

As to your question about whether we are still collecting material on Susan--no, we aren’t, although I still keep my eyes open for vintage photographs of her.

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MITG: What are some of your future endeavors?

SK: Well, as I mentioned above, we hope to do another article for Bob King, either for Films of the Golden Age or Classic Images. Also, I am working on a full-length biography of fellow Kentuckian Una Merkel, another actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Like Susan, she has not received the attention she deserves, so I’m going to see if I can remedy that oversight. I am making great progress with the book, and a publisher has already expressed interest in it.

MITG: Thank so much Sean for taking the time to answer these and for introducing people to a valuable legacy.

SK: You’re welcome, Jeremy. I thank you again for the opportunity, and I wish you continued success with your blog.


James Hansen said...

I don't really know anything about Peters so this was really interesting to read. Thanks for the Q&A! Gotta love it when people "on the inside" take time to shed some light.

Steve Langton said...

Like James, I don't know anything about Susan and found this Q&A fascinating to read. It's good when people like Sean devote a lot of their time to research and ensure that talents are not forgotten. Thanks for hosting this informative piece.

The King Of Cool said...

I know very little about Susan Peters, so I found this to be quite fascinating. Thanks for sharing this with us. It's always nice to learn more about lesser known stars of the past or present.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks everyone for the very nice comments. It was great to have Sean do this and I know he'll appreciate the nice words.

Kelley Avery said...

This Q&A with Sean was so interesting and very insightful.
I think that is so great that Sean and Terri were so dedicated in their research and collaborative work in order to pay tribute to Peters. It is also comforting to know that there are more people like Sean and Terri out there who are trying inform and bring unknowns or forgotten screen legends back into the spotlight.
After reading their article on Peters in Films of the Golden Age and this post, I am planning on watching some of her films in the near future.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Kelley for the very nice comments. I think articles like the one they have written on Susan serve a real valuable purpose in film history so I'm excited that perhaps I helped lead a few more people to it.
Thanks again...

CarolMR said...

Thanks for the great read. I loved Susan in RANDOM HARVEST. I never knew about her accident until I read a biography of Clark Gable many years ago. Apparently he as a friend of hers.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Carol. I am glad you enjoyed it and found it informative. I appreciate you taking the time to comment...thanks again.

J.D. said...

Like many others, I knew nothing about Peters so this Q&A was very illuminating to say the least. Another solid interview, Jeremy. Thanks for all of your hard work. Much appreciated!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks J.D.
It was a pleasure and I'm sure Sean will be happy to see all the comments.

Jan said...

This was a fascinating Q&A. In this era of big budget movies and huge stars it is easy to lose sight of the many artists through the years who have received little attention. It's nice to know that there are interested people like Sean and Terri who take the time to do the research and keep these stories alive. Great interview!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Jan for the nice comments...I agree with you and appreciate you taking the time to stop by.

Jeremy Richey said...

I ran into Sean today and he wanted everyone to know how much he appreciated the nice comments. Thanks again to everyone who took the time to post one.