Following on from my last post, I thought I’d share a bit more about my Gordon MacRae project. My wise best friend Ali has encouraged me not to give up and not to overthink the end game. Proper biographers probably wouldn’t approve of my emotional attachment to my subject (this, however, doesn’t blind me to his flaws) but I couldn’t do this if I didn’t really, really care.
Gordon MacRae: One Alone
My project is a biography of the American baritone and film star Gordon MacRae (1921-1986). MacRae is best known for starring in the film adaptations of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals Oklahoma! and Carousel and five films with Doris Day.
I aim to fill a gap in the literature about Gordon MacRae. Two books were published in the 1990s: Bruce R. Leiby’s Gordon MacRae: A Bio-Bibliography is an invaluable research resource consisting of a short factual biography accompanied with lists of all his known media appearances but it lacks narrative and colour. In contrast, his first wife Sheila MacRae’s memoir Hollywood Mother of the Year is a highly personal account that is particularly valuable for its feminism and for illustrating the culture of toxic masculinity that enabled her husband’s alcoholism.
I seek a middle ground by using archival sources to critically examine MacRae’s life and career in its historical context, using a traditional linear narrative structure. So far, I have only been able to access the invaluable www.newspapers.com and the digital Lantern Media History Digital Library of entertainment magazines. The features in these magazines are particularly interesting for the way in which MacRae’s apparently exemplary personal life was held up as an ideal for readers to aspire towards.
A key feature of this project is to give MacRae’s radio work equal weight to his film career. He began his career in radio and for six years alongside his Warner Brothers film contract, he performed in abridgements of musicals and operettas that were broadcast to the nation every week. As a non-visual medium, it’s easy to forget how influential radio was before television.
While I take an academic approach to research, I envision this biography first and foremost as a book for fans by a fan. These fans range from nonagenarians who saw MacRae’s films when they first came out to millennials like myself. However, I’m aware that the Gordon MacRae fan community is fairly niche and I hope to add to conversations on wider themes such as the definition of stardom, the questions of what makes a ‘great’ career, and masculine ideals in post-war popular culture. I hope this would be of interest to readers with a general interest in film and entertainment history in the 1940s and 1950s. My ambition is for this biography to be published by an academic press.
Some research questions:
- How much agency did contract players have in negotiating the trajectory of their careers? (short answer: not much) To what extent were men under the same pressures as women regarding their appearance and image? Why did Warner Brothers make such an effort in making Doris Day their ‘princess’ but not MacRae their ‘Prince Charming’?
- What makes a role model? How was MacRae depicted as a paragon of masculinity for both male and female fans? How did the media present his marriage to Sheila as an ideal for a post-WW2 society obsessed with marriage and the nuclear family (despite being presented alongside the constant Hollywood cycle of divorce and remarriage)? What do these articles tell us about gender roles and middle-class aspiration and consumer culture in the 1950s?
- To what extent was MacRae, usually seen on screen in period pieces and specialising in operetta on the radio, seen as old-fashioned during his heyday? What was the status of operetta in post-WW2 culture? What was the status of radio stars before television?
- How did attitudes towards drinking culture and addiction change between the 1950s and 1980s?
- I have no doubt that MacRae had a ‘great’ career as ‘Five Letter Man’ of entertainment who achieved success in film, stage, records, radio and TV despite only starring in two true ‘classic’ films but how should greatness be judged? Why does a film career seem to be considered more prestigious than any other? How does his career and legacy compare with contemporaries such as Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Howard Keel, etc?
Does this sound like a convincing pitch? Would you be interested in reading a book about Gordon MacRae? Have you heard of Gordon MacRae?!
His is my favourite male voice of all time! I was a huge Doris Day fan growing up and his films with her is where I discovered him at about 4/5, also loving classic musicals like Oklahoma! and carousel. Then as I’ve grown up I’ve delved further into his other works and recordings. I honestly don’t think his voice can be bettered and can’t understand why he isn’t better known today and revered with the likes of Sinatra and Bing Crosby. I’d love to read a book on him, I don’t think there’s enough out there! And would also offer to help in anyway that I can!!
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Hello Rachel, thank you so much for your comment – it made my day! Gordon is certainly underrated despite being unequaled as a vocalist and having accomplished so much across the full spectrum of popular entertainment. I’m always so happy to meet fellow Gordon fans and would love to chat further.
Dear Julia. I was thrilled to know that you are contemplating writing a bio of my favourite Musical Theatre baritone. My sis and I used to travel miles in the 1950s to see Carousel. I am 85 now and we still watch the DVD and weep every time we hear him sing If I loved you. We would both read a book on the subjects you mention. When we were with the D’Oyly Carte Opera in New York, we met Jacques D’Amboise, the wonderful dancer in the Ballet Scene. He was charming and walked with us to our hotel. This was 1966/67. Even Mr Keel does not move us as much as Gordon. Please continue your great work.
Hello Veronica, thank you so much for your lovely comment. I’m never going to give up on this project but I’ve been feeling as if it’s dead in the water due to various external factors and this has really cheered me up. I’m so glad that you also like Gordon so much and wonderful story about Jacques d’Amboise (he danced to Gordon singing ‘The Birth of the Blues’ in the lesser known film ‘The Best Things in Life are Free’ in the same year as ‘Carousel’). I take it you were a professional singer?
Dear Julia Thank you for replying to my comments. Yes! I was with D’Oyly Carte from 1959 – 1961 when I married the principal baritone Alan Styler and left to have my three daughters. Rejoined in 1966 to make film of Mikado and tour USA and Canada. My sister Abigail joined then and we both loved our singing in USA/Canada but I missed my three little girls. Alan died suddenly in 1970 so I sang in concerts and cabaret for a few years (like Gordon) and then got my LGSM to teach singing. I had a practice in Manchester and during one year I performed Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd and gave one or two lessons to five lovely boys (Take That). My sister Abigail married an Austrian when she studied there and her daughter(Anna Prohaska) will be singing Pamina at Covent Garden this December. I am trying to write a book about the Ryan girls – me, Abigail and our late sister Mary who was with Covent Garden Opera. I sympathise with you and Gordon’s book. It is SO HARD! What to include, what to forget (bad times) but I will keep trying. You can have no idea how much love Abigail and I have for Gordon MacCrae. At my sister-in-law’s funeral a few months ago, the service ended with If I Loved You and when Gordon merged in to sing so softly and beautifully, the tears flowed freely and my niece turned to me and said “What is the significance of this song”. We could tell her, couldn’t we.
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I hope you’re still working on MacRae’s biography. Personally, I’d be very interested in learning more about his upbringing as it relates to his later problems with alcohol. One doesn’t choose to become an alcoholic, they drink because they’re often running from some feeling of inferiority or inadequacy that gives them anxiety. And watching MacRae, one of the most handsome men, with one of the most beautiful voices, always makes me wonder how someone like him could feel like he’s not good enough. That had to come from somewhere in his past…
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Hello Dan, thank you very much for your comment. I think Gordon’s puritanically teetotal Christian Science upbringing and sudden immersion in the peer pressure of hard-drinking Hollywood was a very dangerous combination. Unfortunately, I don’t know where this project is going, if anywhere (his family doesn’t seem keen to talk to me). It’s always good to ‘meet’ another fan – he was definitely among the most handsome of men and *the* most beautiful voice as far as I’m concerned!