Q& A for Alexis Smith by Peter Shelley

alexis smith peter shelley q&a

Q& A for Alexis Smith by Peter Shelley

1. What made you interested in writing a book on Alexis Smith?
There was no book on her although a chapter was devoted to Alexis in Daniel Bubbeo’s book The Women of Warner Brothers. She didn’t write a memoir and neither did her husband Craig Stevens. I have written a number of biographies of film actors and actresses and I am always drawn to people who haven’t been covered in a substantial way.

2. Can you remember the first time you saw her?
That was probably when she was in two of my favorite Humphrey Bogart films - Conflict (1945) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). She plays supporting parts but what struck me is that here were two opposing characters - a good girl and a bad girl. So writing the book allowed me to see most of her films – some are not available for viewing so that’s why I said in the foreword that the book cannot be considered a definitive biography. I insist on watching the films someone made before I write about them so its frustrating when I can’t do that for all of them. I can always tell when an author hasn’t actually watched the film they are writing about, particularly when they just seem to repeat a falsehood made by previous writers.

3. Did you learn anything new about her?
Of course since I had only seen her in those two films. Also I had heard of the musical Follies but knew nothing about it really. So that was an interesting discovery. She could sing! I learned that it was a frustration in her time at Warner Bros. that she wanted to do a musical but felt she wasn’t given the chance. If she did sing, she was dubbed. However she did dance in one film - Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) – where she got a whole number to perform. I learned that Alexis had been a dancer in her childhood and even danced professionally before she was signed to be an actress at Warners.

4. Did you learn anything funny?
Warners dubbed her The Dynamite Girl early in her career. This was akin to Ann Sheridan being dubbed The Oomph Girl. Both actresses hated these tags, though Alexis’ didn’t have the longevity of Ann’s.

5. Why The Dynamite Girl?
Warners said she was full of tremendous energy and was likely to explode on the slightest impulse, like dynamite. They arranged for the President of Dynamite Guild of America to present her with the Guild’s pseudo-Oscar. This was five sticks of phony dynamite. Alexis felt the stupidity of the studio’s publicity department was not to be believed.

6. Were you able to find many interviews with her?
Some. Daniel Bubbeo’s chapter has a lot of quotes from Craig Stevens. And I found some interviews she did for Photoplay magazine. Also there are interviews with her on talk shows on YouTube, especially regarding Follies.

7. What’s the biggest misconception about Alexis?
That she only played ice maidens. She did play some – like in The Two Mrs. Carrolls - but there were other more sympathetic parts. But her bad girls could be wickedly funny - Alexis used the raised eyebrow to indicate disapproval. Also she was ambivalent about her height. She was a tall woman, sometimes too tall for her leading men. So she either had to stoop or they had to stand on apples boxes in their love scenes. Alexis hated being described as statuesque.

8. Are there any roles she wanted to play but didn’t?
The one that comes to mind was the female lead in The Fountainhead. But that was a much sought after part. Alexis said she was mostly compliant and did the roles she was assigned. She did go on suspension at Warners for turning down two roles I think, and then when she turned down another they effectively fired her. She had just gotten a pay rise so she had to pay it back to the studio.

9. How long was she at Warners?
Nine years. Then she freelanced around different studios and did the stage and television. When she got Follies in the 1970s it rejuvenated her career. Before that for a while she stopped working entirely and was just a housewife, though it’s funny to think of Alexis Smith as a housewife. If she wasn’t working, she also travelled and took classes. She was big on continuing to educate herself. At this time it probably helped that Craig Stevens was still working so they had some money coming in. After Follies she did more stage work, including the musical Platinum, and toured in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. And she made more films. But in supporting roles. Alexis only really got to play one leading film role, and it wasn’t at Warners either. That was Undercover Girl (1950) for Universal which she said was the nadir of her career. Her last film was The Age of Innocence (1993) but it’s a nothing role really.

10. What do you think Alexis would think of your book?
She died in 1993 but I hope she would like it. I have the feeling Craig Stevens would because he was mad that she was never given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But something else I learned was that she wasn’t sentimental about her career. Alexis was pretty dismissive of her work, particularly the films she did at Warners, though she was proud of Follies. Maybe she would respond the way she responded when she was given the This Is Your Life treatment. When Ralph Edwards told her that this is your life, she replied amusingly, “Why?”

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