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Movie Math

By C. D. Payne

HAVE YOU BEEN CATCHING UP with those old movies on Turner Classic Movies? You soon discover that in Hollywood "old" is a relevant term. For example, the other night you may have seen Faithless (1932), a Depression-era comedy in which Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Montgomery play impoverished society swells struggling to scrape up carfare. At one point Tallulah is asked her age. "Twenty-four," she admits with modest sincerity. Yeah, right.

Miss Bankhead may have been 24 at some point in her life, but I suspect it was long before talking pictures arrived on the scene.

That same week brought us The Ambassador's Daughter (1956), starring Olivia de Havilland as a dewy-eyed Parisian maiden resisting the advances of dashing enlisted man John Forsythe. This was 17 years after Olivia swiped Ashley Wilkes from Scarlett in Gone with the Wind and 21 years after her movie debut in The Irish in Us (1935). Two decades later, Miss de Havilland looked glamorous in her Dior wardrobe, but you may have noticed the director never moved in very close on his ingenue. Perhaps it was because she was celebrating her 40th birthday that year.

Hollywood leading men engage in age-fudging too. Take the case of Susan Slept Here (1954), in which playboy screenwriter Dick Powell suddenly finds himself married to juvenile delinquent Debbie Reynolds. Should he keep her? The problem is that the child bride is only 17, while the groom is "19 years older." According to my pocket calculator, that would make Dick a still-youthful 36.

Yeah, right.

In fact, Dick Powell had 28 years seniority on Debbie. In 1954, she was a bubbly 22 and he was a mature 50. Can this marriage be saved? I doubt it.

A half-century later, actors are still playing fast and loose with their ages. For example, if her official biography is to be believed, former Cheers star Kirstie Alley is now four years younger than everyone else in her high school class. "That's odd," former classmates have commented, "she didn't look 14 when we graduated."

The good news is that there's no reason why the rest of us can't readjust our ages to Hollywood Time. According to my official biography, I am now a vigorous 34. And no, I will not be attending any high school reunions with my aging peers.

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From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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