Chris Hicks: Utah native Loretta Young’s 100th birthday brings DVD set of her TV series

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 9:00 a.m. MDT

For what would have been her 100th birthday, the best of Utah native Loretta Young's eponymous TV series has been released in a DVD box set. (Timeless) For what would have been her 100th birthday, the best of Utah native Loretta Young's eponymous TV series has been released in a DVD box set. (Timeless)

When movie stars’ careers begin to wane, they often find themselves forced to take whatever comes along, work-for-hire jobs they never would have considered in their prime. Sometimes they need the money; sometimes they just want to keep working.

And given the number of bad movies that pour into theaters and DVD releases week after week, often with name actors you haven’t seen in a while, it’s fair to say that not many hold out for something of integrity.

But Utah native Loretta Young did just that. A huge star of the Golden Age with an Oscar under her belt, Young saw that as the 1950s approached movie studios were changing in a way that saddened her. So she decided to walk away. Scripts continued to come but she felt the films being offered were beneath her.

Loretta Young (Deseret News Archives) Loretta Young (Deseret News Archives)

Young was a devout Catholic and especially at this point in her life she wanted to do things that were worthwhile and uplifting, putting into action something she once told an interviewer:

“Fortunately, reality — contrary to some beliefs — is not restricted to shocking or sordid themes, nor gritty gutter language, nor gratuitous violence, etc. Reality is also healthy, wholesome love and romance. It's courage, adventure, inspiration and heroism.”

At age 39, Young made her last movie in 1952 (for release the next year) and saw television as her future. It was a gamble, given that the film industry saw TV as the enemy and several studio heads told her that such a move would ruin her career. But, undaunted, she mounted her own show and did it her way, in keeping with her beliefs.

And this week, 145 episodes of her anthology series have been released in a DVD box set to celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday last month: “The Loretta Young Show” (Timeless, 1953-61, b/w, 17 discs, $99.99, featurettes including a vintage interview with Young; home movies; trailers for her films).

Young designed her show to provide uplifting, positive messages for her postwar middle-class audience. She also often included religious themes (she plays a nun named Sister Ann in three episodes).

And for her efforts, Young racked up no less than eight Emmy nominations, one for each year this weekly half-hour program was on the air — and she won three times. She was the first performer to have on her mantel both an Emmy and an Oscar.

Anthology series were quite popular in the 1950s and there were several that preceded hers, all hosted by men: “Armstrong Circle Theatre,” “General Electric Theater,” “Lux Video Theater,” “The United States Steel Hour” and more. Young became the first woman to host such a program, paving the way for others that followed, such as “The Barbara Stanwyck Show” a few years later.

Another distinguishing aspect of Young’s show was that Young herself starred in every show for the first two seasons — a total of 71 episodes in two years playing a different character each week in a variety of melodramas and light comedies.

Beginning with the third season she cut back to performing in about half of each year’s 30-plus episodes. Young still introduced each week’s stories over the eight-year run, however, except for a period during the third season when she was bedridden and had to rely on guest hosts.

The third season also marked a departure in format. The show’s original title was “Letter to Loretta,” and during the first two years she introduced each episode by reading a fan letter, a device that was dropped beginning with Season 3.

She still did her trademark entrance, however, dressed in a gown that twirled as she came through a door and approached the camera to canned applause. And at the end of each show she read a poem or a quote from Shakespeare or Mark Twain or the Bible to sum up that evening’s message.

This is definitely a program of its era and younger audiences might find the introductions and closing moments a bit precious. And because it was produced some 60 years ago, the technical quality is far from the hi-def we’re used to these days.

But most of the stories remain timely and entertaining, and for baby boomers like me — or for Loretta Young’s many fans — this new set is a genuine treasure.

Young stars in all 145 episodes in this collection, 30 each from the first two seasons and selected shows from the six subsequent years. Guests in this set include Dennis Hopper, Mike Connors, Sue Lyon, Eddie Albert, Marion Ross, Shelley Fabares, Hugh O’Brian, Gene Barry and Chuck Connors, among others.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Gretchen Young was born in Salt Lake City in 1913. When she was 3, after her parents separated, Gretchen’s mother moved her, along with two older sisters and a baby brother, to Los Angeles, eventually opening a boarding house near a movie studio.

Even before the boarding house came along, however, someone thought to put this cute little girl in a film as an extra. And that was it. The show-biz bug had infected her and she would never be cured.

After several more uncredited appearances as a child (including Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheik”), when Gretchen was a blossoming young teen, she decided it was time to pursue an acting career in earnest. Around this time her name was changed to the more marquee-friendly Loretta Young.

Young worked her way up to bigger supporting and co-starring parts, eventually landing her first major role, co-starring opposite Lon Chaney in “Laugh, Clown, Laugh.” She successfully made the transition from silent movies to “talkies” and by age 20 she had been in 40 films.

As she rose to stardom, Young became the very embodiment of glamour during Hollywood’s Golden Age, comfortable in comedies and dramas of all stripes. But her talent was acknowledged with the 1947 best-actress Oscar for an atypical non-glamour role, a funny and charming performance (with a Swedish accent) in the delightful political comedy “The Farmer’s Daughter” (which has inexplicably never been released on DVD).

Over the course of her seven decades as an actress, Young appeared in nearly 100 films through 1953, then, over the next 10 years, she appeared in 189 episodes of her two eponymous television series — the eight-season “Loretta Young Show” and the single-season “The New Loretta Young Show” — followed by a pair of TV movies before her death at age 87 in 2000.

E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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