RUNNING HOT AND COLD ON CONNIE STEVENS

Click here to see a very spirited interview with Sixties starlet Connie Stevens who at age 70 has directed her first movie. I always liked off-screen Connie, but was not a real fan of the on-screen one especially during her silver screen heyday from 1959-1965.

Connie Stevens was part of that gaggle of early 1960s baby doll blondes that included Sandra Dee, Tuesday Weld, Yvette Mimiuex, Carol Lynley, and Diane McBain. Not as talented as some and never really impressing the critics with her performances, she nevertheless was a teenage favorite. She graced many a movie rag cover with her romantic hijinks with some of Tinseltown’s most gorgeous actors and her popularity rivaled that of Doris Day.

After moving with her musician father from New York to Los Angeles, a sixteen year old Stevens, who was also a pleasant singer albeit with a limited range, began obtaining movie extra work, which led to minor roles in low-budget teenage exploitation movies beginning with Young and Dangerous (1957) and Eighteen and Anxious (1957).  In Dragstrip Riot (1958) she had the second female lead as the girlfriend of a hot rodder whose pals tangle with a motorcycle gang leading to tragedy and then the female lead as a spoiled bored rich girl, with a square boyfriend, attracted to rebellious gang leader Mark Damon who likes to crash parties, hence the title. Unlike other exploitation actresses such as Yvonne Lime and Jana Lund, Stevens got lucky and was able to graduate to major studio productions thanks to Jerry Lewis who cast her as movie siren Marilyn Maxwell’s younger sister who loves Lewis’ small town mailman though he is pretending to be the father of former sweetheart Maxwell’s triplets in Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958).  Warner Bros. took notice of the cherubic blonde and needing their own young actress to counter Sandra Dee, signed her to a long term contract.

Stevens’s movie career though was sidelined when she was cast as ditzy Cricket Blake a photographer and vocalist at the Hawaiian Village Hotel who sometimes aides detectives Anthony Eisley and Robert Conrad with their cases in the popular, though studio-bound, TV series Hawaiian Eye from 1959 to 1962.  She recorded for the Warner Bros.’ record label and had two Top Ten hits, “Kookie, Kookie Lend Me Your Comb” a duet with equally popular teen idol Edd “Kookie” Byrnes of 77 Sunset Strip in 1958 and “Sixteen Reasons” in 1961.

Also in 1961 Stevens finally returned to the big screen in two romance movies that have become camp classics.  In Parrish, she beat out Tuesday Weld to play a slutty farm girl who wears false eyelashes and makeup while toiling in the steaming tobacco fields of Connecticut in the dog days of August. While new boy in town Troy Donahue is attracted to her, she spends her nights with rich married Hampton Fancher.  After she gets knocked up, her popularity plummets as Fancher deserts her and Troy only wants to be friends leaving poor Connie to raise her baby alone.

Even more over the top was Susan Slade with Stevens as the sheltered over-wrought titled heroine who gets seduced by wealthy mountain climber Grant Williams to the strains of the Theme from a Summer Place in his cabin during a ocean voyage from Chile to San Francisco.  She worries “We’ve been sinful” but he promises to marry her after his next big climb in Alaska but perishes in an avalanche leaving the knocked up Susan without a husband-to-be.  Horrified of the scandal of carrying an illegitimate child (every sixties parent’s worst nightmare if you believe Hollywood), poppa Lloyd Nolan moves the family to Guatemala with the idea of momma Dorothy McGuire passing the little bastard off as her own.  Susan returns to the states after her father dies but is guilt-ridden denying her son while trying to decide between poor aspiring-writer Troy Donahue who lives in a stable and rich snooty family friend Bert Convy who could give her a life of luxury.  Just when she chooses money over love, her kid goes up in flames while in his pajamas playing with a lighter but is rescued by Troy.  This is the catalyst for Stevens to admit that she is his mother and not sister.  Convy is disgusted but Donahue stands by her side.  Controversial back then, now Susan Slade is much ado about nothing.

In both films, Connie speaks in a thin wispy voice and under plays to a point of boredom. Parrish especially offered a meaty role and she really could have gone over-the-top with that part but instead tried to go for viewer sympathy rather than play the character’s major flaw of a gold digger. She is outclassed by co-star Diane McBain who gives a much more spirited and memorable performance as the socialite who opts to marry the rich boy to keep her social standing instead of the poor one she truly loves and ends up an unhappy lush. Connie was a tough Itlaian kid from New York City, but Hollywood never seemed to allow this side of her to emerge on screen. One wonders how she would have handled a part like that.

Though Connie won the Photoplay Gold Medal Award for Favorite Actress of 1961 and 1963, she was unhappy with the scripts offered to her and constantly fought with the studio. She was suspended for a time in 1962, and then came back to play another wispy gold digger on spring break in Palm Springs out to snag herself a rich husband in Palm Springs Weekend (1963), a sort of land locked Where the Boys Are.  Though she pretends to come from a wealthy family (money attracts money), she cannot afford her hotel room so she agrees to baby sit the hotel owner’s bratty son but keeps pawning the kid off on her homely roommate so she can rendezvous with playboy Robert Conrad.  They keep getting into scrapes with the law and it is laconic cowpoke Ty Hardin who keeps coming to her rescue.  But since he is only a movie stuntman she keeps brushing him aside for the rich boy.

Stevens was purportedly chagrined when she failed to be cast as the female lead role in My Fair Lady and Of Human Bondage as if she really had a chance. By 1965 her teenage fan base who grew up with her stayed fiercely loyal through her tabloid-style romantic complications but she seems to not have attracted new mature fans as her new sitcom Wendy and Me costarring George Burns was cancelled after only one season and her two movies were box office duds.  In the comedy Never Too Late she’s the frustrated daughter who cannot get pregnant yet her menopausal mother does and in Two on a Guillotine she tries valiantly as the long-lost daughter of a recently deceased (or is he?) mad magician who must spend a week in his creepy mansion in order to claim her inheritance.

Connie Stevens next appeared as astronaut Jerry Lewis’ intended bride to get a married couple on the moon in the failed comedy Way…Way Out (1966).  She campaigned heavily to play the role of Honey, the ditzy wife of a young college professor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) but director Mike Nichols refused even to test her thinking her unsuitable for the part. Unlike Tuesday Weld, Carol Lynley and Yvette Mimiuex who were able to progress to more mature roles, Stevens, along with Sandra Dee, were stuck with their ingenue personas. The times were-a-changing in the late Sixties and Stevens represented that Eisnehower period that young people were rejecting.

Being a shred intelligent woman, Stevens must have grasped this and began to do other things. She appeared in a hit show on Broadway, The Star-Spangled Girl, and concentrated on her singing career appearing on all the top TV variety shows. Her popularity returning with older fans, she was a staple of Love, American Style and Movie-of-the-Weeks in the 1970s, including a turn as a disguised Marilyn Monroe in The Sex Symbol,  and even landed a few theatrical movies i.e. The Grissom Gang and Scorchy.

She has remained active to this day and my hats off to her for all her accomplishments.

 

 

Comments: 10

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  • John Black

    A fun look at her career. I hope she writes her autobiography someday.

    I actually saw SUSAN SLADE in a theater around 1961, and that scene with the baby catching fire was one of the most traumatizing images I recall from that era.

    I recall a Warner Bros. LP that she recorded, entitled “As Cricket.” However, the songs on the album sounded more like Connie’s own style than “Cricket Blake’s” style. Those who purchased it with the expectation of hearing “Hawaiian Eye” music were probably disappointed.

    Among other endeavors, Connie and her two daughters recorded a pretty good album of Christmas tunes a few years ago. Some of the song choices were surprising, such as Charles Brown’s great “Please Come Home For Christmas.”

     
     
     
    • Yes, Connie Stevens is very prolific and as I said knew how to reinvent herself when her big screen movie career went south. Later in the Eighties and Nighties she was the go to actress for nostaglia movies about the Fifties and Sixties i.e. Grease II; Back to The Beach; Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis, etc. Though I had my problems with her casting. Back to the Beach should cast Deborah Walley in the role Connie played and Tuesday Weld is the ONLY Thalia Menninger on Dobie Gillis.

       
  • Michael H

    Good point about the BTTB casting — why didn’t they cast someone like Deborah Walley who was more age appropriate and who actually appeared as Annette’s rival in one of the originals?
    I liked Connie’s work better in Parish than the overwrought Susan Slade, although I agree that Diane McBain eclipsed Her and just about everyone else in that film.

     
     
     
    • More to come on Back to the Beach in my next Blog post. Susan Slade nowadays I find unbearable due to Connie Steven’s performance and despite presence of Troy Donahue. It’s Stevens movie and she dominates. Foreget Susan Slade and instead a highly recommend Claudelle Inglish with Diane McBain chewing the scenery as the good gal gone bad who meets a bitter end.

      Parrish remains a favorite thanks to Troy Donahue who is shot gloriously and due to Diane McBain wicked turn as the souse of a socialite. Even Connie is not bad though she should ahve made the character much more fun to watch like Diane did with hers.

       
  • John Black

    I also like PARRISH due to the presence of Sharon Hugueny in the cast.

     
     
     
    • She is fine but never really impressed me. Heard though that she was very sweet and friendly.

       
  • Michael H

    Carol Lynley or Tuesday Weld would have been more interesting in the Connie Stevens role in Parish, but as I said, Connie was adequate. Parish is a much better film than Susan Slade although I suppose that could be considered damning it with faint praise. Not much in SS was believable to me. Even the usually fine Dorothy mcQuire was unbearable with her pious morality. Back to Parish, remember Diane McBain’s first close up? Wow, in that moment, she was truly radiant although it appeared that WB did not know what to do with her. I agree about Claudel Inglish. An effective adaptation of the Erskine Caldwell novel with a strong performance by Diane and another killer turn by the estimable Constance Ford.

     
     
     
  • John Black

    I really liked Sharon Hugueny in the 1964 film THE YOUNG LOVERS, along with Deborah Walley, Peter Fonda, and Nick Adams. Kind of a “youth film for adults.” In my town, it played at a local art house theater.

     
     
     
    • I have only seen bits of this and Deborah Walley really impressed me. She proved she had more acting talent than what she was able to project in all her Gidget/Beach/Elvis movies.

       
  • Michael H

    Interesting interview and I give her props for directing her first feature film at this stage of her life. While I don’t agree with her politics, I respect her commitment to our veterans.

     
     
     
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