Friday, October 7, 2011

Peggy Knudsen & Patricia Knight (Roses are Red, 1947)

Could you imagine Casablanca starring Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan? Well, Reagan was never really in the running to play Rick but the studio did what all studios did at the time: played around with their contract roster like chess pieces before finally settling on what remains arguably the most memorable cast in Hollywood history. In another Warner Bros./Humphrey Bogart classic, The Big Sleep, begun in 1944 and finally released in 1946, you can still view cutting-room floor clips of what is essentially an earlier draft. Why this happened, why the studio decided to recast some roles and scrap others has a lot to do with the obvious appeal of Miss Lauren Bacall but there is no doubt that replacing one starlet, Pat Clarke, with another, Peggy Knudsen, in the pivotal role of the mysterious Mrs. Mona Mars, actually heightened the tension of the film's climax. Miss Clarke, in surviving footage, comes across as rather bland – not good for a character with little screen time but much previous exposition – whereas Miss Knudsen is, well, quite memorable. Peggy had a certain way with a line in this and many future assignments and when she played a newspaper reporter in Roses are Red (20th Century-Fox, 1947), a cliche in low-budget action pictures of the 1940s, she is actually believable.

(Knudsen, Don Castle and Patricia Knight in Roses are Red)

Unlike most of her sisters-in-crime, Knudsen's cup reporter in Roses are Red, a typical Sol M. Wurtzel Fox B-movie, works hard to get her story: the fact that district attorney Don Castle, who just happens to also be her fiance, has been substituted with a gangland lookalike, also played by Mr. Castle, a former MGM contract player with a certain likeness to Clark Gable. You surely have seen this plot before, perhaps even in a low-budget western or two, but trotted out by a game cast that also includes Patricia Knight, another tough-looking and talking blonde, the marvelous supporting player Paul Guilfoyle, and that cinematic rat Joe Sawyer, it seems almost fresh again. Roses are Red is well worth a second look, although it remains a bit difficult to find today.

Peggy Knudsen (1923-1980) was allegedly discovered at Hollywood's Stage Door Canteen and signed to a contract with Warners, who billed her “The Lure” for her “other woman” role in the Errol Flynn comedy Never Say Goodbye (1946). That and The Big Sleep, released the same year, should have at least made her a contender for top stardom but she somehow missed out and Roses are Red is typical of the low-budget fare in which she would star. She did quite a bit of television in the following decade and a half and dated every Hollywood wolf from Vic Orsatti to Howard Hughes before marrying the son of radio star Jim Jordan (“Fibber McGee”). The union resulted in three children before ending in divorce in 1960 (she claimed her husband made her “a nervous wreck”). A second marriage, to an electrical contractor, lasted less than a year in 1962. In her later years, Knudsen suffered heavily from an arthritic condition, her high medical bills reportedly paid by best friend (and former roommate) Jennifer Jones. Her early death, however, was attributed to cancer.

Roses are Red marked the screen debut of Patricia Knight (1915-2004), the off-screen Mrs. Cornell White, whom she had met while both appeared on stage in New York. Wilde attempted to have her cast as Forever Amber (1947), in which he were to play the hero, Bruce Carlton, but she was rejected in favor of first British import Peggy Cummins, who proved too green for the part, then Linda Darnell. She is quite good in Roses are Red, although at one point you have a hard time keeping her apart from Peggy Knudsen. Which, considering that they are loved by identical-looking men, makes some sense in a pulp fiction sort of way. Shockproof (1949), with Wilde, was probably her best film, but she was always more prominent in the gossip papers. Especially when on a location shoot in Switzerland she met Niels Larsen, a Dane vaguely described as a figure skater turned actor and/or a cosmetics executive. Wilde flew into a jealous rage and apparently with some justification; after her 1951 divorce from Wilde she did indeed marry Larsen. But not before having played a field of eligible Hollywood types that ranged from Kirk Douglas to Scott Brady. Larsen left her a widow in 1971 but she later married a third time and settled in the retirement community of Hemet, CA.

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