Thanks to Robin for hosting the blogathon. I can't wait to read the posts on this interesting topic. Please visit Robin's fine blog, Pop Culture Reverie.
I'll be focusing on Susan Peters and her 1948 film The Sign of the Ram. The film also stars Alexander Knox, Phyllis Thaxter, Peggy Ann Garner, Ron Randell, Dame May Whitty, Allene Roberts, and Diana Douglas. For those unfamiliar with Susan Peters, she was paralyzed and fought to work as an actress again.
Susan Peters Fast Facts
Born: Suzanne Carnahan on July 3, 1921 in Spokane, Washington
Accident: January 1, 1945 - Became a paraplegic after accidentally shooting herself while duck hunting.
Died: October 23, 1952 (age 31) in Visalia, California (chronic urinary tract infection, pneumonia, decubiti, chronic pain, depression, dehydration, anorexia)
Father: Robert Houston Carnahan, Sr. (December 15, 1892 - July 25, 1926)
Mother: Abby H. Carnahan (née James; March 12, 1892 - December 4, 1945)
Brother: Robert Houston Carnahan, Jr. (1923 - ?)
Husband: Richard Quine (November 7, 1943 - September 10, 1948) (divorced)
Son: Timothy Richard Quine (adopted on April 17, 1946)
1943 - Nominated - Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Random Harvest (1942)
Walk of Fame
Motion Picture - On February 8, 1960. At 1601 Vine Street.
The face Hollywood likes to present is glitzy, glamorous and gleeful.
But there's another, darker side to Hollywood. It has to do with talented performers and what happens to them when they're no longer in demand. That side of Hollywood can be as dreadful and unforgiving as Hollywood's bright and boisterous side.
Susan Peters, born in Spokane, Washington July 3, 1921 as Suzanne Carnahan, got to know both sides during her short 31-year life. Nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her first substantial role in Random Harvest, she died in relative obscurity just 10 years later. Today, only classic film buffs remember who she was, much less what she accomplished.
And what did she accomplish? Several things, not the least of which was the feat of struggling past the many talented young actresses that flocked to Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s. By virtue of her natural beauty, innate sensitivity, and acquired acting ability, she won roles in a number of films both for Warner Brothers and M-G-M before hitting her stride in Random Harvest.
But even more admirable was the seven-year struggle she endured after becoming a paraplegic in a January 1, 1945 duck hunting accident. Fiercely independent, she battled against her disability and continued to work when the opportunities arose and her health permitted it. Eventually, worn down by a condition that only a handful of doctors then understood, she died in a Visalia, California hospital on October 23, 1952.
Her doctor said, "I believe she lost interest in living."
Pain was nothing new to Susan Peters. Her father, Robert Houston Carnahan, a civil engineer, died in a car accident when she was a child. In addition to Susan (Suzanne), he left behind his wife, Abby James Carnahan, and son Robert, Jr., two years younger than Susan.
Shortly after her husband's death, Mrs. Carnahan took a job in a Spokane, Washington dress shop. But, with the help of the children's grandmother, Maria Patenaude, the Carnahans moved to Los Angeles. Abby Carnahan managed an apartment building there.
Years later, Susan Peters would write: "Mother, Bob and I were completely alone. As young as we were, Bob and I knew then the meaning of tragedy."
But that tragedy didn't defeat them. Both Susan and Bob were athletic, excelling at swimming, tennis, and equestrianism. Bob Carnahan went to a military school and joined the Army during World War II. Susan attended several schools, and held part-time jobs during summer vacations as an elevator operator and package wrapper. A bright student, her two favorite subjects were chemistry and biology, she planned to become a doctor.
During Susan's senior year at Hollywood High School, she took a drama course (with Jason Robards, Jr.). While performing in class, she was spotted by Lee Sholem, a talent scout. Sholem took Susan to see producer Sol Lesser regarding a role in Thorton Wilder's Our Town. The role eventually went to Martha Scott.
After high school graduation in 1939, Austrian actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel, a friend of the family and Greta Garbo's close friend and collaborator, introduced Susan to director George Cukor. She landed a small role in Cukor's film Susan and God," which nearly ended her career before it had begun.
"I'm afraid that during the shooting of the film I didn't make much of an impression on Mr. Cukor," she said. He complained, she said, about her "squeaky voice."
After this first film, Susan began studying acting in earnest, first under Gertrude Vogler, then at the Max Reinhardt School of Dramatic Arts, all the while doing screen tests.
Susan was soon rewarded with a contract by Warner Brothers. Small roles followed in Santa Fe Trail, The Strawberry Blonde, Meet John Doe, and Here Comes Happiness.
Susan Peters said: "I made a deal with myself that after three years, if I hadn't made good, I'd become a stenographer, a secretary, or try some other profession. Hollywood is no place for a girl who doesn't make good."
"The best thing that ever happened to me was being a failure during my first two years on the screen. That gave me a sense of proportion and balance. Once or twice, I was almost a success, but not quite. Naturally, I was terribly hurt at the time. But I came to realize that there isn't much difference between success and failure. Opportunity has a lot to do with it."
Having already refused to change her name to Sharon O'Keefe, she consented to being billed as Susan Peters in time to star in the 1941 RKO production Scattergood Pulls the Strings. Despite nice notices in The Hollywood Reporter ("The freshness of Susan Peters in her part of the romance marks this young Warner contractee a most promising newcomer."), and Variety ("Susan Peters, newcomer, catches attention in her first part as the ingenue."), and a plum role in the 1942 Humphrey Bogart film The Big Shot, Susan Peters was let go by Warner Brothers.
But Warner Brother's loss was M-G-M's gain. After winning a role in 1942's Tish, Peters signed a contract with M-G-M and starred that year in a series of films (Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant, Andy Hardy's Double Life) that culminated with Random Harvest.
Peters acknowledged later that she learned a great deal about her craft by watching Lionel Barrymore while making Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant. Barrymore was acting from a wheelchair due to severe arthritis and a twice-broken hip. Peters would be acting from a wheelchair after January 1945.
During the wedding rehearsal in Random Harvest, Peters has her most poignant and memorable scene when she reacts without saying a word to the true state of Colman's feelings for her. "I'm not the one," she admits upon realizing that her love is not fully reciprocated. "I am nearly the one, Charles, but 'nearly' isn't enough for a lifetime."
From The Hollywood Reporter: "It is this scene that Susan Peters plays so superbly, one of the notable moments in the picture (Random Harvest) filled with dramatic intensity."
Despite excellent reviews, Susan lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Teresa Wright (Mrs. Miniver).
|Top L and R: Young Ideas (1943)|
Center L and R: Song of Russia (1944)
Bottom L and R: Keep Your Powder Dry (1945)
The September 27, 1943 issue of Life magazine featured a historic group photo of Louis B. Mayer with his M-G-M contract players. Susan Peters sat prominently in the front row. The photo is below. Click on photo to view a larger version. Also, click here to see a key for the photo.
On November 7, 1943, Susan Peters and Richard Quine exchanged vows at the Westwood Community Church in West Los Angeles. Cesar Romero served as best man.
Susan starred with Robert Taylor in Song of Russia in 1944. She performed Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Peters did the playing herself after studying with Norma Drury Boleslavsky.
Early in 1944 Peters had a miscarriage with complications that necessitated surgery and several months of recuperation. After her recovery, she filmed Keep Your Powder Dry. She would become a paraplegic before the movie was released.
On January 1, 1945, Susan, Richard Quine, his cousin Tom Quine and his wife Mary Lou embarked on a duck hunting trip to the Cuyamaca Mountains (Lake Cuyamaca) near San Diego. Miss Peters was shot, the sheriff's office reported, as she retrieved the barrel of a .22 caliber rifle from under a bush where it had been hidden. The trigger, in an exposed position, caught on a branch and discharged a shell which had not been removed from the firing chamber when the stock was separated from the bolt action rifle, Sheriff's Capt. Herbert Kennedy said. The bullet struck her in the abdomen and lodged in her spine.
Peters was rushed to the San Diego Naval Hospital. The Naval surgeon who operated on her informed her she'd never walk again unless a miracle occurred. She was only 23 years old.
Peters was transferred to Mercy Hospital in Los Angeles, where she spent an ordeal-filled several months. She told Bob Thomas proudly of how she had a temperature of 106 after the accident and the doctors gave up hope for her. But she had been able to murmur to her husband: "I just wanted you to know that I'm not going to die."
In June 1945, she reported she had taken three steps in her new braces. "I think I ought to be walking pretty well in three months. I'm convinced that anyone can walk, no matter what may be the matter with them."
But despite her optimism, she never would walk again.
Would she act again?
"Just let them try and stop me," she announced.
|Top: "Seventh Heaven" on Theatre of Romance with Van Johnson|
Bottom: "Seventh Heaven" on Theatre of Romance with Van Johnson and Richard Quine
Her first job was three months later. On September 4, 1945, she performed in a radio drama with Van Johnson, "Seventh Heaven" on Theatre of Romance. You can listen to it below. "Gee, I'm scared," she said before the show went on the air. But she came through with flying colors.
Late in 1945, Peters began to write a series of articles, "My Hollywood Friends," for Photoplay. She wrote about Van Johnson, Esther Williams, Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and Cesar Romero.
|With Clark Gable, Cesar Romero, Franchot Tone and Lucille Ball|
It was great blow when Peters lost her beloved mother of a heart attack at age 52 on December 4, 1945.
Later she had her first night out. She went to Ciro's with her husband and talked enthusiastically about her visits to paraplegic veterans in army hospitals. She was driving her own hand-operated car and even taking flying lessons. Peters and her husband continued to swim, hunt, fish, and watch horse races.
|At Ciro's with Richard Quine|
On April 17, 1946, Quine and Peters adopted a ten-day-old baby boy, Timothy Richard.
After her accident, M-G-M continued Peters' contract, paid her $100 dollars a week, and covered her hospital bills. Peters expressed an interest in doing the story of pop singer Connee Boswell, who sang from a wheelchair or seated position due to either a childhood bout with polio or a fall from the back of a coaster wagon. She also wanted to do the life of Nellie Revell, a newspaper woman who continued her career even when bedridden. Unfortunately, both projects fell through.
The producer-director team of Joe Pasternack and Henry Koster wanted her for The Unfinished Dance, a story about a ballerina with a spinal injury. Peters refused.
Before her accident, Peters had worked for two weeks on M-G-M's The Outward Room, the filmization of Millen Brand's novel about a young woman's journey from madness to self-discovery. The project was set aside because she refused to finish the film in a wheelchair. In 1947, Peters foolishly broke her contract with M-G-M. She was tired of receiving offers of what she called "sticky sweet" scripts, even though she played the Pollyanna role in her personal life, putting on a brave face and portraying paraplegia as a mere inconvenience in interviews.
Susan Peters in The American Magazine, December 1947:
"I do not believe that I shall ever be able to walk. It would the most wonderful gift God and life could give, but I do not expect it. I think invalids make a terrible mistake building their lives around a hope which doctors tell them cannot be realized except by a miracle. If you keep waiting for that miracle to happen in the future, how can you possibly adjust your life around your handicap?"
Peters' friend, actor Charles Bickford, brought to her attention the novel he had just finished, The Sign of the Ram, by Margaret Ferguson. The leading character is a paralyzed woman, deceptively sweet and considerate on the outside, who wrecks her family by domination and murder.
|With Charles Bickford working on the script for The Sign of the Ram|
Hedda Hopper reported that a special $450 wheelchair was built for Peters, with special slip covers to match the gowns she would wear in the film.
Susan's first day on the set, she was met by several Columbia stars. Everything was done to make her comfortable. The movie set was cooled especially for her and she was the only star allowed to drive on the Columbia lot.
|Columbia stars Larry Parks, Evelyn Keyes and Glenn Ford make Susan Peters welcome.|
|Lying prone on a modified hospital cart studying her script.|
(Released March 3, 1948)
Production Company: Signet Productions
Production Text: An Irving Cummings Production
Distribution Company: Columbia Pictures Corp.
Leah St. Aubyn - Miss Susan Peters
Mallory St. Aubyn - Alexander Knox
Sherida Binyon - Phyllis Thaxter
Christine St. Aubyn - Peggy Ann Garner
Dr. Simon Crowdy - Ron Randell
Clara Brastock - Dame May Whitty
Jane St. Aubyn - Allene Roberts
Logan St. Aubyn - Ross Ford
Catherine Woolton - Diana Douglas
Emily - Margaret Tracy
Perowen - Paul Scardon
Vicar Woolton - Gerald Hamer
Mrs. Woolton - Doris Lloyd
Station Master - Gerald Rogers
Director - John Sturges
Assistant Director - James Nicholson
Producer - Irving Cummings, Jr.
Screenwriter - Charles Bennett
Editor - Aaron Stell
Art Directors - Stephen Goossón and Sturges Carne
Set Decorators - Wilbur Menefee and Frank A. Tuttle
Cinematographer - Burnett Guffey
Gowns - Jean Louis
Makeup - Clay Campbell
Hair - Helen Hunt
Sound - Jack Goodrich
Original Music - Hans J. Salter
Musical Director - M.W. Stoloff
Song: "I'll Never Say I Love You" - Sung by Susan Peters (dubbed by Dorothy Ellers)
Production Dates: July 14 - August 23, 1947
Source: Novel The Sign of the Ram by Margaret Ferguson
Running time: 84 or 88 minutes
Story: Phyllis Thaxter arrives in Cornwall to fill the position of secretary-companion to wheelchair-bound Susan Peters. Other members of the household are Peters' husband, Alexander Knox, and her three stepchildren, Allene Roberts, Ross Ford, and Peggy Ann Garner. Peters' doctor, Ron Randell, announces his intention to marry Roberts. Sensing Peters' displeasure, Randell calls her family "a little band of slaves." Peters will approve the marriage if Randell will live in her mansion, which Randell refuses to do. Peters then poisons Roberts' mind against Randell and that breaks up the relationship. Ford's sweetheart Diana Douglas, an aspiring artist, returns to Cornwall and the two plan to marry. Douglas, a foundling, is told by Peters that her birth father was insane and she could only enter into a childless marriage. The distraught Douglas attempts suicide only to be saved by Knox. Ford travels to London to investigate Douglas' background and finds that Peters' claim was false. Ford tells Knox that he will never go back to Peters' house. Roberts now knows Peters' lies broke up her relationship with Randell and they plan to marry. Garner believes Thaxter's coming to work for Peters caused the family to break up and she poisons Thaxter. The housekeeper, Margaret Tracy, discovers Thaxter in time to prevent her death. Knox confronts Peters and in the exchange Peters accuses the loyal Knox of being in love with Thaxter. This is hurtful to Knox since his only love is Peters. Peters, now believing that she will be left in the house without any family, decides her only way out is suicide and she hurls herself over a cliff to the water and rocks below. This fulfills the prophecy of the sign of the ram to die a violent death.
Notes and Commentary: Screenwriter Charles Bennett followed the basic thrust of Margaret Ferguson's novel but made changes that moved the story into the gothic noir realm. After Bennett initially shows the St. Aubyn home as a place of happiness and contentment, it becomes apparent this is true only if Leah St. Aubyn controls her husband and stepchildren. Bennett wisely eliminates some of Ferguson's characters. In the novel, there is a fourth child, Andrew, who is only present in a few pages and does nothing to further the narrative. Busybody Mabel (Clara in the film) Brastock has a constant companion, Cicely Burnham, who also adds nothing to the story. In the novel, Mallory St. Aubyn and Sherida Binyon fall in love but only after Leah's death is there hope a romance can be kindled. The screenplay has Leah accuse Mallory of being in love with Sherida, which angers him to the point of not wanting to be near her because there is no truth to the accusation. Leah does interfere with proposed nuptials between her stepson Logan and Catherine Maitland (Woolton in the film) and with her physician Simon Crowdy and stepdaughter Jane. In both, Logan leaves the family home to marry Catherine, after Catherine's suicide attempt. In the novel, the romance between Crowdy and Jane is broken up by Leah because Crowdy instilled a will to live in Leah after she was crippled by developing a romantic relationship with her. Leah reminds Crowdy of that when he tells her that he plans to marry Jane. After Leah's death, Crowdy grips Jane's hand, suggesting the possibility of their renewing their romance. The film ends on a tragic noir note with an empty wheelchair at the cliff's edge. Leah committed suicide by hurling herself onto the rocky shore below the precipice. The author softens the ending by having the reader possibly think that with Leah's death, the people involved can now live a normal life. The character name Perowen is given to the station master in the book and the butler in the film.
Unfortunately, the film was not successful with either the critics or the moviegoing public, and it would be Susan's farewell movie appearance.
Meredy says: Combining equal elements of film noir, gothic thriller and melodrama, The Sign of the Ram is an engrossing, absorbing, underappreciated film, highlighted with fine acting, especially by Susan Peters as a woman who feels she has to have complete control over her family. Peters' alabaster beauty and surface calm provide a perfect mask for her malicious schemes. She focuses much of her inner life on the characters' hands, which dominate the film like a pair of spiders as she smokes endless cigarettes, plays the piano, and writes poison pen notes. Director John Sturges builds the tempo of the story to a thundering crescendo.
Afterwards, Susan made her life alone. She wanted to be independent and worked herself to the limit of her frail health. She toured all over the country in The Barretts of Wimpole Street and The Glass Menagerie.
When Katharine Cornell played the bedridden Elizabeth Barrett, her most effective moment came at the end of the play when she arose from her couch, and walked. When Susan Peters played it, she couldn't get up and walk. Understanding audiences cheered, and wept, during the scene, and Susan took her bows sitting down.
Tennessee Williams gave his permission for her to play The Glass Menagerie's Laura Wingfield in a wheelchair.
When Bob Thomas saw her for the last time, she proudly brought out the rave reviews from critics in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
"I cherish my independence," she announced, "so I had to find a way to make a living and keep my little family together."
For the first time, she made no claim that she would walk again.
"How can I—I have no spinal cord," she said. "It will take longer than I live for the doctors to discover how to fix that."
Peters played a wheelchair-bound lawyer in the NBC television series Miss Susan a.k.a. Martinsville, U.S.A. (March-December 1951). The series was filmed live (15 minutes, Monday through Friday) in Philadelphia due to a shortage of television studios in New York City. It was the first NBC TV series to originate from Philadelphia. It was notably the first TV series to tackle the day-to-day struggles of a disabled character.
|Miss Susan a.k.a. Martinsville, U.S.A.|
She died at age 31 on October 23, 1952 at the Memorial Hospital in Visalia, California. Only her brother, Bob Carnahan, and his wife were at her bedside.
Dr. Ray Manchester, said after performing a post-mortem that chronic kidney infection and bronchial pneumonia were the primary causes of death, but "starvation and dehydration factors also were there." He said her death was speeded by "loss of the will to live" and declared she recently lost interest in eating and drinking. He added:
"She just wouldn't allow any one to help her recently."
The physician said she had been waging a fight against internal infection for years and had been "going downhill" in past months. "Actually she stopped fighting three weeks ago, and became very detached." Dr. Manchester credited her indomitable will to live for keeping her going on radio, television and on the legitimate stage.
Susan Peters' funeral was held October 27, 1952. She was buried at Forest Lawn-Glendale. Location of Grave, Memorial Park: Glendale, Section: Whispering Pines, Map #: 03, Lot: 2549, Space: 4, Property: Ground.
Susan Peters on the Radio
"Dark Victory" - July 30, 1946 - Franchot Tone, Susan Peters
Lux Radio Theatre
"Mrs. Miniver" - December 6, 1943 - Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Susan Peters
"Johnny Eager" - January 21, 1946 - Robert Taylor, Susan Peters, Van Heflin
Radio Reader's Digest
Eavesdroppers in Eden" - March 11, 1948 - Susan Peters
"One More Spring" - March 16, 1948 - Susan Peters
"They Call Me Patrice" - December 12, 1946 - Susan Peters
Theatre of Romance
"Seventh Heaven" - September 4, 1945 - Van Johnson, Susan Peters
Listen to the radio programs via the player below.
Susan Peters Video Clips
TCM's Ben Mankiewicz and Lawrence Carter-Long introduce The Sign of the Ram. The film was shown on TCM during "The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film" in October 2012.
I take issue with Mr. Carter-Long's introduction. It's odd he only mentions Lionel Barrymore as one of Susan Peters' co-stars. She also worked with such M-G-M heavyweights as Robert Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, Mary Astor, and Lana Turner. To say that her studio "never gave up on her" is misleading because, although M-G-M paid Susan a salary of $100 a week and her medical bills, after her paralysis she never again appeared in an M-G-M film. Her last was Keep Your Powder Dry made before her accident. Having bought out her contract, M-G-M had nothing to do with The Sign of the Ram. It was produced independently and released through Columbia Pictures.
The Sign of the Ram -- "I Gave Them Life" Clip
Phyllis Thaxter as the newly hired secretary Sherida, meeting her new employer, Susan Peters as wheelchair-bound writer Leah, her first scene in her first and only film role following her disabling hunting accident, in John Sturges' The Sign of the Ram, 1948.
The Sign of the Ram -- "I'd Never Butt In" Clip
Husband Mallory (Alexander Knox) has just fled at signs of the arrival of neighborhood gossip Clara (Dame May Whitty), visiting her disabled writer friend Leah (Susan Peters), meeting her new secretary Sherida (Phyllis Thaxter), in the early John Sturges thriller The Sign of the Ram, 1948.