Actress Patsy Ruth Miller with director Tay Garnett.
Hollywood director Tay Garnett’s (1894 – 1977) best known film is The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946. Lana Turner burns through the screen with her cool and murderous sensuality. John Garfield, real name Jacob Julius Garfinkle, gives a towering performance as the cynical chump who allows himself to be drawn into the femme fatale’s web of adultery, homicide and betrayal.
Garnett was an efficient but notoriously uneven director, and as revealed in his eccentric autobiography, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, deeply immature, and for years a raging alcoholic.
In 1923, Garnett gained access to the set of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring the great Lon Chaney. Novice actress Patsy Ruth Miller (1904 – 1995) just 17-years old, was cast as Esmerelda, her first leading role. Garnett, star struck, fell in love, or more accurately in lust, with the high school age actress on the sprawling medieval set.
Before shooting the massive crowd scenes Hunchback’s assistant director instructed the hundreds of extras through his megaphone: “Light your torches and pull up your tights!” Thus, Garnett’s eccentric title for an eccentric memoir. He glosses over The Postman Always Rings Twice in just a few frustrating sentences.
But there are golden nuggets in Garnett’s modest volume, and they shed a good deal of light on the director’s character and career.
Undoubtedly, the most revealing details in the memoir are reserved for a woman named Joan Marshfield. For most of his adult life, Garnett was in love with Marshfield, the virtuous and elegant wife of Garnett’s commanding officer in the Navy. It was a love of Shakesperian proportions that was never consummated. When she was married, Garnett was single. When he was married, she was divorced. On it went, missed opportunities, until death.
Several years after seeing Patsy Ruth on the set of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when Garnett was an established Hollywood director, he and Miller entered into a marriage that was doomed before it began. He claims that Miller bullied him into marriage, and coolly manipulative, moved her father and brother into their home on their wedding day. Miller, no doubt, viewed Garnett as unreliable, emotionally stunted, more interested in boozing, gambling and sailing off to exotic tropical islands with his Irish buddies.
Garnett served his country as an aviator in World War I.
During training, he and fourteen members of his squad, chosen for Naval Flight Training, were, until training commenced, condemned by a hostile officer, to latrine duty.
Garnett, whose first job in Hollywood was as a gagman for Mack Sennett, dreamed up a plan to ditch latrine duty.
In disbelief, I read the following passage twice because it comes across like a lunatic gag in some lost Hollywood picture.
Here’s Garnett’s rather prosaic description:
Not being totally without defensive resources, the fourteen of us devoted hours of brainstorming to find a away to beat the rap. I am still proud to announce—even in memory of later misery—that it was I who came up with a Navy-proof solution.
I knew a two-striper, a medic named Dr. Cohn, who had been a urologist in San Francisco before joining the navy. I outlined our predicament to Lieutenant Cohn , and asked how long a man should remain in sick bay after undergoing circumcision.
“At least two weeks,” said the sympathetic doctor.
“Sold,” I said.
All fourteen of us signed up for surgery, and all were treated the same morning.
Snip. (No pun intended.)
That night, after surgery:
On that bygone night in sick bay, I remembered that I was sleeping on a mattress supported by a white enameled iron bedstead. I staggered to the foot of my bed and applied the chill metal to the conflagration.
Nearby I heard a groan of relief duplicating the involuntary moan I had just uttered. Another moan joined the refrain, then another.
Opening my eyes, I squinted into the gloom. Gradually it dawned on me that I was the anchor man in what had to be the world’s most grotesque chorus line. There we were, all fourteen of us, lined up in identical poses, each at the foot of his icy iron bed. A frieze of outstandingly male Rockettes.
One can only shudder.
Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmerelda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1923.
Garnett had quite a few good years in Hollywood, but frittered away all his money in an alcoholic haze. Later, his career was rescued by television where he directed multiple episodes of The Loretta Young Show, Wagon Train, Laramie, The Untouchables, Naked City, Rawhide, and Bonanza.
After a solid career as a reliable leading lady, Patsy Ruth Miller retired from the screen in 1931. She turned her talents to writing and won three O Henry Awards for her short stories. Miller authored a deeply autobiographical novel, That Flannigan Girl, 1939, one of the most revealing tinsel town tales I have ever read.