Shirley Ross (January 7, 1913 ― March 9, 1975) was an American actress and singer.
The Beginning - Bernice begets Shirley
The first of two daughters born to Charles Burr Gaunt and Maude C. Gaunt (née Ellis) during the century's second decade, Ross was born Bernice Maude Gaunt in Omaha, Nebraska, where she would reside until age 5, when her family moved to York. The following decade, the Gaunts relocated to California, due, at least in part, to Maude Gaunt's grand ambitions for Bernice, her firstborn. Before long, the future Shirley Ross was studying at Hollywood High School; later, she'd attend UCLA. Trained as a classical pianist, Bernice was giving on-air recitals at least as early as 1927, at the age of 14. By 1931, her final year at Hollywood High, she was fully involved in the thespian side of things and, as before, attracting notices in the Los Angeles Times.
During her second year at UCLA, Gaunt auditioned successfully for Gus Arnheim's band, with whom she would make her first recordings in 1933 at the age of 20. It was at the band's regular venue, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, that Ross was heard by her next employers, a couple of not-quite-yet-famous Wilshire regulars named Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. In short order, Ross had a new job, namely, 'selling' the songwriters' most recent creations to their employer, MGM. Their particular focus at the time was a soon-to-be-ubiquitous melody, paired with a soon-to-be-forgotten lyric entitled "Prayer" (later "Blue Moon"). Although their tune – at least in this incarnation – was ultimately rejected, one happy byproduct of the process was a successful screen test for Gaunt.
And thus began, in the fall of 1933, the film career of Shirley Ross. The following year, she finally did get to unveil "Blue Moon" on film, in the Clark Gable movie Manhattan Melodrama (the melody, that is, not the lyrics; this time it was "The Bad in Every Man"). In the end, however, Ross' MGM tenure proved little more than a collection of glorified bit parts, interspersed with the occasional specialty number. Not until 1936, when the studio loaned her services to Paramount, did Ross' career start to take off.
The Paramount Years - Miss Ross meets Messrs. Robin & Rainger
Her temporary employers immediately paired Ross with Ray Milland as the romantic leads in The Big Broadcast of 1937. It was in that film that Ross began a brief but fruitful association with the songwriting team of Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, with her memorable reading of their ballad, "I'm Talking Through My Heart," though both the tune and the Ross-Milland romantic pairing were somewhat overshadowed by the stream of comic and musical set pieces typical of the famously episodic Big Broadcast... series of musical comedies, and which, in this instance, featured such luminaries as Jack Benny, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Martha Raye and Leopold Stokowski.
Notwithstanding the high-profile distraction, Ross' talent was not entirely obscured, as evidenced by a brief review of the film's premiere, which begins by alerting readers to "what may be the start of a brilliant career for Shirley Ross, newcomer with one of the sweetest voices of any actress on the screen. Her acting and appearance are above average, but her voice is far above average and should lead her to some important roles in forthcoming musical productions." For their part, Paramount didn't need the rave review; they were already sold on Ross. Halfway through the film's production, MGM had decided to drop Ross' option, and Paramount was only too happy to snap her up, signing her to a five-year contract and immediately casting her in the romantic comedyHideaway Girl. As it happens, her contribution would once again be somewhat obscured, this time by Paramount's decision to give top billing to co-star Martha Raye; that being said, once in the theater, audiences made up their own minds.
Now it Begins - Enter Bing Crosby
Ross would make a considerably bigger splash with her next Robin-Rainger assignment, "Blue Hawaii," sung as a duet with Bing Crosby in the 1937 film Waikiki Wedding. The film marked the beginning of a notable handful of film credits within Ross' brief résumé, in which she's paired with either one or the other of two up-and-coming film stars, who, in the end, would 'leave' her, not for another woman, but for each other, becoming (in the intermittently produced but long-lived Road series of comedies) one of the most popular screen 'couples' of all time.
Following what seemed her breakthrough performance, Paramount paired Ross with the studio's erstwhile frequent leading man, Buddy Rogers, in This Way Please, which was to be Rogers' comeback film, following a five-year absence. Barely had the cameras started rolling, however, when a disgusted Ross stormed off the set, claiming that her scenes had been deliberately sabotaged by co-star Mary Livingstone, who was making her first film minus husband Jack Benny. Although this incident does appear to have at least somewhat adversely affected Ross's standing, both with Paramount and with the press, perceiving and/or portraying her as "difficult," later observations by George Burns, Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball, and Livingstone's own daughter tend to reinforce Ross' point of view. In any event, notwithstanding Paramount's newfound reservations, events would soon eclipse these petty squabbles.
The Pinnacle - Enter Bob Hope
After the abysmal critical and commercial response to the 1937 film, Blossoms on Broadway, consigned Ross' rendition of its Robin-Rainger-penned title tune – and, to a great extent, the tune itself – to oblivion,posterity was considerably kinder to the next Robin-Rainger-Ross collaboration, "Thanks for the Memory," sung as a duet with Bob Hope in The Big Broadcast of 1938.
This would prove a signature moment in both performers' careers, catapulting each to an unprecedented level of fame. The repercussions, however, would prove dramatically different for each. For Hope, this was just the beginning; for Ross, the beginning of the end. It would not take long for this ironic counterpoint to play out; barely two years later, it was apparent even to contemporary observers.
The Slide Begins - Loesser Vehicles
Getting back to 1938, the enormous popularity of TFTM (which was recorded, if Ross' memory serves, in one take) led to a sequel of sorts as the two co-starred in the thematically unrelated 1938 film Thanks for the Memory, in which they debuted the Frank Loesser/Hoagy Carmichael tune, "Two Sleepy People."
Ross and Hope also introduced "The Lady's in Love with You" (again with lyrics by Loesser, but with music by Burton Lane) in their final film together, 1939's Some Like It Hot (more recently retitled Rhythm Romance to avoid confusion with the otherwise unrelated 1959 comedy of the same name starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis).
A Star No More - Paramount Loses Interest
Unfortunately for Ross, these Loesser-scripted tunes were debuted in decidedly lesser movie vehicles, whose increasingly indifferent construction merely reflected Paramount's evident lack of interest in the musical comedy genre in general, and, in particular, their recently – if erratically – promoted singing ingenue. The downward trajectory of Ross's career, as symbolized by her 'divorce' from leading man Hope, was brought home when, in 1939 (in the film destined – following the temporary setbacks represented by the lackluster TFTM spinoffs – to launch Hope on his meteoric rise to the Hollywood pantheon), The Cat and the Canary's putative leading lady was unceremoniously kicked to the curb in favor of Paulette Goddard (even after Ross had ever so briefly gotten the better of her old co-star and marquee rival, Martha Raye).
For her part, Ross was hardly 'married' to musical comedy; she would have been only too pleased to tackle some meaty dramatic roles. In her only previous such onscreen opportunity, 1938'sPrison Wife, she had acquitted herself ably. However, as fate – and Paramount – would have it, no such opportunities were forthcoming; Ross would dutifully fill out her Paramount portfolio by playing the 'other woman' to Francisca Gaal and Madeleine Carroll, respectively, in a pair of forgettable – and frugally financed – romantic comedies. As before, though, critics would part ways with Paramount, regarding the relative ranking of its female leads.
At first glance, Paris Honeymoon (the first of the aforementioned time-fillers), might seem something of a renaissance for Ross, featuring not only her erstwhile leading man, Bing Crosby, but even one last Robin-Rainger ballad for them to sing together. As filmed, however, the song "I Have Eyes" is hardly a duet at all, but rather functions within the film as a reasonably well-crafted dramatization of the characters' dwindling and deceptively insubstantial relationship (and one which functions almost equally well as a metaphor for the rapidly diverging career trajectories of Ross on the one hand, and Crosby – and Hope – on the other).
For one thing, their characters are not together, but rather speaking/singing on the phone. Moreover, they don't even sing together, but merely trade choruses, her character's rapt attention met, if unwittingly, with his considerable disinterest; Crosby spends the greater part of his own final chorus lovingly preparing his pipe for smoking.
In this light, it should be noted that, especially as regards Ross and Hope, their onscreen chemistry – evident even before the opening strains of their breakthrough rendition of Thanks for the Memory – was no mirage; offscreen, notwithstanding the previously cited symbolic 'desertion', the two became close early on, and remained so right up until Ross's premature demise in 1975.
Final Chapter - Broadway and Beyond
With her film fortunes fading, Ross was happy to renew her ties with Rodgers and Hart, playing the lead in their 1940 Broadway musical, Higher and Higher. Ross would record four songs from the show, including "It Never Entered My Mind." The show itself, however, was not nearly the hit all had hoped for, nor, for that matter, the Hollywood springboard Ross would have relished (being well aware that her own understated and natural appeal was far better suited to screen than stage); even less so, her subsequent participation in the ill-starred Allah Be Praised, which Ross wisely abandoned well in advance of its Broadway opening').
Absent a resounding stage success with which to propel her hoped-for screen comeback, subsequent film roles simply continued the downward trend; whether playing the lead or the second banana, these were decidedly 'B' efforts, seen by few, remembered by fewer. Soon, Ross shifted her energies toward radio, where, in 1944, she found regular employment with onetime Waikiki Wedding co-star, Bob Burns, a job which continued until 1947, when her husband's grave - and ultimately fatal - illness led to an ever-extending sabbatical which gradually evolved into Ross's early retirement from performing. a decision made definative when Ross declined Frank Loesser's offer of the starring role with the road company of Guys and Dolls.
In 1945, Ross made her final onscreen appearance, in A Song for Miss Julie, an exceedingly obscure piece, of which Ross, about a decade into her premature retirement, would say only: "It was a deadly little thing."
Some thirty years later, having, by all accounts, cheerfully accepted her early exit from show business, Shirley Ross died from cancer in Menlo Park, California, aged 62, as Bernice Dolan Blum. Not surprisingly, for one who'd been out of the spotlight for roughly three decades (and one whose star, after all, had burned so briefly), her death was not widely publicized. ColumnistJack O'Brian observed:
Shirley Ross died without any big obits here: she was the great gal who helped make "Thanks for the Memory" a 1938 pop-rage, but she died under her off-screen name, Bernice Dolan Blum, at 62; she never died in performance.
Lack of publicity notwithstanding, word-of-mouth seems to have sufficed, with Bernice Gaunt Dolan Blum receiving a sendoff worthy of Shirley Ross in her heyday. Moreover, her two most celebrated 'exes' did not forget to pay their respects. As her daughter recalls:
Hope and Crosby sent a 5 foot tall cross with white carnations and a spray of red roses to her funeral. It was mobbed."