Despite our best efforts, we haven’t been able to find out much about the early years in Alexis Smith’s life. We do know she was born in Canada and was given the name Gladys, which happened also to be Mary Pickford’s given name. We know she moved to Los Angeles with her family when she was very young. And we know she was tall for a girl. Living in Los Angeles, we believe Smith must have been drawn to the movies and probably, like so many young girls, dreamed of being an actress. Unlike most of those young girls with dreams, Alexis Smith actually had talent.
Smith was a natural performer and by age 10 had won a dance school scholarship. She worked hard and made her professional dancing debut in a Hollywood Bowl production of Carmen when she was just 13-years-old. High school would change everything for the young Alexis.
While attending Hollywood High, Smith won a California State acting contest and went on to study at Los Angeles City College in a rigorous theatrical training program. Spotted by a talent scout from the legendary Warner Bros. studio, Smith was offered a screen test. She signed a contract with the studio when she was just 20.
Hollywood always had a penchant for giving their performers nicknames. The habit goes back to the very beginning of the movies when actors weren’t even credited. Hamilton’s Florence Lawrence, for example, spent much of her career known by her fans only as “The Biograph Girl.” And it seems like every generation has had its “It Girl.” An unknown somebody in the Warner Bros. publicity department decided to tag the young Alexis “The Dynamite Girl,” and it seems like she didn’t like that at all. But she was in the movies, and she did as she was told and she appeared in a string of “B” movies.
Smith had grown up to be 5′ 9″ and this was causing some problems with her career. Hollywood abounds with stories of actors having to stand on wooden risers or of wearing especially built-up shoes so that they would appear taller than their leading ladies. But the studio found some men who were happy in their own skins and who didn’t mind acting next to the young and striking newcomer, often described as beautiful, statuesque and icy. For example, in 1942 she had a leading role opposite Errol Flynn in Gentleman Jim which co-starred fellow Canadian-born actor Jack Carson (pictured above). She would work with Errol Flynn again in 1945 in San Antonio (pictured above).
Alexis Smith also worked with Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph in 1943 and played the wife of Mark Twain opposite Fredric March in The Adventures of Mark Twain in 1944. She next played the wife of composer Cole Porter as portrayed by Cary Grant in the 1946 film Night and Day. Looking back, it seems as if Warner Bros. was incapable of making a “biopic” without Smith playing the great woman behind the great man. “I was always cast as the wife of Cole Porter or somebody, the lady who sat in the audience and applauded the composer and who was never allowed on stage,” she once said. “Of course, it was very frustrating. I had studied dancing all my life.” Not everyone found her “icy” by the way. She was once described as “…lively, affable, down to earth and radiant, she had an energy level the complete opposite of the languid persona she usually displayed in movies…”
In the midst of all this new life and surrounded by Hollywood stars and many new friends, Smith did something that would shape her life until its very end. She met, fell in love with and married fellow-actor and Warner Bros. stablemate Craig Stevens. They appeared together in seven films, and when they got married their pal Errol Flynn was best man. The year was 1944, and Smith was just 23 years old, but the marriage would last until her death, 49 years later.
Along the way, she continued to act. After Warner Bros. dropped her in 1949, many people thought her working life, at least as an actor, was over. Not quite 30 years old, other actors in similar circumstances simply disappeared from the large screen and were largely forgotten by Hollywood. But Smith continued to get work, and in 1951 totally reinvented herself in Frank Capra’s Here Comes the Groom, showing a zany side she had never had a chance to play before. Years later she would say, “People frequently said it was a shame Warner Bros. typecast me, and I don’t believe that. I believe I typecast myself… I was not that creative.”
For all intents and purposes, her Hollywood career was over by 1959. Some 16 years would go by before she would appear in another movie. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t working. Her husband had turned to the small screen, television, and had great success in the role of the suave, handsome, private detective, Peter Gunn. With the approach of the 1960s, Smith and Stevens went on the road together with such touring stage productions as Mary, Mary, Critic’s Choice and Cactus Flower. The high point of her career both on stage and on film came in 1971 when she appeared in the Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical Follies. The story revolves around a reunion of aging show girls who get together in a soon-to-be-demolished Broadway theatre. Among the show’s highlights were her biting rendition of “Could I Leave You?” and her “Story of Lucy and Jessie.” Time magazine wrote: “Alexis Smith is the living, dancing refutation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s axiom that there are no second acts in American lives. At 49 she is in the best second act of her life. Her blue-green eyes catch the light and the audience`s rapt attention; her body seems beyond the aspiration of girls half her age.” Her performance was honoured with a Tony Award as best actress in a musical. The Wall Street Journal mused “Who could have guessed during those years at Warner Bros. Alexis Smith might have been setting Broadway ablaze?” Interviewed by the New York Post, Smith admitted that she rarelywatched her films anymore because “they weren’t very good then, and I doubt they improve with age.”
This sudden burst of fame helped to briefly reignite her movie carrier. She played the middle-aged aunt of Jodie Foster in The Little Girl Who Lives down the Lane (pictured on the right), and the widowed retirement-home resident in the Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas film Tough Guys in 1986. Her last screen appearance was as the bejeweled New York aristocrat in Martin Scorcese’s 1993 movie, The Age of Innocence.
Alexis Smith who had appeared with stars like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, William Holden and Paul Newman died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of cancer one day after her 72nd birthday. Craig Stevens died from cancer seven years later.
This biography is Copyright © 2016 by Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without prior written permission. For more information about copyright, click here. All of the photos used in this biography were scanned from originals in The Northernstars Collection