Saturday, February 26, 2011

Lew Ayres (1908-1996)

The Minneapolis born actor found his way to California during the late 1920's where he found work in the movies as a bit player. One of his first on screen appearances came in 1929 in a Greta Garbo vehicle, "The Kiss". Of course it was Greta's co-star Conrad Nagel who was getting kissed but the small part led to Lew being cast in the Academy Award winning blockbuster "All Quiet On the Western Front" the following year.

with Greta Garbo in "The Kiss" 1929

Lew was cast as a young disillusioned soldier during WWI in the critically successful film under the direction of Lewis Milestone.  Although Lew was not nominated for his part in the Oscar winner, Hollywood took notice of his acting abilities, casting him in three more films that year.  He co-starred with Constance Bennett in the drama "Common Clay" then as a gangster in the crime drama "The Doorway to Hell" with the up and comer James Cagney before finishing 1930 with "East is West" with co-stars Lupe Velez and Edward G. Robinson.  Another crime drama that garnered Lew great reviews and solid footing as a Hollywood leading man.

in "All Quiet On the Western Front" 1930

Lew starred in his first comedy at the beginning of 1931 opposite Joan Bennett titled "Many a Slip".  (I hadn't heard of the film nor can I find any info on it other than a short description so if anyone has seen it please share).  Next up for Lew was the drama "Iron Man" where he plays the prize fighter Kid Mason who loses his girl to Hollywood.  Jean Harlow plays the heart breaker of course.  Lew also played a college football hero in "The Spirit of Notre Dame" that year as well as in two other dramas.  He would also find love off of the set in 1931, marrying Lola Lane.  A former vaudeville and silent screen actress who was most famous for appearing opposite her equally talented sisters Rosemary and Priscilla.  

with Joan Bennett in "Many a Slip" 1931

in "Iron Man" 1931

Lew started out 1932 with the romantic drama "The Impatient Maiden" co-starring Mae Clarke, Una Merkel and Andy Devine.  Interestingly the film was directed by the great horror film director, James Whales.  Next up for Ayres was "Night World" co-starring Mae Clarke and Boris Karloff and taking on the era of prohibition and nightclubs.  Lew's final film of 1932 was his biggest hit that year "Okay, America!" which was loosely based on the life and career of Walter Winchell, co-starring Maureen O'Sullivan, Louis Calhern and Edward Arnold.  Lew would divorce his first wife Lola at the beginning of 1933 while continuing to hold on to his leading man status. 

with Jean Harlow in "Iron Man" 1931

click on autograph from my collection or photos for a larger view

Lew starred in the best picture nominated film "State Fair" in 1933 opposite Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers. He would follow it up with the comedy drama "Don't Bet on Love" co-starring Ginger Rogers.  Even though he doesn't have the best of luck in the film he fell in love with his beautiful co-star, marrying Ginger the following year.  Even though Lew starred in four pictures during 1934 the only two that stand out to me are the comedy drama "She Learned About Sailors" which he co-starred with Alice Faye then "Servants Entrance" , a successful comedy which co-starred Janet Gaynor.  The film was unique in that it featured live action combined with Walt Disney animation.  

with Janet Gaynor in "Servants Entrance" 1934

with Alice Faye in "She Learned About Sailors" 1934

Lew continued to play the handsome boy next door type in dramas and musicals during 1935- 1937 which he felt typecast in.  The two most notable pictures he appeared in during this time were "Lady Be Careful" 1936, a comedy musical that co-starred the adorable Mary Carisle and the salty Buster Crabbe.  Then there was "The Last Train from Madrid" co-starring Dorothy Lamour and Gilbert Roland, another mediocre drama.  

with wife Ginger Rogers enjoying some down time

1938 would be a much more successful year for Ayres as he was cast opposite Cary Grant and Kathryn Hepburn in "Holiday", a very funny George Cukor vehicle. It would be followed up with "Rich Man, Poor Girl" which co-starred Robert Young, Ruth Hussey and Lana Turner.  Next would be "Young Dr. Kildare" with Ayres playing the lead and the character in which he would be most known for.  The first film starred Lionel Barrymore and would lead to Lew reprising his role in seven other feature films over the next five years.

with Robert Young and Ruth Hussey in "Rich Man, Poor Girl" 1938

with Lana Turner in "Rich Man, Poor Girl"

Lew starred with Joan Crawford and James Stewart in the campy drama "Ice Follies of 1939".  A film where we are to believe the two main characters are a successful ice skating couple.  (Stay tuned for more on this film at a later date).  Lew followed it up with another musical, "Broadway Serenade" co-starring Jeannette MacDonald, a not so memorable picture.  He also turned out two more Dr. Kildare pictures that year, "Calling Dr. Kildare" which has Lionel Barrymore reprising his role as Dr. Gillespie.  (I really enjoyed Barrymore in this role but then again I feel he was one of the great character actors who took any part and made it brilliant).  Lew starred in the comedy "These Glamour Girls" with Lana Turner before finishing up 1939 with "The Secret of Dr. Kildare". 

with Lana Turner in "These Glamour Girls" 1939

with Jeannette MacDonald in "Broadway Serenade" 1939

Newly divorced from Ginger Rogers in 1940, Ayres stayed busy filming three more of his Dr. Kildare series with his co-stars Barrymore and Larraine Day.  1941 was another busy year with "Maisie Was a Lady", a comedy starring Ann Sothern, C. Aubrey Smith and Maureen O'Sullivan then another three of Lew's Dr. Kildare pictures.  I can't think of any film series today where a character could appear in three films a year that would draw such box office success but in the early 1940's the studio was drawing an audience to see Lew in his most famous role.  

with Lionel Barrymore in "Calling Dr. Kildare"

in "Young Dr. Kildare"

In 1942 Lew starred in the film-noir action movie "Fingers at the Window" opposite Larraine Day and Basil Rathbone.  He plays an unemployed actor who protects the girl from an Axe wielding murderer on the lose in Chicago.  He would appear in another film-noir thriller "The Dark Mirror" opposite Olivia de Havilland four years later which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  Lew spent his four year absence from acting serving in the Armed Services Medical Corp during WWII.  He served with distinction in the Pacific theater and in New Guinea. 

with Olivia de Havilland in "The Dark Mirror" 1946

Lew's only picture during 1947 was another film-noir drama titled "The Unfaithful" which co-starred the beautiful Ann Sheridan.  A great script which would be remade in 2002 as "Unfaithful" starring Diane Lane and Richard Gere as the couple caught up in the murder of the wifes lover.  (Both versions are a must see).  Lew starred in only one film in 1948, "Johnny Belinda" opposite Joan Crawford.  His role would garner him an Oscar nod for Best Actor.  Though he would lose out to Laurence Olivier for his brilliant portrayal as "Hamlet" that year, a tough break.

 Lew would take a part in an occasional B film throughout the 1950's like the western "New Mexico" 1951 then the lead in the horror film "Donovan's Brain" before he turned to an occasional guest appearance on television throughout the 1950's and 60's.  He would marry for a third time to flight attendant Diana Hall in 1964 and remain married until his death.  They had one son together, Justin in 1968.  Lew passed away from complications while in a coma at the age of 88.  He appeared in over 80 films and over 80 television shows during his long career that spanned six decades.  Mr. Ayres was laid to rest at Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA.  His grave site can be viewed HERE.

Lew Ayres Fun Facts:

Jane Wyman, his co-star in "Johnny Belinda" fell in love with him prompting her to leave her husband Ronald Reagan.  Of course Lew did not return her affections so her pursuit was in vain. 

He was a conscientious objector at the beginning of WWII which made him very unpopular at the studio and with fans.  Of course the opinion of him changed after his stellar military service from 1942-1946.  All was forgiven upon his return to Hollywood and his career continued unscaved.

He was in talks to bring his character, Dr. Kildare to television but the project fell through when the network refused to honor his request to not allow cigarette companies as the show's sponsor.  The part went to Richard Chamberlain in 1961.

He appeared in the first episode of "Hawaii Five-0" and was offered a regular guest role which he turned down due to not wanting to relocate full time to Hawaii.

He had wanted to become a doctor and even attended pre-med classes at the University of Arizona.  Classes that would help him in his role as Dr. Kildare.  (At least he got to play a doctor on film)!

with Jane Wyman on the set of "Johnny Belinda"

Thanks for joining me for a look back at Lew Ayres life and career and please enjoy the below clip of Lew giving his memorable speech in  "All Quiet On the Western Front"


  1. This guy had such a youthful face. From his silent days opposite Garbo to at least 1939, he still looked like a kid.

    I didn't know that about Jane Wyman!

    Great informative piece about another good actor few remember today.

  2. Thanks Claros,
    I liked Lew Ayres very much and feel he was a pretty attractive leading man right up there with Montgomery, R. Scott, and J. Stewart.

    I had forgotten that he was married to Ginger Rogers for a bit! That pairing would have produced some fantastically handsome kids.

  3. Page, besides being a good actor, I think Lew Ayres was one of the best-looking actors of that era. He made a very dashing gangster in Doorway to Hell! I'm a big fan of the Maisie movies, and it was fun to see him in one of them. Of course, Dr. Kildare was just a wonderful series of movies. He and Barrymore were perfect together. Made me want to get sick really fast, sick with something glamorous, that is, nothing like skin disease or colon polyps -- who would want a gorgeous doctor for that kind of stuff!

    Wonderful review of an often overlooked, wonderful actor!

  4. HOLY Tinsel Becks!
    You're hilarious! Take it on the road please.

    In my many years in the medical profession I don't recall a "glamorous" illness but perhaps a really itchy bite from an insect flown in from a glamorous location, (of course the bite would be somewhere that you don't mind it leaving a scar). That should get you in to see Dr. Kildare.

    I'm glad you appreciate Lew as much as I do.

  5. Great post as always. I had read that he made a five-part documentary called "Altars of the East" based upon a book he wrote on comparative religions. He did a follow-up film in the 1970s called "Altars of the World." I am not familiar with either and wonder if anyone has seen it.

  6. Cfb,
    I'm not familiar with that film. I guess I glossed over it while doing research for the post.
    Getting ready to watch the Oscars and I'm impressed with your dedication, desire to catch each film each season. I try to pre-broadcast but it often doesn't work out.

  7. I have read that Ronald Reagan once said that the correspondent in his divorce from Jane Wyman was "Johnny Belinda," though I've since read elsewhere that it was actually Lew Ayres, apparently a certifiable ladies man.
    I didn't know "Unfaithful" was a remake & am now on the lookout for the original.
    [By the way, in the paragraph under the picture of "The Dark Mirror" it says that Ayres appeared in "Johnny Belinda" with Joan Crawford (this is just after the info on "The Unfaithful"/"Unfaithful")]. I've been a fan of Lew Ayres since first seeing him in "Holiday" (on TV) as a child - and not much later, "All Quiet on the Western Front." Very talented actor, truly inspired in "Johnny Belinda," thanks for a very nice profile.

  8. Lady Eve,
    Thanks for the added information. It's interesting that Reagan said that instead of spilling Wyman's dirty laundry.

  9. Yay! It's finally going to let me comment!!! :D

    Wonderful post, as always, Page! In the two films I've seen him in I really enjoyed his handsome and suave presence. :) I look forward to exploring more of his filmography. It surprises me a bit that he's American. I would've assumed with he was British for some reason (must be his manner of speaking?).

    Yes, he and Ginger definitely should've had babies! They were such an adorable couple. I love the photo of them fishing together.

  10. Actually, I guess I've seen 3 of his films now that I think about it. I always forget that he was in HOLIDAY (love that movie!) because when I saw it I didn't yet know who he was.

    Oh, and I totally did not mean to sound creepy/strange when I said he and Ginger
    "should've had babies". :P

    Sorry about all my comments. I guess now that it works I want to keep commenting. Haha.

  11. Audrey,
    Even though Lew starred in many films I think a lot of people confuse him with someone else because he does look so familiar. I love Holiday to and hope it re-airs again soon. It's been awhile since I've seen it and Cary Grant is my favorite leading man. (No offense to the talented Lew Ayres of course).

    Until I did research on Conrad Nagel I didn't realize he had been in so many films either and now every other old film I watch there he is! lol
    I love your dialogue so please keep it coming.

  12. Lew Ayres was a very handsome, charasmatic actor, and very talented as well - I'm especially fond of the movies he did early in his career - he should have been considered for a lot more leading/high profile roles than he was, but of course back then there were those certain actors that were guaranteed to bring the money in to the studios and the mogels weren't going to mess with that. I was surprised to recently find out that he was married to Ginger Rogers (I never knew she was even married-I thought she just lived with her mother...) I would love to see photos of him with his 3rd wife & son - and current photos of his son, wondering if he's as handsome as his dad! (PS: Jane Wyman starred in Johnny Belinda, not Joan Crawford...) :)

  13. ntmg,
    Thanks so much for your comments on Lew. He was a good actor and I agree that he just got unlucky with the studio's pushing their bigger stars during that period.
    I hope you'll have a look in the archives and vist often.

  14. It was simply nostalgic to read about Mr. Ayres' life and career!. I only got to see him in the movies as an older actor with his lovely silver hair. It was pleasant watching him in the TV Series Kung Fu and Highway To Heaven. As he grew older, he looked a lot like the actor Jack Lemmon. I hope that many more dvd's on his movies will be available, so that our future generations will be able to learn from this great man on how to live a fulfilled life.

  15. I know that Ginger Rogers was married five times, and probably her relationship with her mother heavily influenced her relationships with her husbands but I was wondering about the cause for her divorce from Lew Ayers. The timing of it suggests that his conscientious objector status during WWII may have played a role. Since it made him box-office poison for a while (even though he served as part of the medical corps on who saw action and as a chaplains assistant). Comments appreciated.

  16. To the previous poster, if you read Ginger Rogers' autobiography she stated her separation from Ayres was in 1936. It took four years for the divorce to be finalised as Rogers was somewhat hesitant of finalising the divorce hoping a reconciliation would be made. And in the conclusion of her autobiography Rogers stated one of her regrets was the marriage to Ayres did not work out.