One of the best things about being a classic cinema fan in New York City is the killer retro programming at our beloved Film Forum, and their current program is an all-timer: “Hank and Jim,” a celebration of the parallel careers and personal friendship of Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, tied to the new duo-biography of the same name by the great Scott Eyman. So in commemoration of that series, we’re looking back on a few of our favorite BFFs of the movies’ golden age – movie stars who clearly entertained each other as much as they did the rest of us.
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James Stewart and Henry Fonda
The title of the Eyman book and the Film Forum series is particularly appropriate since, when they met, these two men weren’t yet the bold-faced names they would become – they were two struggling young actors, hustling for jobs in New York City like so many of their peers. But they would remain close as their stars rose, as their careers were interrupted by WWII, and as they struggled with the tricky task of growing old and remaining relevant in an industry that was changing rapidly. (And they maintained that closeness in spite of their opposing political views; Stewart was a conservative, while Fonda was one of the industry’s most noted liberals.) They only shared the screen four times – three really, since they appeared in different segments in the omnibus How the West Was Won – but when they did, their affection for, and comfort with, each other was evident and charming.
Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck
One of the strangest things about Joan Crawford is that the two things general audiences know about her – the feud with Bette Davis and the abuse allegations detailed by adopted daughter Christina in the book and movie Mommie Dearest – so directly contradict her reputation as one of the industry’s most widely-liked people. She forged well-documented friendships with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Helen Hayes, Marlene Dietrich, and ex-husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. But her best Hollywood pal was Baby Face star Stanwyck, with whom she exchanged frequent dinners, letters, and (according to the whispers) perhaps more.
Bette Davis and Claude Rains
Crawford’s noted sparring partner Davis first shared the screen with Casablanca co-star Rains in William Dieterle’s 1939 historical drama Juarez; it was at a fraught moment in her life, just after her divorce from Harmon Nelson, which put her in a state of near-nervous breakdown that resulted in a severe case of pleurisy. But she was so taken with Rains’ friendship and support that they remained close after the film’s release, reteaming three years later for Now, Voyager, and again for Mr. Skeffington in 1944 and Deception in 1946. But they weren’t just frequent co-stars; during Davis’s tumultuous five-year marriage to William Grant Sherry in the late 1940s, the quiet farm home Rains shared with his family in West Bradford Township, Pennsylvania became her safe haven. Thought Deception was their last on-screen teaming, Rains and Davis remained close for the remaining 21 years of his life.
George Burns and Jack Benny
Comedy superstars Burns and Benny were best friends for 50 years, from their days as touring vaudeville performers through their stabs at movies and more successful landings on radio and television. Legend had it that Benny was so amused by his pal that merely looking at Burns sent him into gales of laughter, and their mutual affection was evident in their multiple cross-appearances on each other’s shows. They also spent considerable time together at the fabled “round table” of the Hillcrest Country Club, a Los Angles institution established as an alternative for the Jewish celebrities who weren’t allowed at the city’s “restricted” country clubs. (As a result, a rotation of Jewish comedy superstars, including Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and any number of Marx and Ritz Brothers held court there.) And when Benny died in 1974, he left his friend with one last gift: Burns took over Benny’s leading role in the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, a performance that would win Burns an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy
Though both uproariously funny and absolutely luminous, their onscreen personas were fairly far apart: Harlow was a self-aware bombshell, while Loy was best known for her wife roles – particularly in the Thin Man movies with William Powell. In fact, it was through Powell (who was dating Harlow at the time) that the pair met, and though Harlow and Loy co-starred with Clark Gable in the 1936 comedy Wife Vs. Secretary, they became close friends during the production of Libeled Lady later that year. Lady also co-starred Powell, and the story goes that sometime after the film was made, the trio took a weekend trip together. The hotel clerk had registered Powell and Loy for a room together – he assumed, as many did, that they were married off-screen – but the unmarried Powell and Harlow couldn’t take it over. So he was banished to his own accommodations, and according to Loy’s biography Being and Becoming, “The mix-up brought me one of my most cherished friendships. You would have thought Jean and I were in boarding school we had so much fun. We’d stay up half the night talking and sipping gin, sometimes laughing, sometimes discussing more serious things.” They remained pals until Harlow’s untimely death in 1937.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
As with Loy and Powell, it’s unsurprising that frequent on-screen couple Astaire and Rogers enjoyed each other’s company off-screen as well. (But it’s not a given; Bob Hope and Bing Crosby carried on like old chums in their Road pictures, and while they were friendly off-set, they weren’t exactly friends.) But these two had more in common than just their complementary dancing: they also shared backgrounds (both came up on the vaudeville circuit and were successes on the Broadway stage before movies), political views (both were Republicans), and aspirations to be taken seriously as actors and not “just” dancers. They made their final film together in 1949, but they remained close until Astaire’s death in 1987.
Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor
Their publicists would have you believe that Clift and Taylor were romantic partners; in fact, their first date was to have been an arranged studio affair, with Taylor accompanying Cliff to the premiere of his 1949 picture The Heiress. But the duo were never really romantically involved – he was bisexual, though Taylor subsequently referred to him as not bi, but gay. They co-starred in three films, A Place in the Sun, Suddenly Last Summer, and Raintree County, and it was during production of the latter that Clift was involved in a horrible auto accident that changed his distinctive face and derailed his career. Taylor was with him right after the accident, reportedly leaping into his crashed car and pulling out several teeth that had broken off and lodged in the back of his throat, saving him from choking. She would remain by his side throughout his life, offering support, putting in a good word with directors and studio heads, and doing everything she could to help her friend.
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W.C. Fields and John Barrymore
There are few bonds quite as strong as those shared by drinking buddies, and there weren’t many people who could put it away like Fields and Barrymore. They were part of the “Bundy Drive Boys,” a proto-Rat Pack of hard Hollywood partiers that also included writer Ben Hecht and fellow actors Thomas Mitchell, Roland Young, and John Carradine, among others. They drank together, joked together, and raised hell. The party didn’t last long; when Barrymore died in 1942, Fields reportedly muttered at his gravesite, “The ranks are thinning.” Fields would die four years later.
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
The worst-kept secret in Hollywood, of course, was that Hepburn and Tracy, who co-starred in nine films (from 1942’s Woman of the Year to 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), were romantic partners for the 25 years between them, though they lived separately and kept the relationship private because Tracy’s wife Louise wouldn’t grant a divorce. Hepburn only acknowledged the affair after Louie’s death in 1983, but wrote and talked about it extensively for the rest of her life. However, current whispers hold that their relationship was more complicated than that – that the affair was, in fact, an elaborate cover for their own attractions for members of the same sex. Whatever the case may be, they certainly loved each other, and spent much of their time in each other’s company on- and off-set.
Cary Grant and Randolph Scott
This one is a little more widely acknowledged: that virile leading men Grant and Scott, who shared a Santa Monica beach house dubbed the “Bachelor Hall,” may in fact have had more than just a “bromance.” It’s a story told by Scotty Bowers, the self-proclaimed “gentleman hustler” who arranged gay rendezvouses for closeted stars, in his memoir Full Service (and the forthcoming film Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood), who says that the duo not only fooled around together, but that Bowers engaged in three-way “sexual mischief” with them. In a 2011 book, Grant’s daughter Jennifer dismissed the stories, and maybe it was just an act. But either way, Grant and Scott certainly seemed to have a good time.