The Martha Holliday Centennial

Born 100 years ago today, actress and dancer Martha Holliday (Harriette Olson, 1922-1970). We’re not certain whether Holliday would have made it into our annals if not for not that significant benchmark, but we learned about her as the date was approaching, and her career was relevant to many of the kinds of movies we write about, so why not?

Holliday’s biggest and best known credit is her role as the ingenue in George White’s Scandals (1945). As such, she is fourth billed, behind Jack Haley, Joan Davis, and Phillip Terry. Unusually, the comic couple were the bigger stars in this film and hence were billed over the romantic leads. It’s a clunky picture, made for RKO, but not nearly as slick and lavish as the Fred and Ginger musicals or the Ziegfeld pictures at MGM. And unfortunately, Holliday didn’t score in this, her big shot. It’s her only starring picture, if you count her as the star. She had a walk-on in The Enchanted Cottage (1945) with Robert Young and Dorothy Maguire, and then was sent down to the minors, Republic, where she played small supporting roles in The Flame (1947) and I, Jane Doe (1948) both with Vera Ralston and John Carroll, and Lulu Belle (1948) with Dorothy Lamour and George Montgomery. And that was it for her film career!

Holliday was also a pin-up model. Her most famous work was for Yank magazine in 1945:

“Yank”, indeed.

The explanation for Holliday’s brief time before the movie cameras is obvious: aspirations to the contrary, she was no thespian. She was a dancer. She’d been at the terpsichorean art since her childhood in Oklahoma City. Starting in her teenage years she danced in night clubs. She spent a year dancing with the Pro-Arte Ballet Company in Havana, Cuba. Prior to her short-lived RKO contract, she was a dance instructor on Warner Brothers musicals for three years. She apparently had an on-camera moment or two in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), but those were cut, though she did work with the cast in choreography. According to this article (and a believable comment thereto), she met Walter Huston during the picture, and became his long-time kept mistress. The fact that Huston died in 1950, and Holliday seems to have stopped getting cast at around the same time, would seem to support a thesis that his connections (besides her unquestioned talent as a dancer) were what kept her working in the movies. She was only 48 when she died two decades later, generally not a sign of health and happiness.

For more on the variety arts, including revue entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.