If Phillipa Fallon was crushed by her failure to win over agent Barron Polan with her musical, she did not let her hurt feelings get in the way of her next opportunity. “She really believed she had this massive future,” Thayer Culver told CONELRAD, explaining what kept her going. And like so many other would-be stars before (and after) her who were convinced of a bright future, Phillipa engaged the services of a publicist.
The identity of the person who took on Phillipa’s publicity burden is not known with absolute certainty, but most indications point to Russell Birdwell – one of the greatest practitioners of the dark art ever to walk the earth.* The flamboyant huckster was perhaps best known for promoting himself (Time magazine called him “the flashiest flack in the business”), but he also had high-wattage clients such as Carole Lombard, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Kate Smith and Stanley Kubrick among many others. Birdwell’s major claim to fame was his three-year publicity campaign for Gone With The Wind. The famous search to find the actress to play Scarlett O’Hara was staged by Birdwell and inspired by his earlier stunt to find the star of the 1938 film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Phillipa’s daughter remembers Birdwell spending time at the Tower house and, at some point in 1957 (or before), Bill Manhoff collaborated with the super-publicist on an un-produced screenplay. The script, entitled Daughter of Violence aka The Blonde Gun, was touted in a Los Angeles Times movie industry column on March 21, 1957 as a vehicle for one of Birdwell’s lower-tier clients, Zsa Zsa Gabor.
If Phillipa’s publicist was, in fact, Mr. Birdwell, he was not exactly living up to his reputation for working miracles. CONELRAD could find no more than a few mentions of Phillipa in columns from this period. The first appearance of her name in print, however, supports something that Phillipa’s daughter told us about the publicist’s (whoever it was) strategy. Specifically, on the society page of the October 7, 1955 edition of the Los Angeles Times, the following “news” was published:
Miss Fallon Feted
Bill Manhoff gave a party for Miss Phillipa Fallon at the Saratoga restaurant.
The above item, according to the daughter, reflected the publicist’s edict that Phillipa was to present herself in public as a single woman. The purpose of this subterfuge was to make her more desirable to columnists and casting agents. The fruits of the tactic were negligible professionally, but had a definite impact at home – if the daughter remembers the rules of the publicist so clearly so many decades later, how could anyone conclude otherwise?
Among the other mentions scored by Phillipa’s publicist:
- In his May 14, 1956 column for the Hollywood Reporter Mike Connolly included this leering (and no doubt planted) line: “Phillipa Fallon showed at a soiree wearing a deep-V gown and our tablemate cracked: ‘If she was poured into that dress she must’ve forgotten to say when!’”
- Phillipa appeared as a shuffleboard model in a photograph that accompanied a September 16, 1956 column by Steve Ellingson in which she is described as a “television actress” (there is no evidence that Phillipa has any television acting credits).
- Phillipa appeared as a model promoting Christmas woodcut figures in another Steve Ellingson column on October 27, 1956. Both the caption for the photo and the column identify her as an NBC-TV singer. CONELRAD could find no evidence of this being true and her daughter does not recall her mother ever singing on television.
Filming of the Birdwell-directed / Albert Zugsmith-produced B-movie began on February 11, 1957 and a few days later (February 15th) Phillipa rated a mention in Edwin Schallert’s movie column in the Los Angeles Times:
Phillipa Fallon, night-club singer observed by Director Russell Birdwell, will do a straight dramatic part in “The Secret Diary of Joseph Stalin” [Ed. Note: yet another version of the film’s evolving title] at U-I.Phillipa appears in several scenes in the film, but has only one brief line of dialogue. As Nina, the assistant to one of Stalin’s torture maidens, Phillipa says in a slight Russian accent: “The girl next, Olga will make her talk.”
Not surprisingly, Phillipa’s modest screen debut went unmentioned in the few publications that bothered to review the film when it opened in late April of 1957. Today the movie is remembered, if at all, for the Natalia Daryll head-shaving sequence and the terrible acting of Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Regardless of the quality of her first film, the experience allowed Phillipa to meet producer Albert Zugsmith. Zugsmith would, of course, have influence over her casting in her most famous role—that of the Beat Poetess—in his 1958 production, High School Confidential!
* CONELRAD contacted the administrator of the Russell Birdwell Papers at UCLA in May of 2010 and we were informed that the collection had not yet been processed. When the collection is processed and available for researchers, we will review it to see if our hunch about Birdwell being Phillipa Fallon’s publicist is accurate. We will update this post at that time.