George Sidney, among the last surviving directors of MGM’s beloved Technicolor musicals of the 1940s and early ‘50s, died Sunday of lymphoma at his Las Vegas home. He was 86.
At his side were his wife, Corinne Entratter Sidney, and his stepson, Ben.
In addition to becoming the master of lighthearted entertainment, Sidney directed such Academy Award-winning short subjects as “Quicker ‘n’ a Wink” and “Of Pups and Puzzles” in the early 1940s, and was the longest-serving head of the Directors Guild of America.
Sidney, who retired from directing in 1968, was warm and charming, but so unwilling to call attention to himself that his adoring public knew him only through his movies they loved--musicals such as “Anchors Aweigh,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “The Harvey Girls,” “Kiss Me Kate” and “Show Boat;" swashbucklers such as “Scaramouche” and “The Three Musketeers;" and the Esther Williams aquacades “Bathing Beauty” and “Thrill of a Romance.”
At one point in his stellar, 29-feature career, Sidney had 15 box office hits in a row.
Howard Keel, who starred in Sidney’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Kiss Me Kate” and “Show Boat,” reached at his home in Palm Springs, called Sidney “a wonderful, wonderful man, a great director with the camera, which he knew in and out. He was very kind to me when I needed kindness....”
Kathryn Grayson, echoing her “Kiss Me Kate” and “Show Boat” co-star, said: “George could do with the camera things that nobody else could do. He did my first screen test when I was a teenager and was wearing high heels for the first time. He was so great with me, and I was a good friend to him through all three wives.”
Novelist and screenwriter Sidney Sheldon, who adapted “Annie Get Your Gun” for the screen, remembered Sidney as “a gentle man--and a gentleman, an absolute pleasure to work with. He was a giant.”
“He was Mr. MGM,” Sidney’s friend Robert Stack told a Las Vegas newspaper. “He was the best. God knows his credits certainly prove it.”
Sidney’s interests and accomplishments extended far beyond his flair for light, lively entertainment. At 34, he became the youngest president of the Directors Guild, serving longer than anyone else, from 1951 to 1959 and 1961 to 1967.
For steering the guild through the bleak years of the Hollywood blacklist era, Sidney received a unique gold medal, and in 1998 became the first recipient of the guild’s president’s award.
Speaking of the anti-Communist hysteria of the ‘50s, Sydney told a Times reporter in 1986, “I was called a Communist by some people and a reactionary by others. Someone called my father and said, ‘What happened to your son? Did you know he was a Communist?’ My father said, ‘My son is a Communist? Three Rolls-Royces and he’s a Communist?’”
Current guild President Martha Coolidge said in a statement Monday: “The Directors Guild is extremely saddened by the passing of our former president George Sidney. His distinguished career as a director, along with his years of service and dedication to the DGA, were an inspiration to us all. He will be greatly missed.”
Born into show business in New York, Sidney was the son of Hazel Mooney, of vaudeville’s headlining Mooney Sisters, and Lewis Sidney, an executive with Loews Inc., parent company of MGM.
He was only 5 when he took the title role in the 1921 Tom Mix western “The Littlest Cowboy.” Sidney went to work as an MGM messenger boy when he was still in his teens.
But he was soon directing shorts, including the “Little Rascals” series and, by the age of 20, scores of screen tests. Among those who stepped from Sidney’s tests into major careers were--other than Grayson--Barry Fitzgerald, Ava Gardner, Donna Reed, Ann Sheridan and Van Heflin.
By putting them in star-turn roles, he also played a crucial role in the careers of such leading ladies as Ann-Margret and Esther Williams.
In 1937, Sidney directed an experimental 3-D short, and in 1953 he directed one of the best 3-D features, “Kiss Me Kate,” starring Keel, Grayson and, in one of her best roles, Ann Miller.
He was a pioneer in combining live action with animation, using it to depict Alfalfa’s grumbling stomach in a “Little Rascals” short and, more famously, in having Gene Kelly dance with Jerry the Mouse in “Anchors Aweigh.”
That led Sidney to financing and helping to found Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1944, serving as its president for a decade.
In the ‘50s, with MGM’s golden era over, Sidney became head of production for Harry Cohn at Columbia, where he directed “Pal Joey,” “Jeanne Eagels” and “The Eddie Duchin Story.”
During bomb testing after World War II, Sidney was assigned by the Air Force to supervise the Atomic Energy Commission Film Program at Eniwetok Island.
His work in using film to illuminate heart functions and diseases earned his first honorary doctorate, from Hahnemann Medical College in 1954. His latest honorary doctoral degree will be presented to his widow in June by the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where he had recently lectured.
In retirement, Sidney pursued interests in paleontology and art history and earned a law degree at USC. A gifted photographer, he shot more than a million photos, many featuring his stars, including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
Sidney’s marriage to drama coach Lillian Burns ended in divorce. He then married his close friend Edward G. Robinson’s widow, Jane, and lived with her in Robinson’s Beverly Hills mansion until moving to Las Vegas. Upon her death in 1991, he married Corinne Entratter, whom he had known since she was the wife of his good friend, the late Jack Entratter, president and entertainment director of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Corinne Entratter appeared in Sidney’s film “The Swinger,” starring Ann-Margret.
Sidney’s final weeks were marked by visits and phone calls from friends and colleagues, ranging from Bobby Rydell to Tony Curtis. On the road with the musical version of “Some Like It Hot,” Curtis called him nightly to chat in Hungarian, the language of their fathers. Singer Phyllis McGuire regularly read him Scripture at his bedside.
At the Mayo Clinic’s Scottsdale, Ariz., branch, Sidney refused the surgery or chemotherapy that might extend his life by two months.
“We’re in show business, we know how the script ends,” he told his doctors and his wife.
“I don’t want a funeral,” Sidney told his wife. Self-effacing to the end, he said, “I’ve been to too many funerals, and I don’t want anybody to lose a day’s work on account of me.”