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Classic Hollywood: Cruella De Vil, darling. And heeeeere's Johnny!

This is Susan King, veteran entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles Times and guardian of the Golden Age of Hollywood galaxy. Every Friday in my Classic Hollywood newsletter, I write about everything I hold near and dear to my heart about Tinseltown and beyond, including notable births and deaths, milestones, fun happenings around town, the latest in vintage titles on DVD and famous actors I've chatted with over the years.

Monday marks the 55th anniversary of one of my favorite Walt Disney animated films, "101 Dalmatians." Who can resist those adorable Dalmatians, including Pongo, Perdy and Lucky? The family film also features one of the greatest Disney villains: Cruella De Vil, who wants to dognap the puppies for Dalmatian fur coats.

In 1991, on the film's 30th anniversary, I had the opportunity to chat with Betty Lou Gerson, who supplied the iconic husky tones and frightening cackle for Cruella. She was then 77 and as sweet as she could be. She also was still surprised at how popular Cruella became.

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"I got the general idea she was kind of a cult figure when years ago I went to my manicurist," she said. "Her niece had an English boyfriend, and when he heard I was there, he came over to meet Cruella."

She arrived at Cruella's distinctive tones by exaggerating her own voice. "The character has a real sweep to it, and I gave my own voice that sweep."

Gerson wasn't doing an imitation of noted flamboyant Southern accent Tallulah Bankhead — at least not intentionally. "I was raised in Birmingham, Ala., and Tallulah was from Jasper, [Ala.] We both had phony English accents on top of our Southern accents and a great deal of flair," said Gerson, who died in 1999 at age 84. "So our voices came out that way."

Betty Lou Gerson, voice of Cruella De Vil in Disney's "101 Dalmatians."
Betty Lou Gerson, voice of Cruella De Vil in Disney's "101 Dalmatians." (Walt Disney Productions)

I Spy

If you enjoyed "Bridge of Spies," then you will want to check out the fun evening of '60s spy flicks Monday on TCM. The espionage begins with the romantic 1966 film "Arabesque," directed by Stanley Donen and starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren; that's followed by the taut 1965 British thriller "The Ipcress File," starring a young Michael Caine as secret agent Harry Palmer. James Coburn plays it suave and funny in 1966's "Our Man Flint," and Alec Guinness is at his best as "Our Man From Havana," from 1960. Also airing are 1963's "The Prize" with Paul Newman and Elke Sommer, and the silly 1966 "Our Man in Marrakesh" — also known as "Bang! Bang! You're Dead!" — with Tony Randall.

DVD Vault

Though Alfred Hitchcock's best-known films from the 1950s include 1954's "Rear Window" and 1958's "Vertigo," he also made the influential black-and-white 1956 semi-documentary style "The Wrong Man," which will be arriving on Blu-ray from Warner Archive on Tuesday. Henry Fonda stars in this true story as a musician who is arrested and tried for crimes that were committed by a robber who looks uncannily like him. Vera Miles stars as his wife.

Around Town

Retro Format Silents, which screens rare and classic films on 8mm, present the 90th anniversary screening Saturday of Buster Keaton's comedy masterpiece "The General" in the Spielberg Theatre at the Egyptian in Hollywood. Cliff Retallick will provide live musical accompaniment.

From the Hollywood Star Walk

Notable births this week including Ann Sothern (Jan. 22); Sam Cooke (Jan. 22); Dan Duryea (Jan. 23): Mariska Hargitay (Jan. 23); Ernie Kovacs (Jan. 23); Randolph Scott (Jan. 23); John Belushi (Jan. 24); Neil Diamond (Jan. 24); Ernest Borgnine (Jan. 24); Etta James (Jan. 25); Mildred Dunnock (Jan. 25); Anne Jeffreys (Jan. 26); Joan Leslie (Jan. 26); Paul Newman (Jan. 26); Joyce Compton (Jan. 27); and Sabu (Jan. 27).

The King of Late Night

Repeats of Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show" from the 1970s to 1992 began airing nightly on the nostalgic Antenna TV on Jan. 1, and they're a must-see for any baby boomer who grew up watching him.

Johnny Carson keeps his cool while wearing a marmoset.
Johnny Carson keeps his cool while wearing a marmoset. (NBC)

The guests run the gamut from Don Rickles to baseball great Lou Brock to Goldie Hawn to Elizabeth Taylor to Joan Embrey and her animals from the San Diego Zoo. Going back and looking at those episodes is like enjoying a big dish of your favorite ice cream. No wonder Carson was the King of Late Night from 1962 to '92.

This Saturday marks the 11th anniversary of Carson's death from emphysema at 79. Here is the L.A. Times obit as it appeared in the paper on Jan. 24, 2005.

For more vintage Hollywood, go to the Classic Hollywood Los Angeles Times Facebook page and follow me on Twitter at @mymackie.

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