As far as Hollywood was concerned, John Deering wasn't an actor; he was a voice. He'd performed in dozens of successful radio programmes in the 1930s, but he didn't act; he spoke. He'd fleetingly achieved a certain glamourous notoriety in 1938, when he'd eloped with a young actress called Irene Mattock -- "The elopement followed by less than two weeks a casual meeting in a Hollywood restaurant, where they renewed an acquaintanceship that started in Chicago four years ago"(1) -- but movie producers only really wanted him to narrate documentary shorts or provide a few helpful lines of voiceover in melodramas. Therefore, when he got the chance to physically appear on celluloid in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), it was only natural that he had to do so in silhouette:
He appears in a short introductory scene. Speaking with the efficient, urgent but measured tone of the 1930s news announcer, he sets out the background to the events that are about to unfold, reminding the audience of a recent spy scandal involving Nazi infiltrators in America -- "The story ... is stranger than fiction, revealing the existence of a vast spy ring operating against the naval, military and air forces of the United States" -- before fading out of the movie and leaving the action to genuine actors like Edward G Robinson and George Sanders.
Warner Brothers designed the film to be a piece of propaganda that would help to convince the public to back American involvement in the war that had just broken out in Europe. Of course, it took a further two years (and Japan's bombing of Pearl harbour) before that happened, but films like Confessions of a Nazi Spy played a crucial part in securing popular support for military action against Germany, and Jack Warner, Edward G Robinson and George Sanders would have had every reason to congratulate themselves.
John Deering would no doubt also have been pleased with his small part in the preparations for the rescue of Europe, but, by then, he had other things on his mind. The most pressing question he faced was, if all you are is a voice, what do you do when you can't speak?
In 1941, at the age of 35, John had a part opposite Marlene Dietrich in the first episode of gossip columnist Louella Parsons' new radio show, Hollywood Premiere. Halfway through the performance, he handed his script to another actor, walked offstage and collapsed. He was taken to hospital, where doctors discovered he'd had a cerebral haemorrhage. They opened up his skull and found a tumour, which they removed. However, the operation damaged his brain and, when he came round, he was unable to form words -- while saving his life, the doctors had destroyed his voice.(2)
The motion picture relief fund offered immediate help as he recuperated but, although his physical condition improved, his voice didn't return. After two years, the fund gave up his case. His wife left him and he was taken in by his sister, who was already supporting two children on her own. For the next eight years, John "did little more than exist,"(3) and relied on his sister entirely. Faced with medical bills that she had no means of paying, she started selling batches of her own recipe salad dressing to grocery stores, and the little money that that brought in kept the household going.
It must have been hard for John to imagine how things could get much worse for him, but they did. In 1951, John's doctor prescribed radical treatment, telling John's sister, "Your brother has come to rely on you too much. If he doesn't get out on his own, he may never recover. You must turn him out of your house." Reluctantly, she did what the doctor said, and John found himself reduced to wandering around Hollywood, getting occasional bits and pieces of menial work.
At one point, when he was employed as a doorman at the CBS Radio theatre for a few months, a reporter on the Valley Times published a story about him. It wasn't a large piece, and it wouldn't normally have led to anything, but Dinah Shore read it and sent it to a columnist on the Hollywood Reporter, who wrote another article on John and talked to television producers about his plight. Memories were jogged, consciences pricked, favours called in and, soon, John started to get work as a background extra in TV shows like "China Smith", "My Friend Irma" and "Big Town".
In 1955, he even got a speaking role, of sorts, in "Dragnet". The audience wouldn't have thought anything of it, but anyone who knew John must have watched that week's episode with a strange mix of emotions.
John appears in one scene at the start of the show, as a man who has been shot in the chest and is minutes from death:
The detectives ask the dying man if he can tell them what happened. His eyes flutter open, his mouth flaps uselessly as he struggles to make a sound and his voice, when it comes, is a thin, barely audible rasp, intelligible only to the cop who leans down right next to him. (It turns out that all he said was, "Don't shoot me again," which is of no use to the case.) The effort of trying to speak proves too much for him, and he dies.
It must have been terribly sad for people who remembered the old John to watch him in that scene, knowing how close to home the performance was. On the other hand, although the role might be a long way from narrating a hit Warner Brothers movie, it's also a long way from the years when he could no more than "exist" in a bed in his sister's spare room.
By this time, around the age of 50, he could get out a few hesitating sentences and was once again earning his own living. A vocal teacher named Paul Thomsen had become interested in him and told reporters that John could be taught to speak perfectly within six months. That wasn't true, but he made much better progress than he had in the whole of the 1940s.
"Even when everyone else despaired," said John's sister, "I never gave up the hope that John would be able to talk again. Now he's doing well and my salad dressing business is coming along fine. It just seems like a miracle."(4)
In May, 1955, John telephoned Louella Parsons. He had good news, and wanted her to announce it in her column. That week, she wrote:
“John Deering, who I have occasion to remember well, telephoned to tell me that he marries Vivian Larson at the Embassy chapel tonight. She was his nurse and he met her six months ago. John is the most courageous young man I know. He was on my radio show, Hollywood Premiere, about seven [actually 14] years ago when right in the midst of the program he had a brain hemorrage and collapsed. Up to that time he had been a top radio actor ... only through sheer will did he bring back his voice little by little. He is still hopeful of complete recovery.”(5)
That didn't happen. Not long after John and Vivian were married, another tumour was discovered growing in his head and he once again became too sick to work. On 28 January 1959, when he was 54, he suffered another cerebral haemorrhage, and died.
Sources: (1)Corpus Christi Times, June 14, 1938; (2)Lowell Sun, June 8, 1945; (3) and (4) San Mateo Times, August 22, 1952; (5)Daily Review, Hayward, CA, May 23, 1955