Wednesday, March 28

Vera Miles

She was a radiant movie star of the 1950s and 1960s.  She made a few very important and famous films.  She worked with some of the best directors, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford among them, and some luminous costars.  She always worked in television but in later decades that was her primary medium... never a series but many guest star roles in nearly every popular show of the day and a number of television movies.  She was usually blonde, sometimes brunette and always beautiful.  She really should have been a bigger star than she was.  She certainly had the talent. Maybe it was a lack of interest or true ambition on her part.  She never much played the Hollywood game... that can pose a problem if you want to be big.  Then she left... and we have heard almost nothing of her since.

In the most unusual of ways, Vera Miles is in the news again today... literally today.  My guess is that she does not care for that.  She probably wouldn't care much for this writing either.  Her most famous movie is Psycho and it, too, is back in the news.  Fox Searchlight is making Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (look for a title change).  Many books and articles have been written about this film and it was only a matter of time that a movie would follow.  Anthony Hopkins is playing Hitchcock, Helen Mirren his wife Alma Reville who was also his confidante and sometimes-writer; James D'Arcy will be Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates, Scarlett Johannsen will be Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel will portray Vera Miles.

Her early life was undistinguished although she did become a Miss Kansas and then was third runnerup in a Miss America contest, which led to the road to Hollywood.

What a beauty

The first time I saw her was in 1953's The Charge at Feather River, a 3-D western.  She was a white girl stolen and raised by the Indians.  A cavalry troop is sent out to retrieve her and her sister.  What they don't know is that Miles is the girlfriend of a great warrior who comes after her.  She is not so nice and gets her comeuppance.  She registered in my brain due to this film and I would forever watch for her movies.

I saw her next in Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955)... yes, ok, so I liked Tarzan movies and I particularly liked Gordon Scott swinging through the trees.  Apparently Miles liked him, too, because she married him.  She was married four times.  Another actor, Keith Larsen, managed to join the roster for a brief spell.

I don't think anyone other than Gordon Scott and I paid much attention to her up to this point but that all changed the following year when the great John Ford hired her to play Jeffrey Hunter's girlfriend in the superior John Wayne western, The Searchers.  In some circles this is considered the finest western ever made.

She made three more fine films in 1956.  First up was 23 Paces to Baker Street where she was blind playwright Van Johnson's girlfriend and was helping him solve a murder.  Then she portrayed one of her wicked roles in Autumn Leaves as Cliff Robertson's former wife who is now dating his father. 

I think part of what made me gravitate toward Miles is that she could play a villainess with the same intelligence that she brought to her sweet wife roles.  She had a wonderful versatility. 

Her final film in 1956 was the first film she made for Alfred Hitchcock.  He had previously liked her work in one of his television episodes.  She costarred as Henry Fonda's wife in The Wrong Man.  He was wrongly accused of murder and she was the spouse who stood by him. 

Hitchcock took a shine to her.  He had some actresses over the years that he took a special interest in... Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly, among them, and after Miles, Tippi Hedren would fulfill a similar role.  Hitchcock loved blondes and Miles became blonder.  What did not happen with her that did happen with some of the others was that she didn't become fodder for his weird sexual dramas nor did she shower him with the attention he wanted.  He was already having issues with her when he signed her to star opposite James Stewart in the superb 1958 thriller, Vertigo, but she had to drop out due to pregnancy.  (Kim Novak owes her a debt of gratitude.) 

I remember visiting New York in 1957 with my parents when they dropped me off at a large movie house (the first time I ever saw someone play an enormous organ before the movie started).  The film was Beau James, just about the only Bob Hope movie I ever enjoyed... probably because it was not a comedy.  It was about New York... that is one of its former mayors, the very colorful Jimmy Walker.  In the movie Hope was married to Alexis Smith but carrying on a long affair with Miles.

In 1959 she did manage to make the first of two movies with Jimmy Stewart, playing his wife in the very good The F.B.I. Story.  And in 1960 she made another fine film and a very unusual one, Five Branded Women.  She and Silvana Mangano, Jeanne Moreau, Barbara Bel Geddes and Carla Gravina actually had their heads shaved to play Yugoslav village women accused of consorting with the enemy. It was a war movie featuring women and I loved it.

With Psycho costars John Gavin and Janet Leigh

Then came Psycho.  Hitchcock had either forgiven her or turned his jowl.  She and Janet Leigh played sisters but had no scenes together.  Leigh's character is murdered before Miles ever comes on the screen, which therefore makes the above picture little more than a publicity shot.  Twenty-three years later, she and Tony Perkins would make Psycho II, not a bad followup.

Next came one of my favorite Miles' films of them all, 1961's Back Street.  Critically it was panned big time, but who pays attention to critics?  She co-starred with Susan Hayward and John Gavin (another Psycho costar), who were adulterous lovers.  Miles was riveting as Gavin's wife, a vicious, alcoholic harridan.

In 1962 she made perhaps her last truly good film, another fabulous John Ford western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Former costars James Stewart and John Wayne were both aboard as love interests.  You just might hear a little more about this film later.

She hopped aboard the Disney train for a carload of films.  She would do mother, girlfriend and friend roles that were wholesome... bad girl no more.  What else would you expect at Disney?  The first two were both with Brian Keith, a perfect match for Miles.  A Tiger Walks (1964) had the big cat loose in a small town.  Sounds corny but I found it surprisingly good.  Better yet was Those Calloways the following year about a rural New England family and their mission to provide a sanctuary for geese.  I had many a tear in my eye during this one.

Where is she today?

She still worked for 30 more years.  When one considers television, Vera Miles was always one of the busiest actresses around.  But then had she tapped out?  Had she worked too much?  Was it her personal life that made her flee the public eye?  I've always wondered if it was her personal life that has kept her from writing a bio.  She certainly has a story in there.  Wish I could read it.

She has probably been contacted when some of her famous costars passed away or when something has come up regarding Psycho, but she has steadfastly refused to grant interviews or take part in any public appearances. 

NEXT POSTING:  Favorite Film #45

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