Joanne Dru made only 28 films and 10 of them were westerns. And several of the 10 were big, big westerns and two or three are considered classics. Once you're typed, she once told columnist Hedda Hopper, you're lost. She also confessed to Hopper that while a western is a good bet for the producer and the male star, it seldom does anything for the woman in it. She went on to say that she hated horses (she was always afraid of them) and that she felt nearly the same about covered wagons that would practically shake her teeth loose over rough terrain.
She was born an Aquarian in 1922 in West Virginia. Her father was a druggist and her mother a dressmaker. One of her siblings is the singer/comic/TV host Peter Marshall. It seems her childhood was rather unremarkable which must mean all went fairly well. After her dad died, she left for New York and in no time at all her beauty attracted the attention of the Powers Modeling Agency. Before long she found herself in some Broadway chorus lines. If she could sing and dance, I wonder why she never used those skills on the big screen.
At one point she was dancing at New York's famed Paramount Theater when she met popular crooner Dick Haymes, singing there with the Harry James orchestra. When she was only 19, she married Haymes and in 10 months they had a son. Shortly thereafter they were whisked to Southern California because 20th Century Fox had offered him a movie contract. In the same year I was born, they had a daughter Joanna, who would one day be a classmate of mine at University High School.
Domesticity had sidelined Dru for awhile but she wanted some of the fame and glory that her husband was experiencing. In 1946 she made her film debut in Abie's Irish Rose, which by all accounts was a dog. She was the Irish rose, a Catholic, and Abie, well, Abie was Jewish and therein lies the crux of the comedy as their parents help construct a battle of cultures. Years later Neil Simon could have done something with this but in 1946 it could have killed Dru's career.
The story goes that one day she was in Palm Springs, gorgeously sunning poolside, when director Howard Hawks spotted her. He gave her the last name of Dru and put her into the spectacular western, Red River (1948), with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. They play a rancher and his foster son who are on a huge cattle drive when they have a serious falling out. Wayne is booted off the drive and vows revenge against Clift. Dru meets Clift along the way and they fall in love. Dru later offers herself to Wayne if he will call off his vengeance.
|The lovers of Red River|
A dramatic scene involving most of the cast closes the film with gun-toting Dru in a dramatic star turn ordering the men to realize they really love one another as father and son and to stop the fist fight they're engaged in. I wished she and Clift would have worked together again. I thought they were a truly beautiful couple.
She would work again with Canadian actor John Ireland, whom she met on the set of Red River, quite a number of times. She would, in fact, marry him one week after her marriage to Haymes stormily ended. I suspect there was a little Star Is Born working its way into their relationship. His career had hit a bumpy period and hers was taking off because everyone noticed her after Red River.
One of those who noticed was the mighty John Ford, director of
of some of Hollywood's greatest westerns, some of which, of course, were yet to come. And for now it would be She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, destined to find its rightful place in the pantheon of the mighty Ford westerns. Perhaps the director saw his rival Hawks' big movie but he'd certainly heard all the fuss. And John Wayne could have carried the message because he, too, would be in Ribbon. And Dru was a BFF with Ford's daughter, Barbara.
I think here in only her third film, her second western and her second acclaimed western in a row, she likely got her first good taste of just being the girl. She gave reason for handsome John Agar to deal with his raging hormones. And like with Clift, damn if they weren't a stunning duo.
It was back in those bumpy Conestogas for Wagon Master, not one of Ford's better westerns, but not bad either. In 711 Ocean Drive, a wannabe film noir, she was Edmond O'Brien's girlfriend and together they were avoiding the mob out to get him for gambling issues. She had a little more to do but the film was not much noticed.
|With 2nd husband, John Ireland|
She then made two films that did nothing to enhance her standing. In Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (what a dorky title) she played second fiddle to Clifton Webb's third and thankfully final turn as fussy but brilliant Lynn Belvedere. A Dale Robertson western, Return of the Texan, went nowhere. In 1952 she got a good part in The Pride of St. Louis as baseballer Dizzy Dean's wife.
That same year she made an interesting film, My Pal Gus, with Richard Widmark and Audrey Totter who are the battling exes (over son Gus) and Dru is the kid's understanding teacher. This is the first film I ever saw her in and I would end up seeing them all.
Her most productive years were 1953 and 1954, and if including 1952, these were the years that my romance with movies really began. Since Dru made so many films in these years, she became a staple for me. I was truly enchanted. I found her to be very beautiful. In most films, she was also tough (that's a pioneer woman for you) but she never lost her femininity. I also drooled over her voice (a repeated situation for me over the years with others... I do love beautiful voices). She has said that while making She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, John Ford made her scream her lungs out over and again so that her voice would lower an octave, giving it that deep and sensuous quality.
She mistrusted and fought and ultimately fell in love with Jimmy Stewart in Thunder Bay, about the battle between shrimpers and oilmen in Louisiana. It may have been routine but it was pretty damned exciting for the nine-year old me.
And then came Forbidden. This is the best thing Joanne Dru ever did and is my favorite of all her films. She was beautiful and alluring in a film noir that is basically a ripoff of Rita Hayworth's Gilda. I didn't know that at the time and I don't care now that I do. She is the centerpiece in a tug-of-war between gambling kingpin/husband Lyle Bettger (one of the best bad guys the movies have ever seen) and ex-beau Tony Curtis who has come to Macao to take her back to the U.S. for a court appearance. Of course no one left Universal's backlot. In their roles Dru and Curtis battled a lot and offscreen they apparently barely spoke.
|Acting the femme fatale with Tony Curtis|
Film noir is the type of film Joanne Dru should have lingered in a bit longer. She could be dangerously appealing and while I don't think she was ever a movie bad girl, she certainly would have been an impressive one. That beautiful face, that hot body swathed in gorgeous clothes and that voice... omg that voice... oh, she drove me wild in Forbidden.
If she was a reluctant witness in Forbidden, she would do it again in the oater, Hannah Lee. Her husband would co-star and co-direct. But the film would go nowhere. Neither would Southwest Passage (again with Ireland) gather any momentum, although she was good in the role of a bank robber's girlfriend. Still another western, Siege at Red River, collapsed as did Duffy at San Quentin, The Dark Avenger and Day of Triumph.
Maybe so many misses in a row is why she accepted a silly Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis movie, 3-Ring Circus. It was very popular in 1954 (she was the ringmaster!) but I am sure I watched it with my hands over my eyes. It was more famous for the feud that Dru had with costar Zsa Zsa Gabor.
One of the oddest movies she (or perhaps anyone) ever made was Sincerely Yours in which Dru and Dorothy Malone were rivals over the love of Liberace!!! And Dru won. He was a pianist (oh?) who was going deaf and she was his loyal secretary. Odd as this casting was, in a bold attempt to make Liberace a movie star, I kind of liked it.
|Tickling the ivories|
She and Ireland would be divorced by the end of the decade. Just as it was with Dick Haymes, this marriage, too, would end acrimoniously. There was a lot of press about their fighting, which include physical tussles. She vowed she would never marry another celebrity. And she didn't, despite two more marriages.
The first was a non-pro that I saw her with at the Criterion Theater in Santa Monica, where I worked. I was changing a poster and whatever I was putting up, she made a comment on it. She was behind me when I heard that voice. While I didn't recognize it as hers, I knew that I knew it. You can imagine my glee to turn around and see an actress I was kind of bonkers over.
She wasn't married to this husband for long because he was killed in a car accident. Her last husband, who also left her a widow, was an industrialist who is probably most famous for orchestrating the move of London Bridge from England to Lake Havasu, Arizona.
Her movie career sort of petered out during her marriages to the two non-pros. She made a Disney movie I rather liked, The Light in the Forest, with Fess Parker, James MacArthur, Carol Lynley and Jessica Tandy. I think when one made an Audie Murphy western, for the most part you've come to the end of the trail and that's what happened in The Wild and the Innocent. She and Gilbert Roland gave the western whatever perks it had.
|Helping George Maharis find Sylvia|
She would appear in a supporting role in 1965s Sylvia starring Carroll Baker and George Maharis. It was about a detective's hunt for a missing woman. He interviews many of the woman's friends, one of whom is Dru. Again, she's the best thing in it. She looked older, of course, but still beautiful. She would concentrate on television for a number of years (including a series called Guestward Ho). In 1981, after 16 years off the big screen, she made an ill-advised return in something called Super Fuzz. The less said, the better. It was her last film.
Obviously this was an actress who did something for me. She didn't become one of my four favorite actresses of all time, but she's among a select group (Gloria Grahame, Susan Hayward, Jane Greer, Lizabeth Scott, Maureen O'Hara come to mind) whose work I rarely missed and whose beauty captivated me. Dru was not a great actress as such, but she was a completely competent one who never really got much opportunity to show what she could do. Her fame came out of being fortunate enough to have appeared in a handful of big, important films. She may not have wanted to wear gingham dresses, ride those hated horses and be arm candy to those six-gunned heroes, but it was what it was. And I am certainly glad it was.
This beautiful lady died of a respiratory ailment in 1996.
I am not sure I believe in coincidence but it has not escaped my attention that on this publishing day, seven of Dru's films are showing on TCM.
Review of The Way Way Back