Tuesday, August 13

Femme Fatale: Jane Greer

The appellation goes to an actress I've always admired, lovely Jane Greer.  Lemme tell you, folks, she knocked me senseless in 1947s Out of the Past, arguably the best film noir ever made.  (And I say arguably because there are so many superior ones that I get a nosebleed just thinking of the high numbers.)  One thing that is usually required in noir is a bad girl.  Kathie Moffatt in Out of the Past is just about the best bad girl there ever was.  

Greer was born in 1924 in Washington D.C.  Her childhood was apparently a happy one living in a place bustling with so much important activity.  She had a twin brother and won some baby beauty contests.  She was close to her mama who spent a great deal of her time writing children's stories.  By the time Jane had turned 15, however, some of that happiness was marred when she developed a palsy which paralyzed the left side of her face.  While she ultimately recovered from the condition, it has been said that it may have contributed to a look... that vacant, faraway gaze she displayed to perfection.  While still underage she did some singing with big bands and with her good looks it was inevitable she would get involved in modeling.

Modeling would prove to be her ticket to the dream factories of Hollywood.  Mama got her an assignment with Life Magazine who was looking for pretty girls to pose as WACS.  She looked mighty fetching in a uniform or so thought billionaire Howard Hughes.  He ordered his minions, as he often had and would again and again, to find that girl and bring her to me.

Soon both the 18-year old and her mother were in Hollywood, ensconced (if not imprisoned) in an apartment where they would not even meet Hughes for five months.  Once that changed, it has been said that Hughes fell madly in love with her.  Personally, I would alter that to say he fell as madly in love with her as he was capable of doing.  He put her under personal contract (he was associated with no studio at the time) and as she says, he became obsessed with me but at first it seemed as if he were offering me a superb career opportunity.  And while she waited and waited and waited for her big break, he continued to keep her stashed away, telling her not to leave the apartment or see anyone.  He also had both Greer and her mother watched.

Jane was always a feisty lass.  Her mother had encouraged her to stand up for herself and the lessons took hold.  And Hughes liked smartassed women... they super-charged his libido.  If they were brunettes with large breasts, so much the better.  But ultimately Greer's sassy mouth opened and she told Hughes she was tired of all the waiting and the boredom and his orders.  She especially wanted to meet people.  The quirky one ignored her.  It was a mistake.

She and her mother met the bandleader/singer/actor/snob Rudy Vallee.  Both women were impressed by his kindness but no doubt Greer was out to teach a lesson to the mighty Mr. Hughes.  Within mere weeks of meeting him, Greer married Vallee.  (I cringe as I write those words.  Rudy Vallee?  Was she out of her mind?)

Hughes was enraged and would badger Greer constantly to leave Vallee and within a matter of months she did.  She would even live with Hughes for a short while, something not many of the famous actresses associated with him could say.  Nevertheless, when he still found her no work, she managed somehow to get out of her contact with him and out of his home.  On her own she found some film roles and then a few more after she signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures.

By 1946 she had costarring roles in eight so-so films, nothing likely to attract anyone's attention.  But this was the year that was going to put Jane Greer on the map.  First up was the film noir They Won't Believe Me with Robert Young in a rare bad-guy role as a man who betrays three women, Susan Hayward, Rita Johnson and Jane Greer.  Greer would be the one who aids in his comeuppance.  It is too bad this is a rather forgotten film because it is really quite good and gorgeously photographed.

Well, someone hadn't forgotten Greer because somehow she ended up in 1947s Out of the Past and the gods were smiling on all of us.  A femme fatale is a woman who is considered dangerously seductive, a temptress, siren, schemer, enchantress.  She is a black widow whose webs ensnare the mightiest of men.

She would be starring alongside Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas with a strong supporting cast including Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Virginia Huston, Dickie Moore, Steve Brodie and Paul Valentine.  The plot concerns an ex-private eye who wants to live quietly in a small town with a steady girl and a no-nonsense job.  But he is recruited to come back to the mean streets when a mobster he knows strong-arms him into looking for the mobster's girlfriend who has taken a powder.

There is a great deal of anticipation in meeting Kathie Moffatt because for the plot's first act, we haven't seen her at all.  But we hear about her frequently and by the time she walks into a seedy little Mexican bar (above) where Mitchum's character has been hoping to see her for the first time, she has commandeered his attention and ours.  It is total.  She is gorgeous, seductive and obvious trouble.  We can tell by the way her large-brimmed hat hides her face a bit.  We have met one of the greatest two-timing dames in all of movies.  Few have been this cold and steely and capable.

It has been noted in many articles on this film that Greer changes character so seductively, so cleverly to suit her particular needs, most of them dealing with greed and all its components, remote one moment, endearing the next, homicidal to come.  What I have never forgotten from the moment I first saw Greer as Kathie were those expressionless eyes.  They didn't blink.  They didn't move.  She just looked.  You couldn't read her except to say the hair on the back of your head told you something was very wrong.  And then she spoke.  She didn't want to really.  She just expected that you would want to give her her way.  If you didn't, she would try to change your thinking.

It was magic watching this rather new, clean and fresh actress play a role so callous.  How could anything that beautiful be so bad?  I don't know how she had the skillset to pull it off.  But whatever it was, that innate talent for impersonating someone else shone through.  She would ask for assistance, she said, from director Jacques Tourneur, and he would just say, in his faulty English, first half of picture, good girl.  Last half of picture, bad girl.  No big eyes.

Barbara Stanwyck certainly a leader of the pack of film noir actresses with her role in Double Indemnity and Lizabeth Scott, Gloria Grahame and some others are right up there, but no one could ever speak intelligently of the superior film noir female roles without mentioning Jane Greer, the supreme bitch-goddess.  It is a masterful performance, rich in detail and nuance and menace, aided, of course, by sparkling dialogue.  Regrettably, she would never see the likes of this film or this role again.  Many people who may know she played the lead in Out of the Past would have a hard time coming up with another Greer role.  You won't be among them.

But first, a man from her not-so-distant past would re-enter her life and turn it all upside down.  Howard Hughes was never one to turn away from a little revenge.  Much to Greer's dismay, Hughes bought RKO and she would be working for him again.

He made some overtures to her, some tired old lines he had used before.  He still madly loved her, wanted her, would treat her like a queen, giving her the important roles in important films.  So how did she respond?  She married someone else.  Again.  If you think Hughes was pissed the first time this happened, even Greer wasn't ready for his punishment.  He kept her off the screen.  No films.  No publicity.  He did continue to pay her.  Hughes knew both ends of the spectrum... he could command every moment of a woman's time and attention and lavish her with gifts or ignore her totally though continuing to pay expenses or salaries through third parties. It's not likely she much cared at the time.  She married attorney Edward Lasker with whom she would eventually have three sons. 

A couple of years into her banishment, Robert Mitchum was going to make another movie.  The problem?  He had just been through a marijuana bust and an embarrassing trial and no one wanted to work with him or help with a film he was in.  The brawny actor has always said that Hughes was his benefactor, the sole reason he was able to continue as an actor of any note.  The film was a comedy-drama caper film called The Big Steal

Something Hughes always understood was business was business and he put his petty feud with Greer aside long enough to assign her the female lead.  She and Mitchum were good buddies and both liked working with one another again.  I have actually never seen The Big Steal.  Maybe I should change that.

She would again not work for a couple of years and then made a rather interesting film called The Company She Keeps, her last for RKO.  It's a little, black and white B-film where Greer is second-billed to Lizabeth Scott.  Either actress could have played either role and I may have read once that they actually switched roles before filming began.  Greer was an ex-con, in danger of being a repeat offender, and Scott was her parole officer.  And just to add that Hollywood touch, they were both dating the same man.

Most of her films in the early 50s were lacklustre.  If she had the lead, the movies were usually on the bottom half of a double bill.  She was in a topnotch MGM production of The Prisoner of Zenda, but was merely decorative in a supporting role. 

In 1956 she made my second favorite Jane Greer film, Run for the Sun.  It starred Richard Widmark and Trevor Howard and was produced by actress Jane Russell's production company.   It was a jungle opus where Greer and Widmark are on the run on foot trying to avoid a murderous Howard, whom they have both threatened to expose as a Nazi, and several vicious Dobermans.  It wasn't up for any Oscars but it was a damned fun adventure film.  Greer likely remembers the film for an entirely different reason.  She contracted a virus in the Mexican jungles that ultimately required her to have a heart operation.

The following year she was most effective as the second wife of silent film star Lon Chaney in The Man of a Thousand Faces.  James Cagney made the most of the title role and Dorothy Malone in the showier lead female role as the first wife.

For the next 40 years, until she stopped performing altogether in 1996, she did mainly television.  What few films she did were smaller roles, often as a lead actress' mother.  I can't particularly say why that was.  She has said she enjoyed being an actress but perhaps she was not an ambitious one.  Perhaps she saw a greater need in being a good wife and mother than basking in the Hollywood limelight.  Perhaps it was the long arm of Hughes, still pissed off at her rejection.

In 1964, after an absence of some years from the big screen, she joined Susan Hayward and Bette Davis in the Harold Robbins' potboiler, Where Love Has Gone.  The tawdriness of the novel, based loosely as it was on the Lana Turner-Cheryl Crane-Johnny Stompanato murder case, had tongues-a-wagging.  As such, Greer got some attention.  This time she played a probation officer and was lovely as the only genuinely decent character in the sleazy little romp.

One of her last big screen appearances was in an even smaller role in the Jeff Bridges-Rachel Ward-starrer Against All Odds.  She had come full circle, so to speak, since it was a remake of Out of the Past.  Greer played the mother of the Kathie Moffatt character she had played earlier although the mother was not a character in the former film.  She was also reunited with Richard Widmark and had most of her scenes with him.

There was still the tube and she had brief stints in two series, Falcon Crest and Twin Peaks

I wish she had made it big, big, big.  But in my mind's eye, she did make it big in one film.  She will forever be remembered for Out of the Past and she should be.  It is the femme fatale at her most fatale.  If you are unaware of or foggy on this performance, see it.  Out of the Past is on the tube all the time.

Jane Greer died of cancer in Los Angeles in 2001.

Review of The Butler

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