Friday, August 23

John Payne

I don't know that John Payne would be on anyone's best actor list or that he would even be thought of in the upper echelons of Hollywood history.  He was, however, a completely capable and reliable actor, which is likely how most actors should be categorized.  More to the point is I really quite liked him.  His career was coming to an end around the time I discovered movies but I made certain to catch up on most everything he did.

His films completely entertained me.  Interestingly, there were two parts to his movie career and the latter part featured him in at least two genres that I have gone on notice as being pretty crazy about.  In the 1940s he was primarily a musical star at 20th Century Fox.  Later on he was the lead in a number of "B" film noirs and westerns.  So it shouldn't be too hard for you regular readers to know why Payne attracted my attention.

He was born in 1912 in Roanoke, Virginia, to a well-healed gentleman farmer with colonial roots and a mother who was an amateur singer.  He was a shy youngster but his childhood appeared happy if not undistinguished until he attended several colleges.  He graduated from Roanoke College and then studied music at Juilliard and took acting courses at Columbia University.  While at Columbia he earned some bucks appearing in low-budget musicals and doing some wrestling.

He was spotted in a revue by a Hollywood talent scout which led to a small role in 1936s Dodsworth.  He would move between Paramount and Warner Brothers in small roles where nobody particularly noticed him.  He sang on the radio with Betty Grable and she may have had some influence in his signing on with her home studio, Fox.  Here is where Payne's career would take off and where he would make his best films.

My mama was crazy about Payne's singing voice and equally wild about Alice Faye and Betty Grable, both of whom would be his costars in several films, and I would often hear their names around the house and Mom would sing their songs.  He would star opposite some of Hollywood's most beautiful leading ladies, starting with Linda Darnell in 1940s Star Dust, which was partially based on her start in filmland.  That same year Payne would appear opposite John Barrymore and Anne Baxter in The Great Profile and with Walter Brennan as part of the horsey set in Maryland.

Still in 1940 he would first appear with both Faye and Grable in the delightful Tin Pan Alley.  They were singing sisters and he was a song promoter and the tunes were sensational.  He would stick with Faye in The Great American Broadcast, Weekend in Havana and Hello Frisco Hello.  He would go on to warble with Grable in Footlight Serenade, Springtime in the Rockies and a great musical favorite of mine, The Dolly Sisters.  He was Fox's leading boy singer and therefore handled those chores opposite ice skater Sonja Henie in Sun Valley Serenade and Iceland when they tried to turn her into a movie star.  In my opinion 20th Century Fox made the best musicals of the period after MGM.  The plots for all of these films were basically the same... boy meets girl, boy fights with and loses girl, boy gets girl back and they sing through it all.  I loved Fox musicals and their stars.

With Betty Grable
Stuck in and among those early 1940s musicals was Remember the Day, a romantic tearjerker costarring Claudette Colbert and it demonstrated what a good straight, dramatic actor Payne really was.  And it was followed up some years later with the very fine The Razor's Edge, Somerset Maugham's tale of a man searching for the meaning of life. That role went to Tyrone Power and Payne played a wealthy man whom Gene Tierney weds though she loves Power. Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb and Herbert Marshall (playing Maugham himself) rounded out the cast of one of my alltime favorite Fox films.

All 40s actors made war films and the first of four films he would make with feisty Maureen O'Hara was in To the Shores of Tripoli, which was a rousing success.  Oddly enough, his last film with her would be called Tripoli (1950), but it was one of those B adventure flicks that both were doing by that time.  The second Payne-O'Hara pairing came in Sentimental Journey and it certainly was.  A dying wife brings in an orphan into her home so her husband will have someone to love and care for after her death.  Despite its sadness, it was an enormously popular film, although none of the Payne-O'Hara films were as popular as the next one.

Defending Kris Kringle

Miracle on 34th Street is the film for which Payne is most remembered, thanks as much to annual showings in your living room.  And if you like it, you can thank Payne for he is the one who brought it to Fox's attention and begged them to make it.  He played the idealistic attorney who defended Kris Kringle in court.  Payne has always said it was his favorite film... not just his favorite film that he was in but his favorite film period.  This was also the film that would end his contract at Fox.

Once leaving Fox, Payne's career never hit such high notes again although he still worked for another 30 years.  He made two or three good film noirs and his westerns were all fairly mediocre.  What was apparent in both genres was how much tougher he had become, often angry, even mean and vindictive.  Gone was the sweet boy singer image he had cultivated to such success.

He moved into what can only be called his beefcake period.  I recall him shirtless in many a movie magazine, usually sporting a hairy chest but sometimes not.  A lot of poses were butch and tough and often had a beautiful co-star in his grip.

My favorite Payne noir was 99 River Street with the always watchable Evelyn Keyes, sultry Peggie Castle and burly Brad Dexter.  It concerned the wet, dark streets of a cabbie who is out to find his wife's killer while himself being the only suspect. 

Kansas City Confidential with frequent costar, Coleen Gray, also put Payne in his best noir light.  Larceny and especially Slightly Scarlett were favorites too.  The latter costarred Rhonda  Fleming (a female version of Payne, actually, in the Hollywood hierarchy), with whom he would work three more times.  He would board ships on the high seas in a half dozen films, never something one would generally want to show on a list of thespian accomplishments.

His westerns weren't much better although I feel certain I have seen them all.  His boyish face now had a hardened, weathered look that did make him ideal for oaters.

He was not as ideal as a husband to actresses, apparently, for he married and divorced two of them.  The first was to Anne Shirley, a lovely brunette I so enjoyed in the excellent noir, Murder, My Sweet, and then to MGM musical star Gloria DeHaven.  Payne would ultimately be married a third time to a non-pro for over 46 years.

His career was slowed down considerably in 1961 when he was hit by a car in New York.  He had serious lacerations, fractures and eventual scarring.

I once had the pleasure of seeing John Payne and Alice Faye in person... or at least from fourth row center when they reunited for the musical Good News in the mid-70s.  I didn't really think it was a good vehicle for either of them but they were together again and singing so the experience was certainly a plus for me.

Payne was one of the Hollywood rich ones... in the club with Hope, Crosby, Scott, MacMurray, Astaire and that crowd.  He shrewdly invested in real estate and even made some rewarding film deals.  He was always a personable guy, approachable, unassuming.  He made a lot of money in California but never let Hollywood overtake him.  He once said acting is very hard and I was never addicted to it.

John Payne died in 1989 of a heart ailment at his home in Malibu.

Answers to 8/20 Picture Quiz:
 1. Thoroughly Modern Millie
 2. Laura
 3. Gone with the Wind
 4. Trapeze
 5. Sophie's Choice
 6. The Women
 7. Singin' in the Rain
 8. My Week with Marilyn
 9. The Grass Is Greener
10. Since You Went Away

The Directors


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