Tuesday, February 25

Sheree North

In the heyday of the great studios, when their contract stars misbehaved or threatened retirement or didn't renew their contracts, studio heads usually had someone waiting in the wings to take over.  My favorite studio, 20th Century Fox, is a great example of this and at one time it spanned three decades and four blondes. 

When Alice Faye walked out on her contract in 1945, Fox polished up Betty Grable who then had a great run until the mid-50s.  When Grable and Marilyn Monroe costarred in How to Marry a Millionaire, it was apparent to the studio, critics and the public that Grable's time was winding down and that Monroe had already eclipsed her.  Of the three, Monroe, by far, was the most dazzling but she was also the most ill-behaved.

And so we come to Sheree North, the least well-known of the four and she would never reach the heights of stardom the other three did.  The funny thing is she was the most talented.  While her singing voice was dubbed, no one in this quartet could dance as well as North nor were any of them as good at dramatic acting. 

She was born in 1932 in Los Angeles to a single mother who was a seamstress.  When the mother married, North would grow up believing her stepfather was actually her real father.  Almost as soon as she could walk, she could dance and determined she would be a great dancer, perhaps in ballet.  At 10 she was dancing in USO shows and at 13 was part of a troupe that performed regularly at Los Angeles' Greek Theater.  At 15 she was married, at 17 a mother and at 18 a divorcee for the first time.  She would ultimately be married four times.

Perhaps like a lot of young single women who desperately coveted a showbiz career,  she took some gigs to make a buck.  Sometimes they had unsavory aspects.  She would briefly become a Vegas showgirl while she took up with mobster Bugsy Siegel's partner.  She would dance in an 8mm home movie which would resurface in 1954, after she signed with Fox, with few problems.

Someone spotted her dancing at a Santa Monica club which led to a role in a chorus in the Bob Hope movie, Here Come the Girls (1953).  A Broadway stint in the Broadway musical Hazel Flagg, where she did a highly-touted jitterbug resulted in her repeating the role in the film, which became a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy, Living It Up.  Fox, on the lookout for someone, anyone, to step in for the frequently unreliable Monroe, signed North to great fanfare. 

Her hair was bleached blonde and when it was discovered she had the same measurements as Monroe, North was dressed in
many of Monroe's costumes.  The noises from the Fox publicity machine got so loud that North appeared on the cover of Life magazine.  Oddly enough though, for all the glamour buildup, she was under contract to the studio for only four years and would make just seven films for them.

She first put on her tap shoes for Fox in 1955 as a replacement for Monroe in How to be Very, Very Popular, a piece of complete lunacy that well finished the career of costar Betty Grable.  Hollywood types like to say Monroe wasn't very smart but she was brainy enough to turn down this tale of two showgirls hiding out at a college from mobsters who wanted to kill them.  Monroe wasn't adverse to being in a future picture where she cavorted with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis doing virtually the same thing.

The following year North did The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (you did see it, right?).  It concerned a married couple who both join the military, only the husband is denied because of a medical condition.  He then becomes jealous of his spouse being accepted.  This premise is no doubt why Fox referred to the film as a "hilarious romp."  You be the judge of that.  It did costar the very dull and unsexy Tom Ewell, who had just completed The 7-Year Itch with you-know-who.

By far the best musical she did at Fox was The Best Things in Life Are Free, costarring Gordon MacRae, Dan Dailey and Ernest Borgnine as real-life songwriters De Sylva, Henderson and Brown.  The mainly fictional story was little more than a showcase for their music but at that level it was the berries.  North had two sizzling dance numbers, The Black Bottom and The Birth of the Blues.  Ah, so this is why she was hired at Fox.  The lady was stunning in her dance shoes.  For those who are interested, there's a nearly 8-minute segment of the latter at the end of this posting.  She is performing with famed ballet dancer Jacques d'Amboise and my favorite boy movie singer, MacRae, sings the song.

It was my last posting on Jeffrey Hunter that put me in mind of Sheree North because the next three films were with him.  Her musical career was virtually over and that's a damned shame.  In a B-film, The Way to the Gold, she was a waitress in love with prospector Hunter.  They were also together in No Down Payment, about the drama of four couples living in a California subdivision, but she was married to lush Tony Randall.  She had a small part in In Love and War as Robert Wagner's main squeeze.  I quite liked the latter two films but none were successful.  A silly part opposite Pat Boone in the nauseating Mardi Gras and it was goodbye 20th Century Fox.

She would still make 18 more movies before she quit altogether in 1998 and she would do some stage work, but primarily she became a television actress.  I think she must have appeared in guest shots on every television series ever made.  She also made many TV movies.  On the TV front, she might recall her as Blanche Devereaux's sister in The Golden Girls and Kramer's mother in Seinfeld and Lou Grant's sultry galpal in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Of those 18 remaining movies, her hair color darkened, the bombshell image (which she always disliked) was old history and she became a dramatic actress of exceptional range. She usually played weary, slightly tarnished women who had been used and discarded.  Some of her best roles, all supporting, were as a tough waitress in the barnstorming skydiver film, The Gypsy Moths, and as Burt Lancaster's former love in the western Lawman.  She played a similar role opposite John Wayne in his final film, The Shootist.

Never mind the exceptional dancing or the thoughtful dramatic acting, she always said that when she died (in 2005), she would be most remembered for being the standby Marilyn Monroe.  Throughout North's life she would appear in numerous tributes to MM, would constantly be asked questions about those days and would portray Monroe's mother in a TV movie.

The following is one of my favorite musical numbers in any movie:

Whatever You Say, L.B.


  1. Interesting story.
    What a sexy, risque little dance number!
    I never knew she started out in the movies as a "blonde bombshell" and dancer.
    I only remember her in, as you said, every television series ever made!
    And I liked her...she played a girlfriend, or mother, or sister...
    Had a different sounding voice if I remember right?
    Liking the variety of posts...

  2. Thank you for remembering her here. She did seem to play a part in almost every tv series, throughout the 1960's on through the late 90's and I was appalled and sad that she was not recognized in the Emmy Awards, "In Memoriam" montage in 2006. She deserved to be.