Friday, May 16

Jan Sterling

She was one of those 1950s smart-mouthed actresses that caught my complete attention.  The more platinum blonde she became, the more hard-bitten and the easier it was for trouble to find her.  Jan Sterling was a damned good bad girl and often had that smart mouth shut permanently by movie's end.  Even when she played a good girl, she was still sassy and knew how to bait a man better than a worm on a fishing hook.  Her striking looks often gave way to a malaise and a weariness.  She knew her craft, that was always apparent.  Yet somehow, for some reason, she never made it to the heights that she might have.   

She was born in 1921 Manhattan to a high society clan.  She was a descendant of Presidents Adams.  Raised mainly in Europe, she was tutored in Brazil and later in London and Paris.  She knew from a young age that she wanted to be a movie star.  She attended drama school in London, a city to which she would return later in life and one she always claimed she adored.

By age 17 she was featured in her first Broadway play and over the years would do substantial stage work, despite her yen to be a movie star.  In 1941 she married Canadian actor John Merivale and started a new job in the Broadway musical, Panama Hattie.  How's this for an oddity?  She replaced Virginia Field, who was leaving the show to marry actor Paul Douglas, who would a decade later become Sterling's second husband.

In was, however, her excellent work in the road show company of Born Yesterday that attracted Hollywood's attention.  She would soon costar in 1948's Johnny Belinda as the girlfriend of the man who rapes the mute Belinda.  She was off to a great start in a film that was highly-acclaimed.  Her marriage didn't receive the same acclaim and she was divorced.    It wouldn't be long before she would begin dating Douglas, a lovable bear type and a good actor.

The 1950s would become Sterling's decade and she began with a small role in the Eleanor Parker prison drama, Caged, as a tough inmate, followed with a part as a loose woman in the film noir, Mystery Street, and then as a kidnapper's girlfriend in the William Holden film, Union Station.  The same year she married Douglas.

Mr. and Mrs. Paul Douglas

The following year she made what was arguably her best film, starring opposite Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole.  Douglas played a newspaperman unscrupulously handling a mining accident story and Sterling was sensational as a sluttish wife. She had a great line when she said, I don't go to church.  Kneeling bags my nylons.  Most of the film's characters are scumbags which is likely why the film had little success in its initial release but it has been re-evaluated most favorably over the years.

My favorite Jan Sterling year was 1953 with three films.  In Pony Express she was cute and feisty as a tomboy... hair darkened and shortened and looking pretty boyish opposite gorgeous Rhonda Fleming.  In a second western, The Vanquished, starring John Payne, she appeared as a trashy woman shunned by the town.  Finally there was Split Second, about a group of people held captive by escaped prisoners in a Nevada ghost town that will be decimated the following morning by an atomic bomb.  Sterling had the sympathetic good girl role while Alexis Smith had the unsympathetic female role.

Trying to understand Alexis Smith in "Split Second"

Sterling had the best lines in the John Wayne airplane drama, The High and the Mighty (1954) and received a supporting Oscar nomination for her efforts.  The following year she was back behind bars in Women's Prison, this time in a good but tough girl part as a prisoner out to unseat maniacal warden, Ida Lupino.  The same year she joined Joan Crawford and Jeff Chandler in Female on the Beach.  Crawford married Chandler without knowing him well and soon suspects he is a murderer of a local woman.  Spoiler Alert:  It turns out Sterling did it.  Both of these last two films were B efforts, but damn they were fun.

In 1956 she made 1984 playing a woman the lead character was not supposed to fall in love with.  The same year she was Humphrey Bogart's leading lady in The Harder They Fall, his final film.  In 1957 she made Slaughter on 10th Avenue, a decent murder drama in which she possesses too much information.  The same year she and Douglas had a son they named Adams after those long-ago dead presidents. 

In 1958 she appeared in High School Confidential, a film I loved at the time but in seeing it several years ago I was amazed how astonishingly bad it is.  It concerned a cop (Russ Tamblyn) going undercover at a high school to snatch drug-pushers.  The sexpot role, which might have been played by Sterling a few years earlier, went to Mamie Van Doren who brought any film down a notch or twelve.  Sterling was most sincere as a dedicated teacher.

In 1959 Douglas died at age 59 from a massive heart attack.  Their marriage was apparently a very solid one and she had quite a difficult time handling his sudden passing.  Although she continued to occasionally work in films and did a great deal of television and more plays, her movie career rather petered out.  She and her son moved to London and she became involved in an over 30-year romance with actor Sam Wanamaker.  Her final film, in 1981, after a lengthy absence, was a supporting role as Walter Matthau's wife in First Monday in October

Her final years were beset with illnesses... some strokes and debilitating diabetes.  She dealt with Wanamaker's death and then just a few months before her own passing, her son, who worked for NASA, died at age 48.  She died in 2004, a month shy of her 83rd birthday, at the Motion Picture Country Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif.  I think she is the first actor I have written about to die at the facility known for caring for aging actors.

Jan Sterling was a product of 1950s movie-making which is why she attracted my attention...  well, that and her sassy mouth.  She made a number of rather nothing to crummy films (that I haven't mentioned) but she was the best thing in them.  TCM ought to do a retrospective on her work.  She is worth it.

A Nice-Guy Villain

1 comment:

  1. Another woderful surprise from You: Jan Sterling! Thank You. Carlo