Tuesday, May 27

June Allyson

In MGM's 1974 tribute to itself, That's Entertainment, hostess Elizabeth Taylor referred to her Little Women costar, June Allyson, as MGM's most popular musical sweetheart.  Really?  Well, ok, Judy Garland, Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson, I guess you can go home now.  No need to stick around.  To be fair, Allyson was one of MGM's most popular stars, that's for sure.  The public embraced her whole-heartedly and her pictures were rousing successes.  And while it's true she did sing and dance, she was hardly in the same league as the ladies just mentioned and a few more who aren't.

She appealed to a public that didn't expect a lot out of their performers except to entertain and Allyson did that with honors.  While my mother waxed rhapsodic about male actors more than females, she was taken with Allyson's effervescence, light-up-the-sky smile, husky voice, page boy hairdo, Peter Pan collars and girl-next-door appeal.  In those days I went along with Mom and I, too, became as enchanted with Allyson performances as the next guy.  I certainly don't think she was without talent but I also don't think she ranks up there with the great actresses of the day and it seems unlikely she would have made it in today's Hollywood.  The traits that Mom noticed in her are somewhat the results of MGM packaging.  If they knew anything at all, they knew how to sell their products... and she was certainly a homegrown product of MGM.

Born in the Bronx in 1917 in a poor family, her alcoholic father abandoned the family when she was only six months old.  Still, she greatly loved her mother and was close to her grandparents and she remembered a happy childhood until she was eight.  One day she was riding her bike with her dog running alongside when a large tree branch fell on them, killing the dog and breaking the youngster's back.  For four years she was in a steel brace from her neck to her hips.

She credited her convalescence as her ticket to showbiz because she spent all of her time watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies.  She felt she learned everything about dancing from watching them and ultimately, after she regained her health and learned to walk again, she started dancing.  She attended dance schools and danced whenever she could, usually for friends and family.  She began bragging to her buddies that she could dance as well as Rogers and in their astonishment they dared her to try out for a chorus job on Broadway.  And she did.  And she got it.

She danced in a few Broadway shows and in clubs, both in the U.S. and Canada and made a few movie shorts on the east coast.  Finally she was hired for the Cole Porter-Ethel Merman musical, Panama Hattie, as understudy to Betty Hutton.  Hutton took ill, Allyson subbed and she was a hit.  She was assigned a larger role in the musical, Best Foot Forward and MGM was so impressed with the show, they bought it lock, stock, barrel and complete cast.  For Allyson it came with a long-term contract.

The studio's dictates were such that performers had to learn to do everything.  Dramatic actors had to sing, singers had to do dramatic roles.  Again, while not the greatest singer or dancer in town, she certainly could do both if called upon... and in the fabulous 40s she could find herself doing both a lot.  She was also a good comedienne although the comedies she did at MGM with her twin, Van Johnson, really stunk.  When asked to do serious drama, which was rare, I thought she was very good.

When I think of her from those long-ago days, I see that sunny personality combined with a naturalness that set her apart from most of her contemporaries.  She was considered the ideal wife and she was one of the best criers in the business.  Don't repeat this but to this day I remember crying when she did.  She broke my little heart.

Allyson said the hardest thing she ever did in the movies was singing and dancing.  She usually got nervous and fidgety, full of doubt, and often ended up vomiting.  Nonetheless, she would appear in specialty numbers in those monster MGM extravaganzas such as Thousands Cheer, Girl Crazy, Till the Clouds Roll By and Words and Music.  She got to sing the title song in Clouds and she sang and danced to the popular novelty song Thou Swell in the latter.

Those five films she made with Van Johnson, crazily popular with the public who clamored for more teamings, were Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), High Barbaree (1947), The Bride Goes Wild (1948), the supremely awful Too Young to Kiss (1951) and Remains to be Seen (1953).  She says the last one should never have been made.  I got news, Junie, none of them should have been made.

She had better luck with two films with Peter Lawford, both of which are two of her three favorite films.  The first was Good News  (1947), a whole bunch of musical nonsense about college life and she was 30 at the time.  I must have a soft streak here because I don't put Good News in the same category as the Johnson movies, although I certainly should.  Two years later she and Lawford made the second version of Little Women.  Playing the eldest daughter, Jo, Allyson said it was the character she was most like.  It was a worthy successor to the Hepburn original and Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh and Margaret O'Brien were well-cast.

O'Brien, Leigh, Allyson, Taylor as the March sisters

She made back-to-back films opposite troubled actor Robert Walker in 1945, Her Highness and the Bellboy and The Sailor Takes a Wife.   She would say in her autobiography that he was her favorite male costar.  Ouch.  Sorry, Jimmy.  She became lifelong friends with Claudette Colbert, whom she called her mentor, but she was mean to CC in 1946's The Secret Heart.  I thought the two worked well together and I quite like the film, with Allyson proving she could handle drama and an unsympathetic part.

Also in 1945 she married actor and former boy crooner Dick Powell, the love of her life. The public showed how fickle it really was because they didn't like the fact that he was nearly two decades older than her.  They were married for 18 years, until his death... with only one major bump in 1955.

In 1948 she made what she said was her least favorite film, The Three Musketeers.  Rumors at the time swirled that she didn't want to play second fiddle to the ultra-glamorous Lana Turner (who as Lady DeWinter stabs Allyson's Lady Constance to death) but the truth was that she detested the period costumes.  I thought the film was fun and she was good in the part.

She left MGM in the early 50s, having been nestled into the Culver City family for a dozen years.  My favorite June Allyson films were most of the ones she made from 1953-56.  She had an unusual dramatic role and Humphrey Bogart had an unusual romantic role in 1953's Battle Circus.  They were a delightful & unusual team onscreen and personal friends off screen. 

Their 3 films together were box office gold

Her pairing with Jimmy Stewart in three good films cemented her in the public's eye as the good wife.  They first appeared in 1949's The Stratton Story while both were still under contract to MGM.  It was based on the real life of Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton who had his leg amputated at the height of his career.  The second and most successful teaming and her third favorite film was in 1954's The Glenn Miller Story.  The generation who thrilled to the real Miller's big band music was still around and embraced the film, Stewart and Allyson bigtime.  I had me a good cry when Allyson as Helen Miller is told her husband is missing and presumed dead.  In 1955's Strategic Air Command, she was again the wife who stay home and worried that her husband would not come back.  Really, no one made that more poignant than June Allyson, trust me.  It was only the second picture filmed in Paramount's new VistaVision, making the aerial sequences about the most exciting up to that time.

In 1954 she had an unusual circumstance with William Holden, her husband in the excellent Executive Suite.  She didn't like him... a rarity for June Allyson.  (It was likely due to Holden's failure to get Powell a directing job at Paramount when he said he would.)  The same year she made Woman's World, an allstar funfest about the wives behind three men vying for a promotion.

In 1955 she fell in love with Alan Ladd.  It was during the making of The McConnell Story, a film quite similar to Strategic Air Command, in that she is the wife waiting for her pilot husband.  Only this time it was based on a real-life person, Joseph McConnell, an Air Force pilot who became the top American ace during the Korean War. 

Involved in a most unusual relationship with Alan Ladd

Their affair was apparently a non-sexual one but it was otherwise a serious emotional involvement.  Both were married.  Allyson was lonely because Dick Powell had become a director, a producer and a big-deal television executive with his Four Star Productions and was never home.  Ladd had a wife who was overly attentive and was suffocating.  The two costars turned to one another for comfort.  The press and public didn't know the full extent of their involvement but both were raked over the coals, especially her.  Was this woman who was held up as wholesome and the good wife really a Jezebel, an adulterer? 

It probably didn't help her press when she took on a role, a dramatic one, a totally unsympathetic part unlike any she had ever done.  The movie was The Shrike, costarring and directed by Jose Ferrer.  They were a most unlikely pairing.  She played a vengeful wife who drives her Broadway director husband into a mental hospital.  The film was a little hard to swallow but I thought Allyson excelled in her venomous role until the end when somebody thought it was better to turn her back into June Allyson, sunny MGM star.

Two of my favorite Allyson films came in 1956 and 1957.  Both were remakes of previously successful films.  The first was The Opposite Sex, a musical remake of 1939's The Women.  I wouldn't be a good gay movie fan if I didn't like a movie loaded with actresses in bitchy roles.  She plays the wronged wife whose husband is cheating with a gold-digger.  Joan Collins plays the mistress and if ever there was a more interesting and unusual pairing, in looks and style of acting, it is JC and JA.  A fun story concerns a scene in which JA slaps JC and both have confirmed the slap was so hard that JC practically had her teeth knocked down her throat.  A sidebar concerns another Joan in the picture... Blondell, a former wife of Dick Powell. 

Next was My Man Godfrey, almost as well cast as the original, this time with Allyson and one of Powell's business partners, David Niven.  Her comic skills were well-evidenced in this comedy about a man posing as a butler in a rich but odd family.  What a treat.

Mr. and Mrs. Dick Powell

She and Ladd continued speaking on the phone for years but no longer saw one another.  Both marriages remained intact until Dick Powell unexpectedly died at age 58 in 1963.  For a number of years, Allyson was not heard from.  She stopped making films, fell into a deep depression, into a life of self-pity and booze.  Lots of booze.  She impulsively married Powell's barber, divorced him, married him again and divorced him again. 

When she finally got sick and tired of being sick and tired, her life picked up.  She found a new husband, a dentist who wanted to act, and was happily married to him for the rest of her life.  She did a couple of more films, a lot of television, regional theater and even some Broadway.  She became the spokeswoman for Depends... c'mon, get back into life... making more money and being seen by more of the public than ever before.

I liked her a great deal and was saddened to learn that she passed away at age 88 in 2006.

An actress as far away from Allyson
as one can get

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