Tuesday, November 10

Jane Wyman

Talk about endurance.  She started in movies in 1932 and made her last one in 1969.  She appeared in 86 movies and after she quit she went on to star in a popular nighttime soap opera for nine years and became the highest paid woman in television.  She outlasted most of her famous contemporaries.  What a trouper.

To think that the ditzy blonde friend of many a lead actress in Warner Bros films was the same tender-hearted soul that played the deaf mute in Johnny Belinda or the older loving governess in The Blue Veil or adoring mother in So Big or the harsh mother in The Yearling or the stern aunt of Pollyanna... well, it just heightens one's awareness of what a talented actress she was.  She could alter her looks and demeanor with equal aplomb.  She was a splendid dramatic actress, a finely-tuned comedienne and could sing and dance up a storm. 

Is there anything this woman couldn't do?  Well, she couldn't handle the attention she got after her ex-husband became the President of the United States.  She probably wanted to run away and hide in a cave over that one.

She was born Sarah Jane Mayfield in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1917.  Her parents were very strict, too strict she said, and were much older than she was.  After her father died, her mother put Jane in foster care.  She always remained bitter about her earliest years.  One of the happiest times of her childhood was when she was taking dance lessons.  In Missouri she studied with Hollywood choreographer LeRoy Prinz's father, an association that would one day pay off.

Around age 15, Jane and her foster mother moved to Los Angeles and soon Jane took a fancy to being in show business.  They returned to Missouri but soon Jane hightailed it back to L.A.  She thought her talents were strictly in the singing and dancing arenas and she decided to bleach her natural brown hair blonde and become a showgirl.  She added three years to her age so she could work.  LeRoy Prinz would aid her in finding some work.  It would begin when she joined three other blondes (they got blonde the same way Jane did), Lucille Ball, Paulette Goddard and Betty Grable, as chorus girls in 1932s The Kid in Spain at Goldwyn Studios.  Around this time she had not one but two brief marriages.

She worked in 20 or so pictures without receiving credit.  (Compare that to, say, Gene Tierney, the subject of my last posting, who was a star in her first film.)  Some of that work was at Warner Bros and in 1936 she signed a contract with the studio but kept working in low-pay jobs in low-grade flicks. Like a lot of those blonde chorus girls of the day, her specialty was a smart mouth and a quick retort. I suspect when she turned more to drama, fellow WB buddy Eve Arden took over roles that would have gone to Wyman.

In 1938 she appeared in Brother Rat, a silly military school fluff piece that I would normally have left out of this piece except that is how she met husband #3, Ronald Reagan.  Neither was the star of the movie.  They dated for awhile, sans romance, but that soon changed and they were married in 1940.

They were the Tinseltown fun couple, attending party after party and giving them as well.  Their names were constantly mentioned in the columns... everyone knew their nicknames for one another, what they had for breakfast and what their upcoming movies were.  They would have two daughters (one who lived just nine hours) and adopt a son.  They didn't have everything in common, however.  She was quiet, he was chatty.  Ask him the time, she would say, and he will tell you how the watch is made.  She was a Republican but apolitical and he was a Democrat and always on.  Toward the end of their marriage, her career was on the ascent and his was going nowhere.

In 1940 the Reagans appeared in the sequel to Brother Rat.  In 1942, she made Footlight Serenade with her old buddy, Grable, and John Payne and Victor Mature.  It was another chorus girl gig but the cast made it a bit better than the standard fare.  It's worth mentioning chiefly because of this... Grable is an understudy who desperately wants to get on stage and Wyman says to her... You have about as much chance of going on as I have becoming First Lady.  Who knew?

In 1944 she made two films that were great fun.  In The Doughgirls, she and Jack Carson (her most frequent costar) were newlyweds assigned to a hotel room in crowded wartime Washington D.C. but have to deal with others who will not vacate.  Costars Arden, Alexis Smith and Ann Sheridan were all Wyman friends which undoubtedly why it all looked like great fun. (All but Arden would film a cute marital comedy, One More Tomorrow, but it wouldn't be released until 1946.)  She was top-billed in Crime by Night, about a private eye and his perky sidekick who take on a child support case and stumble onto murder.  It smacked of film noir and the sassy dialogue kept one interested. 

She registered on the Richter Scale after she made The Lost Weekend (1945).  She was the tough but loving girlfriend of an alcoholic Ray Milland who was on a four-day drunken binge after a brief period of sobriety.  It was a serious look at alcoholism and is highly regarded.  Milland would win the Oscar and so would the film.  Her star continued to shine brightly due to her appearance in 1946's Night and Day, the highly-fictionalized but immensely entertaining and popular bio of songwriter Cole Porter.  She supported Cary Grant and her pal Alexis Smith. 

Then came The Yearling (1946), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Pulitzer Prize-winning story of a dirt-poor Florida Everglades family and the deer being raised as a pet, causing serious family problems.  I didn't see this film until the mid-50s and was horrified by Wyman's hardened mother role.  I don't think I had ever seen a mother so seemingly unloving and it was something I've never forgotten.  Her turn as Ma Baxter would garner Wyman her first Oscar nomination.

In her Oscar-winning role as Belinda

She would win that award for her impressive turn as a young Nova Scotia deaf mute girl who is raped and impregnated in 1948s Johnny Belinda.  The thought of having the child taken from her in the film must have strengthened her acting genes because she had just lost a child in real life.  It was a beautifully realized performance.

Veteran actor Lew Ayres played an understanding doctor who is, in fact, in love with Belinda.  What's more, that was so in real life as well and Wyman was in love with him.  This all occurred at the time the Reagan marriage was unraveling.  Some may say that Ayres was instrumental in breaking up the marriage and others say it was politics.  Their relationship would not last.

Reagan switched to being a Republican.  This should have made Jane happy and it made most of their friends quite happy.  He had become president of the Screen Actor's Guild and fervently believed there was a Communist under every bed and was dedicated to cleaning up Hollywood.  All of this, his constant talk of politics, Ayres, the baby, their careers... it all served to end the marriage.  It was her idea; he apparently was devastated. 

For the rest of her life, Wyman would not speak publicly of Reagan.  It was not out of animosity for they actually remained friendly.  She even voted for him.  She said she thought it was in bad taste to speak of ex-spouses and added that she also didn't know anything about politics.

Soon she would get out from under the tight scrutiny of Warner Bros and would become rather shrewd at managing her career.  There is no doubt that she did it her way.  She was formidable in all aspects and that extended to her personal life as well.  In later life I suspect she became more embittered, perhaps returning to the ways of her youth.  She would be married and divorced twice to the same man (to musician Fred Karger).  Marital bliss didn't seem to be her forte.  Friendships were, however.  She was great friends with lesbian actresses Barbara Stanwyck and Agnes Moorehead (they would work together five times), and also Esther Williams, Loretta Young and Arden, Smith and Sheridan... toughies all.

Professionally, the 1950s were good for Wyman.  Her first two films seemed quite promising.  The first was Hitchcock's Stage Fright with Marlene Dietrich and the second was Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie.  Prestigious though they may have seemed, neither came off so well, both being a bit muddled and a little clunky.  Wyman, however, turned in good work.

Two in 1951 showed the lady's great versatility.  In Here Comes the Groom, she was a singing sensation opposite Bing Crosby.  The public found them to be a great pairing particularly in their snappy repartee and their singing of the Oscar-winning song, In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.  It's amusing story concerned a man who had to get married in a hurry so we could adopt two orphans.

The lovely lady of The Blue Veil

The first time I saw her was for her Oscar-nominated performance in The Blue Veil, a tearjerker I hold near and dear to this day.  It was her favorite film and my favorite Wyman film as well.  In it she ages as a saintly nursemaid who looks after other people's children through the years.  The episodic story has an ending that touched my little heart when all the children, now adults, gather to pay homage to her.  Seeing Groom afterwards resulted in a tug-of-war with my mother who told me it was the same actress in both and I didn't believe her.  Funny how I remember that all these years later. 

Just for You (1952) paired her again with Crosby, this time as a singer-father who doesn't pay much attention to his children (he could have phoned this one in) and Wyman was the woman trying to help.  More songs, more fun but not as successful as the first pairing.  Groom and Just for You are on a double DVD.

Two more fine Wyman movies came in 1953 with Let's Do It Again and So Big.  The first, a musical-comedy pairing her again with Ray Milland, had them as an about-to-be divorced couple with him wanting to stay married and her carrying on with hunky Aldo Ray.  So Big was the third version of Edna Ferber's epic story of mother love with Wyman again getting out the aging makeup.

And just when one thought she couldn't top her work, she made 1954s Magnificent Obsession.  Universal-International (as Universal was then known) had a policy of taking a female star who had made her name at another studio and teaming her with one of its up-and-coming male stars, getting a good director (in this case, Douglas Sirk) and a decent script.  The story, in my opinion, was pretty corny.  A rich playboy inadvertently causes a woman's blindness.  He goes on to become a doctor, restores her sight and they fall in love.  Well, corn or not corn, this was one popular movie and brought Rock Hudson into worldwide prominence.  He would be forever grateful to Wyman whom he regarded as very kind and helpful.  She got her final Oscar nomination.

Her 50s look that she kept the rest of her life

In true Hollywood style and while the coins were still clinking, the duo was paired in the much better and superbly-titled All That Heaven Allows, also directed by Sirk.  In this case a widow with grown children falls in love with her much younger gardener to everyone's consternation.   

Her movie work was cut back after Heaven when she began work on an anthology TV series called Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theater.  It ran for three years and she starred in many of the episodes.

In 1959 she replaced an ailing Gene Tierney in the mediocre Holiday for Lovers, although she was a good foil for the stuffy Clifton Webb.  She went over to Disney to play Hayley Mills' starchy, rich aunt in 1960s Pollyanna.  I was too old by now to argue with my mother that this was the same woman from The Blue Veil.  She stayed at Disney to do 1962s Bon Voyage with Fred MacMurray, more silliness in the vein of Holiday for Lovers.  She hadn't worked in seven years when Bob Hope asked her to join him and Jackie Gleason in 1969s How to Commit Marriage.  She had high hopes for it but it was a monumental dud and it turned out to be her final film.

Hollywood had changed for Wyman and she felt out of touch and  had no burning desire to work.  No longer married, her kids were grown and a lot of her old friends were dying.  Through the 70s she did some television, both guest roles on series and TV movies.  In 1981 she began a nine-year run as the vineyard diva, Angela Channing, on the immensely popular Falcon Crest, a role that entirely suited her. 

Thereafter, she became a recluse mainly because she greatly suffered from diabetes and arthritis.  She died in her sleep at age 90 in Palm Springs, California, in 2007. 

I could not say she was one of my favorite actresses but I did very much enjoy her work in a number of films and thought she was a talented and versatile actress.

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Movie review



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