Friday, January 22

Jeanne Crain

Actresses were hired for any number of reasons.  Sometimes it was for talent but often that talent was unknown or untapped at the time of hiring.  It was hoped the lady would develop some talent that would come through training and grooming.  Sometimes she was brought into the family of a great studio for her looks and sometimes it was because those looks projected some sort of image the studio was looking for.

Jeanne Crain was hired by 20th Century Fox in 1943 because she projected a wholesome image.  It was all about the war.  The boys might have gotten all excited looking at Betty Grable (Fox employed her, too) but they wanted to come home to someone like Jeanne Crain... Jeannie, if it gets you more in the mood.

She had a bit of ambition in the beginning and though she rose to the top ranks of movie stardom at her studio, as time went on and she had seven children and only one husband, her home life became more important to her than her work life.  As an actress, I found her to be a journeyman type... capable, usually convincing but a bit vapid, as her future two-time director, Joseph Mankiewicz, would come to say.  Fox rarely gave her anything to do that would stretch her abilities.

She had an easy birthdate, 5-25-25.  Born in California's Mojave desert, the city of Barstow, her father was an English teacher and her mother a homemaker.  The family was as Irish-Catholic as they came.  A few months later they moved to Los Angeles and some time later her sister Rita was born.  She would one day serve as Jeanne's movie stand-in.  A short time later her parents divorced.  Crain was especially close to her mother until the actress married a man Mama couldn't stand.

She got the lead in a high school play which resulted in a change of career aspirations.  She had hoped she might one day become a famous ice skater (she was at a professional level) or a painter but both got moved to Plan B when acting came on the scene.  Her luminous looks attracted the attention of just about every professional photographer.  She was always being named Miss This or Miss That and ultimately ended up in a Miss America contest. 

While she was still in high school, Orson Welles saw her picture and had her come in for an audition for The Magnificent Ambersons.  Anne Baxter ended up being signed and it is astonishing how many times these two crossed career paths or got roles the other one was originally going to play.  Pregnancies were usually the reason why.  Crain enrolled in UCLA to study drama and it was there that she was discovered by Fox.  Those beautiful but demure young looks were exactly what they were looking for.

After a walk-on in Alice Faye's The Gang's All Here, Crain was given one of the two ingénue roles in Home in Indiana (1944), some horsey family fare about trotters in Kentucky with Walter Brennan installed at the top of the cast roster.  It was enormously popular due to its three young leads, Crain, June Haver and Lon McAllister, all newcomers.  For some reason, the two women detested one another in real-life but Fox's publicity department babbled on about a Crain-McAllister romance.  They were photographed at nightclubs and even paired in another film, Winged Victory, also '44, about men in the Air Force and their girls back home.  But the romance was just studio gimmicks designed to cover up McAllister's homosexuality.

After appearing in a couple of so-so films she was signed for the musical State Fair (1945).  She was perfect for the cornball silliness just as clean-cut Pat Boone would be 17 years later in a remake.  Crain and Dana Andrews's singing voices were dubbed while Dick Haymes and Vivian Blaine stole the melodic spotlight.  It was a huge success and the winsome Miss Crain became a big star.  Soon her fan mail was second only to Grable.

Jeanne and Gene in Leave Her to Heaven

That same year she took a decidedly costarring role to Gene Tierney in the colorful film noir, Leave Her to Heaven.  Crain appeared as Tierney's cousin, who is secretly in love with Tierney's unhappy husband, Cornel Wilde.  Tierney was never better as a murderous, jealous wife and there is Crain as a wholesome counterpoint.

On the last day of 1945 she married Paul Brinkman whom she had been dating awhile.  He was handsome, Catholic, wanted about as many children as she did, did a little acting and was always a little full of himself.  In the opinion of many, he was not up to her standards, a view certainly shared by her mother who stopped speaking to Crain for many years after.  While they would remain married until his death (and hers shortly thereafter), the union, fraught with problems, would be fodder for the gossip columns for years.  The studio was apparently most unhappy that their wholesome star married Brinkman.

She reunited with Wilde for 1946's Centennial Summer.  Costarring as the sister of Linda Darnell (Fox's resident vixen and the polar opposite of Crain), the studio hoped to duplicate the success of MGMs Meet Me in St. Louis.  It didn't work and yet Crain's star power increased.  The same year's Margie was a story tailored for her about a 1928 student in love with her French teacher... another rollicking success.  That would also be true for 1948s Apartment for Peggy, a comedy about young married students trying to make a go of it in post-war years.  The public flocked to it to find a sassier Crain costarring with an equally gorgeous William Holden

She had already lost a number of roles due to pregnancies and trusty ol' Anne Baxter was right there.  But luckily none of that occurred for her three films, all released in 1949... the best of her career.  It was the year she got to play adults.

Those three wives... Darnell, Sothern, Crain

Joseph L. Mankiewicz would win Oscars for both writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives.  I consider it a very good soap opera, fun and lively with spirited dialogue.  Three friends are sent letters by the town's femme fatale telling them that she has run off with one of their husbands.  Through flashbacks we get to examine the marriages and come up with our own ideas as to which one it was.

Without a doubt, Crain's role was the least interesting of the three.  She was out-acted by both Darnell and Ann Sothern.  Mankiewicz came to dislike Crain.  The public would call her wholesome, I might choose bland and he said vapid.  He found no life in her, no energy and thought her acting was rather one-note, much like a steady humming noise.  He acknowledged, but would not focus on, her beauty or grace.  Since both were studio contractees, he hoped he'd never be forced to work with her again.  We'll see how that worked out.

The Fan was based on Oscar Wilde's novel, Mrs. Windemere's Fan.  It concerns a young, married British lord who is fooling around with, unbeknownst to him, his wife's mother.  Perhaps that notion was too tawdry for 1949 America to consider for 89 minutes because patrons stayed away.  Too bad because I think it arguably contains the best performance Jeanne Crain ever gave.

With Ethel Waters in Pinky

Most would cite Pinky as containing her best performance and it was acknowledged by the Oscar folks who gave Crain her only  nomination for best actress.  Studio boss Darryl Zanuck loved serious films and if they were controversial, so much the better.  Most every actress in his employ wanted to play Pinky, a young light-skinned black passing as white.  Personally, I thought Darnell would have been better in the role but Crain was certainly pleased to have been given a role with some meat on it.  It's too bad most of her scenes were with Ethel Waters and Ethel Barrymore, two very accomplished actresses, both of whom over-shadowed her.

By the time the 1950s rolled around, the truth was Crain's best movies were, by and large, behind her.  One exception was Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), playing the eldest of Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy's 12 children.  The film was fun and Webb was superb but Crain was a little too old for the part.  The same could be said for Take Good Care of My Little Girl (1951), some collegiate nonsense, although it did introduce her to an actress who would become her best friend, Jean Peters.

Pregnancy again prevented her from accepting a role that Anne Baxter was most happy to accept, that of Eve Harrington in All About Eve (1950).  I actually think Crain would have been great and it certainly would have been a career-changer.  She obviously would have pulled off the earlier, innocent part of Eve, but the question might remain could she have done justice in the latter part.  I say yes.  Joseph Mankiewicz, who would win two more Oscars for writing and directing, obviously had a big sigh of relief.

But it was not to last.  His next film, People Will Talk (1951) was to have starred Cary Grant and Anne Baxter.  Grant was a gynecologist who teaches a course and winds up marrying one of his pregnant students.  Mankiewicz was not pleased when Crain was brought in to sub for a pregnant Baxter.  The film, direction and cast all got mixed reviews.

The poorly-titled The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951) had Crain and Scott Brady at the mercy of a lonely hearts advisor, Thelma Ritter, who, of course, stole the show.  Crain was by now trying to break out of her sunny roles and this was a good one for her.

Let's agree she blossomed

In 1953 she and her pal, Jean Peters, played sisters in Vicki.  The plot revolves around the murder of a nightclub singer and the sister who helps a cop investigate.  It was a remake of the Betty Grable film noir, I Wake Up Screaming, and some would say a poor remake but I quite liked it and Crain did well in a more dramatic role.  Vicki was her last film under her Fox contract and she decided to become a sexier actress.  She became a redhead and was determined to look for roles that would effect a new image.  The makeover worked and I believe she became one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen.

In 1954 she turned down the Peters part in Three Coins in the Fountain because Brinkman would not allow her to travel to Rome.  There had been news items here and there about their marriage.  It usually had something to do with him being a control freak while she was usually painted as Merry Mary Homemaker.  By 1955 he approved of a trip to Paris, however, so that she could appear as Jane Russell's sister in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, a not-as-successful sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which had also starred Russell.  The story of two singing sisters cavorting all over the City of Light was pretty lightweight and while Crain's singing was dubbed, she was a media sensation as a showgirl.

Two brunette showgirls, Russell and Crain

In 1956 the Brinkmans were all over the papers.  She filed for divorce claiming he had girlfriends stashed everywhere and that he physically abused her on numerous occasions.  He, in turn, claimed that she was having an affair with a neighbor although few believed it.  I suspect part of their problem was that he never rose above being Mr. Crain.  Ultimately Catholicism won out and they remained married.

By the late 1950s her star had dimmed.  She left Fox and signed a contract with Universal and found herself playing tough western women in oaters opposite Kirk Douglas, Alan Ladd and Glenn Ford.  It was a pleasure seeing her in such roles and while I thought these films were entertaining, they did little to revitalize her career.
She did even better as Frank Sinatra's girlfriend in 1957s The Joker Is Wild and opposite her frequent costar, Dana Andrews, in 1962s advertising drama, Madison Avenue.

Like all good movie stars whose time has come and gone, she did guest shots in TV shows and went to Europe to make films no one ever heard of.  Her final role was as an airline passenger in 1972s Skyjacked.

Her less-than-idyllic family life took a nosedive in the early 70s when her sister died in a house fire and one of her sons died of alcohol abuse in a hotel room.  By and large, she was out of the limelight for the rest of her life.  She and Brinkman moved to Santa Barbara in the 1970s but mostly lived apart.  It was reported in 1997 that another son died of a heroin overdose.  It is perhaps not totally lacking in understanding that she developed a drinking problem.

She died in her Santa Barbara home in 2003 of a heart attack.  She was 78 years old.  Hollywood lost a very beautiful lady.

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