Tuesday, April 5

Lana Turner

Let's get one thing straight right away. It's Lahna. Think of llama with an n instead of an m.  Don't say Laaaannnna that rhymes with Hannah or the lady's bones will return and rattle around your lovely home.  She knew it was a given that people mispronounced her name but that didn't mean she wouldn't correct them if they did. That means in person and in filmed or recorded interviews as well.

Let's get another thing straight, too, while we're going that way... Lana was a bit of a tramp.  I said bit of?  Ooops, maybe I'm not being as straight as I thought.  There is no way to tell her story without mentioning her proclivity for carnal activity.  (Before we're done here with the 40s, we'll be doing an Errol Flynn piece and there's no way to tell his story either without acknowledging that he, too, had a touch of the tramp.)  In the first half of her life especially, nothing was more important to her than a good romp. By most accounts she was a better romper than she was an actress.

By the way, I have nothing against tramps, female or male, and hope you don't... but the problem, of course, arises out of the fact so many others do.  In the 40s, reputation was everything.  When you looked like she did, when you felt as unloved and missing a father as she did, when you were always looking for love and usually in the wrong places, mistakes sometimes pile up.  The world simply never left her alone, not that she wanted it to. What's a girl to do?  

One thing she was not able to do was keep her name out of the newspapers and movie magazines.  Confidential Magazine likely found her to be some of their best copy.  Gee, they didn't even have to make up stuff about her.  It could be something about her untidy public displays, long dressing room breaks with a leading man, married men.  If her new paramour's wife was away for the weekend, Lana would say they were separated.  Despite her notoriousness, which also included tales of  being a fairly lousy wife to seven men and not being a very good mother, the public still flocked to the movies to see her play tramps, drunks, adulteresses and unhappy, unfulfilled women. 

Her astonishing beauty allowed her to never have to live outside of a me world.  There was little need to read newspapers, except for the society pages, of course, if she didn't want.  She had sycophants to tell her how she should talk and walk and think.  Someone brushed her hair, laid out her evening wear, got her a highball, told her she looked stunning and watched her tippy-toe out the door on the arm of a man they'd never seen before and may never see again. 

It is amazing that she would get a contract at family values- oriented MGM. Studio head Louis B. Mayer thought she was a promiscuous (then auburn-haired) teenager an hour after meeting her but was entranced nonetheless.  The underlings would masterfully turn the teenager into a platinum-blonde, glamour girl, a celluloid goddess.  Whether they ever turned her into a good actress may be a matter of opinion, but they turned out one of Hollywood's most beautiful stars.

She was born to southern hillbilly people in 1921, christened Julia Jean Turner but called Judy.   The father was a drifter when he married his 15-year old wife.  Her father, often gone, seeking wages, finally moved with his wife to Wallace, Idaho,  where he opened up a dry-cleaning business.  This is where his only child was born.  Six years later they moved to San Francisco.  By age nine, Judy's life took a serious turn when her father was beaten and murdered after he won big at a craps table.

One day mother and daughter hightailed it for Southern California where Mama needed a warmer climate for health reasons, and by the time Judy started high school, it would be at Hollywood High.   Many rumors have been spread about Lana over her lifetime and one of them that wasn't true was how she was discovered.  It was always said that she was discovered in the legendary Schwab's Drugstore but it was, in fact down the street at a small cafe, across the street from the school.  Billy Wilkerson, owner of the famed Hollywood trade paper, The Hollywood Reporter, actually spotted her, and of course was struck (probably dumbstruck) by her fresh-faced beauty.

Wilkerson talked to somebody who talked to somebody who talked to director Mervyn LeRoy who just happened to be looking for a girl to play a rape-murder victim in They Won't Forget (1938). LeRoy understood from the young lady that she wanted to make the movies her career.  In short time he spoke to his friends in Leo the Lion's den and soon thereafter the newly-minted Lana Turner had her first meeting with Mayer.  

Her days were not her own.  Costumers, hairstylists and makeup artists poured over her.  Having never known such attention, she lapped it up.  She attended the studio's Little Red Schoolhouse with Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and others.  When she turned 18 (and many saw it coming), she became what reporters called the nightclub queen.  Every night she was at the Trocadero, Mocambo or any other Hollywood hot spot where stars and starlets, bankers, politicians and gigolos came to dance and drink and in Lana's case, be seen and photographed, usually with a new beau.  She was scolded by both her mother (yawn) and Mayer (yikes) but Lana already knew how to work the field, calm the growling beasts and get what she wanted.  

She'd began at MGM toiling away in one forgettable flick after another or found herself as the prettiest girl in the Andy Hardy or Dr. Kildare franchises.  She was bored and was a little testy being referred to as The Sweater Girl. The nightlife still held sway over most everything she did but it had changed a bit by the late 1930s when she met the man who would become her first husband.  It was about time.  After all, she was 19.

She married famous bandleader Artie Shaw on the same day she met him.  Lana would become his third wife in 1940 and he would have five other wives after her, two of whom were also actresses, Ava Gardner (Lana's brunette twin in so many ways) and Evelyn Keyes.  He wanted his wives to cook and be more intellectual... read the classics, learn servitude, stay home.  Yeah right.  After many screaming matches, she left him at six months.  We're gonna do the husbands in italics.

The year 1941 was a great year for her professionally.  She said she discovered she loved acting when she appeared in Ziegfeld Girl. Playing a follies queen, she was breath-taking alongside the likes of costar Hedy Lamarr.  Turner was given more acting to do than her great brunette rival.  She plays Jimmy Stewart's wife who leaves him for a man who can do her better.  Hmmmm.  Turner and Ingrid switched roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the last minute and for a change she didn't sleep with her leading man, Spencer Tracy. Bergman did.

She also missed out on Clark Gable when they made the rollicking western, Honky Tonk.  She was the daughter of a con man who falls in love with a drifter, also a con artist.  They might have hooked up, however, when they later made Somewhere I'll Find You or Betrayed.  She did, however, have an affair so serious with her Johnny Eager costar, Robert Taylor, that he asked his wife, Barbara Stanwyck, for a divorce.  It never panned out for the two beautiful and Eager costars.  Both of them did turn in very convincing performances in the crime caper, however.

She married restaurateur Stephan Crane after knowing him for a month.  The years were 1943-44 but there was a divorce and remarriage in there.  He was the father of Turner's only child, Cheryl, and perhaps for that reason she remained friendly with him for years.

The best role that Lana Turner ever had was the part of Cora in the superb film noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which generates a surprising amount of sexual heat for 1946.  She was the bored, much-younger wife of a roadside cafe owner and she conspires with their handyman and her lover to kill the husband.  Moody John Garfield (a most interesting costar for Turner) and we, the audience, first meet her partially dressed in all white.   Too bad she didn't do more work like this.

Somewhere in the mid-late 40s she met Tyrone Power.  Boy oh boy, they must have been something magnificent to behold.  She would say up to the end of her life that he was her great love, the one who broke her heart, the one who got away. I'll go for the great love but her heart would be broken again and every man she would ever know got away.  But a couple of years into the whirlwind relationship, the bisexual Power rather ungallantly dumped her. He'd been in Europe for some time and she read that he had gotten married.  She decided to have a second abortion while with him. She also aborted a child with Shaw. 

Many thought she was totally out of her depth in The Three Musketeers (1948) but I found it to be one of her better movies, so wicked as Lady DeWinter. She headed a large cast that included Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Gig Young, Vincent Price, Angela Lansbury and June Allyson.  Can you imagine Turner and Allyson in the same film?).  Turner in a costume-drama is spectacularly beautiful to behold and here for the first time in color. 

Here's something typically Turner.  After she read the Musketeers script that her agent brought to her, she turned down the part when she discovered she wasn't the lead.  Gee, if only Artie Shaw had been more successful in getting her to read those classics.

Her longest marriage came with husband number three, millionaire Bob Topping Jr. 1948.  It would last four years and she was his fourth wife.  He was not all that attractive but he was attentive, which was a must for a Turner mate.  He told her how madly in love he was with her and she needed to be loved, particularly since she'd been a most unhappy star after Power's powder. Topping apparently was good with Cheryl and that impressed Lana enough to stay married to him for awhile but not be faithful. When Topping became an incorrigible alcoholic, the marriage fell apart. 

The sad footnote, however, is that Turner was moving with a fair degree of pace into alcoholism.  Her party-going and club-hopping, all her Hollywood years meant she was no stranger to booze but Topping tipped her over.  She would be hampered by it for many years to come and most famously carried around a flask. Sadly somewhere in here, in between men, Turner attempted suicide. Maybe it was for attention but her life was spinning out of control. In a few years, it would again.

She set her sights on Howard Hughes but he wasn't interested in her. It's said that fellow MGMer Peter Lawford fell madly but he was not man enough for her.  She fell for Fernando Lamas when they toiled in the lavish but dull The Merry Widow (1952).  He was right up her alley... manly, bossy, mannered, wildly jealous.  Lana always seemed to make her men jealous.  I can't imagine.  She liked to be smacked around when the occasion called for it and one day he did just that and she didn't like it.  

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) offered her a wonderful part as an alcoholic actress with Kirk Douglas as a ruthless producer who discovers and discards her, until the day he needs a favor.  Douglas, who knew his way around a costar's dressing room, wanted to add his name to the burgeoning list but decided against it because she was still with Lamas.  

After Lamas and Lana parted, he married actress Arlene Dahl.  She had just divorced hunky movie Tarzan, Lex Barker, and in 1953 Lana married Barker. I do not make these things up.  He was her fourth husband but she told the press he was the first one she loved. While she was off in Hawaii in 1955 making The Sea Chase with John Wayne (with whom she had no chemistry), Barker was at home in California molesting Turner's daughter Cheryl.  That brought about the finale of that marriage which he would blame on Cheryl.

I have always liked The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), the frivolous thing that it is.  Turner, at her most haughty, was the rich, bored wife of an English lord (Michael Rennie).  They travel to India where she becomes involved in a love affair with a doctor, played by a blond Richard Burton.  Of course their onscreen affair spilled over into real life, spouses be damned.  Playing the maharani was Russian actress, Maria Ouspenskaya, and I thought her simmering exchanges with Turner were worth the price of admission.

Her 1955 films revealed a face, that while still beautiful, was now a more mature beauty.  It may be in that vain that she was even thought of for a mother role (to a teenager, no less) in the highly-anticipated and well-done soaper, Peyton Place (1957).  I'm not so sure Turner deserved an Oscar nomination for it but she got it.  It is without question one of the two films for which she is most remembered.

Turner always claimed she had no idea that Johnny Stompanato was a gangster when she began dating him after Peyton Place was released.  He was attentive to her and generous and in addition to all the other traits she liked in men, he had one more.  He was well-endowed and that fact seemed to make her not care about much else.  His secondary profession as a gigolo meant that he was always on the prowl for rich, unattached, unfulfilled women.  Lana, in between husbands at the moment, was ripe for the plucking... and he plucked her.  Their escapades were always making the papers.

Stompanato wanted to attend the Oscars with her in April of 1958. It would be a feather in his cap but she wasn't going for it.  On the night of April 4 they were in her Beverly Hills home when they got into another row.  He slapped her around and threatened to ruin her face.  She began screaming which attracted the attention of 14-year old Cheryl who grabbed a knife and ran into her mother's bedroom, ready to protect her mother.  Regardless of the exact sequence of short events, Stompanato lay dead on the floor from knife wounds.

Pandemonium ensued and it was talked about the world over.  At the very least was the talk of Lana's wanton lifestyle for as long as anyone could remember and at the most was the claim that she probably did the deed, allowing Cheryl to take the blame because the teenager would get less or no time behind bars.  Cheryl got off with justifiable homicide and did spend some time as a ward of the court.  When she returned home, it would be to her grandmother's.  I saw Cheryl from time to time around Santa Monica High School, which we both attended.  We talked once while waiting in the bookstore on campus.  I thought she was an incredibly sad girl.

In 1959 Turner had the good fortune of knowing that producer Ross Hunter had taken an interest in her.  Hunter loved older actresses and liked to think he would pay them back for all those hours he spent with them in darkened theaters by revitalizing their careers. Some recipients of his kindness were Jane Wyman, Barbara Stanwyck, June Allyson, Susan Hayward and Doris Day.  He and Lana would embark on Imitation of Life (1959), a Fanny Hurst soaper that proved nearly anyone could get misty-eyed at a funeral with a horse-drawn hearse.  She was torn about assuming the role that Claudette Colbert had in the original because it contained a couple of scenes where she and a teenage daughter (Sandra Dee) not only argue over how ignored the daughter feels by her actress-mother, but they are, in fact, both in love with the same man. Whoa. Hunter offered Turner a whopping 50% of the profits which allowed her to sign on and left her a very rich woman for the rest of her life.

The following year Hunter, Turner and Dee reunited for a murder drama I much enjoyed, the glossy Portrait in Black.  Turner, another bored, rich socialite, and Anthony Quinn, the family doctor, played adulterous lovers, something they both knew a little bit about and revisited with one another.     

Fred May raised racehorses and lived on a ranch.  He was handsome and not as smarmy as so many of her men were. Another impulsive marriage, she said one of her best and they remained friends for the rest of her life even though the marriage lasted a brief two years.

In 1959 she walked off Anatomy of a Murder.  More bad press. She said director Otto Preminger wanted to dress her in off-the-rack dresses and she didn't do that.  

Most of her films in the 1960s were less than memorable.  By Love Possessed (1961) drew some attention because she played another rich adulteress.  She was less successful in comedies with Dean Martin and Bob Hope but the ticket sales were high in 1965 for Love Has Many Faces where she played a rich woman living in Mexico on a yacht while beach boy gigolos sniffed around her.

Suddenly, in real life in 1965 she married one.  Robert Eaton was 10 years younger than Turner, a stud muffin supreme and super good-looking.  He had no money and no prospects for work although he was considering maybe dabbling in some acting.  She fixed his teeth, bought him cars, tried to get him noticed and told those who were curious that it was the best sex she'd ever had.  She went off on a hand-shaking tour to Vietnam and came home to find he'd been unfaithful.  Yes.  Yes.  Now that was something she could not tolerate and the nearly four-year marriage ended.

Her last film produced by Hunter was another old chestnut, Madame X (1966). The story of a long-absent mother defended
for murder by an attorney who, unbeknownst to him only, is her son was a perfect vehicle for Turner.  She turned in her last good performance but the production was a difficult one because she and Hunter fought like crazy... probably over clothes since her character was poor.

Always fond of the nightlife, 49-year old Turner took up fruging at the popular L.A. discoth√©ques and in 1969 found herself married to one of the patrons, another young one.  Marriage to Eaton apparently didn't wise her up. Ronald Dante was a hypnotist and gossip columns were full of the woes of  the three-year marriage, most of which concerned money.  After their divorce, she claimed that he probably hypnotized her into marrying.  It would be her final marriage... thankfully she took herself off the market.

Lana Turner made a lot of dreadful movies and I care about you enough to not mention most of them.  The ones at the end were simply embarrassing.  She did some regional theater, had a short-lived TV series, The Survivors, and toward the end of her career appeared on the popular nighttime soaper, Falcon Crest.  

By the early 1990s, she had reconciled with her daughter, given up the sauce, bragged that she loved celibacy and rediscovered her long-forgotten Catholicism.  In the clips I saw of her from those days, she appeared quite regal, a lady at long-last.

She was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1992 and died of the disease three years later at age 74 in her Century City, California, highrise condo.

I thought she was good in a half dozen films and she certainly was one of the biggest movie stars in the world for a 20+ year run. Maybe that's why I found it curious that esteemed Hollywood chronicler David Shipman didn't include her in his first bible of the inhabitants of Tinseltown, The Great Movie Stars.  Didn't she qualify for that?  It wasn't called The Great Actresses.

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  1. Hi, I did enjoy this post, mostly for what concerns The Postman...She was fabulous and the movie really 'strong' for those times. Just one question about The Rains of Ranchipour: Wasn't Maria Ouspenskaya in 1939 edition?

  2. OMG I have egg on my face. You are so right. Ouspenskaya was in the original 1939 version, "The Rains Came." Another Russian actress, Eugenie Leontovich, played the maharani in "The Rains of Ranchipur." Thanks.

  3. cool that you knew cheryl crane. this was an interesting find.