Friday, June 10

Almost Famous I

They rubbed up against some fame... yes, they surely did. I'm going to start a new series about them.  For each we'll find some times that they certainly felt famous, desired, fawned over. The hopes and dreams were there once.  But for whatever reasons some dreams just don't come true. For some of the ladies I have lined up, they found a higher calling, usually marriage and motherhood. Some wanted the acclaim more than anything but it just didn't work out. It was almost in their grasp.  Let's meet some of them.

Peggy Dow

I was a child of nine or so when I first saw her in some film, although I no longer recall which one. She looked like the twin of my favorite 19-year old babysitter, Nancy, with whom I was quite smitten. The segueway from Nancy to Peggy Dow was easier than I expected.  For the brief time she made her nine movies, she grabbed most of my attention although she had to share it with Joan Leslie. I was in my wholesome period of actress-adoration... Dow and Leslie were similar types.

Born Peggy Varnadow in Mississippi in 1928, she spent most of her formative years between her home state and Louisiana. She attended a couple of colleges before graduating from Northwestern University in Illinois with a degree in speech.  But she also caught the drama bug in a university known for its drama department and she was hooked.  After a brief stint on the radio and ably handling some modeling assignments, a talent scout discovered her and she was cast in a small part on a TV show.  That, in turn, led to a seven-year contract with Universal Studios.  They found her attractive and fresh-faced and saw that she photographed well.  

Her first four films were minor film noirs. In Undertow (1949) she had the second female lead in which she plays a vacationing schoolteacher who gets caught up in a murder.  She and Scott Brady, Dorothy Hart and John Russell were an attractive quartet. Woman in Hiding (1950) concerned an about-to-be-ex-husband stalking his terrified wife starring the real-life husband and wife team of Ida Lupino and Howard Duff.  Dow was the crazy husband's ex-girlfriend.  She then played a woman used by Duff in Shakedown (1950).  In the same year's The Sleeping City with Richard Conte, she had a supporting role in a drama about a murder in a hospital.

Her next two films are the ones for which Peggy Dow is most remembered.  She appeared opposite James Stewart in the fantastical Harvey (1950), about a man's relationship with a six-foot tall, invisible rabbit.  When the man's family gets him to a sanitarium to fix his brain, Dow is a kindly nurse.  Everyone said she was now on her way.  The studio was receiving more and more fan mail about the young beauty.  It seemed everyone liked her. She made the cover of Life Magazine

She and another fetching southern beauty under contract to Universal, Julie Adams, vied for the attentions of blind soldier, Arthur Kennedy, undergoing rehabilitation in the effecting Bright Victory (1951).  It was one of her most memorable roles.  Two silly comedies, You Never Can Tell and Reunion in Reno, both 1951, did little to boost her standing.  Later that year she made my favorite of her films, I Want You, a drama of the home front at the start of the Korean War. She and Farley Granger were most attractive lovers.

She had fallen in love and it seemed that nothing else mattered. She married a man who went on to become a millionaire oilman. They moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, about as far from the Hollywood limelight as one could be.  It was a marriage that lasted 60 years and produced five sons. They both were known for their generous philanthropy.  I always knew she was a great, kind lady.  I wish we would hear something of her today.

Diana Lynn

No one could have accused her of having an ordinary childhood like most of us because she was a child prodigy and a pianist by age 10.  If one could binge watch her 31 theatrical movies, one would see a lot of piano playing.  She came by it naturally since her mother was a concert pianist.  Dad was an oil supply exec. By age 12, Dolly (as she was known) performed with the Los Angeles Junior Symphony. Life was good.  

Her musical abilities got her one of the children's roles in the 1939 film, They Shall Have Music, with Joel McCrea and violinist Jascha Heifitz.  She found more minor musical gigs at Paramount.  One day they took a better look at her and decided to see what she could do and put her under contract.  In 1942 she had a minor role in the Ginger Rogers-Ray Milland comedy, The Major and the Minor and the exposure was good for Lynn.  

After a couple of girlfriend roles in the studio's fairly silly Henry Aldrich series (a cousin to MGMs Andy Hardy), she awakened the public with a lively, comedic performance as Betty Hutton's kid sister in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944).  It was a sensational Preston Sturges' written and directed piece that got everyone out to the movies.  Lynn usually reminded me of an actress who held back, never recommended, and perhaps it's why she never really planted her feet firmly in Hollywood clay.  It's likely a Betty Hutton costar always had to keep up, but Lynn succeeded admirably.  It just may be her best film. The public wanted more and the actresses were sisters again the same year in And the Angels Sing. joined by Paramount superstar, Dorothy Lamour.

Lynn's limited fame probably hit its peak when she starred opposite another Paramount star of nearly the same calibre, Gail Russell, in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944).  It was an oh-so-popular but oh-so-silly exercise about real life writer friends, Emily Kimbrough and Cornelia Otis Skinner and their European holiday. A sequel, Our Hearts Were Growing Up, fed the public more of it two years later.

She made a couple of decent B-film noirs.  It was unusual to see her in films that weren't lightweight fare, and I wish she'd done more drama.  She had dual roles in Ruthless (1948), opposite two noir actors who were always up to no good, Zachary Scott and Sydney Greenstreet.  Both she and Lizabeth Scott were cast against type when they costarred as sisters in Paid in Full (1950) in that Scott was the good sister and Lynn the bad one.  Clawing at one another over the same man proved to be not a good thing.

She has the distinction of being the leading lady in three Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis films. She had rare top billing in Peggy (1950), another silly comedy.  Being the leading lady in two John Derek films (1950s Rogues of Sherwood Forrest and 1955s The Annapolis Story) did nothing to enhance her reputation. And she pretty much zeroed out playing opposite Ronald Reagan and a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo.  Who was going to take her seriously after that?  Burt Lancaster directed and costarred with her in a homespun backwoods yarn, The Kentuckian (1955), and it proved to be her last theatrical film.

She then married her second husband, had four sons and slid into television.  In 1970 the public got wind of her running a travel agency in New York where she had moved due to her husband's job.  In 1971, long gone from the movies, she was offered a role in the Tuesday Weld-Tony Perkins movie, Play It As It Lays and she accepted.  But before filming started, Diana Lynn suffered a massive stroke and died.  She was 45 years old.

Nancy Olson

I will always think of her as being the leading lady in all those early 1950s William Holden movies.  Even as a kid I loved Holden and never missed his films so Nancy Olson came in the packet.  She had wanted to be an actress since junior high school in her native Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she was born in 1928. The daughter of a doctor, she enjoyed happy teenage years with her acting, which culminated in enriching stage experiences while attending the University of Wisconsin.

She went to California to attend a summer session at UCLA and while appearing in a play there, she was asked if she'd like to do an audition at Paramount, which she did, and they put her under contract.  She was quickly assigned the second female lead in a Randolph Scott western, Canadian Pacific (1949) and then came the classic Sunset Blvd (1950). Olson played an aspiring screenwriter who had a business connection with Holden and then became his girlfriend. The Oscar folks found the performance worthy of a supporting actress nomination and the public thought she and Holden had the makings of a team.  

The two were immediately put into Union Station (1950), a riveting film noir in which Olson plays a sharp-eyed woman who spots a man with a gun at the Los Angeles train depot, setting off more trouble than anyone expected when she tells detectives. More romantic roles awaited the pair when they made two military dramas in 1951, Force of Arms and Submarine Command.

In 1950 she married famed lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (with whom she would have two daughters).  At the time she admitted that already her fling with Hollywood had not turned out to be quite what she'd hoped. She was a pragmatic, sensible and no-nonsense Midwestern girl with strong values and her characters seemed to have the same values. I think it's what I most enjoyed about her acting.  Hollywood men always hitting on her turned her off.  She knew she loved acting but discovered she didn't want to be a movie star. 

She had a strong supporting role in Edna Ferber's life-spanning mother love drama, So Big (1954).  My favorite Olson role was as the New Zealand widow, Mrs. Pat Rogers, who haltingly begins an affair with American marine, Aldo Ray, in 1955s huge romance-war drama, Battle Cry.  I loved their characters, the most multi-layered and well-written of the large ensemble.

Battle Cry was the last film she made for several years.  In 1960 she got a call from the Disney folks who wanted her for a role as a maid in their all-star Pollyanna.  She accepted and came back as a blonde.  She was lighter, funnier and better-looking than ever. Disney asked her back to play Fred MacMurray's wife in The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and again in Son of Flubber (1963). 

She took another long hiatus from movie-making and acquired a new husband and had a son.  She was one of the concerned passengers in Airport 1975 and was Michael Ontkean's, elegant mother in Making Love (1982).   I haven't seen her since but happily she's still around.

Next posting:
Kate's 10 Best


  1. I usually say enough trivial comments to add some more for the great Kate. Let me tell you, though, that I don't recall that the sadness of loneliness has ever been exspressed so perfectly such as in Summertime. And I do not say that because I'm Italian and because of Venice., believe me.
    After that let me thank You deeply for Peggy Dow. It was a great, beautiful surprise to me. Thanks again. Ciao ( Just for the fun of it: "ciao" is a venecian word and it comes from "schiavo" which means "slave". When two venecians happened to meet they used to salute each other with the expression: "Your slave". Ciao!

  2. So glad you enjoyed the Peggy Dow piece. I knew you would. One of the many things we have in common. Thanks, too, for the Italiano lesson.