She had a number of roles that might be termed wholesome but there are more that certainly could be described as sultry. Standing out for me, however, was her tough-mindedness and sassy mouth. Her characters were often embittered, disillusioned, worn-out. One is helpless to suspect that she brought that toughness from her personal life into her film roles.
She was born into a hardscrabble life in 1922 Massachusetts, the third daughter of a carnival barker and a charwoman. Roman was still a small child when her father died. Living in a tenement outside Boston, she began appearing in little plays to keep the residents happy and she caught the acting bug. She modeled in her teens and also worked as a hatcheck girl to pay for drama lessons. She began appearing in summer stock productions at various northeast playhouses. At age 18, she married for the first time but it would last only a year.
She tried to make a go of it in both Boston and New York but nothing much came of it. One day she was offered a part that amounted to little more than a walk-on in Stage Door Canteen (1943) and with the money she earned and a lot of youthful pluck, she drove out to Hollywood to try for a career in the movies. Along with other aspiring actresses, she moved into a large, dilapidated Hollywood mansion known as The House of the Seven Garbos. I've read about it numerous times in showbiz biographies. She gathered a few uncredited bits in some B films. Universal thought she was right for Jungle Queen, a 1945 serialized cheapie, the type the studio was so fond of at the time. Roman would spend years trying to live it down.
She continued in uncredited roles but this time in more famous films such as Incendiary Blonde (1945), Gilda, Without Reservations and the Marx Brothers' A Night in Casablanca, all 1946, and Good Sam (1948), the first of three films with Gary Cooper. That same year she nabbed her first starring role in Belle Starr's Daughter, a routine, if not awful western.
She auditioned for the tough floozie role in Stanley Kramer's glimpse into the life of a maniacal prizefighter, Champion (1949) but he surprisingly found her more suitable for the role of Kirk Douglas' most understanding wife. It remains one of her most memorable roles. Roman not only fell in love with Kramer but always maintained he was the big love of her life. To hell with her four husbands, I guess. The same year she had another memorable role in The Window, a super yummy little film noir with talented youngster, Bobby Driscoll, as a boy who witnesses a murder in his apartment building committed by Roman and Paul Stewart.
So many of her characters tended to be tough and she completely fascinated me in that regard. I guess I studied her. I have always thought one could learn a thing or two about an actor as a person when watching them play multiple roles. There are traits that appear over and over. It was early on when I suspected her tough-girl demeanor was largely a defense mode, like how you're supposed to flail your arms when spotting a shark near you while being scared to death. It was unnatural for her but it's what she had to do. It was a stance, her desire to ward off the demons... yet all that it took to back her down was someone tougher.
I remember a few years ago settling into my favorite chair for a look at Blowing Wild (1953), a routine Gary Cooper film, a melodramatic look at oil wildcatters in Mexico. I was particularly interested to see how poorly Roman's toughness would survive against costar Barbara Stanwyck's far more aggressive manner. I knew Roman would lose but I wanted to see it. Wouldn't you know they had no scenes together? Bloody piece of junk.
Her characters were often disagreeable. They got angry but they didn't lose control. They fired off a couple of epithets and then steamed quietly, flashing those dark eyes. They'd been hurt by some man and now they snarled and paced. I recall some characters in those off-the-shoulder peasant blouses but a clearer image is a white suit perfectly contrasting her dark-haired beauty. Her style was never girlish. This was a grown damned woman with a smoldering presence and a healthy cynicism. Hey, I think I liked her. I know I was beguiled by her characters.
It isn't surprising that Warner Bros came sniffing around. By the time they put Roman under contract, their glory days were fading and most of their big stars had left or were about to. Still, she was a chichi fit at the studio that still courted actors who liked to snarl onscreen. Trouble is so many of those snarled off screen as well and when they did it around the studio, no one was happy. By the time most contracts ended, most performers were glad to leave. Roman likely balked at her treatment as well, which would make her less than popular, but on the other hand she was not as formidable as Jack Warner, no siree, and she probably pouted. That wouldn't have raised her popularity either.
The studio likely changed its mind on her... they turned the publicity machine down low, told the hairdressers to go home and worst of all, just didn't give her good films. She always seemed to give her audiences what they had come to expect (I'm certainly in that group) but WB wasn't looking to promote her in the mediocre films they assigned her like Always Leave Them Laughing (with Milton Berle-- yikes!-- as her leading man) and one of Bette Davis' worst and the last under her long WB contract, Beyond the Forest, both 1949.
One of my favorite Roman roles was in 1950s Three Secrets, although admittedly Eleanor Parker and Patricia Neal helped as well. It was a soaper but the performances of these actresses elevated it, for me, to a solid drama, and helmed by Robert Wise raised the stakes even higher. Three women, strangers, hover around a base camp at the foot of a mountain where a plane had crashed in the hopes that the only survivor, a young boy, may be the one she gave up for adoption. We know that all the boys in question were born on the same date. Roman gave a classic Roman performance... embittered and tough and yet there's that decency hidden among the thorny shrubs and a poignancy in her performance.
All three actresses got on famously during the filming but Neal and Parker would become friends. Roman was likely a respected coworker but it ended there. She still hadn't really gone all Hollywood... not really, not as many others certainly would and do. She went out on some dates to be seen mainly, especially if it helped her snag a role. She preferred to stay away from the tinsel in Tinseltown.
She was back with Cooper again in Dallas (1950), a western that at one time apparently smelled of gold but wound up looking like another routine assignment for Roman. She was gorgeous playing a Mexican aristocrat. Off the set she enjoyed amour with horny costar Steve Cochran and likely took up with him again in a few years during the making of their second film together, a better one.
At the end of the year she married her second husband. She had her only child with him and the marriage would last six years before he went on to marry actress Diana Lynn. Within two weeks of the supposed divorce she married for the third time and that marriage lasted four years. It was, however, annulled when it was discovered her divorce from #2 was not final when she married #3. To her chagrin she seemed to manage a lot of press coverage for her marriages. In a few short years she would receive her biggest news splash and as a result became the subject of many a movie trivia Q&A over the years.
There is little doubt that 1951 was her best year professionally. She must have finally been feeling her oats. Lightning Strikes Twice is by no means a great movie but it has its moments. A moody film noir, it had a fascinating cast in Roman, Richard Todd, Mercedes MacCambridge and Zachary Scott. All were actors often involved in some sort of mayhem on the screen. It concerns an actress who goes to a ranch to recover her health and falls for a neighbor who has been accused of murdering his wife. There were too many potholes to ultimately take it too seriously but it's fun for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
|A publicity still with Farley Granger and Robert Walker|
Next up was without question the film that did the most for Roman's career and legacy. You've heard of Strangers on a Train? It is a superb noir, now a grandaddy of crime capers, directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. It centers around an insane socialite (Robert Walker) who approaches a tennis star (Farley Granger) with a plan for committing two perfect murders. I think it's right up there with the best of the director's great films.
Hitchcock did not like his leading lady and she became his punching bag, a regular occurrence on most of his film sets. I've heard he wanted Grace Kelly for the part of the tennis star's upper-crust girlfriend but then Hitchcock always wanted Grace Kelly. WB was making the film and they foisted Roman upon the prickly director, famous for his love of blondes, particularly those he could manipulate, and Roman was clearly not one of those. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn't think she was quite right for the role because I didn't think so either. She did her best but she was just not quite right. Grace Kelly was.
She was reunited with Cochran in her third noir of the year, Tomorrow Is Another Day. It is a nifty little B about a guy trying to go straight after being released from a long prison stretch. Roman, starts out as a blonde (not her best look) party girl who settles down and marries him while their troubles escalate.
|She sure loved studying her lines with Steve Cochran|
As the fifties played out, she continued to turn in her expected good work but the films were usually little more than B efforts. Part of that reason is after her contract with WB ended, she moseyed on down the street to Universal, and as I've said before and will again, in those days that was never a good thing. There were African adventures (think Universal backlot) first in Maru Maru with a broken-down Errol Flynn and then Tanganyika with Van Heflin, whose career was slipping as Roman's was. She was quite good as a young mother being extorted in Down Three Dark Streets with leading man Broderick Crawford's movie career on its way to extinction. She was Joseph Cotten's supportive wife in The Bottom of the Bottle but it never found much of an audience.
Next was as Jimmy Stewart's leading lady in one of his least successful westerns, The Far Country (1954). She played a treacherous saloon owner, way too overdressed for the little clapboard village in the Klondike. While Stewart feuded with his longtime collaborative director, Anthony Mann, Roman took on costar Corinne Calvet. It was a beautiful film to gaze upon but not a very happy one to make.
|Feisty in the Klondike|
In July of 1956 she was returning from Italy, having made a film in Turin, and was aboard the Andrea Doria with her three-year son and his nurse. Leaving them asleep in their cabin, Roman went up to a main deck lounge for a drink. It was then that the ship was struck by another ship, Stockholm, in dense fog, off the coast of Nantucket, and it was almost immediately apparent the Andrea Doria was going to sink. Roman threw off her shoes and hightailed it to her cabin where she scooped up her son and ran for the lifeboats. As they were boarding, mother and son were not only separated but the boat with her son took off without Roman aboard. I cannot imagine. Thankfully they were happily reunited in New York.
So that's the trivia question. What actress was aboard the Andrea Doria before it sank? Well, actually, it's two actresses... Betsy Drake, Cary Grant's wife at the time, was also aboard and safely rescued as well.
|Reunited with son after Andrea Doria sinking|
For the next 30 years or so, from the end of the 50s to the end of the 80s, Roman appeared mainly in television. I think she must have been in at least one episode of every major drama during that time. It was always great to see her. She also secured recurring roles on two nighttime soaps, The Long, Hot Summer and Knots Landing.
In 1965 she made a somewhat fun but definitely cheesy movie, Love Has Many Faces, although she had not the leading female role which went to Lana Turner. The film focused on horny, middle-aged folks in Mexico. They were either rich and lived on a yacht (Turner and Cliff Robertson) or were visiting (Roman and Virginia Grey) or were gigolos (Hugh O'Brian) looking for horny women visitors.
In 1977 she married her fourth and final husband and although they didn't live as man and wife for very long, they were legally married until the end of her life.
In the 1970s she returned to the stage in a number of roles. Chicago honored her with its Sarah Siddons award. It pleased her immensely but I suspect she would have given anything to have been remembered as a big-time movie actress. She was good enough. Perhaps it was a question of opportunity or maybe she rubbed somebody the wrong way.
She told gossip columnist Hedda Hopper at the closing of the 40s... I love everything about show business, even the junk. You can't change the junk. People have tried. So you might as well accept it along with the good. Acting is my life. The profession can break my heart. In fact, it already has several times but I love it.
Ruth Roman died in her sleep of natural causes in 1999 at age 76 at her home in Laguna Beach, California.