Friday, November 13, 2009

façade: Forgotten '50s Femmes

Patricia Owens and Barbara Rush with Pat Hingle in Martin Ritt's "No Down Payment" (1957)
Actresses of the 1950s-'60s.

It's a subject that fascinates me.

But beyond Liz and Marilyn, who pretty much ruled the roost in the day, there was a whole collection of second- and third-tier actresses who offered a wide diversity between the Imperial Brunette and Hot Blonde.

I'm not necessarily thinking of Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day and Natalie Wood and Shirley MacLaine and Janet Leigh - or Lee Remick and and Piper Laurie and Joanne Woodward and Jean Simmons, although I love them all. Fact is, they all enjoyed star spots during their careers.

And while the era's "newcomers" - Hope Lange, Millie Perkins, Diane Baker and Suzy Parker - may not have become major players, people did know who they were. No, my fascination is with the fleeting stars. Not Grace Kelly, who had a brief but vibrant career, but someone like Vera Miles who was once deemed Kelly's natural successor. It never happened. And there are the ill-fated - the actresses who died too young - such as Diane Varsi and Inger Stevens, both singular and both talented.

No, my fascination is with actresses who were "almost stars," who worked unobtrusively as contract players, often in lead roles and usually in B movies, but who, for some bizarre reason, represent the real quintessential female stars of their era. The names Mary Murphy, Nancy Gates, Mala Powers, Colleen Gray, Dianne Foster, Karen Sharpe, Betsy Palmer, Elaine Stewart and Diane Brewster may not mean anything to you, but they do to me. They were great. All of them.

But even here, there was a pecking order - certain actresses who stood out more than others, even in secondary roles in secondary pictures.
Julie Adams (then Julia) and a bad blind date in Jack Arnold's "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954)
First and foremost, there was the gorgeous and woefully overlooked Barbara Rush, who played in the occasional comedy ("Oh Men! Oh Women!" and "Come Blow Your Horn") but largely specialized in socially-conscious soap operas (Martin Ritt's "No Down Payment," Daniel Petrie's "The Bramble Bush," Vincent Sherman's "The Young Philadelphians" and Richard Quine's "Strangers When We Meet") where she brought a distinct artistry to her reliably tremulous line-readings. When Rush cried, which was often, I cried along with her.

The equally beautiful Julie Adams had a bit more of an up personality, which made her game for creature flicks, the most famous of which is Jack Arnold's "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954). She always had a sparkle in her eyes and she clicked with leading men as diverse as Richard Denning, George Nader, Charlton Heston and Francis the Talking Mule. Adams made a wildly memorable comeback, thanks to Dennis Hopper, in "The Last Movie" (1971), where she proved she was made for the counter-culture. As far as I'm concerned she's the Mrs. Robinson who should have been.

The lovely Delores Michaels, meanwhile, appeared in only 11 films but made a lasting impression on me. A Hitchcock blonde who got away before Hitch could discover her, I remember Michaels (pictured right) fondly for Henry Levin's "April Love" (1957), Edward Dmytryk's "Warlock" (1959), James Clavell's "Five Gates to Hell" (1959) and James B. Clark's "One Foot in Hell" (1961).

Slender, sculptured and icy (but in a good way), the German-born Dana Wynter (née, Dagmar Wynter) will forever be associated with Don Siegel's sublime pod movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"(1956), in which her character Becky Driscoll seemed to be a vague semblence of herself to begin with. Her best role - her best showcase, at least - was probably in Henry Koster's "Fräulein," which also starred the aforementioned Delores Michaels and which borrowed from her German heritage, but Wynter, always the strong, supportive woman, also shined in Richard Brooks's "Something of Value" (1957) opposite Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier, Michael Anderson's "Shake Hands with the Devil" (1959), with Jimmy Cagney, and even Melville Shavelson's "On the Double" (1960), a Danny Kaye vehicle. There are many, many more. Wynter (pictured below) enjoyed a most productive career.

Patricia Owens, another Delores Michaels co-star (in "Five Gates to Hell"), also teamed with Rush (in "No Down Payment"), but she is perhaps best known for her role - and her scream - in Kurt Neumann's original "The Fly" (1955), a seminal film in my life. So I have a soft spot for this very attractive woman.

Owens enjoyed some good roles, particularly in Joshua Logan's "Sayonara" (1957), starring as Marlon Brando's uptight financée, and in Richard Fleischer's "Ten Thousand Hills" (1959), an excellent Western also starring Don Murray, Lee Remick, Albert Dekker, Stuart Whitman and Richard Egen. There was a skill and shyness about Owens that made her perfect for the sexually-suppressed '50s and '60s, but she was very good at hinting, largely with her beautiful eyes.

She seemed to bring a sensual longing to each of her roles, even the disposable ones, comparable to what Kim Novak did so magnificently in Quine's "Strangers When We Meet." It's a role that Owens could have played blindfolded, but, alas, she didn't have the star power.

Unerringly proper, Martha Hyer did not play likable women. She specialized in standoffish, often snobbish women and yet, thanks to her personal nuances, her women were never completely dislikable. Hyer made sure we understood her characters - their flaws and the psychology behind them.

She expertly plied her trade in such diverse films as Vincente Minnelli's 'Some Came Running" (1958), Melville Shavelson's "Houseboat" (1958), Jean Negulesco's "The Best of Everything" (1959), Jack Webb's "The Last Time I Saw Archie" (1961), Frank Tashlin's "The Man from the Diner's Club" (1963) and Arthur Penn's "The Chase" (1966), all in a short amount of time. At quick glance, Hyer was an enigma, but she really wasn't. A closer look shows her women were flesh-and-blood.

Well, they're my picks. Let me know if I left anyone out.
So is she or isn't she? A pod, that is. Dana Wynter in Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) with staunch, stalwart Kevin McCarthy

8 comments:

wwolfe said...

I always liked Barbara Rush very much. She seemed very grown up to me, and sophisticated in a very particular way - one that would be found exclusively in a big, cosmopolitan city. Her role in "The Young Lions" was a good one, with a well-delineated relationship between her and Dean Martin. The last thing I saw her in was an episode of the revamped "Outer Limits" TV show. Not surprisingly, she was, as usual, classy, intelligent, and sophisticated.

Jessie said...

I know what you mean. These are all actresses who seemed to do work under the radar. Like you, I admire and have enjoyed them all. I wish you had something to say about Mary Murphy and Betsy Palmer, two performers who look like leading ladies but were actually young character actresses.

jbryant said...

Another great Barbara Rush performance is in BIGGER THAN LIFE. She's always great.

My big discovery this year was Debra Paget. Though I had liked her in a few things (Dwan's THE RIVER'S EDGE and Corman's THE HAUNTED PALACE, for instance), she blew me away in Fritz Lang's THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR and THE INDIAN TOMB. Her temple dance in the latter is quite possibly the sexiest thing I've ever scene in a movie (it's on youtube if you haven't seen it -- have some smelling salts handy). But her acting is actually good, too.

I also liked Paget in a supporting role in Tourneur's ANNE OF THE INDIES, in which Jean Peters plays the title role. Peters doesn't always impress me, and she's odd casting for a rough-hewn, illiterate pirate captain, but she really nails it. She's great in Fuller's PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, too.

joe baltake said...

Jay- Thanks for reminding me of both Debra Paget and Jean Peters.

Daryl Chin said...

There are always actresses whose careers are mostly wasted; one actress who comes to mind is Lola Albright. She seemed to be on-her-way as one of the women in CHAMPION (1949), but got sidetracked as Mrs. Jack Carson; when that marriage was over, she got her big break as Edie in the Peter Gunn series, but TV stars rarely got big-time movie roles. In A COLD WIND IN AUGUST, Rene Clement's JOY HOUSE, and LORD LOVE A DUCK, she was able to show her considerable talent, but she was nearing 40 by then.

Often an actress will be typed, and then someone else will become the star. In the late 1950s, Carolyn Jones was the beatnik girl (cf. A HOLE IN THE HEAD, BACHELOR PARTY, CAREER) but her co-star in CAREER, Shirley MacLaine, became the go-to star of the beatnik-bohemian girl type (SOME CAME RUNNING, CAREER, TWO FOR THE SEESAW). It depends on who has the clout, who is behind the career. (MacLaine got the boost of being the girl sidekick of the Rat Pack.)

But loved that you mentioned Barbara Rush and Dana Wynter.

Jim said...

What I have seems to have caught my attention while observing your blog was that you have also noticed that there seem to be actresses who are out there and become famous stars but get sidetracked with diffrent tempting oppurtunities. I find myself intrigued that you gents seem to realize what I see in a the theatre and in movies as well.

Unknown said...

I love the way people too young to know anything of the 1950s calls this time "repressed," or "sexually supressed." We like to call it public decency.

A.N. said...

I love the way people too young to know anything of the 1950s calls this time "repressed," or "sexually supressed." We like to call it public decency.