Saturday, September 01, 2018

façade: five forgotten '50s femmes

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, Doris Day, Natalie Wood, Shirley MacLaine and Janet Leigh - or of Lee Remick, Piper Laurie, Joanne Woodward and Jean Simmons. I admire them all. 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.

And then there were Diane Varsi and Inger Stevens, both singular and who died far too young. They all enjoyed a star spot during their careers.

No, my fascination is with the fleeting stars - those actresses who were "almost stars," who worked unobtrusively as contract players, sometimes 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 Nancy Gates, Mala Powers, Colleen Gray, Dianne Foster, Karen Sharpe, Felicia Farr, Mary Murphy, Betsy Palmer, Elaine Stewart and Diane Brewster may not mean anything to you, but they do to me. They were terrific.

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.

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. She cried often - and well.

The equally beautiful Julie Adams had a bit more of an "up" personality, which made her game for creature features, 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 should have been Mike Nichols' Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate."

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 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" (1958), 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 enjoyed a more productive career than her counterparrts.

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, that's my picks. Let me know if I left anyone out. Share yours.

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(from top)

~Patricia Owens and Barbara Rush with Pat Hingle in Martin Ritt's "No Down Payment"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1957©

~Julie Adams (then Julia) and a bad blind date in Jack Arnold's "Creature from the Black Lagoon" 
~photography: Universal International 1954©

Studio shots of Delores Michaels, Dana Wynter and Martha Hyer

So is she or isn't she? A pod, that is. Dana Wynter in Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," with staunch, stalwart Kevin McCarthy
~photography: Universal-International 1956©


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.

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.

Daisy 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.

Alex 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.

Molly 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.

Ed said...

This wasn't my era (I'm younger) but calling these movies/characters sexually repressed just represents the times they were made, not the feelings of the actors/actresses nor you. It wasn't "public decency" it was a generally repressed era in every way. Even the Victorians weren't that represesed!

Cliff said...

Barbara Rush, Martha Hyer, Julie Adams, Debra Paget - you'll find a lot of these actresses on this blog (but with more of an emphasis on their extensive B movie careers):

joe baltake said...

Much appreciated, Cliff. Great blog. Thanks for sharing. -J

Bunuel said...

I like your choices.
Being a western fan, I recall Nancy Gates giving a very good perforamnce in Commanche Station. Martha Hyer did ok costarring with John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder. And I liked Dianne Foster in The Deep Six, with Alan Ladd.
Julie Adams was an ideal costar for Jimmy Stewart in By The Bend of the River, and Barbara Rush did a good job in Magnificent Obsession.
Felicia Farr had a good role in The Last Wagon and Mary Murphy was very good as Frecric March's daughter in The Desperate Hours.
Of course, these are some of my favorite films!
Peggie Castle is another actress I like a lot from the 50s and she's in another two of my favorite movies - 99 River Street and Tall Man Riding.

Sheila said...

Fabulous, just fabulous!

Brian Lucas said...

Thanks to Molly for mentioning Lola Albright and Carolyn Jones. In terms of the off-beat actress in films, I always preferred Jones to Shirley MacLaine. And Albright has been terribly ignored.

joe baltake said...

I agree about the greatness of both Albright and Jones, Brian

k.o. said...

as usual, I "sort of" remember these actresses but particularly Betsy Palmer, who was in my exercise class at Nicholas Kounovsky's in NYC in the early to mid 60s. (4pm tuesdays and fridays) This was way before "gyms" were even a thought much less Pilates, Jane Fonda, blah-blah. Kounovsky's was a real Russian studio of gymnastics (parallel bars, somersaults, backbends, etc.) located on West 57th. Kounovsky's "disciples" (Walter and Alex) went on to establish their own gym after (or maybe before) Kounovsky died. Buy anyway, at Easter, there would always be Russian cake and stuff. Kounovsky's became synonomous with a certain clientele -- and girls like me who were great at gynastics. Girls like me never "got physical" or did weights or stuff that happened after Fonda and that movement. But I remember Betsy Palmer as being the nicest and prettiest at the gym a kid in NYC could want - a REAL gym pal).

Richard H. said...

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

Diana P said...

so many great actresses to learn more about!

Bill Wolfe said...

Daisy said everything about Barbara Rush that was going to say. I will add, however, that imdb says she actually has something being filmed right now. (Although it adds, parenthetically, "Rumored.")

At a much lower rung on the fleeting fame meter, I happened to see the very first episode of "Perry Mason" recently on Me TV. The accused-of-the-week was an actress named Whitney Blake, who turned out to have an interesting resume. After starring in the TV version of "Hazel," she earned a living via single episodes of one-hour TV dramas, including an episode of "Ironsides," starring the former Perry Mason, Raymond Burr. Then in the mid-1970s, she and her husband produced the hit sitcom, "One Day at a Time."

Interestingly enough, another notable Blake production was a daughter, Meredith Baxter, who made a big mark on TV from the 1970s to the present.

("Perry Mason" itself was produced by a "could have been a bigger star" actress from an earlier era, Gail Patrick.)

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Bill. Great minds think alike. I also admire Whitney Blake. She had everything, in my opinion, necessary to be a huge film star. But that never seemed to happen. She got trapped in the velvet trap called television. Same with Meredith Baxter, an interesting, intelligent actress who is often better than her material. -J

Bill said...

Felicia Farr should have been a star, along with being Jack Lemmon's wife. Her short but intriguing role in 3:10 to Yuma proves it.

Bill Miller said...

Great article, as usual. Another forgotten 1950s actress is Maggie McNamara, who gave a sensitive performance opposite Richard Burton's Edwin Booth in the unjustly neglected "Prince of Players." Their romantic scenes were enhanced by a lovely Bernard Herrmann score. She only made a few films, for one of which she got an Oscar nomination, before disappearing and dying at only 49 years old.

joe baltake said...

To the two Bills- Yes, Felicia Farr, uncommonly beautiful and with a strong, no-nonsense personality. As for Maggie McNamara, during a recent email conversation with a friend about movies and overlooked actresses, I referenced McNamara as one of my first film-star crushes. I plan to devote a future essay to her brief but impressive career. -J