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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Jane Greer

I wonder what it was like for dedicated noir fans when they met Jane Greer. Let’s say you’re among those who revere Out Of The Past. One day you’re at the Egyptian theatre on Hollywood Boulevard and there she is. You know this is more than some ordinary movie star encounter because classic noir dwellers somehow transcend mere celebrity. The word itself becomes commonplace when you’re referring to surviving cast members of certain shows. That black-and-white parallel universe was something too vivid for mere mortals to have occupied. Meeting Jane Greer would have been akin to a face-to-face with some figure out of literature or mythology. We know they never existed, but because these characters are so etched in our consciousness, it seems to us they should have. Kathie Moffat in Out Of The Past went beyond the ordinary boundaries of one actress’ performance and became an icon among noir followers. This spider woman of our shared imaginations would become a polite, if bemused, object of a hundred tributes. Greer lived long enough to appreciate what she meant to these people. Were it not for that one defining role, I doubt many of us would recognize her name.

Greer’s not alone for having had one remarkable credit and little else. Others managed immortality on as few noir appearances. I can’t offhand think of another major Ann Savage besides Detour. Peggy Cummins was incredible in Gun Crazy, but no one invited her back for more. Luckless Faith Domergue must have walked past a hundred noir stages at RKO, but the one time she paused, for Where Danger Lives, resulted in a film not well regarded, despite Mitchum’s presence and John Farrow’s direction. Jane Greer seems to have resisted femme fatales after Out Of The Past. That was ill advised, for those roles were her strength --- a dozen players could have as capably handled her performances outside the genre. Like a lot of contract talent, Greer’s looks were her undoing. A girl so beautiful was less likely to be taken seriously. What chance did any aspiring actress have with studio cheesecake like this 1947 Christmas pose in circulation? You’d not be cast as Madame Curie in the wake of publicity like this. Progress was ever slower, but it could hardly be otherwise at RKO, whose own corporate convulsions made it near impossible to mount sustained career promotion for any artist. Jane had gotten in with Rudy Vallee’s help. They'd once been wed, hard as that is to imagine, but his bedroom peccadilloes, among other things, made domestic life unbearable for Bettijane (her real name), and prospects on the lot were equally dire. Being made of stern stuff (she’d once mounted a heroic effort in overcoming a teenage onset of Bell’s palsy, which completely paralyzed one side of her face), Jane played opposite Tom Conway, cowboy James Warren, and erstwhile Dick Tracy Morgan Conway. All this was getting her nowhere, but it was doing so at $100 a week, and that was lots more than she’d had as a depression-era kid, when Mom used to give Jane and her twin brother lemon-flavored hard candies to ward off hunger. Career starvation was finally abated with They Won’t Believe Me, a noirish meller that unexpectedly (and effectively) cast likeable Robert Young as a heel. Jane was fine, as nice girl perfs go, but she’d need something with more bite to make her presence felt …

Out Of The Past was nothing special at the time. Seems incredible to us now. RKO got more prestige, and money, out of Crossfire, which ended 1.2 million to the good, by far their biggest hit of the year. An also-ran like O.O.T.P. eked out $90,000 in profit. Noir before it found its name got no respect. These were all just grubby little thrillers, unless one like Crossfire happened to tie into a social conscience, which was very fashionable that year. The movie that made Jane Greer’s old age a happy one took decades to arrive at immortality's portal. We owe those French a lot for waking us up to these pictures. Pity none of that came in time to do Jane any immediate good. Station West was a smart western with Dick Powell. Was she or wasn’t she treacherous? That would be the question for leading men to come. Robert Mitchum appreciated her willingness to co-star with him despite a recent reefer bust, but The Big Steal found her long tresses cut, and frankly, some of her allure went with them. One-time suitor Howard Hughes was now in charge at RKO, and helpfully informed Jane that she was, despite her assurances to the contrary, quite unhappy with second husband and father of her children, Edward Lasker. Greer’s demurral aroused Hughes’ determination to checkmate her career. She was off the screen for two years after The Big Steal, and whatever momentum she’d had was now scattered to the winds.

Employment came by fits and starts after this. There were long breaks during the fifties that suggested retirement. Judging by the little work she was getting, that may have been the more viable option. Dore Schary had been a friend at RKO, but the lifeline he tossed at MGM was more like an anchor. Things like You For Me and Desperate Search were the kind of program fillers that backed up the Metro specials Jane wasn’t getting. A supporting role in one of them came closest, but The Prisoner Of Zenda wasn’t likely to add laurels to anyone’s resume, most critics merely pointing out how much better the old Selznick version had been. From here on, every Jane Greer appearance amounted to a comeback. Man Of A Thousand Faces found her a calm oasis amidst seas of emotion bestirred by James Cagney and a peculiarly hysterical Dorothy Malone, who seemed to have abandoned all restraint in the wake of having acquired an Academy Award for Written On The Wind. Sixties work included television and support in Where Love Has Gone, where she’d play Joey Heatherton’s probation officer. Build My Gallows High, indeed. Against this background, Out Of The Past was slowly but surely having a resurgence. Noir appreciation was finding currency on campuses and in revival houses. The golden age of reparatory walked hand-in-hand with the rediscovery of American movies buried too long in late-night syndication. 16mm rental exchanges were getting calls for Out Of The Past, and people started wondering whatever happened to Jane Greer. Stunt casting for a 1984 remake of O.O.T.P. found her playing Rachel Ward’s mother, but Against All Odds was otherwise devoid of interest to fans who much preferred asking Greer about the original during promotional appearances she’d agreed to make. Talking about Out Of The Past became a second career. When Robert Mitchum hosted Saturday Night Live in 1987, he asked Jane to come along for what proved to be an elaborate take-off on their co-starring hit of forty years previous. "Jeff Bailey's" gas station was lovingly reconstructed on an NBC stage, and though the sketch wasn't very funny, at least it signaled a younger generation's firm embrace of the old film. Right up until her death in 2001, Greer continued to appear with Out Of The Past --- at screenings --- on TCM --- though by now it all seemed like something that had happened to another person. That’s often the way of it after fifty years. I’m just sitting here for the last three minutes trying to remember what I had for lunch yesterday.

Photo Captions

Sunday Rotogravure Portrait of Jane Greer
Jane's Letter to Santa for Christmas, 1947
with Robert Young in They Won't Believe Me
with Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past
Again with Mitchum in Out of The Past
Ad Art for Station West
Ad Art for The Big Steal
One-Sheet for The Company She Keeps
with Gary Cooper in You're In The Navy Now
with Stewart Granger in The Prisoner Of Zenda
with Red Skelton in The Clown
with James Cagney in The Man Of A Thousand Faces


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Rudy Vallee's bedroom peccadilloes? Details, please!

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree with much that you say, and OUT OF THE PAST, among the greatest of noirs, is certainly the highlight of Ms. Greer's career... I can't dismiss THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME. Perhaps it was the shock of seeing Robert Young, dedicated straight-arrow dad and family guy of FATHER KNOWS BEST (and almost always a stand-up fellow in his many Metro and other RKO pix) playing a basically weak and rotten cad, but I've never forgotten this movie -- nor Greer and Hayward in it.

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh my...what a wonderful topic to wake up to today...jane greer! you write so well about the unfortunate overall trend of disposability of certain eras of film, but the welcome rediscovery of them...also, i agree with the comments of "east side"!

4:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Greetings East Side --- The details on the Greer-Vallee marriage can be found in Eddie Muller's fabulous book, "Dark City Dames", which I highly recommend to all Greenbriar readers.

Don't mean to underestimate "They Won't Believe Me", Griff. I just watched it again and thought it great.

5:29 PM  

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