The League of Alternate Superstars: Jeanne Crain

Jeanne Crain (1925 – 2003), was not, as so many biographies andStarfair1945 obituaries report, Miss Long Beach of 1941 and a Miss America finalist or runner-up. The Miss Long Beach Pageant was not instituted until 1950. Jeanne was actually crowned Miss Pan-Pacific in Los Angeles’ Pan-Pacific Auditorium in 1941. (That was an all-purpose venue for speeches and shows.) One assumes 20th Century-Fox’s PR department and/or studio head Darryl Zanuck spun the facts. Did “Miss Long Beach” sound better that “Miss Pan-Pacific.” To further complicate matters, Jeanne is said to have been Miss Camera Girl for 1941.

In any event, Jeanne Crain had the looks and appeal to obtain a Fox contract. She had a few film roles for the studio before her official introduction in 1944’s Home in Indiana. In that homespun saga of a troubled youth (Lon McCallister), Jeanne played tomboy Char who along with the sulkies gave McCallister a purpose in life and served as a role model (“People being sorry just makes other people mad,” offered Char).

In 1945 Crain was again living the idealized, cornfed, Middle-American life in the musical State Fair opposite Dana Andrews, with whom she would pair in three more movies. That same year she was third-billed in the film version of Ben Ames Williams’ popular novel, Leave Her to Heaven. Once denigrated as too melodramatic, with Gene Tierney portraying the sociopathically jealous Ellen Berent Harland, it has in recent times become admired as film noir—and a majestically color one at that. Playing Tierney’s sister, Jeanne’s character was driven to distraction.

If Crain had a signature role it came in 1946. As Margie she once more tackled the trials and tribulations of a young woman coming of age. In this one she kept losing her bloomers and—unthinkable now—fell in love with and married her teacher. The famous September 30, 1946 cover of Life featured Jeanne in her Margie bathtub, playing with huge bubbles created via helium forced upward from the drain into water supplemented with soap and glycerine.

Apartment for Peggy (1948)apartment for peggy was more than met the eye. Nancy Spellman wrote, “While the film contains many comic aspects, especially the at-times extremely funny performance of Jeanne Crain, the treatment of these issues is both serious and intelligent.” Those issues included the generation gap, a younger generation’s optimism, materialism, and problems faced by women, often caught in tedious jobs while the husbands took advantage of the GI Bill to, as Spellman noted, “attend classes with attractive and better-educated coeds.” The mournful landlord played by Edmund Gwenn, your favorite Kris Kringle from the previous year’s Miracle on 34th Street, provided the apartment. His pessimism about the human race’s prospects became infectious until Crain berated Holden: “Oh no! You too! That’s what half the people around here are saying: The world’s gonna die, nobody’s got a chance, it’s no use living, might as well commit suicide!”

Next up was a plum dramatic role:pinky the African-American passing for white in Pinky (1949). Crain received her only Academy Award nomination for this Elia Kazan movie that was typical of 20th Century Fox and its production chief Darryl F. Zanuck penchant for tackling significant social issues.

Zanuck must have been pulling his hair out when his very popular star began having babies, which would total seven during the next decade. Obviously this cost Crain some roles, apparently the leads that went to Jennifer Jones in Carrie, Deborah Kerr in Quo Vadis and Jean Simmons in The Robe. Presumably Jeanne would have been on loan-out from Fox for the first two, a Paramount and MGM production, respectively.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) included Jeanne, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern. One of them had a husband (Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn) who ran off with a mutual friend. The film won Joseph L. Mankiewicz Academy Awards for writing and direction, a feat he’d duplicate the following year with All About Eve, which featured Anne Baxter as the title character. Jeanne had been up for that role.

Cheaper by the Dozencheaper by the dozen (1950) featured Jeanne as the eldest of the Gilbreth children, their father (Clifton Webb) the noted efficiency expert. Getting billing over Myrna Loy, Crain also narrated. Without Webb, the sequel Belles on Their Toes was merely average.

People Will Talk (1951) is one of the more obscure Cary Grant films despite its quality and the director, once again Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Grant was a mysterious professor and gynecologist who befriended a student (Jeanne) about to become an unwed mother. Like Pinky, it was ahead of its time.

If there was any downside to some of Crain’s later films at Fox and when she became “independent,” it was her leading men. Some, like Scott Brady, her co-star in 1951’s The Model and the Marriage Broker, who was once labeled the next John Wayne, were expected to become major stars. That didn’t happen. Ditto with George Nader, Jeanne’s co-star in The Second Greatest Sex.

O. Henry’s Full House (1952)O Henry's Full House was a compendium of selected O. Henry short stories. The last and best was “The Gift of the Magi,” with Jeanne as the wife who sold her glorious hair to buy a watch fob for her husband (Farley Granger). The husband, in the meantime, sold his watch for combs for his wife.

Times were changing and Hollywood, having experienced a mini-golden age after the war, was now in a state of tumoil. Accused of price fixing and “block booking” (theater owners took one studio film but had to take specified others whether they wanted them or not), under the Supreme Court’s 1948 “Paramount Decree” the studios began to lose their monopolies. Add to that the inroads of TV and severely curtailed theatrical attendance by a population with more entertainment options. Scrambling to stay afloat, studios started dropping stars and their star contracts. It was a far cry from the recent “golden age” when studios locked up stars for years. Perhaps Olivia de Havilland’s win in 1945 started this ball rolling. Others had tried but De Havilland won when the California State Supreme Court ruled that she did not have to work an extra 24 weeks for Warner Bros. The 24 weeks were those she had been suspended for when she refused film assignments.

Like Richard Widmark, also at Fox, Jeanne was anxious to spread her wings and go independent. That became a double-edged sword for many stars. No longer under the aegis of a particular studio, they were required to handle a plethora of new activities: selecting scripts, publicity, dealing with distributors, negotiating foreign film contracts.

Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955) was the sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Fox had released Blondes but this was released by United Artists. Again, neither Jeanne nor Jane Russell had top-of-the-line male co-stars. Scott Brady was back and Alan Young essayed the milquetoast. It did give Jeanne a chance to look great in sequins and dance. She had matured from girl-next-door to sexy—and voluptuous—temptress.

One of the better Jeanne vehicles after she left Fox was Man Without a Star (1955). Hearkening back to Margie but this time in a western setting, Jeanne had another significant bathtub scene (once a Hollywood staple if not a cliché). She was a tough customer this time, running a ranch somewhat unethically and causing foreman Kirk Douglas to turn on her. It was the farmers vs. cattlemen scenario.

Jeanne signed on for some foreign films: Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile (1961) and Invasion 1700, aka Daggers of Blood (1962). Back in the States, she guested on TV series and made some less than earthshaking films. One wonders how much influence her long-time husband had on script selection. Did he, like Susan Hayward’s second husband, direct her toward vehicles that were bound to detract from her luster?

All in all, Jeanne Crain had a sterling resume that would have been even better if the classical Hollywood studio system hadn’t decayed. She had a decade of excellent roles and films. Most generally acknowledged superstars don’t exceed that.

By Kim

References:
Finler, Joel. The Hollywood Story. New York: Crown, 1988.

Long Beach Public Library email. February 28, 2014.

Parish, James Robert. The Fox Girls. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1971.

Spellman, Nancy. “On Video: Apartment for Peggy.” Film Ex (Winter 1992): 6-7.

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