Although film aficionados are familiar with Coleen Gray (1922 – 2015), she is not a household name. Nevertheless, her career on the big screen and TV was long and contained a number of highlights. Not many had such a promising start in multiple first-class films. Who knows why that didn’t continue? Poor agent? Unwilling to go the casting couch route with a studio exec? Marriage and family? (Somehow Jeanne Crain managed to be a 20th Century Fox mainstay from 1944 into the 50s despite birthing 7 children, although she did give up the plum role of Eve to Anne Baxter in the 1950 classic All About Eve.)
After small and/or uncredited appearances in several films, Gray got the “and Introducing” honor as Victor Mature’s neighbor and future wife Nettie in the seminal noir Kiss of Death (1947). (Until relatively recently, Richard Widmark’s overpowering debut as the giggling psychopath Tommy Udo sucked all the oxygen from the other players. Of late, Mature has come in for well-deserved kudos.)
In her next film, the same year, Gray not only had another superstar to play against but initiated her unheralded spate of memorable lines. Nightmare Alley has become an increasingly hailed noir that Tyrone Power was keen to use as a way to demonstrate that he was more than just a pretty boy—maybe Hollywood’s handsomest star. He’d taken a step in that direction the previous year in The Razor’s Edge and wanted to keep that ball rolling. In Nightmare, he played con man Stan Carlisle and Gray his wife who eventually had enough and stood up to him: “Wait a minute, mister. You’re not talking to one of your chumps. You’re talking to your wife. You’re talking to somebody who knows you red, white and blue, and you can’t fool me anymore. There’s only one way I can stop you from doing this thing, and that’s to leave you.”
In 1948 Gray was John Wayne’s girl in the epic cattle drive saga Red River. Her role as Fen was small but significant. She pleaded with Tom Dunson (Wayne) to stay with the wagon train rather than leave the customary trail with crusty old Groot (Walter Brennan): “Listen to me, Tom, listen with your head and your heart, too. The sun only shines half the time, Tom, the other half is night.” He didn’t listen and regretted it the rest of his days.
Although it wasn’t on the same scale or have the same prestige as her earlier movies, The Sleeping City (1950) with Richard Conte was a good crime drama set in a hospital. Once more Gray had the best lines, a monologue: “Blemishes are hid by night and every fault forgiven. The world should live by night. Dark draws people together. They can feel the need for each other. But the world gives the night to the sick, keeps for itself daylight and lets men look into faces filled with fear and hatred. Are you filled with fear and hatred?”
Like Marie Windsor, Mari Blanchard, Peggie Castle, Beverly Garland, Marla English and several others, Gray can in retrospect be labeled a B-movie queen of the 50s. See: Apache Drums, Copper Sky, Las Vegas Shakedown (“Nothing happens to school teachers.”), Star in the Dust, Destination 60,000, The Vampire, Hell’s Five Hours, The Leech Woman.
Occasionally Gray was in what would later be recognized as an important, even classic movie. See Stanley Kubrick’s multi-layered heist film The Killing (1956).
In the western The Black Whip (1958) Gray provided audiences with another memorable rant. As dance-hall floozie Jeannie, she confronted Hugh Marlowe: “What do you know about women like me? Do you think I chose this kind of life?”
In Johnny Rocco (1958) her character’s wit and wisdom was topped by Stephen McNally, her co-star from the same year’s Hell’s Five Hours. McNally apologized for his misstep: “Sorry, I call all dames Jack.”
The 1960s found Gray a fixture in TV series. She appeared on Perry Mason in 4 episodes between 1960 and 1966. In 1966 she was a regular on the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives. She guest starred on innumerable other shows and many years later was a friendly, appreciative guest at film conventions.