Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Kinky blonde: the career of Gloria Grahame


Gloria Grahame was the most fascinating and enigmatic of Hollywood blondes of the 1950s.
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Hollywood blondes of the 1950s were varied. Cheerful, versatile Doris Day was the most popular; Marilyn Monroe, the most famous; Grace Kelly, the most classically beautiful and acclaimed; 40s holdover Lana Turner, the most glamorous; Kim Novak, the most underappreciated. But the most fascinating and enigmatic was Gloria Grahame (1923-81). Grahame is being portrayed by a well-cast Annette Bening in "Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool," about her sad, final days.

Grahame's uniqueness stemmed from a combination of acting ability, sultry good looks, intelligence, humor, and a promise of unbridled sex. She was a supremely confident seductress. So often in her best films, men were intoxicated by her implicit promise to fulfill their deepest sexual desires.

Born Gloria Hallward in Los Angeles, she studied under her mother, actress Jean Grahame, and was on Broadway when seen by MGM's Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a contract. She caused "Blonde Fever" (1944) by threatening a rocky marriage. After a bit in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy "Without Love," (1945), Mayer decided she wasn't star material and sold her contract to RKO. She scored as the flirtatious Violet in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), saved from prostitution by James Stewart. Back at MGM she was wasted in "It Happened in Brooklyn," a Frank Sinatra musical.

But RKO caught her in a "Crossfire" (1947), a fine psychological thriller about murderous anti-Semitism in the military. She shone as a sympathetic tart, earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, losing to Celeste Holm in "Gentlemen's Agreement."

Despite that recognition, MGM again wasted her as a chanteuse in "Song of the Thin Man," and opposite Red Skelton's "Merton of the Movies" (1947). Better was "A Woman's Secret," in which she obsessively controlled Maureen O'Hara. Second husband Nicholas Ray directed. She rode "Roughshod" (1949), a Western, but then dazzled in Ray's "In a Lonely Place" (1950), uneasily falling for Humphrey Bogart's unstable, tormented screenwriter. She was sexy, wary, sympathetic, and conflicted as she realized how disturbed he is. It flopped, but today is considered a masterpiece.

Grahame was entering her peak period. She replaced a pregnant Lucille Ball in Cecil B. DeMille's hokey but popular "The Greatest Show on Earth." Sporting red hair, she played an unfaithful wife who torments her elephant-trainer husband. She visited Joseph Von Sternberg's "Macao," stealing the film from Jane Russell. Grahame gave Joan Crawford "Sudden Fear," seducing her younger husband, Jack Palance, and enticing him to kill his wife – an extraordinary performance. At MGM she, Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, and Walter Pidgeon were "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952), Vincente Minnelli's entertaining melodrama about Hollywood. As Dick Powell's vivacious southern-belle wife having an affair with handsome Latin lover Gilbert Roland, she made the most of a small, showy part, and won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.


Helping immigrants

She had a bigger role as a factory worker helping illegal immigrant Vittorio Gassman get past "The Glass Wall." In Elia Kazan's "Man on a Tightrope," she was one of Frederic March's circus employees hoping to escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Neither was memorable, but Fritz Lang's classic noir "The Big Heat" confirmed her brilliance. She torments her boyfriend, gangster Lee Marvin, who thinks she's betrayed him with cop Glenn Ford. His punishment is horrific, but her cool revenge is unforgettable. Inexplicably, she followed this by becoming one of "The Prisoners of the Casbah" (1953).

She livened up "The Good Die Young," an otherwise forgettable English noir, then reunited with Lang and Ford to feel "Human Desire," based on Emile Zola's novel. In it, she betrays brutish husband Broderick Crawford. "Naked Alibi" (1954) was a minor noir. She got caught in Minnelli's "The Cobweb," a juicy melodrama about a psychiatric clinic where the patients don't seem more troubled than the staff. Her husband, the head doctor (Richard Widmark), neglects her, so she finds solace with Charles Boyer and fascinates patient John Kerr. In "Not as a Stranger," her wealthy society lady tempts doctor Robert Mitchum from his wife, nurse Olivia de Havilland. She was, however, badly miscast as Ado Annie in "Oklahoma!" (1955), recording songs one note at a time. Critics carped, and she reportedly was difficult during shooting.

She supported Clifton Webb as "The Man Who Never Was" (1956), a WWII thriller, then had to "Ride Out for Revenge" (1957), but was amazing in a small part in Robert Wise's "Odds Against Tomorrow" (1959), seducing convicted killer Robert Ryan while asking him what it felt like to murder a man.

She had never liked her "thin" upper lip, and plastic surgery to correct the problem altered her face. Movie roles dried up, so she returned to the stage and worked steadily on television, making infrequent appearances on the big screen, usually in minor pictures: "Ride Beyond Revenge," (1966); the lead in "Blood and Lace," small roles in "Chandler" (1971) and "The Loners" (1972), top-billed in "Mama's Dirty Girls" (1974), down on the cast list in "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," funny in a small part in "Chilly Scenes of Winter" (1979) and in a tiny role in "Melvin and Howard" (1980).

Along with the surgery, her unconventional personal life hurt her professionally. Her marriage to Ray produced a child, but ended in 1952 when he claimed she seduced his 13-year-old son from a previous marriage, Tony. She had a child with her third husband, producer Cy Howard, divorcing him in 1957. She married former stepson Tony Ray In 1960. They had two children before divorcing in 1974.

It's no wonder that, as David Thomson writes, "Things happened when she was around." Grahame's legacy is potent, and guarantees a place in movie history, but one senses that only a portion of her rare talent was ever revealed.


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