Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jeanne Crain: More Than Just a Pretty Face

A Fan's Perspective
I’m an unabashed fan of Jeanne Crain. Today is her birthday; if she were still with us, she’d be 86 years old. Crain was a beauty for sure, but she was also a talented movie actress who doesn’t get the credit she deserves. On screen she had a unique quality. Film fans loved her. During the war years, her fan mail was second only to Betty Grable's.

A studio photograph of Jeanne Crain

Home at Twentieth Century Fox
Signed to an exclusive contract with Twentieth Century Fox in 1943, Crain went through the star making machine. Cast in small roles at first alongside bigger stars, Crain made Home in Indiana and In the Meantime Darling in 1944. A hit with the public from the start, Crain received her best critical notices that same year in Winged Victory. But bigger roles and greater fame were on the horizon.

From Second Lead to Major Star
In 1945, Crain starred as Margy Frake in the hit musical, State Fair opposite Dana Andrews. That same year she played Gene Tierney’s stepsister in the box office blockbuster, Leave Her to Heaven. The film was a triumph for Tierney, earning her a best actress nod, but Crain had the film’s final closeup, beautifully photographed in Technicolor by none other than Academy Award winning cinematographer, Leon Shamroy. Next up for Crain was another musical, Centennial Summer (1946). Fox’s answer to M-G-M’s Meet Me in St. Louis, featured original music by Jerome Kern. But it would be her next film that would make her a household name and pop culture icon.

Crain made the cover of Life in 1946.

Historic Bubble Bath
With hers the only name above the title in Margie (1946), studio chief Darryl Zanuck propelled Crain to movie superstardom. As Margie MacDuff, a shy high school student during the roaring twenties, Crain was pitch-perfect. Noting Crain’s increasing popularity, Life magazine did a feature on the young actress, calling her “…one of Hollywood’s most talented young stars.” The feature goes on about the movie magic required to film a bubble bath scene that required “…a specially designed machine which could blow 250 [bubbles] per second out of a mixture of soap and glycerine…the small army of technicians present agreed that this was a scrubbing sensational enough to make Claudette Colbert’s historic 1932 milk bath in The Sign of the Cross look like Saturday night along Tobacco Road.” They don’t write publicity pieces like that anymore!

William Holden, Crain, and Edmund Gwen starred in the classic Apartment for Peggy.

Neglected Classic
In 1948, Crain starred in Apartment for Peggy with William Holden and recent Academy Award winner, Edmund Gwen. One of the neglected post-World War II films, Apartment for Peggy explores the housing shortage veterans encountered, among other issues, upon returning home. Directed by George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street), Crain received some of her best reviews ever. The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther had this to say about the film: “It is the true demonstration of a GI student, which William Holden plays, and, especially, the vivid characterization, by Jeanne Crain, of his wife… Anyone who doesn't see it will be missing one of the best comedies of the year.”

Crain received her one and only Best Actress nomination for Pinky.

One Amazing Year!
On a winning streak and with world-wide popularity, Crain made three successful films released in 1949: A Letter to Three Wives, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, The Fan, directed by Otto Preminger, and Pinky, directed by Elia Kazan. The latter earned Crain her one and only Best Actress Academy Award nomination, playing a light-skinned black woman passing for white. The controversial movie was the top grossing film of the year. All this success brought Crain to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the honor of immortalizing her hands and footprints in cement.

Crain's hands and footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre
Pregnant Pauses
Other successes followed Crain into the 1950s, but the actress was growing tired of playing teenagers when she was in real life a wife and mother. Seemingly forever pregnant, Crain missed out on several top roles Zanuck had lined up for her. Supposedly, he “punished” Crain by casting her in some B-pictures that did nothing to move her career forward. Frustrated, Crain bought out her contract and left Fox where she had been a major star for 10 years. Unfortunately, Crain’s freelance work never equaled the success she attained at her former studio. The movie business was changing and the studios were dropping major stars and hiring new (and cheaper) talent.

One of Crain's last films for Fox

Enduring Popularity
Crain’s film career pretty much ended in the early-1960s, but her popularity with movie fans continued until her death in 2003. Liked and admired by her costars as well as the public, Crain left a tremendous body of film work that is a testament to both her talent and radiant beauty.

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