Obituary: Helen Vinson

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the great "other women" of the cinema, Helen Vinson played occasional sympathetic roles, notably in the classic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but was mainly typecast as a blonde temptress out to steal somebody's husband or cheat on her own. Her skill was often to invest such roles with a veracity that made it easy to empathise with her despite her treatment of the hero or heroine. She herself was unhappy at such typecasting and in the mid- Thirties tried establishing a career in England, the second of her three husbands being the British tennis champion Fred Perry.

Born Helen Rulfs in Beaumont, Texas, in 1907, the daughter of an oil company executive, she was educated at the University of Texas, where she performed in college shows and considered an acting career, but in May 1925 she suddenly eloped with a carpet manufacturer from Philadelphia, Harry N. Vickerman. She said later that her intention had been to become a dutiful wife and mother - "what most Southern girls are usually trained for" - but two years later she returned to the theatre in a Houston production of The Charm School.

The same year she made her Broadway debut, under the name Helen Vinson, in the play Los Angeles, and followed this with roles in Death Takes a Holiday (1929) and Berlin (1931), in which she played an English typist helping a spy recover secret documents from the Prussian secret police, whose sinister leader was played by a pre- Hollywood Sydney Greenstreet. In The Fatal Alibi (1932), a short-lived stage adaptation of Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, she provided a romantic interlude for the detective Hercule Poirot, played by Charles Laughton.

Vinson had made her screen debut inauspiciously in a low-budget comedy shot in Florida, It's a Deal (1930), but in 1932 Warners offered her a contract and she departed for Hollywood. Her first roles, in Jewel Robbery (1932) and Two Against the World (1932), were minor, but then she was cast in the studio's powerful indictment of the Southern penal system, Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Based on the memoirs of a former convict, Robert Burns, who had to use a false name when working at Warners because the state of Georgia was still after him for having escaped, the film became one of the most uncompromising studies of social injustice ever produced by Hollywood and was nominated for the year's Oscar as Best Film.

As the girl with whom the escaped convict falls in love after making a new life for himself, Vinson was to share with the actor Paul Muni the memorable closing moments when the convict, having been betrayed by the authorities who promised him a parole if would give himself up, has again escaped and meets up with Vinson in the dark Chicago night. When she asks him how he survives, he tells her, "I hide in rooms all day and travel by night. No friends, no rest, no peace." "How do you live?" she asks and, as he disappears into the darkness, she hears the whispered reply, "I steal!"

In her first three years in Hollywood, Vinson made 18 films, among them two enjoyable William Dieterle films Lawyer Man (1932), in which she suffered unrequited love for the lawyer William Powell, and Grand Slam (1933), in one of her first "other woman" roles, trying to woo Paul Lukas away from his bridge-playing wife Loretta Young.

The actress was a sophisticated socialite again in two more movies, Michael Curtiz's stylish Philo Vance whodunnit, The Kennel Murder Case (1933), and Little Giant (1933), bewildered by the attempts of a former beer baron, Edward G. Robinson, to become part of the upper set. (Offered a measure of brandy in a balloon glass, he asks, "Why doncha fill it up?")

The tall, slender Vinson was later to complain to a columnist that she had found Hollywood less glamorous than she expected. "It seemed to be an absolute sea of short men," she said. "Robinson, Muni, James Cagney and George Raft all had to stand on boxes when they acted with me." Her film with Raft was The Midnight Club (1933), made on loan to Paramount and the first film in which she received co-star billing.

It was also on loan, this time to Fox, that she made one of her most impressive films, William K. Howard's The Power and the Glory (1933), from a Preston Sturges script which told of the rise and fall of an unscrupulous industrialist and which has been compared to Citizen Kane. Though the film was dominated by the central performance of Spencer Tracy, Vinson won praise for her portrayal of his vitriolic second wife, whose affair with his young son leads to his suicide.

In 1933, Vinson divorced Vickerman, stating that he would not allow "people of the theatre" into their home. Her next film was, ironically, As Husbands Go (1933), a romantic comedy in which she starred with Warner Baxter, another film made on loan, after which Vinson and Warners agreed to terminate her contract.

At Columbia, she was the waspishly ambitious wife of horse-lover Warner Baxter in Frank Capra's Broadway Bill (1933), her coldness driving him into the arms of her sister (Myrna Loy), and she had a similar role in The Life of Vergie Winters (1934), finally shooting her husband (John Boles) when he asks to be released from their loveless marriage to marry the mistress (Ann Harding) who has borne his child.

Next, she almost succeeded in wooing Clive Brook away from his wife (Diana Wynyard) in Let's Try Again (1934). Although she played so many cold or scheming women, Vinson's ability to invest her parts with an uncommon amount of compassion, which would occasionally win the audience to her side, was often noted. The New York Times said, "Miss Vinson's cool and clear-eyed intelligence, even when it is enlisted on the side of the devil, has an unhappy way of winning our sympathy."

Although she played a wronged wife in King Vidor's The Wedding Night (1935), Vinson accepted her fate in the film with dignity. When her husband's sweetheart (Anna Sten) dies, she quietly walks out of her grieving husband's life. This time The New York Times described Vinson as "absolutely right, playing the part with such intelligence and sympathy that she definitely contributes to the power of the climax".

But more villainy followed - in the medical drama Private Worlds (1935) she was a murderess who drives her lover's wife (Joan Bennett) insane, and in Age of Indiscretion (1935) she not only leaves her husband when he gets into debt, but also abandons their small child. Andre Sennwald, the New York Times writer, again complained:

It is unfortunate that the part of the evil wife is performed by the most charming player in the film, Helen Vinson. You may recall that Miss Vinson played hob with that excellent photoplay The Wedding Night by interpreting the brazen wife with such sympathetic understanding that many of us resented her husband's bad taste in falling out of love with her. This sort of thing has been happening

in Miss Vinson's pictures for several years, the audience admiring and feeling sorry for her instead of reacting according to the script.

In 1935 Vinson married her second husband, the British tennis champion Fred Perry. "Our marriage will be successful," she told reporters, "because I'm a thorough-going American woman and I exercise my prerogative of being independent. It's all right with my husband. He agreed to it before we were married." When the couple moved to England, Vinson said she was tired of type-casting and hoped to establish a fresh reputation, but others thought it a misjudged move at a point when her career might attain new heights.

Her first British film, The Tunnel (1936), was a fanciful tale of the building of a tunnel between England and the United States in which Vinson was the daughter of one of the millionaires backing the project who flirts with the married architect of the scheme (Richard Dix). She made two more British films, King of the Damned (1935), as a prison commandant's daughter, and Love in Exile (1936), a weak comedy.

In mid-1936 Vinson and Perry returned to Hollywood, but the actress's career never regained full momentum, and her personal life came under strain when Perry embarked on an affair with Marlene Dietrich. In Vogues of 1938, centred on Fifth Avenue fashion houses, Vinson was elegantly gowned and, with her blonde hair and thin, pencilled eyebrows, looked fine in Technicolor, but her role was the selfish wife whose husband (Warner Baxter) eventually turns to someone sweeter.

She and Perry were divorced in 1938 and shortly afterwards she married the New York socialite Donald Hardenbrook. The best of Vinson's later films was made at her old studio Warners, who cast her as a bored planter's wife who tries to seduce the plantation manager, James Cagney, in William Keighley's hugely enjoyable Torrid Zone (1940).

The film was stolen, however, by Ann Sheridan as the wise-cracking night- club singer who gets Cagney in the end. The two women share a memorable moment when Sheridan berates Vinson for carelessly disposing of a cigarette- end. "I understand the Chicago fire was started by something like that," says Sheridan, to be corrected by Vinson who imperiously points out, "The Chicago fire was started by a cow." "History repeats itself," murmurs Sheridan.

In 1944, after a period of semi- retirement, Vinson returned to the screen to play the mother of Ann Blyth in Chip Off the Old Block (1944), and she played another mother role, this time top-billed as the inattentive parent of a juvenile delinquent in Are These Our Parents? (1944). Her last film role was in the The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), the fifth film in the series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy.

After this, she decided to retire to enjoy the life of New York society, soon becoming a leading figure on the city's social scene. She lived in later years in the exclusive New Jersey suburb Chapel Hills, and professed little inclination to think about, or discuss, her years as a Hollywood star.

Helen Rulfs (Helen Vinson), actress: born Beaumont, Texas 17 September 1907; married 1925 Harry Vickerman (marriage dissolved 1933), 1935 Fred Perry (marriage dissolved 1938), thirdly Donald Hardenbrook (deceased); died Chapel Hills, New Jersey 7 October 1999.

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