Obituary: Penny Edwards

Click to follow
IT IS not only the superstars of Hollywood who are warmly remembered by cinemagoers of the days when double features were the norm. The stars of the low-budget supporting movie, the B film, had their own following, and among western heroines Penny Edwards was one of the most popular.

A blue-eyed blonde variously described as "comely", "refreshingly sweet" and "pretty as a prairie flower", she starred opposite Roy Rogers in six films, and played Tyrone Power's sweetheart in the western Pony Soldier. She was also an excellent singer and dancer.

Born in 1929 in Jackson Heights, New York, she was christened Millicent, but because her name ended in "cent" was soon being called Penny. As a child she would stage plays with schoolfriends in the family garage, and particularly loved dancing. Her determination to go on the stage was such that her parents sent her to a children's professional school. She was only 12 years old when she first obtained work doing dancing specialties in Broadway shows, including Cole Porter's Let's Face It (1941), Ziegfeld Follies (1943) starring Milton Berle, Laffing Room Only (1944), a showcase for the zany antics of Olsen and Johnson, and an operetta Marinka (1945), a version of the Mayerling tragedy with music by Emmerich Kalman.

She also made several appearances with the Municipal Opera Company of St Louis prior to being spotted by a talent scout from Warners and given a screen test. She made her film debut with blonde ringlets in the musical My Wild Irish Rose (1947), singing a brief chorus during the film's finale, had a small role in That Hagen Girl (1947) with Ronald Reagan and Shirley Temple, and was a conquest of Don Juan (Errol Flynn) in The Adventures of Don Juan (1948).

Edwards was then given a leading role, and her finest musical showcase, in Two Guys from Texas (1948), one of the studio's several vehicles for Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. Edwards and Dorothy Malone provided romantic interest in this story set on a dude ranch, and Edwards was featured in two of the Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn songs - with a vocal solo on the song "Hankerin".

Moving to Universal, she was Donald O'Connor's leading lady in Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' (1948) - coincidentally, its title tune by Burton Lane and Al Dubin had first been introduced in Laffing Room Only. Edwards then returned to the stage, with a 14-month vaudeville tour throughout the US, after which she was signed by Republic to appear in one of their Roy Rogers westerns. Rogers' long-time leading lady, Dale Evans, now his wife, had retired, and Edwards was signed to replace her in Sunset in the West (1950).

The film was one of Rogers's greatest hits, and audience response to Edwards prompted the studio to give her a long-term contract. She co-starred with Rogers in five more films, all directed by William Witney, including one of the most unusual, The Trial of Robin Hood (1950), a beguilingly surreal tale of a former screen cowboy who sells Christmas trees at cost price to the poor. When big business interests try to stop him, Rogers rides to the rescue along with a bunch of cowboy heroes including Rex Allen, Monte Hale, Ray Corrigan, William Farnum and Allan "Rocky" Lane.

Lane was Edwards' leading man in another superior B movie, Captive of Billy the Kid (1952), after which her contract was bought by 20th Century- Fox and she was given the most unglamorous and arduous role of her career as Tyrone Power's leading lady in a story of the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police, Pony Soldier (1952). Edwards was shot by an arrow, rode in a burning wagon, was kidnapped by Indians, thrown from a horse, swam a raging river and was tied to a flaming stake in the course of the film, which was otherwise unremarkable and low-budget (the studio used footage from its 1944 film Buffalo Bill for the climatic battle). It was an era when television was having a serious impact on film attendances and studios were reducing their budgets and contract lists.

Edwards was next given the second-league Rory Calhoun as leading man in the next film, Powder River (1953), a sign that the studio had no major plans for her. She had become involved in religious activities, and after joining the Seventh Day Adventists she announced in 1954 that she was leaving show business to concentrate on religious work ("Penny Edwards Calls `Whoa' to Hoss Operas" headlined the Los Angeles Times). She returned to acting in 1957 with two more westerns, Reginald LeBorg's lively The Dalton Girls, as one of four daughters who turn to banditry when their outlaw father is killed, and Ride A Violent Mile. Moving into television, she appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Perry Mason, along with the inevitable westerns such as Wagon Train, Bonanza and Cheyenne, and in the 1960s was a familiar face in television commercials, becoming known as Miss Tiparillo and Miss Palmolive.

In 1951 she had married Universal casting director Ralph Winters but they divorced in 1958. In 1970 her eldest daughter, Deborah Winters, later an actress but then only 14, announced that she was going to marry a man twice her age. Edwards said later that she "went throught the roof" but finally gave her consent. "And I thought some of my movie roles were dramatic!" she stated.

Throughout the last decade Penny Edwards appeared at numerous film festivals and western conventions where, dressed in cowgirl attire, she would enjoy reminiscing with the many who would affectionately recall her contribution to the heyday of the B western.

Millicent Maxine Edwards (Penny Edwards), actress: born Jackson Heights, New York 29 August 1929; married first 1951 Ralph Winters (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1958), second Jerry Friedman (marriage dissolved); died Friends-wood, Texas 26 August 1998.