obituaries Lana Turner

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High in Hollywood mythology is the discovery of Lana Turner sipping soda at Schwabs drugstore in Los Angeles.

Turner was just 16 when she attracted the attention of Billy Wilkerson of the Hollywood Reporter who introduced her to the director Mervyn LeRoy, who in turn gave her a walk-on in They Won't Forget (1937), or a sit-on, since her role consisted of sipping a soda in a drugstore. LeRoy put her under a personal contract, but despite a rave notice from Wilkerson no one offered her a role of consequence.

When LeRoy moved from Warner Bros to MGM in 1938 he took her with him, and she was given a prime part as the girl who turns Mickey Rooney's head in Love Finds Andy Hardy, one of the Hardy series that was helping to make young Rooney the most popular star in the United States. He also - according to his autobiography - had an affair with her. In the film, Turner diverts Andy (Rooney) from his regular girlfriend, Polly (Ann Rutherford); he hardly notices Betsy Booth, played by Judy Garland, the girl next door.

Rooney, Garland and Turner were all companions in MGM's much-publicised schoolroom. Turner was perhaps the least promising of the studio's juveniles, and MGM gave her some undemanding, but leading, parts, in only minor films. She hardly suited the sanctimonious MGM image, as it then was, because she was ''sexy'', as was proved in 1940 when she eloped with the bandleader Artie Shaw, a notorious ladies' man.

Shaw had been dallying with Betty Grable and with Garland, who was deeply envious that the studio was keeping her in dirndles while promoting Turner as a vamp. In time Garland would inherit two roles meant for Turner, in Presenting Lily Mars (1943) and The Harvey Girls (1946), partly because both stories were considered too weak to work with Turner's more anodyne screen presence. They became musicals, and no girl at MGM was better at singing and dancing than Judy Garland.

The two appeared together as stage aspirants in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), in which Turner's deathbed scene proved that she had small future as a dramatic actress. But she had something which, with the Second World War, was much more valuable. She had excellent contours, and Howard Strickling's publicity department came up with a sobriquet, "The Sweater Girl", which was to remain with her for the rest of the days. And, having swapped MGM's schoolroom for Artie Shaw's night-clubs - though the marriage lasted barely a year - she could be sold as the studio's leading exponent of glamour. GIs fighting in the Pacific were demanding pin-up pictures of Hollywood's bosomy, leggy ladies: Paramount supplied Dorothy Lamour and Veronica Lake, Twentieth Century-Fox Betty Grable, Columbia Rita Hayworth, Warner Bros Ann Sheridan - and MGM obliged with Turner.

In All About Eve the critic played by George Sanders describes Marilyn Monroe as ''a graduate of the Copacabana school of dramatic art'', and since such graduates had never lacked for employment we might compare Turner's rivals in screen history. Three of them pass with honours: Monroe herself, Clara Bow and Jean Harlow. None of them was tested dramatically off the screen, and perhaps we'd never agree on their expertise as comediennes, but no one could dispute that each of them had an extraordinary luminosity once in front of the camera.

Harlow had been one of MGM's prizes, teamed several times with the studio's magnificent sexual take-it-or-leave-it Clark Gable. It was not easy to cast with Gable: after (and before) Harlow's death he had best teamed with the brittle but down-to-earth Myrna Loy and the haughty Joan Crawford. As both were on the point of leaving the studio, Turner was the obvious replacement.

If she inherited the studio's biggest male star by default, she could still hold her own with him. In their first film together, Honky Tonk (1941), she had to compete with a much more experienced actress, Clare Trevor, playing the mistress of whom he's tiring. But Gable has dreams of seeing the judge's virginal daughter, Turner, in black lingerie, and although we don't see her in a black suspender-belt - or one of any other colour - this is a highspot in her screen career. Variety said, "Miss Turner, who is graced by a tremendous sex appeal, proves that she can act as well as turn the boys on." MGM reunited them for what would famously be his last film before joining the army, Somewhere I'll Find You (1942).

Turner's career was riding high. MGM's three leading female stars were the jolly girl-next-door Judy Garland, the gracious lady-of-the-manor Greer Garson and the glamorous anything-goes Turner. And the anything that went in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) - probably her best- remembered film - was her elderly husband (Cecil Kellaway) when she and a young drifter (John Garfield) begin an affair and decide to murder him. It is a murder born of lust and Turner had the right, trashy quality intended by James M. Cain's brilliant original novel. Almost certainly this is her most effective screen portrayal.

It was a box-office success, which meant that Turner was assigned to some prestigious projects: Green Dolphin Street (1947), a tale of 19th- century New Zealand, from Elizabeth Goudge's novel, which the studio had originally bought for Katharine Hepburn; Cass Timberlaine (1947), from the novel by Sinclair Lewis, as the girl from the other side of the tracks who marries a sedate judge (Spencer Tracy); Homecoming (1948), a war story which united her with Gable; and The Three Musketeers (1948), as the villainous Milady. Angela Lansbury had begged for the role, but was fobbed off with the smaller role of the Queen. Lansbury, MGM's other blonde, was not considered star material, but she became an attraction of television and Broadway for the next three decades, during which time Turner's own career took a more modest turn, with some television guest-shots and stage stints far away from the glare of New York.

Both were blondes who could project sex appeal, and that was something not really understood by Louis B. Mayer, in charge of production. His successor Dore Schary, who understood Turner even less, gave her, after two years off the screen, George Cukor, famed as a woman's director, for a real star vehicle, about life among the model set, A Life of Her Own (1950). But smooth as it was, Cukor always referred to it as his worst film. Schary decided to put Turner into a couple of musicals, her singing voice dubbed: Mr Imperium (1951) and, better, The Merry Widow (1952), with a Lehar score, Fernando Lamas as a virile Danilo, and Turner sumptuously photographed in Technicolor.

She did get one very challenging role - ironically very like herself - in Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1953), a satire on Hollywood which was perhaps the best film she ever made, but then her career at MGM petered out with some lurid melodramas and some historical romances, including Diane (1955)

Freelancing, Turner became - against type-casting - a frigid widow in Peyton Place (1957), neurotically obsessed with her bastard daughter's desire to lose her virginity. The original, the dime novel par excellence, had been a best-seller; the film was given a fillip, as it went the rounds, when Turner's own daughter Cheryl Crane stuck a knife into the stomach of Turner's lover, Johnny Stompanato, a small-time gangster, when he was beating Turner up once too often. Glaring headlines told little about Turner's private life that couldn't have been guessed at from the hints of Hollywood's gossip columnists over the years. The verdict was justifiable homicide, and all the brouhaha did little to help a British film Turner had just made, Another Time, Another Place (1958), with a young Sean Connery.

However, Universal had a producer specialising in kitsch, Ross Hunter, who heartily believed in the pulling-power of yesterday's stars. He also felt that the combination of Peyton Place and the headlines about Turner's private life had made her again into a box-office star. Imitation of Life (1959) proved him right, as Turner and Juanita Moore emoted for several reels over their differences with their daughters; it was, however, inferior to the 1934 version of Fannie Hurst's novel, which had starred Claudette Colbert. A grateful Hunter rushed Turner into a follow-up, Portrait in Black, which did respectably, but a third soap opera - and also a remake - Madame X (1966) sank under the weight of trying to modernise that particular tale (of the lawyer son defending the woman who, unknown to him, is his mother).

Turner made another half-dozen movies, including a British horror flick, Persecution (1974), with Trevor Howard. Her television appearances included such series as The Survivors and Falcon Crest. She is one of the stars of Hollywood's golden age unknown to today's movie buffs, which in some ways is a pity. But she never had the good fortune to be a critic's pet. Still, like all the great stars there was no one quite like her, and when she, Garland and Hedy Lamarr appeared in Ziegfeld Girl it could not have been predicted that they would notch up 17 husbands between them.

David Shipman

Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner (Lana Turner), actress; born Wallace, Idaho 8 February 1920; married 1940 Artie Shaw (marriage dissolved 1941), 1942 Stephen Crane (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1944), 1948 Bob Topping (marriage dissolved 1952), 1953 Lex Barker (died 1973; marriage dissolved 1957), 1960 Fred May (marriage dissolved 1962), 1965 Robert Eaton (marriage dissolved 1969), 1969 Ronald Dante (marriage dissolved 1972); died Century City, California 29 June 1995.

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