Betty Jane Rhodes: Actress and singer who charmed the US as a wartime sweetheart

 

Though Betty Jane Rhodes, a pretty, blue-eyed blonde singer-actress with a vivacious smile and buoyant personality, rarely moved out of the "B" movie ranks, she will be recalled fondly for her lively renderings of such wartime numbers as "The Fleet's In" and '"On the Swing Shift".

Her place in the history of popular song is secured by her having introduced on screen one of the great songs of wartime longing, "I Don't Want To Walk Without You", which she sang in the film Sweater Girl (1942). It has become a durable standard, about which Irving Berlin once said that of all the songs by other composers, "I Don't Want To Walk Without You" was the one he would have been most proud to have written. Frank Loesser, who wrote the words to Jule Styne's melody, wrote in his diary, "Irving Berlin came in today and spent a solid hour telling me that 'Walk' is the best song he ever heard. He played and sang it over, bar by bar, explaining why it's the best song he ever heard. I was flattered like crazy."

Born in 1921 in Rockford, Illinois, Rhodes displayed her vocal talent to her non-professional parents at an early age, and began a career broadcasting and making records at the age of eight. She was 15 when Paramount signed her to a movie contract, and she made her screen debut (billed as Jane Rhodes) in EA Dupont's melodramatic Forgotten Faces (1936) as an adopted child whose father (Herbert Marshall) was jailed for killing his wife's lover.

She then played the kid sister of Marsha Hunt, and sang on screen for the first time, in a comedy western, Arizona Raiders (1936), starring "Buster" Crabbe, in which her crooning of the sentimental classic, "My Melancholy Baby" provided a relaxing moment amid the screwball escapades of Crabbe as an inept outlaw. The studio then loaned her to Universal to partner Grant Withers in the serial Jungle Jim (1937).

At RKO she had a small role in the classic account of would-be actresses, Stage Door (1937). Her parts in Life of the Party (1937) and Having Wonderful Time (1938) were also small, but in each film she had one song, and in Universal's Oh, Johnny How You Can Love (1940) she sang the popular title song, a hit in 1917 but an even greater success when revived in the '30s. On radio she had her own musical show in 1939, and the following year she and bandleader David Rose headed the cast of the radio programme California Melodies.

On screen, she had a song as Tim Holt's sweetheart in Along the Rio Grande (1941), and was one of the singers who performed the title tune of the Rodgers and Hart musical that proved a major disappointment, They Met in Argentina (1941). The Fleet's In (1941), however, was one of Paramount's biggest hits, with a superior score by Victor Schertzinger and Johnny Mercer. Rhodes got the film off to a fine start with her sparkling rendition of the title song ("Hey there mister, you'd better hide your sister 'cause the fleet's in"), sung to an audience of appreciative, wolf-whistling sailors.

Although she had little else to do (the film's stars were Dorothy Lamour and William Holden), the studio noted the impression she made and rewarded her with a starring role in Sweater Girl, in which she joined Eddie Bracken and June Preisser as collegiates whose efforts to mount a campus musical are hampered by the murder of several students. Though the mixture of music, comedy and homicide was sometimes uneasy, the film benefited from its four songs by Jule Styne and Frank Loesser, and Rhodes had the best of them - a slightly suggestive number, "I Said No", which was later used in cabaret by Lena Horne, plus "I Don't Want to Walk Without You". Styne had first worked with Loesser at Republic, home of westerns and serials, and he told me that one of the tunes he played to Loesser when they first met was that which was to become "I Don't Want to Walk Without You". "Frank said, 'Sh! That's too good a melody to waste at Republic – we'll take it to Paramount.'"

In Sweater Girl, the chorus is first sung by a student, Johnny (Johnnie Johnston), who has just composedit and sings it down the telephone to his collegiate friends. When they ask him to sing it again, all they hear is a gurgle (Johnston is being strangled), but later in the film Rhodes sings the complete song, including its verse. An enormous hit, it was recorded by several stars including Rhodes, but the best-selling version was by Harry James and his orchestra, with Helen Forrest singing the vocal.

After taking part in the all-star musical Star Spangled Rhythm, featuring Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "On The Swing Shift", Rhodes was given co-star billing with Ann Miller and Johnnie Johnston in Priorities on Parade (1942), in which she and Johnstone sang Styne and Loesser's "You're in Love with Someone Else (But I'm in Love with You)", then she received top billing in Salute for Three (1943) as a radio singer romantically linked with a war hero (MacDonald Carey) for publicity.

You Can't Ration Love (1944) co-starred her with Johnston in a weak script about college girls rationing dates because of the wartime shortage of eligible males. When her contract expired in 1944, Paramount let her go, but she continued a radio career, performing with Fred Allen, Red Skelton and others, and made recordings for Decca and RCA Victor, including two big sellers, "Rumours Are Flying" in 1946 and "Buttons and Bows" in 1948, her recording of the latter remaining in the hit parade charts for over two months.

In 1945 she married Willet H Brown, a broadcasting pioneer who co-founded the Mutual Broadcasting System. Rhodes was later dubbed "The First Lady of Television", having her own show on NBC on Sunday nights, and she continued to appear in cabaret until the 1960s. She and Brown had one child, and Rhodes became stepmother to his three children from a former marriage.

Betty Jane Rhodes, actress and singer: born Rockford, Illinois 21 April 1921; married 1945 Willet H Brown (died 1993; one child, and three stepchildren); died 27 December 2011.

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