Evelyn Keyes: Versatile Hollywood leading lady

Despite over a decade of Hollywood stardom, Evelyn Keyes is probably best remembered for playing Scarlett O'Hara's sister in Gone With the Wind, and for her colourful private life. Her four husbands included the directors John Huston and Charles Vidor, plus the bandleader Artie Shaw, and she was sweetheart to the flamboyant showman Mike Todd until he left her for Elizabeth Taylor. On screen, Keyes established herself as an attractive and versatile leading lady in such films as Here Comes Mr Jordan, The Jolson Story and Johnny O'Clock, without ever attaining superstar status.

One of five children of an oil executive, Keyes was born in 1916 in Port Arthur, Texas. Her father died when she was two, and the family moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she studied tap dancing and piano. She danced professionally as Goldie Keyes before moving to Hollywood, where Cecil B. DeMille signed her to a personal contract at Paramount and cast her as a southern belle in The Buccaneer (1938), though he advised her to lose her southern accent.

After playing bit roles in such films as Artists and Models (1937) and Men With Wings (1938) she was given a brief scene in DeMille's epic Union Pacific (1939), yelling "Help, help, Indians are attacking the railroad!" and the same year she played Suellen, the sister whose fiancé Scarlett O'Hara steals, in Gone With the Wind. Among the film's many memorable moments is that in which Suellen laments, "Scarlett's had three husbands and I'm going to be an old maid!"

Keyes herself married for the first time in 1939, to the businessman Barton Bainbridge, who was 10 years her senior ("Handsome, blue-eyed older men were my inclination") but they separated in 1940 and a month later he shot himself. "His note said it was because I had left him," Keyes wrote. "I never left a man again. I made them leave me, instead."

Though Paramount publicised her as "The Georgia Peach" and featured her in their "Golden Circle" of future stars, her contract was not renewed. Signed by Columbia, she featured in The Lady in Question (1940), the first of six films she would make with Glenn Ford. After playing Boris Karloff's daughter in Before I Hang (1940), she was given her first important role, as the blind girl who befriends a disfigured gangster, Peter Lorre, in Robert Florey's haunting thriller, The Face Behind the Mask (1941).

Her sensitive portrayal of the heroine won praise and she was rewarded with the leading role opposite Robert Montgomery in Alexander Hall's enchanting Oscar-nominated comedy, Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), in which she gave a beguiling performance as the girl who falls in love with a boxer who has been reincarnated as a businessman. Though it was one of Hollywood's finest fantasies and one of the best of Keyes' movies, she did not enjoy making it.

I had recently become involved with Charles Vidor, one of Columbia's top directors, who was still married then. One day, Robert Montgomery rather sneeringly said, "I hear you're running around with a married man." Full of self-righteousness and probably guilt, I lashed back, "That's none of your business!" Bob Montgomery never spoke another word to me.

Vidor directed Keyes in her next movie, Ladies in Retirement (1941), in which she was a Cockney maidservant, though Ida Lupino had the main role of a homicidal housekeeper. Between films, Keyes tried to further her education by enrolling in courses at UCLA. "Since Charles Vidor had told me that my type of beauty would fade by the time I was 30, I figured I'd better become an intellectual as soon as possible."

Vidor directed Keyes again in an ambitious western The Desperadoes (1943), Columbia's first film in Technicolor, after which she made two lively thrillers, Dangerous Blondes (1943) and Nine Girls (1944). She married Vidor in 1944, but they divorced the following year, after which Keyes scored one of her greatest triumphs playing a mischievous genie in the colourful fantasy A Thousand and One Nights (1945).

Another western followed – Renegades (1945), in which Keyes was the girlfriend of outlaw Larry Parks, and the pair next won the coveted roles of Al Jolson and his wife in The Jolson Story (1946). Keyes recalled,

The Jolson Story was a great break for all of us, Columbia's biggest money-maker up to that time. I campaigned for the role of Jolson's wife. The character was, of course, supposed to be dancer Ruby Keeler, but she had had a very bitter divorce from Jolson and wouldn't allow her name to be used. I heard they paid her $25,000 to be able to show her character, but the name was changed to "Julie Benson".

Though Keyes aquitted herself well in the undemanding dance number, "She's a Latin from Manhattan", her singing voice was dubbed by Virginia Rees, and for the elaborate "Liza" number, in which Julie falters while making some athletic leaps down a flight of disc-shaped steps, a dancing coach, Miriam Nelson, did the routine in long shot with Keyes shown only in close shots from the waist up.

She was top-billed in another musical, Thrill of Brazil (1946), a remake of The Front Page, but the musical numbers were performed by Ann Miller and Tito Guizar, after which Keyes starred with Dick Powell in Johnny O'Clock (1947), a tough and moody thriller written and directed by Robert Rossen. During the shooting, in July 1946, she eloped with the director John Huston in Las Vegas, and according to Keyes this prompted the studio chief Harry Cohn, with whom she had a sporadic relationship, to tell her, "You'll never be a bigger star than you are now."

After The Mating of Millie (1948), in which she played a homely girl who needs a husband in order to adopt a child, she was loaned to Sam Goldwyn for Enchantment (1948), a romance spanning several generations that was too melancholy to gain popularity, then had one of her personally favourite roles in Mrs Mike (1950) as a young bride facing tragedy in the frozen north.

Louella Parsons predicted I'd win the Academy Award, but by the year's end blockbusters like All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and my husband's The Asphalt Jungle had come out and Mrs Mike was lost in the shuffle. So was I.

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), in which Keyes played an unwitting smallpox carrier, was another grim tale that audiences resisted, and Joseph Losey's The Prowler (1951), though it won some critical praise, suffered limited distribution when both Losey and the writer Dalton Trumbo were blacklisted. Having divorced Huston in 1950, and free of contracts, Keyes acquired an apartment in Paris and made films in Europe, including C'est Arrivé a Paris (It Happened in Paris, 1952) and the British-made Rough Shoot (1953). In the US, she made a taut if fanciful thriller, 99 River Street (1953), and made her theatrical début as Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera (1954).

She had the thankless role of Tom Ewell's wife in The Seven Year Itch (1955) and played a cameo in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), produced by her lover, Mike Todd, who made her a partner in his Todd-AO company, but their plans to marry ended when he met Elizabeth Taylor. Keyes had also had affairs with Kirk Douglas, David Niven and Anthony Quinn. "I always took up with the man of the moment," she said, "and there were many such moments." In Paris, Keyes met the clarinettist Artie Shaw, and in 1957 she became his eighth wife.

Keyes returned to acting in 1968, starring with Cliff Richard in a British television play, A Matter of Diamonds. Moving to Connecticut, Keyes auditioned for the role of Phyllis in the Sondheim musical Follies, but lost to Alexis Smith. Though she split from Shaw, the couple remained good friends; they finally divorced in 1985.

In 1971 she wrote a novel, I Am a Billboard, about a southern girl who becomes an overnight star in Hollywood, and she was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times for several years. In 1976 she toured in the Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette, and in recent years she appeared in three episodes of Murder, She Wrote. Her autobiography, Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister, was published in 1977, and its success led to a sequel, I'll Think About That Tomorrow (1991). Recently she commented ruefully, "I got to star in my own movies. I even had my name above the title in some cases. But what am I known for? My bit part."

Tom Vallance

Evelyn Louise Keyes, actress: born Port Arthur, Texas 20 November 1916; married 1938 Barton Bainbridge (died 1940), 1944 Charles Vidor (marriage dissolved 1945), 1946 John Huston (marriage dissolved 1950), 1957 Artie Shaw (marriage dissolved 1985); died Montecito, California 4 July 2008.

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