Frances Rafferty

Seductive supporting actress of the Forties
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Frances Rafferty, actress: born Sioux City, Iowa 26 June 1922; married 1944 Major John Harlan (marriage dissolved 1947), 1948 Tom Baker (one son, one daughter); died Paso Robles, California 18 April 2004.

The actress Frances Rafferty was a favourite pin-up of servicemen during the Second World War and a familiar face to moviegoers through a string of supporting roles she played at MGM. Though she never managed to attain star status, her sincerity and her glamour, distinguished by her pouting lower lip, seductive eyes and long dark hair, made her a welcome addition to the cast list.

Her most challenging film role was that of Orchid, a hapless Chinese girl who is raped and murdered in the prestigious screen version of Pearl Buck's 1942 novel Dragon Seed starring Katharine Hepburn. She had lighter roles in such escapist fare as Girl Crazy and Thousands Cheer, in the former playing a college girl who is taken to the prom by playboy-turned-student Mickey Rooney, to the consternation of lovelorn Judy Garland. Rafferty's greatest fame was to come years later when she had the role of Spring Byington's daughter in the long-running television series December Bride.

The daughter of Maxwell A. Rafferty, who owned Rafferty's Wallpaper and Paint Company, she was born to a prosperous family in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1922, and had her early education at Miss Eaton's Day School. When she was nine years old, her father's business was wiped out by the Depression and he moved with his family to Los Angeles.

Rafferty had been given dancing lessons as a child, and, though she became a premedical student at UCLA, her heart was set on a ballet career. Her first professional job was in the chorus of a revival of The Merry Widow at the Los Angeles Civic Opera, in which she also understudied the star ballerina Vera Zorina. Her dancing ambitions ended in 1940 when, during a dress rehearsal for The Firebird, conducted by Igor Stravinsky, she fell on the concrete stage of the Hollywood Bowl, suffering a broken kneecap.

Her best friend Alexis Smith, with whom she had briefly had a dance act, was then in the early stages of her film career, and she suggested that Rafferty take acting lessons. After a course at Maria Ouspenskaya's acting school, she was given a contract by MGM in 1942 and, unlike many starlets, was allowed to keep her own name ("The studio thought it 'euphonious'," she later said).

She made her screen début in a short, Blackout, followed by minor roles in such films as Fingers at the Window, Eyes in the Night and Seven Sweethearts (all 1942). In the excellent B-movie The War Against Mrs Hadley (also 1942), which starred Fay Bainter as a Washington dowager who initially refuses to let the Second World War encroach on her life style, she was seen as a helper serving coffee and doughnuts at a servicemen's canteen.

One of her early prominent roles was in Girl Crazy (1943) as the university governor's daughter whom Mickey Rooney is inveigled into taking to the college dance. As well as experiencing the chagrin of the lovelorn Garland, the diminutive Rooney also has to cope with the statuesque Rafferty towering above him.

She had one of her distinctive roles in Hitler's Madman (1943), the director Douglas Sirk's first American film. The story of the Nazi Reinhardt Heydrich's assassination and the subsequent liquidation of the Czech town Lidice and its inhabitants, it was made (as Hitler's Hangman) in one week, only a few months after the event, as a low-budget production by the poverty-row studio PRC.

Its topicality, its striking direction and fine central performance by John Carradine caught the eye of Louis B. Mayer, who paid twice its cost for the distribution rights. Mayer then ordered many new scenes and retakes (including all the scenes featuring Himmler, recast with Howard Freeman replacing Hobart Cavanaugh, who Mayer thought was too closely associated with comedy). In one of the new scenes, Carradine lasciviously scrutinises a row of female students as he chooses girls who are to be pressed into enforced prostitution. The girls, described as "sacrificial daughters of Lidice", were played by MGM starlets, among them Rafferty and Ava Gardner.

MGM often used its series films to introduce new talent, and Rafferty had roles in Swing Shift Maisie (1943), one of the popular "Maisie" series starring Ann Sothern, and Dr Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943), with Lionel Barrymore in his recurring role as Gillespie.

In MGM's all-star morale-boosting musical Thousands Cheer (1943), Rafferty was featured as Marie, an aerialist whose brother (Gene Kelly) has problems adjusting to life as an army private. When he rejoins the family troupe to perform their trapeze act for the soldiers, Marie asks him to make sure he catches her safely. His indignant "Haven't I always?" is met with the pointed response "You haven't been so hot on teamwork lately", cueing Kelly's return to his regiment with the correct attitude.

Rafferty herself married into the army when she wed Major John Harlan in 1944, but they divorced three years later.

In Dragon Seed (1944), a lengthy movie depicting the wartime plight of the Chinese, Rafferty had her best screen role. She and Katharine Hepburn were daughters-in-law of a pacifist farmer and his wife, and Rafferty had a memorably powerful scene as she was captured and murdered by marauding Japanese soldiers.

She then played the daughter of Edward Arnold in the saga of a socialite family Mrs Parkington (1944), starring Greer Garson in the title role, was the supportive sweetheart of a murder suspect in the thriller The Hidden Eye (1945) and had the thankless role of the romantic ingénue in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945). In Bad Bascomb (1946) she charmingly played a member of a Mormon wagon train in which three outlaws find a haven.

MGM then let Rafferty go, after which her career declined. She later said that she loved every minute at the studio and "thought every part I got was really peachy keen". Many years later she encountered MGM's casting head, who was then working in television, and asked him why she was summarily dismissed, and he replied, "Because nobody around there really thought you cared one way or another."

Freelancing, she starred in several B movies, including Lady at Midnight (1948) and Money Madness (1948), and she supported the fading singing star Gloria Jean in An Old-Fashioned Girl (1948), but she then moved into television, becoming one of the medium's busiest actresses. She acted in many dramatic anthology series, including Four Star Playhouse and General Electric Theater, and in 1954 was cast as Ruth Henshaw, the daughter of Lily Ruskin (Spring Byington) in the comedy series December Bride. Although the show centred on the madcap escapades of Byington, playing an attractive widow very popular with the older set, Ruth and her husband (Dean Miller) figured prominently, usually attempting to find suitable marriage prospects for Lily.

The show ran until 1961, and Rafferty also featured in a spin-off series, in a different role, about Lily's neighbours, Pete and Gladys (1961-62). She made her last film, Wings of Chance, in 1961.

Though she continued to make occasional appearances on television - including an episode of Streets of San Francisco in 1977 - her later years were mainly devoted to raising horses for equine events with her husband of 56 years, Tom Baker, on their ranch in Paso Robles, which they purchased in 1960.

Tom Vallance