June Allyson

Hollywood 'girl next door' who became the 'perfect wife' - though her own life was more complicated
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Eleanor Geisman (June Allyson), actress: born New York 7 October 1917; married 1945 Dick Powell (died 1963; one son, one adopted daughter), 1963, 1966 Glenn Maxwell (marriages dissolved 1965, 1970), 1976 David Ashrow; died Ojai, California 8 July 2006.

In the 1940s, Hollywood's most popular "girl next door" was June Allyson, whose husky voice, beguiling smile and versatility made her one of the top stars of the era. A skilful musical performer adept at comedy, she also became noted for her ability to convey pathos, and she used to joke that she and the studio's child star Margaret O'Brien used to vie with each other when it came to producing tears on cue. The pair were teamed in the hit "weepie" Music for Millions, and Allyson's other hits included the musical Good News and the 1949 adaptation of Little Women, in which Allyson had her favourite role as Jo.

Later, she made the transition from sweetheart to dutiful wife, notably in three films with James Stewart including the enormously successful The Glenn Miller Story.

Born Eleanor Geisman in a Bronx tenement in 1917, she was the younger of the two children of a building superintendent who deserted his wife when June was six months old. Her brother went to live with his father, while June stayed with her mother, who took poorly paid work in a printing plant. "It's hard to forget those days," said Allyson:

The $18-a-week apartment we lived in had no bath. We heated water on a coal stove and bathed in a washtub. We never had enough coal, so in the winter I used to go along Third Avenue collecting boxes and crates from the stores.

At the age of eight she was sent to live with her grandparents, and while playing one day she was badly injured when a tree-branch broke. She was a semi-invalid with a steel brace on her back for four years. Only after therapy, including a lot of swimming, did she enter Theodore Roosevelt High School. Her mother had remarried and given birth to another boy, and Allyson went to live with her new family "in an apartment with a bathroom".

Allyson's love of dancing started when she saw her first Astaire/Rogers movie, and she began practising routines at home after seeing Astaire's films over and over again. A determined and ambitious youngster, she managed to get a role in one of the Vitaphone two-reelers being made in New York, Swing for Sale (1937), followed by four musical shorts for Educational Films, Pixilated, Dime a Dance, Dates and Nuts (all 1937) and Sing for Sweetie (1938).

In 1938 she made her Broadway début after answering an advertisement for chorus dancers for the revue Sing Out the News; she then joined the chorus at the Copacabana night-club. She was back on stage in the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical Very Warm For May (1938), directed by Vincente Minnelli - another future star, Vera-Ellen, was also in the chorus. She found a champion in the composer-producer Richard Rodgers, who gave her a small role in Rodgers and Hart's Higher and Higher (1942). Allyson recalled,

I've been in more flops than you can imagine. I couldn't dance and I couldn't sing, but I got by somehow. It was Richard Rodgers who was always keeping them from firing me, as every dance-director wanted to do.

In Cole Porter's Panama Hattie (1940), starring Ethel Merman, Allyson was not only in the chorus but was understudy to the show's second female lead, Betty Hutton. When Hutton contracted measles and Allyson went on for her, the director George Abbott was in the audience and was impressed enough to promise her a role in his next show, Best Foot Forward (1941), in which Allyson had three numbers, including a solo, "What Do You Think I Am?"

MGM bought the film rights to Best Foot Forward, and several of the show's performers were signed to recreate their parts, including Allyson. (The studio promptly knocked seven years off her age in their "official" biography.) While waiting for filming to start, Allyson was given a small role in Girl Crazy (1943), singing the Gershwin number "Treat Me Rough" to Mickey Rooney, and showing a lot of the Hutton influence in her raucous delivery and vigorous movement. In Best Foot Forward (1943), a highlight is Allyson's energetic jive dance with the future director Stanley Donen.

After a brief singing appearance in the all-star Thousands Cheer (1943), Allyson was cast in Meet the People (1943), singing the Rodgers and Hart song "I Like to Recognize the Tune". The film starred Dick Powell, who was to be a major influence on her career. The couple had first met when Allyson was in Best Foot Forward and Powell had visited her backstage. He was married at the time to Joan Blondell, who later wrote an autobiography thinly disguised as a novel (Centre Door Fancy, 1972) that was highly unflattering about "Amy", a character obviously based on Allyson, who later wrote, "Joan's account is loaded against me." It was Powell who suggested that she dispense with her mass of curls and adopt a "page-boy" hair do, plus the "Peter Pan" collars that were to be a trademark.

Another man who played an important role in her career was one of MGM's top musical producers, Joe Pasternak, who first encountered Allyson when he knocked her over when going through the door to the studio restaurant. He later described himself as "fetched, entranced, charmed", and immediately determined to put her in a film.

In his autobiography, Pasternak revealed that Allyson afterwards confessed to him that she had been lying in wait for him and deliberately fell over. Stating that young actresses need to be serious and single-minded, he wrote,

June is the most conscientious young actress I ever met . . . It is my belief that, had she decided to be a fashion designer, a department-store executive - indeed even a chemist or an architect, June Allyson would have risen to the top just as she has in pictures.

Pasternak gave Allyson her first starring role, in Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), in which she and Gloria DeHaven played a singing duo who, after work, take lonely young servicemen back to their apartment for music and refreshments. They both fall in love with a young sailor (Van Johnson), unaware that he is a millionaire. Allyson sang "Young Man with a Horn" with Harry James and his orchestra, and displayed for the first time her range as a performer. She was a huge hit with audiences, who responded so favourably to the film at previews that extra sequences with guest stars were added to make it a major attraction.

Pasternak then cast her in Music for Millions (1944), a potent mixture of classical music and soap opera, as a pregnant cellist whose husband is fighting in the Pacific. Margaret O'Brien played her little sister, and when the husband's fate seems in doubt tears flow from both stars.

Allyson next played an invalid who loves a bellboy who is infatuated with a visiting Princess in Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945). In August 1945, she married Dick Powell, a union initially disapproved of by the studio on account of the 13-year age diffference.

She had her first comedy role in The Sailor Takes a Wife (1945), in which a couple who marry in haste during the Second World War find that they hardly know each other, and she further displayed her sense of humour in Two Sisters from Boston (1946), as the prissy sister of aspiring opera star Kathryn Grayson. Allyson's number "After the Show" was a highlight, as were her numbers in the screen biography of Jerome Kern Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), in which she performed the comedy song "Cleopatterer" and, most memorably, danced in the rain with Ray MacDonald to the haunting melody of the title song.

Allyson then played her most dramatic role to date, as a neurotic girl with a fixation on her dead father, in The Secret Heart (1946). Claudette Colbert was top-billed as her mother, and Allyson later expressed her gratitude for the help and encouragement shown her by the actress. She then teamed again with Van Johnson in High Barbaree (1947), a sentimental tale in which a downed flier, adrift with another crew member, tells the story of his life, and the mythical paradise that he and his sweetheart had dreamed of.

Though critics did not care for the film, it was a box-office hit, and it was followed by one of Allyson's best films, the musical Good News (1947). At first Allyson did not want to do the film - it had a first-time director, Charles Walters, and she was always worried that her singing was not good enough ("I was at the same studio as Judy Garland, for heaven's sake"). With an amusing script by Comden and Green, the film proved an utter delight, Allyson's numbers including the wistful "Just Imagine" and the brilliantly staged finale, "The Varsity Drag" (later to be a highlight of That's Entertainment!)

After teaming with Van Johnson again in the mild slapstick comedy The Bride Goes Wild (1948), she played Constance in George Sidney's The Three Musketeers (1948), then sang the song that would most become identified with her, "Thou Swell", in the Rodgers and Hart biography Words and Music (1948).

In 1949 she starred in a role she seemed born to play, the tomboyish Jo in Mervyn Le Roy's version of Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women. An underrated performance (because Katharine Hepburn had played the role 16 years earlier), it lacks the archness sometimes displayed by Hepburn, and is by turns boisterous, funny, wry and touching, and always believable.

Allyson's next role, in Sam Wood's The Stratton Story (1949), the true story of the baseball star Monty Stratton who returned to the game after losing a leg in a hunting accident, was the first of her "perfect wife" roles and one that she initially turned down, until Powell persuaded her:

Imagine! It's my best film. I didn't think the role was that good, but Richard told me that to work with people like Sam Wood, James Stewart, Agnes Moorehead and Frank Morgan could only be good for me. And he was right.

The Stratton Story was to be Allyson's last major hit for some time. Her last MGM film under contract was an amusing, but minor, comedy with Van Johnson, Remains to be Seen (1953). But, as soon as she freelanced, Allyson was offered one of the best roles of her career, as sweetheart then wife to the bandleader in Anthony Mann's The Glenn Miller Story (1954). James Stewart had personally requested that she be given the role, and Allyson said later,

I didn't even read the script - I trusted Jimmy implicitly and if he wanted me for the part it was good enough for me.

The couple's scenes have tremendous warmth and humour, and at times seem to be improvised. "We understood each other so well, and were so relaxed working together," said Allyson. Three "wife" roles followed - as William Holden's supportive wife in Executive Suite (1954), Cornel Wilde's gauche wife in Woman's World (1954) and Stewart's concerned wife in Strategic Air Command (1955).

She was the perfect wife, again, to Alan Ladd in The McConnell Story (1956), and during the shooting she and Ladd had an affair. Though Ladd was prepared to leave his wife, Allyson terminated the relationship because of her affection for Powell and the fact that both she and Ladd had spouses and children.

Allyson's last films of note were remakes. The Opposite Sex (1956) was an entertaining musical version of the comedy The Women. You Can't Run Away From It (1956), directed by Powell, was a weak musical version of It Happened One Night, co-starring Jack Lemmon, Interlude (1957) was based on When Tomorrow Comes, and My Man Godfrey (1957) was a lively remake of the 1936 classic, with a cast which stood up well to comparisons.

After a lesser Ross Hunter production, Stranger in My Arms (1958) Allyson was given her own television anthology series, filmed for her husband's company. The couple separated in 1960, Allyson complaining that his work kept him too much away from home, but they reconciled the following year and Powell died of cancer in 1963.

Allyson returned to Broadway in 1970 when she succeeded Julie Harris in Forty Carats, and two years later she toured in No, No, Nanette. She returned to films in the minor mystery They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), playing a lesbian murderess.

In 1985 she began a new career as spokeswoman for Depend, a diaper for adults with incontinence. Regarding the roles for which she was best known, she commented that she never felt entirely happy as the perfect wife. "In real life, I'm a poor dressmaker and a terrible cook."

After Powell's death she married Glenn Maxwell, a barber - they divorced, remarried, then divorced again. She was to have a happier union with David Ashrow, a dentist, whom she married in 1976 and who survives her.

Tom Vallance

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