Louise Platt

Last surviving passenger from 'Stagecoach'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Louise Platt, actress: born Stamford, Connecticut 3 August 1915; married first Jed Harris (one daughter; marriage dissolved), secondly Stanley Gould (one daughter); died Greenport, New York 6 September 2003.

The actress Louise Platt was the last surviving player of the passengers aboard the overland stage in John Ford's classic western Stagecoach (1939). She portrayed the prim and pregnant Lucy Mallory, on her way to join her cavalry officer husband and uneasy in the presence of a prostitute (Claire Trevor), whose attempts at consideration she rebuffs.

Her fellow passengers were a former doctor ruined by alcoholism (Thomas Mitchell), a timid whiskey salesman (Donald Meek), a gambler (John Carradine), an absconding banker (Berton Churchill) and a marshal (George Bancroft). John Wayne, as an escaped prisoner, joins the group near the start of their journey. Amidst the action and suspense so thrillingly captured by Ford, the sequence at a hacienda where Platt has her baby is touchingly tender.

Primarily a stage actress - her first husband was the theatre director Jed Harris, one of the most talented (and hated) men in show business - Platt made only four more films before returning to the New York theatre.

Born in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1915, she was the daughter of a high-ranking navy doctor and spent most of her childhood in Annapolis near the naval academy. After being educated in New York, Manila and Hong Kong, she decided on acting as a career. Following several seasons with repertory companies, she made her Broadway début in Philip Barry's short-lived comedy Spring Dance (1936), having replaced Imogene Coca during a summer tryout. The play's producer-director was Jed Harris, a colourful and controversial figure, whose romantic conquests were many. When Platt became his lover, she was succeeding Katharine Hepburn and Margaret Sullavan.

Harris had become a Broadway legend when, at the age of 28, he produced four straight smash hits (Broadway, Coquette, The Royal Family and The Front Page) in the space of 18 months - a feat never again matched on Broadway. Though regarded by many as a genius, he was also known for his rages, his feuds and his disrespectful treatment of women.

When Platt went to Hollywood after appearing in two more Broadway failures, Harris pursued her and, after a stormy courtship, they were finally married in Mexico City. On the journey back to California, said Platt, he told her he was sorry he had married her. "When we did Spring Dance he was even-tempered, really brilliant," she told the author Martin Gottfried:

He could control his temper, he could deal with people. But when things began to dry up and more people turned against him, that was when his quest for power over people became frightening.

Platt became petrified of her husband, though she said his violence was usually directed at objects, hurling ashtrays or kicking out windows. By the time Platt had their daughter in 1941 they were divorced. The birth of the child brought them together again for a time, despite the abuse Platt suffered. "Louise adored Jed," said her friend Dorris Johnson, wife of the writer Nunnally Johnson. "She was almost worshipful." Forty years later, her memories of Harris were so painful that she had scissored him out of all the snapshots in her scrapbooks.

Her screen début was in a romantic melodrama, I Met My Love Again (1937), starring Henry Fonda and Joan Bennett. She played a rich, spoiled student who tries to force her teacher, Fonda, to return her affection. In Spawn of the North (1938), an adventure yarn of salmon fishers in Alaska, she was a newspaper editor's daughter wooed by Fonda.

After her sterling work in Stagecoach, her most memorable role, Jed Harris then asked his friend the writer Ed Chodorov to use his influence at MGM on her behalf. The result was a starring role opposite Melvyn Douglas in Tell No Tales (1939), a fast-paced melodrama in which she played the witness to a kidnapping. The film failed to propel her to the front ranks, however, and her film career petered out in three "B" movies. Her last film, Street of Chance (1942), was one of her finest, an intriguing early film noir in which an amnesiac (Burgess Meredith) desperately tries to discover his identity and clarify his involvement in a murder.

Platt returned to the New York stage in Five Alarm Waltz (1941), a four-performance flop directed by Harris and notable only as the last play in which Elia Kazan appeared as an actor. Kazan later wrote of Harris's "abominable" treatment of Platt. "He had her," he recalled, "completely beaten down." After retiring to bring up her daughter, she returned to Broadway in her only hit show, Maxwell Anderson's Anne of the Thousand Days (1948), in which she played Anne Boleyn's sister Mary.

Her final play was produced and directed by Harris. Herman Wouk's The Traitor (1949) was a downbeat Cold War thriller that took in such subjects as atom-bomb secrets, Communism, academic freedom and Soviet-US relations. Though Variety considered it "tautly written, superbly produced, and convincingly performed", it closed after 67 performances.

Platt ended her acting career with television work in the Fifties. From 1958 to 1959 she had a recurring role in the soap opera The Guiding Light.

She separated for good from Harris in the late Forties. A novel by Frederic Wakeman published in 1947 and later filmed, The Saxon Charm, is purportedly based on Harris, with one of the women in his life a combination of Platt and Rosamund Pinchot, a former socialite who committed suicide because of him. Platt married again, in the 1950s, to Stanley Gould, a quiet academic who was Jed Harris's stage manager.

Tom Vallance

Comments