Olga San Juan: Actress who starred alongside Fred Astaire
Friday 20 February 2009
Though born in Brooklyn, the actress and singer Olga San Juan was of Puerto Rican extraction, and during her years in Hollywood she was often cast and costumed in Latin style. Publicised as "the Puerto Rican Pepperpot", she was an engaging performer, but she lacked the huge charisma that made her contemporary Carmen Miranda a worldwide sensation.
Her finest film showcase was Blue Skies (1946), starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, in which she sang Irving Berlin's "You'd Be Surprised", duetted "I'll See You in C-U-B-A" with Crosby, and warbled a chorus of "Heat Wave" prior to a stunning solo dance by Astaire. She later had a success on the Broadway stage with a leading role in the Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon (1951), for which she won a Donaldson Award, but shortly afterwards she retired to raise her family.
Born in 1927, San Juan started dancing as a child, and in her teens she was hired by the mambo percussionist Tito Puente to dance in his nightclub act. Signed by Paramount Pictures in 1943, she made her screen début in a short; Caribbean Romance (1943). Such titles abounded, reflecting the US's wartime "good neighbour policy" towards the Latin American market, and San Juan also appeared in the short Bombalera (1945) playing "The Cuban Cyclone". Her first feature film was a limp Dorothy Lamour vehicle, Rainbow Island (1944), and she followed it with the star-filled Duffy's Tavern (1945), before making Blue Skies, in which she provided comedy relief. She was amusing in Variety Girl (1947), a musical crammed with Paramount stars, and her number "He Can Waltz" was a highlight of the film.
She next moved to Universal and co-starred with Donald O'Connor in a lively little musical, Are You With It? (1948), loosely based on a Broadway hit. Her next film, also adapted from a stage hit, One Touch of Venus (1948), was more seriously eviscerated, its Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash score heavily expurgated and cut. In it, San Juan shared the trio "That's Him" with Eve Arden and Ava Gardner. San Juan then teamed with the ice-skating star Sonja Henie in The Countess of Monte Cristo (1948), playing a film extra posing as an aristocrat.
After playing Betty Grable's chum in one of writer-director Preston Sturges's weaker films, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), she made her Broadway debut (after Alan Jay Lerner heard her sing at a party) in Paint Your Wagon, which starred James Barton as the gold prospector Ben Rumson. As his daughter Jennifer, San Juan introduced two particularly felicitous numbers, "What's Going On Here?", depicting her bewilderment at the effect she has on the love-starved miners ("I bend down to tie my shoe, and every single time I do, I'm circled by a hundred men or more..."), and "How Can I Wait?", as she contemplates a reunion with her lover. San Juan's performance evoked high praise, Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times calling her "the freshest item that has turned up on the Broadway stage this season".
In 1948 San Juan met the actor Edmund O'Brien at a publicity launch for the Sturges film, and they were married the same year. They had three children, and after Paint Your Wagon, San Juan retired to raise her family, though she returned to the screen with small parts in two films featuring her husband, The Barefoot Contessa (1954, for which O'Brien won a best supporting actor Oscar), and the Hubert Cornfield film The 3rd Voice (1960). The couple, whose children are all in show business, divorced in 1976.
Olga San Juan, actress: born Brooklyn, New York 16 March 1927; married 1946 Edmond O'Brien (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1976); died Burbank, California 3 January 2009.
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