Paula Raymond

Leading actress in the 1950s
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The Independent Online

Paula Ramona Wright (Paula Raymond), actress: born San Francisco 23 November 1924; married 1944 Floyd Patterson (one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1946); died Los Angeles 31 December 2003.

A tall, dark-haired beauty, the actress Paula Raymond never achieved top stardom, but enjoyed a period of popularity in the early Fifties, first as a contract player at MGM, then as a freelance. Her best-known role is that of a scientist's protégée in the classic Fifties sci-fi film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which initiated the cycle of movies featuring monsters unleashed by nuclear energy.

In a life that was also marked by personal tragedies, she served as leading lady to such stars as Robert Taylor, Cary Grant and Dick Powell. "I was a working actress," she said:

The reason I went to work as an actress was that it was the only thing I knew how to do to earn a living. And I needed a job.

Born Paula Ramona Wright in San Francisco in 1923, she was the daughter of a lawyer and his Irish-born wife, who leased property. As a child she studied ballet, voice, music and piano, singing coloratura roles in junior opera productions. While accompanying her mother on a trip to Hollywood, she made her screen début at the age of 13 in Keep Smiling (1938), in which she was billed as Paula Rae Wright. Playing a spoilt child actress, she was soaked by a bowl of mush aimed by the film's star Jane Withers. "It was cold and wet," she later recalled:

I was drenched and miserable and almost lost any desire I might have had to be an actress right there and then.

After completing her education at the Hollywood High School, graduating in 1942, she studied law in San Francisco while appearing with theatre groups. She did her only singing on film when she dubbed the singing voice of Hedy Lamarr in Jacques Tourneur's Experiment Perilous (1944), but she gave up career ambitions when she married a marine captain in 1944. When they divorced in 1946 just after the birth of their daughter, Raymond moved to Hollywood, where her striking looks soon brought her work as a model. A contract with Columbia Pictures resulted in roles in five "B" pictures, including Blondie's Secret (1948) and Challenge of the Range (1949).

Raymond was appearing on television when she was spotted by a movie talent scout, who recommended her to the agent Elsie Cukor, who arranged for her brother George Cukor to direct a screen test. The result was an MGM contract, and a small role in Cukor's Adam's Rib (1949) as the society girlfriend of David Wayne. "I'm sure George invented that role to show me off," Raymond later told the reporter Dan Van Neste:

There was no reason for David Wayne to have a companion in the party scene where my character first enters. I believe that Cukor was probably introducing me to the studio.

After a role in East Side, West Side (1949) as James Mason's secretary, she was given her first major assignment, that of Robert Taylor's leading lady in the offbeat western Devil's Doorway (1950). Distinguished by a literate script by Guy Trosper, superb photography by John Alton, and incisive direction by Anthony Mann, Devil's Doorway was a brave film for its time. It not only depicted the unfair treatment of native Americans but included a brief romance between Taylor (playing a member of the Shoshone tribe) and Raymond, and ended with the hero's death in order to avert a massacre of his people.

Though hailed as "a whopping action film" by The New York Times, the film did poorly at the box office. It was remembered by Raymond later for the difficulty she had fending off the advances of her director:

The hell he put me through! He was after me. He even tried to ply me with liquor. I've never been a drinker. He ordered a drink for me, a brandy Alexander. It tasted like a spicy milkshake. When he asked me out for dinner, I would always ask the publicity man along. It was a matter of self-preservation!

Raymond next played the role she regarded as her favourite, a lovelorn secretary pining for her boss in the musical Duchess of Idaho (1950). The film starred the swimmer Esther Williams as Raymond's best friend, and it gave Raymond some delightful comic moments, especially her gauche reactions when in the company of the man she secretly loves.

She had fewer opportunities in another musical, Grounds for Marriage (1950), in which she played the fiancée of a divorcee (Van Johnson) still in love with his former wife (Kathryn Grayson), but it was followed by one of her finest roles, as Cary Grant's wife in Richard Brooks's suspenseful drama Crisis (1950). Crisis was Brooks's first film as a director, and the production was marred by several violent arguments between Brooks and his director of photography, Ray June. "Richard Brooks did not know how to use the camera," said Raymond:

The pressures on him were so severe - he was responsible for the screenplay as well as his directorial début. He would yell at everybody in the cast. It's the first time in cinema history that a boom "accidentally" ran over a director's foot, but it was the crew, not Ray June, that hated him.

The film was an exciting piece, in which Grant and Raymond (as a physician and his wife) are kidnapped while on holiday in South America. Grant is ordered to operate on a brutal dictator (José Ferrer), while Raymond is taken captive by insurgents who insist that Grant botch the operation. Raymond's part had originally been conceived as that of the doctor's sister, to be played by Nancy Davis (later Reagan) but after Grant was given the lead MGM insisted that the role be rewritten as love interest, and it was recast with Raymond.

Her next film was another fine thriller, The Tall Target (1951), starring Dick Powell and directed by Anthony Mann ("This time he left me alone. He had learned his lesson"). Based on the little-known facts surrounding a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln before his first inauguration in 1861, the film was set almost entirely on a train peopled with myriad suspects. Raymond played a Southern belle travelling with her cadet brother (Marshall Thompson) and maid (Ruby Dee), the three of them playing a major part in the denouement.

Despite her prominent roles, Raymond had failed to attract a strong following, and the studio next gave her three minor roles, in the musical Texas Carnival, the gambling drama Inside Straight and the thriller The Sellout (all 1951). She fired her agent Elsie Cukor, and later blamed that move for incurring the wrath of George Cukor and establishing an unofficial blackballing. After a year, she left MGM to freelance.

Though her career was never to regain the lustre it had had at MGM, she went straight into the film for which she is best remembered, Eugène Lourié's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Adapted from Ray Bradbury's short story "The Foghorn", it told of a rhedosauraus (a fictional monster, part brontosaurus and part tyrannosaurus) which wreaks havoc after being thawed from its Arctic home by atomic tests. Raymond was the assistant of a palaeontologist (Cecil Kellaway) in the gripping tale, the first of many in which nuclear energy frees a monster that embarks on mass destruction.

The first major film to employ Ray Harryhausen and his innovative stop-motion special effects, it cost $250,000 to make and grossed over $5m. Raymond said:

That film was embarrassing for me at the time, because it was the first film I did after leaving MGM, and, compared to the production values of a big studio, it was embarrassing . . . Of course, the movie was later bought by Warners, was a huge hit and has become an important cult film.

In both John Auer's compelling film noir The City That Never Sleeps (1953) and Joseph M. Newman's gritty thriller The Human Jungle (1954) Raymond had colourless roles as a cop's wife. After a low-budget western, The Gun That Won the West (1955), and the inane King Richard and the Crusaders (1955), Raymond left movies: "I had a daughter to support. So, I looked in the classified ads." She worked as a receptionist, bookkeeper and insurance clerk, then in 1958 she hired a new agent and began to find work in television, doing guest roles on such series as The Untouchables, Maverick, Perry Mason, Have Gun Will Travel and 77 Sunset Strip. She returned to the big screen with roles in The Flight That Disappeared (1961) and Hand of Death (1962).

Tragedy struck when, in August 1962, she was a passenger in a car that went out of control on Sunset Boulevard and crashed into a tree. Trapped under the front seat, she was pulled out moments before the car blew up. Initially pronounced dead at the hospital, she was revived by a neurologist, but she had a skull fracture and her nose had been severed from her face. A plastic surgeon worked all night on her, and though he did a remarkable job her nervous system continued to suffer from the effects of the accident for the rest of her life.

In 1963 she returned to television work, and made three more movies, an expanded version of a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode, The Spy With My Face (1966), Blood of Dracula's Castle (1967), in which she played wife to John Carradine's Dracula, and a western, Five Bloody Graves (1969). "It was hell coming back," she said.

From 1979 she worked with a film distribution company for five years, but plans to return to acting were thwarted. Given a role in the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives in 1977, she tripped over a telephone cord on her third day, breaking her ankle, and was written out. In 1984 she broke both hips, in 1993 her daughter died, and in 1994 she broke her shoulder.

Asked in 1997 how she spent her time, she replied, "Writing poetry, music, my income properties, and fan mail."

Tom Vallance