Virginia Mayo

Beautiful screen star of the Forties
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One of the most beautiful screen stars of the Forties, the blonde and green-eyed Virginia Mayo was a versatile performer who graduated from being one of the decorative Goldwyn Girls to become a top star. She danced well enough to play in several musicals, proved an admirable foil for both Bob Hope and Danny Kaye, and excelled as a girl who had "been around", in such films as Flaxy Martin and Smart Girls Don't Talk. Her most memorable roles were two of her most unsympathetic, the faithless wife in The Best Years of Our Lives, and the shrewish moll of James Cagney's gangster in the classic gangster movie White Heat.

Virginia Clara Jones (Virginia Mayo), actress: born St Louis, Missouri 30 November 1920; married 1947 Michael O'Shea (died 1973; one daughter); died Thousand Oaks, California 17 January 2005.

One of the most beautiful screen stars of the Forties, the blonde and green-eyed Virginia Mayo was a versatile performer who graduated from being one of the decorative Goldwyn Girls to become a top star. She danced well enough to play in several musicals, proved an admirable foil for both Bob Hope and Danny Kaye, and excelled as a girl who had "been around", in such films as Flaxy Martin and Smart Girls Don't Talk. Her most memorable roles were two of her most unsympathetic, the faithless wife in The Best Years of Our Lives, and the shrewish moll of James Cagney's gangster in the classic gangster movie White Heat.

Born Virginia Jones in 1920 in St Louis, she developed an interest in dancing at an early age, and at six she became a pupil at an aunt's drama school. Seeing shows staged by the St Louis Municipal Opera fuelled her ambitions to be a dancer, and on graduation in 1938 she successfully auditioned to join the company's chorus ("I had the happiest year of my life working with the Muni Opera"). The following year she and five other girls formed a night-club act, which led to her being hired by a vaudeville performer, Andy Mayo.

Mayo did an act in which he and another man cavorted in a horse suit, joking, singing and dancing with a lady "ringmaster", normally played by Mayo's wife. When she became pregnant he hired Virginia, who changed her last name to Mayo to disguise from bookers the fact that the act had changed its personnel.

She toured vaudeville houses for three years before winning a small role in a Broadway musical, Banjo Eyes (1941), starring Eddie Cantor. The showman Billy Rose then hired her, along with the "Pansy the Horse" act, to appear at his night-club, the Diamond Horseshoe. "Billy Rose really showcased me," she later recalled. "He gave me beautiful costumes, a spot in the show where I danced solo, and I also did the part in the horse act."

The producer Sam Goldwyn, alerted by Rose to the charms of Mayo, signed her to a seven-year contract and started grooming her to be a star, with lessons in acting, voice, posture and dance. She was also put on a diet and had her cheeks "contoured" by a masseuse prior to making her début as a Goldwyn Girl in Up in Arms (1944), the first film to star Danny Kaye. In a memorable dream sequence, Mayo can be seen as one of the "human trees" in a fanciful forest.

During this period Goldwyn allowed her to take bit roles at Fox in the Betty Grable vehicles Sweet Rosie O'Grady (1943) and Pin Up Girl (1944), and larger roles in Jack London (1943) and Seven Days Ashore (1944). On the set of Jack London she fell in love with the film's star, Michael O'Shea ("I saw him on the set sitting there, and I thought he was kind of cute"). They married in 1947, a union that lasted until O'Shea's death in 1973.

With Mayo's apprenticeship complete, Goldwyn then gave her the female lead in the Bob Hope comedy The Princess and the Pirate (1945). Looking gorgeous in Technicolor, Mayo sparred well with Hope, and sang (dubbed by Louanne Hogan) and danced to the song "How Would You Like to Kiss Me in the Moonlight?" The critic of Newsweek reported, "Miss Mayo is lovely in Technicolor and more than adequate to the film's negligible acting demands." At the film's conclusion Hope is preparing to embrace Mayo when she walks past him to hug a sailor (Bing Crosby). Hope quips, "I work my brains out for nine reels and some bit player from Paramount comes over and steals my girl!"

Mayo then played leading lady to Danny Kaye for the first of four times, in Wonder Man (1945), a zany tale in which she played a librarian in love with a scholarly young man (Kaye) whose body is intermittently inhabited by the ghost of his murdered brother, a night-club entertainer. Asked about rumours of friction with Kaye, Mayo replied,

He was not in favour of having me in all his pictures, so he was resentful of that. He wanted somebody like Ingrid Bergman to work with him. Well, that was kind of silly. I was a very good foil for him. He didn't know it at the time but it was true. He didn't know I had all this comedy experience, you see.

Wonder Man was a popular hit, but the next film, The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), was to be the biggest success of the films in which Mayo appeared with Kaye. Based on the play The Milky Way, filmed 10 years earlier with Harold Lloyd, it told of a timid milkman who inadvertently knocks out a boxing champion and is then taught to box to the strains of "The Blue Danube". Lavishly produced, it had a fine supporting cast and a score by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn.

The same year Mayo was given her most challenging role to date, in William Wyler's superb story of returning servicemen The Best Years of Our Lives. As the shallow floozy who is faithless when her husband of two weeks (Dana Andrews) goes off to war, and who derides his post-war efforts to re-adjust, Mayo was totally convincing. She later joked that she had been responsible for Wyler's winning one of the film's nine Oscars, "because everyone said, 'My God! If he can do that with Virginia Mayo . . .' "

She was back with Danny Kaye for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), in which she played the girl of the meek hero's dreams in several fantasy sequences, as well as the film's heroine, who involves Kaye in a real-life adventure. A Song is Born (1948) was the least successful of the Kaye-Mayo teamings, a remake of the Billy Wilder comedy Ball of Fire (1941) which featured several noted jazz musicians, but played down Kaye's eccentric comedy, and exposed Mayo to comparisons with Barbara Stanwyck in the earlier film.

Mayo then signed a contract with Warners, where she would remain for 10 years. Her first film for the studio was a routine crime yarn, Smart Girls Don't Talk (1948), in which she played a society woman who becomes involved with gangsters. This was followed by Colorado Territory (1949), a western reworking of the Bogart thriller High Sierra (1941), with Mayo in the role originally played by Ida Lupino, and another gangster yarn, Flaxy Martin (1949), with Mayo as a moll who corrupts a lawyer (Zachary Scott).

Raoul Walsh, who had liked her work in Colorado Territory, then cast in one of her best-remembered roles, the moll of the psychotic gangster Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in the crime classic White Heat (1949). Materialistic, shallow, and having an affair with one of his henchmen (Steve Cochran), Mayo was superbly sluttish and worked excellently with Cagney. Mayo later praised the actor's inventiveness:

Like a scene where I've got a new mink coat on, and I'm looking in the mirror and I'm in this chair. He says something to me, I reply in a very snide manner; he gets mad and just kicks the chair out from under me. And I fall back on the bed. Well . . . that was

just Jimmy's idea, you know . . . Things like that he always thought of. Good little touches . . . it would make a picture.

Her ambition, though, was still to make musicals and, when she was offered a thankless role as foil to the comic Milton Berle in Always Leave Them Laughing (1949), she saw her opportunity:

I didn't want to do that, so I made a deal with the studio. At that time I had a kind of clout. I said, "It's a terrible part but I'll do it if you let me do musicals." Anyway I did it, and they did six musicals with me. I was very pleased, because my ambition was to dance.

She was reteamed with Cagney ("He asked for me") in The West Point Story (1950), with songs by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, in which they had two engaging dance duets. "By the Kissing Rock" was a delightful tap number performed in a rehearsal sequence, and the climactic number, "Brooklyn", was a favourite of Cagney's:

Beautiful Virginia Mayo and I did a number that I thought was some of the best dancing we ever did. It's still a pleasure to look at because it showed some versatility and humour, things I prize highly and always strive for . . . Virginia in her usual fine style made that number something I always enjoy watching.

In another number, "The Military Polka", Mayo danced with Gene Nelson ("the best dancer who ever worked at Warners"), a brief but sprightly duet as part of an ensemble routine. She and Nelson were teamed again in Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1950), which included a potently seductive duet to "The Birth of the Blues" and a torrid routine to "Mambo Man".

She had only a brief number in the all-star movie Starlift (1951), but followed this with her personal favourite of her films, She's Working Her Way Through College (1952), a remake of The Male Animal (1943), in which she played a burlesque star, "Hot Garters Gertie", who goes to college to become a writer. Ronald Reagan, with whom she had starred in the lightweight comedy The Girl from Jones Beach (1949), played the college president who encourages her, with Gene Nelson as a fellow student who, in one of the musical's highlights, dances with Mayo on the classroom desks. A great hit ("It was cute and funny, and the public loved it"), the film was followed by She's Back on Broadway (1953), which was not, in fact, a sequel, and neither was it as good.

Between musicals, her films included Jacques Tourneur's ebullient medieval romp The Flame and the Arrow (1950), with Burt Lancaster:

A lot of actors are not as tender as they should be in love scenes. Burt Lancaster was terrible. He'd grab me, and I'd have blue marks all over me! He was so violent, I thought he was going to break my teeth.

She also starred with Gregory Peck in Raoul Walsh's Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951, made in the UK), and with Alan Ladd (playing Jim Bowie, inventor of the Bowie knife) in Gordon Douglas's turgid The Iron Mistress (1952).

Her career at Warners ended, alas, with roles in which she was required to do little but be decorative - in South Sea Woman (1953), King Richard and the Crusades (1954) and Paul Newman's first movie, the much-denigrated The Silver Chalice (1955). Her last films for the studio were routine westerns, and her final movies included the horror titles Castle of Evil (1966) and Evil Spirits (1990).

On the longevity of her marriage, she commented,

Mike was so tolerant of my working all the time, and he would take care of the house while I had to go to work. And not every man will tolerate that, you know. But he was too clever to let that bother him. He was a great actor . . . I'd do plays with him, and I'd watch him on stage. It was just magnetism. He had a great talent that was never appreciated because he didn't push himself.

Most of Mayo's final work was on stage, appearing in such shows as Hello, Dolly and No, No, Nanette. She gave a highly praised performance as a drunken trollop arrested for speeding in the television series Police Story (1975), and made guest appearances on Remington Steele and Murder, She Wrote.

Tom Vallance

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