IN 1937, Deanna Durbin saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy with Three Smart Girls, a surprise hit about three little maids from school who reunite their estranged parents. Durbin's older sisters were played by the perky brunette Barbara Read and the demure blonde Nan Grey.
A Texan, Nan Grey was born Eschal Miller. In 1934, the 16-year-old Eschal came to Los Angeles to spend a holiday with a friend. Spotted by a Warner Bros scout, she was given a screen test. It was successful and led to a new name and roles in three Warner films: a remake of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt (1934), followed by The Firebird and Mary Jane's Pa (1935). A contract with Universal followed, and, after being abducted by seal poachers in Sea Spoilers (1936) and drained of her blood in Dracula's Daughter (1936), she was cast as one of those Three Smart Girls. Variety praised the fresh charm and talent of Deanna Durbin, and announced: 'The other two of the Three - Nan Grey and Barbara Read - are new ingenues of promise.'
Obviously disagreeing, Universal gave Read only two more film roles before dropping her option, and mired Grey in a series of Grade B efforts. In Some Blondes are Dangerous (1937) she was the Long-suffering Good Girl nobly waiting for her swellheaded boxer boyfriend to get wise to the gold-digging hussy. In The Jury's Secret (1938), she was the Loyal Heroine whose fiance (Larry Blake) is falsely accused of murder.) In The Storm (1938), she was the Plucky Nurse who performs a shipboard appendectomy while a surgeon on land guides her by radio. All, of course, ended happily with Nurse marrying Patient, but the New York Times announced: 'The picture doesn't recover from the operation.'
Things looked up for Grey when she was reunited with Durbin (Barbara Read was replaced by Helen Parrish) for Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), in which Deanna straightens out the love entanglements of her two sisters. Variety predicted: 'Looker Nan will find her career given real momentum by this release.'
Again Variety overestimated Universal; instead she was given a pallid Lady-in-Waiting role in Tower of London (1939) - which was Shakespeare's Richard III with the iambics removed - and an equally wan part in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), as another Loyal Heroine whose fiance is falsely accused of murder. (This time she was engaged to Vincent Price, who escaped the gallows thanks to a timely injection of invisibility serum.) Grey's last films for Universal had her playing support to the likes of Baby Sandy, Gloria Jean, the Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys.
She was glad to be free. A year earlier, she had married Jackie Westrope, a successful jockey, and now had more time to play the dual role of wife and mother. She continued, however, in radio; her warm, expressive voice was already familiar to the millions of listeners who regularly tuned in to the popular serial Those We Love. From 1938 to 1945 Grey played the heartbreak-prone Kathy Marshall, around whose chaste but intense romances the programme revolved.
Real-life romance blossomed in the late 1940s when Nan (by now divorced) visited a night-club at which Frankie Laine was singing. They met, in 1950 she married him and retired completely from show business (the same year her screen sister Deanna married the French director Charles David, and went into equally contented retirement).
In a newspaper interview, Frankie Laine once proudly said of his wife: 'She was one of the Three Smart Girls. Remember them? In 1937 they made a movie - Deanna Durbin, Barbara Read and Nan. She was 15 at the time.'
Actually, she was 19, but perhaps that gives a small indication as to why the Laines had such a long and happy marriage.
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