Obituary: Priscilla Lane
Monday 10 April 1995
There were the Talmadges in the Silent era, Constance, Norma and Natalie, but the most famous movie sisters have to be Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. But before Fontaine emerged as a star, the Lanes - Rosemary, Lola and Priscilla - were the best-known sister act in movies, and Priscilla, the youngest of them, was briefly Warner Bros' biggest female star after Bette Davis and de Havilland.
Lane does not make all of the record books today, but if you catch the superb matching of Cagney and Bogart in The Roaring Twenties (1939) you will find Cagney and Lane above the title and Bogart below it.
There were in fact five Lane sisters in show business, the daughters of a dentist called Mullican. Lola began it all at the age of 12 by playing the piano to accompany the flickers; she and her older sister Leota went into vaudeville and by 1928 Lola was playing in movies. In 1937 Warner Bros put her under contract and gave her a star role as a temperamental movie queen, in one of its principal productions, Hollywood Hotel. Playing the lookalike who replaces her - and takes over the romantic lead with Dick Powell - was Rosemary Lane, who had arrived at the studio more directly but also via vaudeville.
Rosemary and Priscilla Lane had been vocalists with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, famous for "The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven". Waring and his Orchestra co-starred with Powell in Varsity Show, made earlier in 1937, with the two Lanes more or less playing themselves. Warners saw the publicity advantage of having all three under contract and Priscilla, the prettiest of them, was immediately teamed with Wayne Morris in Love, Honor and Behave (1938) and Men Are Such Fools. Both were comedies and merely programme fodder, but a bigger budget was ordered when the studio filmed a long-running Broadway play about romantic shenanigans at a college for army cadets, Brother Rat. Morris was again Priscilla Lane's romantic pair - another couple were Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman (the first Mrs Reagan) - and the film was popular enough to spawn a sequel, Brother Rat and a Baby (1940).
By that time Warners were convinced that they had an A-list star (as we would now say) in Priscilla Lane. She starred with Powell in Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938), which allowed her to sing, and then with her sisters Rosemary and Lola in Four Daughters (1938), based on a novel by Fannie Hurst actually called Sister Act.
The family in Four Daughters found its members coping with with the Depression in a "typical" small town - with the artistic father (Claude Rains) who worries about "the Foundation" and the chip-on-the-shoulder bum (John Garfield) who stumbles into town. The amorous complications of the daughters, however, took up most of the footage, with the adolescent Priscilla going ape over Garfield. Neither of the other Lane sisters being suitable, the fourth daughter was played by Gale Page.
Warners, never the ones to give up on anything which had cleaned up at the box-office, re-cycled the concept in Daughters Courageous (1939), Four Wives and Four Mothers (1940). The first was based on a play (not by Hurst), while the others broughtcharacters back from the beyond in order to keep to the original casting. That was also reflected in Dust Be My Destiny (1939), with Garfield as an ex-con paying his debt to society and Priscilla Lane as the bride who joins him hopping the freights.
In The Roaring Twenties Cagney was mad about her and she was drawn to Jeffrey Lynn. She dimpled charmingly as she sang such songs of the period as "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Japanese Sandman", but she was no match for Gladys George in "It's Only a Shanty in Old Shanty Town". Indeed, as the ageing broad who loved Cagney, George stole the distaff part of the picture, cradling him in her arms as he dies on the church steps and explaining, "He used to be a big shot."
And that was basically Priscilla Lane's misfortune: she was a nice girl to have around - good company, sweet but spirited, classy - but overshadowed by the more robust actresses now following Davis's example. At Warners, Ann Sheridan, a long-time contractee, was showing more oomph (which she trademarked), more comic sense and more warmth. Ida Lupino, newly arrived, had none of these qualities but had more intensity. Warners gave Lane a do-nothing role as the wife of a bombastic trumpet-player (Jack Carson) in Blues in the Night (1941), and this time she was out-acted by Betty Field as a trampy "swing" groupie - but for once the admirable Field miscalculated and Lane's is the better performance.
As Warners wondered what to do with Lane, Universal signed her up because of a resemblance to Madeleine Carroll - since Saboteur (1942) reprised the theme of The 39 Steps, with the pursued (again with the lady as the unwilling accomplice) trying to keep ahead of the pursuers, in both cases secret agents and the police. Alfred Hitchcock was again to direct for Selznick who sold the project to Universal. Universal assigned Robert Cummings to play the male lead (for which Hitchcock had wanted Gary Cooper) and reneged on its promise to allow Hitchcock a say in casting. As a consequence, Saboteur has the weakest leads of any of his films of that time, even if Lane and Cummings entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of the thing.
20th Century-Fox pounced upon Lane to play Jack Benny's fiance in The Meanest Man in the World (1943), but neither could do anything with a broken-backed script about an incompetent lawyer trying to con her father into thinking he is a big success. She had Fun on a Weekend (1947) with Eddie Bracken and made only one other film: Bodyguard (1948), as another fiance, that of a man-on-the-run, played by Lawrence Tierney. One of the writers was Robert Altman and the director Richard Fleischer, but if this was one of RKO's better thrillers it was still a B-movie; and Lane preferred retirement to turning up on the sidelines of an occasional B movie.
One Warner film gave her her best chance: Arsenic and Old Lace. Frank Capra saw the original play on Broadway, and in 1941 was looking for a cheap film to be made quickly, to pay his family's expenses while he was in the army.
This then happened (Pearl Harbor was bombed during the shooting), with Cary Grant in the lead and Lane as his bride, but the agreement made by Warners with the original play's producers, Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, stipulated that the film could not open until the play finished its New York run - which was in 1944. Screen audiences then finally saw Josephine Hull and Jean Adair repeat their Broadway per- formances as the two old ladies accomplished in the gentle art of murder, two sweet old souls surrounded by a cast of zanies, crazies and loonies, not to mention a manic Grant. Lane thus found herself the only one of sound mind in the whole movie, constantly bewildered by events: but she sparkles merrily. If they ever foolishly remake it they will be hard-pressed to find anyone half as pleasing in the role.
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