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OBITUARY: Vivian Blaine

A fine singer with an acerbic sense of humour rarely given full reign by Hollywood, the red-headed Vivian Blaine starred in several musical films of the Forties including Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair before finding greatest fame when she made her Broadway debut as Adelaide, the "perennial fiancee" of the classic musical Guys and Dolls.

Born Vivian Stapleton in Newark, New Jersey, in 1921, she started her career as a band singer with Art Kassel (and his "Kassels in the Air"). Given a contract by 20th Century-Fox in 1942, she played four minor roles before being launched as their new singing discovery in Jitterbugs (1943), starring Laurel and Hardy. Publicised as "the Cherry Blonde", she was then given the romantic lead in two Technicolor musicals, Greenwich Village and Something for the Boys (both 1944), but they were second-league fare. The former had a mediocre score (though Blaine warbled the standard "Whispering" prettily), while Something for the Boys, from Cole Porter's Broadway musical, kept only Porter's title-song and a fanciful plot strand involving a tooth filling which picked up radio broadcasts.

Her next film, Nob Hill (1945), entertainingly reworked one of the studio's favourite story-lines - a Barbary Coast saloon-owner falls for a society beauty and ruinously tries to move out of his class. Blaine was effective as the faithful singer waiting in the wings, and introduced two popular Jimmy McHugh / Harold Adamson ballads, "I Don't Care Who Knows It" and "I Walked In (With My Eyes Wide Open)".

The enormously successful State Fair (1945) followed, with Blaine as the midway performer who leaves the farm-boy Dick Haymes sadder but wiser. The score included three big hits and Blaine introduced one of them, "That's For Me", though her studio, alas, had a policy which forbade its stars from making recordings.

Blaine's Doll Face (1945) was a lower-budget affair in black-and-white, a sign that Fox were losing interest. Betty Grable was still their reigning musical star, the response to Blaine's first two major musicals had been disappointing, and she lacked the sweet ingenuousness of other rising contract stars such as Jeanne Crain and June Haver. Haver was top-billed in Three Little Girls in Blue (1946), the story (another studio favourite) of three girls who masquerade as an heiress, her secretary and maid in order to ensnare a millionaire. Blaine introduced a lovely Josep Myrow / Mack Gordon ballad, "Somewhere in the Night", in an exquisitely orchestrated and filmed sequence.

If I'm Lucky (1946), a pleasant but low-budget musical political satire co-starring Carmen Miranda (also about to leave the studio) and Perry Como, was Blaine's last Fox film, but four years later she was to have the biggest triumph of her career when Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway. The show was immediately recognised as a masterwork, and Blaine's sympathetically droll performance as the adenoidal showgirl, engaged for 14 years to the gambler Nathan Detroit, won her the Donaldson Award for best debut performance. She had three show-stopping numbers, the farmyard pastiche, "A Bushel and a Peck" (initially the show's most popular song), the wryly cynical "Take Back Your Mink", and best of all her description of the "psychosomatic" cold she has developed due to her unmarried status, "Adelaide's Lament".

After two years on Broadway Blaine came to London to recreate her role at the Coliseum, and while here appeared in the Royal Variety Show. She played Adelaide in the 1955 film version, but there was little chemistry between Blaine and a miscast Frank Sinatra (as Nathan).

She had returned to Hollywood to appear with Esther Williams in Skirts Ahoy! (1952), but her career was now concentrated on the theatre and night- clubs. In 1956 she replaced Shelley Winters in a strongly dramatic play about drug addiction, A Hatful of Rain. She returned to the musical theatre with Say Darling (1958, score by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green), starred in Carl Reiner's comedy Enter Laughing (1963), and replaced Jane Russell (who in turn had replaced Elaine Stritch) in the original production of Sondheim's Company in 1971, lending her own brand of acerbity to "The Ladies Who Lunch".

During the last two decades she worked in television, including a continuing role in the soap-opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, in clubs and in touring productions of both plays and musicals, including Gypsy, Follies, The Glass Menagerie, Zorba, A Streetcar Named Desire and Hello Dolly.

Tom Vallance

Vivien Stapleton (Vivian Blaine), actress born Newark, New Jersey 21 November 1921; three times married; died New York 9 December 1995.