Sheila Bromley

Hollywood actress with multiple screen names who was a leading lady to John Wayne

Friday 25 October 2013 00:43

Sheila LeGay (Sheila Bromley), actress: born San Francisco, California 31 October, 1907; died Los Angeles 23 July 2003.

Though she made nearly 80 films and was John Wayne's leading lady in three of his early features, Sheila Bromley is one of the least known of Hollywood actresses. To some extent, this is her own fault, since she used at least six different names during her career in an attempt to give fresh impetus to her progress.

For her first two films, Call of the Desert and Canyon of Missing Men (both 1930) she called herself Sheila LeGay. When she appeared in Daddy Long Legs (1931) with Janet Gaynor she was Sheila Manors, which had become Sheila Mannors by the time she played Jeanette MacDonald's downstairs maid in Ernst Lubitsch's One Hour with You (1932). She was Sheila Manners in The Pace That Kills (1935, reissued in 1973 as Cocaine Fiends). She first used the name Sheila Bromley when she starred for the third time opposite Wayne, in Idol of the Crowds (1937), though for her previous films with him she had been Sheila Manners. Also, among the many westerns and serials she made in the early Thirties were several in which she was credited as Sheila Fulton.

She was born Sheila LeGay in San Francisco in 1907, though some reference books give the date as 1911. "Everyone lied about their age in Hollywood," she said recently. A beautiful blonde, she attended Hollywood High School prior to winning a beauty contest as "Miss California". She began acting with stage work at the Pasadena Playhouse, and appeared briefly in the tryout tour of the Gershwin musical Treasure Girl (1928) starring Gertrude Lawrence and Clifton Webb.

Opting to try her luck in Hollywood rather than go with the show to Broadway (where it ran for only two months), she won leading roles in her first two westerns, both of them starring Tom Tyler. Other popular western stars with whom she acted included Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson and Johnny Mack Brown. Occasionally she would play in a major movie, but usually in minor roles - in several films, such as George Cukor's comedy about fortune hunters, Girls About Town (1931), she was not given screen billing. Lubitsch cast her once again as a maid to Jeanette MacDonald when he made his superb version of The Merry Widow (1935) at MGM.

Her roles in "B" movies began to improve as the decade progressed. She was John Wayne's leading lady for the first time in Westward Ho (1935), the first film released by the newly formed Republic Pictures, and she joined Wayne again for another Republic western The Lawless Range (1935). She was Lloyd Nolan's leading lady in an enjoyable thriller involving guided missiles, Kelly of the Secret Service (1936), and starred with Tim McCoy in an above-average western The Prescott Kid (1936).

There were strong rumours that Bromley had an affair with Wayne, and when the actor went to Universal to make six action films he asked for the actress to appear with him in Idol of the Crowds (1937). As a gold-digger who plans to seduce hockey star Wayne so that he will throw a big match but instead falls in love with him, the actress had one of her best parts to date, but it was to be her last film with Wayne. "The spark just burnt out," she stated in a 2001 interview, "but we remained friends until he died."

In 1937 Bromley signed a two-year contract with Warner Brothers. The historian David Ragan, in his book Who's Who in Hollywood, refers to Bromley as "a superlative second-string Bette Davis". Though perhaps an over-enthusiastic assessment, it is given some weight by Bromley's work in some of her more villainous roles while with Warners. In Girls on Probation (1938) she was a confidence trickster, bank robber and blackmailer who makes life hard for innocent Jane Bryan, and in Accidents Will Happen (1938) she was a convincingly shrewish wife of an insurance adjuster (Ronald Reagan) who loses his job because of her fraudulent claims. Bromley later confessed that she had not liked Reagan, comparing him to "a dim-witted five-year-old".

In Torchy Plays with Dynamite (1939), the last in the popular "Torchy Blane" series, Bromley was a gangster's moll befriended in prison by the reporter Torchy (Jane Wyman) masquerading as a criminal. When Warners failed to renew her contract, Bromley continued to appear in low-budget "B" films, such as Torture Ship (1939), in which her character was known as "Poison Mary", and a neat version of Raymond Chandler's The High Window, retitled Time to Kill (1942).

During the war years Bromley joined the USO (United Servicemen Overseas) entertaining the troops and appearing regularly at the Hollywood Canteen. Though she appeared in more films, including The House on 92nd Street (1945), Judgement at Nuremburg (1961) and Hotel (1967), most of her later career was spent in television.

In 1954-55 she joined the hit comedy series I Married Joan, which starred Joan Davis as the zany wife of a judge. Bromley had the recurring role of one of Davis's best friends, Janet Tobin. Other television shows on which she made guest appearances included Rawhide, Perry Mason, My Favourite Martian and Adam-12. In 1965 she was cast in a continuing role in the daytime soap opera Morning Star, and she made her last film, Alan Rudolph's horror movie Nightmare Circus (also known as Barn of the Naked Dead), in 1973.

Tom Vallance

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