Virginia Grey

Film actress who started in silents

Friday 05 July 2013 01:15

Virginia Grey, actress: born Los Angeles 22 March 1917; died Los Angeles 31 July 2004.

A true child of the cinema, the actress Virginia Grey was the daughter of one of the famed Keystone Kops. She started acting in films during the silent era, appeared in over 100 movies, and from the mid-Thirties to the late Sixties she was one of the most familiar faces on the screen, though she never attained front-rank stardom. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, where Grey was a contract player for several years, reputedly said, "Virginia has everything, except luck."

Others put her constant second-league status down to her somewhat brittle personality, which counteracted her soft, attractive features. She was a fine, wise-cracking second-lead or "B" movie leading lady, but was never given star-making roles. She also shunned publicity, rarely giving interviews, although her affairs with the MGM stars Clark Gable and Robert Taylor were revealed in gossip columns. In one of her rare public statements, she said bluntly that she acted, "not to express my soul or elevate the cinema, but to entertain and get paid for it".

The youngest of three sisters, Virginia Grey was born in 1917. Her father, Ray Grey, graduated from being a Keystone Kop, in comedy shorts directed by Mack Sennett, to acting in and directing silent features, and Virginia was born and raised in Edendale, California, just across the street from the Mack Sennett studios. "When my parents went out in the evenings," she recalled, "my dad drafted one of the Sennett girls as babysitter. Believe it or not, it was Gloria Swanson."

When her father died in 1925, her mother went to work as a film cutter at Universal Studios, and the nine-year-old Virginia was visiting her there when spotted by the producer Paul Kohner and given a screen test. She made her film début as Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927), one of the most expensive silent films, Variety describing her as "suitably angelic". She then made Heart to Heart (1928) with Mary Astor, The Michigan Kid (1928), in which she played Renée Adorée's character as a child, and Jazz Mad (1929) with Jean Hersholt.

She also took dancing lessons at the Mrs Meglin Dance Institute in Santa Monica, but later confessed that she was not very happy at this time, envying her sisters their comparatively normal lives. In 1931, after a small role in the talkie Misbehaving Ladies, Grey left films to teach dancing while completing her education. She briefly studied to be a nurse before deciding that acting was a more lucrative profession, and she returned to the screen with minor roles in such films as Secrets (1933) with Mary Pickford, and the Busby Berkeley musicals Dames (1935) and Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935).

Her role in the chorus of MGM's lavish Oscar-winning biography of the Broadway showman, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), led to a contract with the studio. (She is thought to have been the last surviving member of the film's cast.) She remained with MGM for six years, but, though given an occasional leading role in "B" movies such as Bad Guy (1937) and The Golden Fleecing (1940), she was generally cast in supporting roles.

In the excellent aviation drama Test Pilot (1938), with its star trio of Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy, she had a bright cameo as a girlfriend of Gable's, and Rich Man, Poor Man (1939) inaugurated a lifelong friendship with the film's star, Lana Turner. In George Cukor's sparkling version of Clare Booth's hit play The Women (1939), Grey managed to shine as a cynical shop girl despite being surrounded by a brilliant cast. She appeared with Gable again in Idiot's Delight (1939) as one of a troupe of chorus girls who accompany the star in his song-and-dance routine, "Puttin' on the Ritz".

She was effective as a gold-digging showgirl, flirting with teenage Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) whom she believes to be wealthy, in The Hardys Ride High (1939), and as another showgirl she sang a duet, "Fishing for Suckers", with Dan Dailey in Washington Melodrama (1941). In the Marx Brothers vehicle The Big Store (1941) she was the kidnapped sweetheart of the store owner (Tony Martin). Tarzan's New Adventure and Grand Central Murder (both 1942) were the most notable of her final films for MGM, after which she freelanced.

The Betty Grable musical Sweet Rosie O'Grady (1943) was Grey's first film in colour. She photographed well and gave a spirited performance as a wealthy friend of the stage star O'Grady (Grable). In Stage Door Canteen (1943), an all-star tribute to the New York café for servicemen, she played a canteen hostess, and in real life she was a regular entertainer at the Hollywood Canteen during the Second World War and took part in bond-selling tours.

Her earlier romance with Clark Gable had ended in 1939 when he met and married Carole Lombard, but, a year after Lombard's death in a 1942 air crash, Grey and Gable renewed their relationship. In 1945 The Hollywood Reporter tipped her as "most likely the next Mrs Gable", but in 1949 he suddenly married Sylvia Ashley. (Grey never married.)

Grey's films during the decade included two taut films noirs, Smooth as Silk (1946), in which she received top billing alongside Kent Taylor, and The Threat (1949), and in 1950 she gave one of her finest screen performances, as a jaded gangster's moll in Highway 301 (1950) with Steve Cochran, but good roles were scarce. In 1952 she complained to the Los Angeles Daily News,

I'm a ghost in too many people's lives. Every time I see producer Hal Wallis he remembers that I acted with his wife, silent star Louise Fazenda. But he forgets I was only nine.

Ross Hunter, who had met Grey when, as an actor, he had appeared with her in a Hollywood stage production of Elmer Rice's Dream Girl, was a close friend and when he became a top producer at Universal he came to regard her as a good-luck token. Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) was the first of nine glossy Hunter productions in which Grey was cast. They included The Restless Years (1958), in which she was a compassionate teacher dealing with troubled students, Portrait in Black (1960), starring Lana Turner, Tammy Tell Me True (1961), Back Street (1961) and Madame X (1966).

Hunter was so determined to get Grey into Flower Drum Song (1961), despite its Asian cast and background, that he had her appear in a mock soap opera being enacted on a television screen watched by the film's heroine Myoshi Umeki.

Two films Grey later spoke of with some bitterness were The Rose Tattoo (1956) and Crime of Passion (1957). She had a good role of a blonde temptress in The Rose Tattoo, but her lack of empathy with the temperaments of its stars Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster prompted her to later call the film "the most hateful picture I was ever on". Crime of Passion starred Barbara Stanwyck, whom Grey cited as coldly resentful of her earlier romance with Stanwyck's ex-husband, Robert Taylor.

She had a happier experience, and one of her finest roles, in George Sidney's Jeanne Eagels (1957), as an alcoholic fading actress who commits suicide after Eagels (Kim Novak) steals her script of Somerset Maugham's play Rain, and becomes a Broadway sensation in the leading role.

From 1948 onwards, Grey was a prolific performer on television, acting in many early live anthologies and such series as The June Allyson Show, Wagon Train, Bonanza, Marcus Welby MD and My Three Sons. Her last major film was the blockbuster disaster movie Airport (1969), and she retired in 1975 after making a television movie, The Lives of Jenny Dolan.

Tom Vallance

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