Obituary: Frances Gifford

Dick Vosburgh
Monday 31 January 1994 00:02
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Mary Frances Gifford, actress; born Long Beach, California 7 December 1920; married 1938 James Dunn (died 1967; marriage dissolved); died Pasadena, California 22 January 1994.

TRULY the queen of serial films in 1941 was the beautiful, auburn- haired Frances Gifford, who literally swung to fame in the Republic chapter play Jungle Girl. For 15 action-packed instalments, she survived spears, knives, guns, quicksand, poison gas, avalanches - even a vat of flaming oil - and awakened desire in the breast of many a juvenile male.

Although a native Californian, Mary Frances Gifford had no cinematic ambitions; she had just graduated from high school and was planning to study law when, on a tour of the Samuel Goldwyn studio, she was spotted and offered a screen test. This led to a year's contract, during which her name was shortened and she was given a part in her only Goldwyn film, the screwball comedy Woman Chases Man (1936). The following year she moved to RKO, who assigned her fleeting roles in Stage Door, New Faces of 1937 and Living on Love (all 1937). The last named was a 'B' picture starring James Dunn, whose career had declined since his heyday at 20th Century Fox. In 1938 Frances Gifford married Dunn, 15 years her senior.

Apart from a bit part in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), she made no films until 1940, when she appeared opposite her husband in two second features, Hold That Woman and Mercy Plane. After playing a studio animator in Walt Disney's The Reluctant Dragon (1941), she received the fateful offer from Republic to star in Jungle Girl. Her success in the serial led to a contract with Paramount; they put her in everything from Hopalong Cassidys to musicals, but she was far more impressive back at RKO as Princess Zandra from the hidden city of Palandria in Tarzan Triumphs (1943).

In 1943 Gifford signed a contract with MGM. Her first film there was the war melodrama Cry Havoc, in which she played a man-crazy nurse. It was a good part, as were the spirited schoolteacher in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) and the neglected wife in The Arnelo Affair (1945), but most of her MGM assignments were of a secondary nature.

Shortly after completing one such role in the musical Luxury Liner (1948), Gifford was in a road accident which left her with a fractured nose and head injuries. Although she appeared in two more films and made many television appearances, the accident's toll on her health, both physical and emotional, eventually forced her to end her acting career in the late 1950s and undergo four years of treatment in the mental ward of Camarillo State Hospital in California.

In his book Lure of the Tropix (1984), Bill Feret wrote: 'Miss Gifford is today in excellent health and in full possession of her mental faculties. She is content in the memory of her former life as a movie queen and values her privacy highly. She makes her home in Pasadena and spends her time in volunteer work and reading.'

(Photograph omitted)

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