Time was not kind to the legacy, values of Jeanne Crain
History could be kinder to celebrities.
Although many go on being very famous long after they’ve passed their peak professional years (Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli) or died young (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe), a majority fade from prominence as quickly as their vogue passes.
Many readers and news watchers must have greeted the death Sunday of actress Jeanne Crain at 78 (unbelievable she was no longer 20-something, huh?) with indifference.
Like, Jeanne who â¢
And yet she made dozens of movies, often as the top-billed player, at 20th Century Fox from 1943 through the mid-1950s and continued to appear prominently in films until the early 1960s.
From her two 1945 blockbusters, “State Fair” and “Leave Her to Heaven,” she glided through an assortment of major Fox pictures including “Margie,” “An Apartment for Peggy” with William Holden, “A Letter to Three Wives,” “Cheaper by the Dozen” and its sequel “Belles on Their Toes,” “People Will Talk” with Cary Grant, the “Gift of the Magi” segment of the five-part “O. Henry’s Full House,” “The Fastest Gun Alive” and “The Joker Is Wild” with Frank Sinatra.
All of this while having one husband, Paul Brook (Brinkman), and seven children.
Nothing in her work nor her non-chronicled personal life suggests a person who would have been ambitious enough to maintain such a career.
The white actress even won an Oscar nomination as a light-skinned black girl passing for white in “Pinky” (1949), which is now dismissed on grounds of dated political incorrectness.
Crain was the sweetheart of the Fox lot, having come along after Alice Faye and her successor, Betty Grable, and just ahead of Marilyn Monroe.
Unlike Monroe, Crain had no reputation for tardiness or temperament, nor a sordid back story or nude calendar to live down — or up — to.
Crain went relatively far, considering she also lacked things that Monroe had in aces — individuality, a gift for screen acting and a bewitching mix of carnality and innocence.
Is that to suggest Crain had no talentâ¢ Not exactly. Not none. She photographed well and could navigate many scenes well enough. But like Kim Novak, Crain seemed just about incapable of letting go and inhabiting a role intuitively. She was radiant, lovely, charming and appealing, but unmistakably a star rather than an actress.
In his 848-page autobiography, “A Life,” director Elia Kazan, who died Sept. 28, wrote a section on “Pinky” and never identified his leading lady by name.
“She was a good soul, a pretty girl, obedient, gentle, yielding and, I suspected, catechism-schooled,” he wrote of the unmentioned Crain. “She defined the word ‘ingenue.’ As we began to work, I noted that her face under all dramatic circumstances remained inexpressive; she floated through her role without reacting.
“I had to find a way to make an asset of this emotional passivity … I required very little except her own submissive vacuity. … (She) was in the end effective in the role.”
Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck seemed to be enchanted with her. Although he was associated romantically with many of his starlets, struggling to make names of Bella Darvi, Juliette Greco and others, Zanuck was never known to impose a personal relationship on Crain. He seemed to regard her more as a favorite daughter.
She was, to an exceptional degree, very much what she seemed.
Crain remains enjoyable to watch, but time, which is today’s barometer of the past, has not been kind.
Part of the problem is that Crain was among the last of the girls next door, a group that included June Allyson, Doris Day, Joan Leslie and the Judy Garland of the ’40s — sunny, irrepressible and so sweet that they embodied post-war American ideals of future brides and homemakers.
Because we’re in such deep denial about the appropriateness of those mid-20th century values, Crain’s image faded into oblivion — a gender type denigrated now rather than fully accepted as equal and important.
She didn’t live to see her image restored. But then, she probably wasn’t close to seeing that happen.
Maybe one has to be of a certain age to appreciate the unshadowed niceness she represented.
Something for Friday
While Uncle Dougie Hoerth is taking Friday off, I’ll guest-host his program on WPTT (1360 AM) from 3 to 6 p.m.
My 3 p.m. guest will be the inimitable Dimitri Vassilaros, who brings an extensive background in TV and radio to his role as a Tribune-Review columnist. One reporter, three kinds of media. Does one approach them and their respective audiences differentlyâ¢
At 4 p.m., I’ll talk with Jan Bohna, a long-time TV personality (Miss Jan on “Romper Room” in the 1960s and early ’70s) who, as part of the family-run University Travel Service, has worked with me on 50 Broadway theater trips and three abroad.
Through good shows and bad, great surprises and big disappointments, we’ve monitored the responses of Western Pennsylvania audiences to Big Apple productions.
Great friends and entertainers Bob McCully and Audrey Roth will join me for the 5 p.m. session. Their backgrounds range from “The Rege Cordic Show” to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” But mainly they’re just two of the liveliest conversationalists I know.
Hangin’ with Hef
Throughout the performance of “The Boy From Oz” attended on Broadway, star Hugh Jackman made great comic sport of a latecomer named Stacey who was seated near the front.
You could tell he knew how to make a running joke of it.
After he took his bow at the end, Jackman called attention to Hugh Hefner and some of the companions Hefner had in the audience that night. And with Hefner’s permission, Jackman’s post-show pitch for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fund drive included the auction of two tickets to Hefner’s 50th Playboy magazine anniversary the next night at a nearby armory.
Hey, you and I would probably host parties at a Manhattan armory, too, if we knew that many people.