Larry Thomas recounts the careers of four actresses - Lana Turner, Jayne Mansfield, Katharine Hepburn, and Rosemary Clooney – who, besides being exceptionally talented, have a very strange connection: they all died on June 29 (in different years.)
Sometimes, traveling through space and time, doing research for articles will occasionally turn up some strange connections. Some are funny, some are sad, but nonetheless tend to stir up thoughts of why the stars were aligned in such a way as to cause these connections.
Such a case is today, June 29th. On this day in history, albeit in different years, four prominent actresses died: Jayne Mansfield, Lana Turner, Katharine Hepburn, and Rosemary Clooney. They spanned the glory days of movie going, and yet you’d not likely ever think of the four of them grouped together in a movie, or even as friends.
Jayne Mansfield was a movie star for the shortest amount of time. 20th Century Fox put her under contract as a back-up blonde for their sometimes-unreliable Marilyn Monroe. She made a few films, most of which were not spectacular. But her first big starring role showed what a talent she had for comedy and comedy timing. It was 1957’s The Girl Can't Help It, a zany slapstick farce in which goofy gangster Edmond O’Brien wants to turn Mansfield into a rock-and-roll star with the help of hang-dog Tom Ewell, who had recently co-starred with Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. The Girl Can't Help It was written and directed by Frank Tashlin, who started his career as a gag writer for Looney Tunes cartoons, and it does play like a big life-sized cartoon. And in order to assure box office gold, it’s one of your first, and maybe in some cases only, chances to catch some early rock-and-roll stars in, as Ewell says in the opening, CinemaScope and lifelike Color by Deluxe. Sharing musical screen time are the likes of Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and others. Unfortunately, Mansfield’s career didn’t blossom from this auspicious star turn, and she ended up mostly in low-budget independent films. That’s too bad, as she had some genuine talent.
Lana Turner’s career started in the late thirties in a small role that got her noticed, and continued through the sixties, which she was one of the superstar of the so-called “women’s pictures.” Titles like Imitation of Life, Peyton Place, and By Love Possessed had female audiences lined up for blocks when they first opened. Turner also was a sensation as the film noir femme fatale in The Postman Always Rings Twice with John Garfield. I think I like her best in as the society girl who falls for gangster Robert Taylor in 1941’s Johnny Eager. This is Lana Turner at her most glamorous and dramatic without going over the top as in some of her later films.
Katharine Hepburn had the longest, most versatile of today’s quartet, racking up an astounding four Oscars and twelve nominations over the years. She could do virtually anything, even eventually making a western with John Wayne, which was Wayne’s sequel to True Grit and also a not-so-subtle remake of The African Queen. She could be electrifying on both screen and stage, and brought many of those stage roles to the movies. But when I think of Katharine Hepburn, my mind goes directly to comedy, and in particular Howard Hawks’ great screwball comedy of 1938, Bringing Up Baby in which she co-starred with Cary Grant. She’s a daffy heiress who seems to be utterly clueless, but we know better, don’t we. Once upon a time, some group named Marilyn Monroe’s Some Like it Hot as the funniest film ever made. It’s certainly great, but I think Bringing Up Baby provides so many laughs, double-takes, double-entendres, and sight gags that you don’t dare even go to the concession stand for fear of missing one or more of the gems that race through this terrific movie.
We all consider Rosemary Clooney as a legendary singer, but she also had a short career on both screen and television. Her most notable body of work was in a quartet of Technicolor musicals at Paramount in the fifties, most notably White Christmas in which she co-starred with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Norwood’s own Vera-Ellen. Considering this film’s life over the years at holiday time, it’s probably one of the most watched films in history. And I like to think of Rosemary Clooney as one of the most unexplored “what if’s” from movie history. What if she had teamed with the right director and writer to summon up that one great dramatic performance? Who knows where her movie career could have gone. I’m not complaining about the career she had, mind you, as I never tire of hearing her sing, but just wondering.
And rather than think about what connects these four great performers on this day, June 29th, I prefer to say “well, they were all blondes, except for Hepburn.” I sure do love movies!