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Starring Priscilla Lane
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Starring Priscilla Lane

In her 22 films between 1937 and 1948, Priscilla Lane always delivered honest value. With her shoulder-length blond hair and good-sport persona, it was perhaps inevitable that she should often have been cast as arm candy, mostly playing girlfriends, fiancées and wives to the William Powells, Jimmy Cagneys and Cary Grants of the film world, although she appeared more often with Wayne Morris and Jeffrey Lynn. She did her job well, with a sunny, wholesome likability and a graceful sensuality, and she hardly went unnoticed. But although she was a magazine cover girl seven times, she never quite made it to the A-list. In her time, more than one movie magazine wondered why in print, and to this day she has a fan club. Perhaps it was because studio boss Jack Warner cooled on her after she turned down a couple of roles.

Her career began auspiciously. She was born in Iowa, the youngest of four sisters -- Leota, Lola and Rosemary were the others -- who enjoyed showbiz careers (a fifth, Martha, did not). Her entree into film came through music. While auditioning for a music publisher, popular bandleader Fred Waring heard Priscilla and Rosemary harmonizing, liked what he heard, and signed both to a radio contract. Five years later, when Waring went to Hollywood to film Varsity Show (1937), he took both sisters with him, Rosemary to handle the romantic ballads with Dick Powell, Priscilla for the upbeat numbers in this collegiate hey-kids-let's-do-a-show vehicle with a Busby Berkeley finale. When Waring returned to New York, Rosemary and Priscilla stayed in Hollywood. (To augment his glee club, The Pennsylvanians, Waring hired a young choral director from Pomona College, Robert Shaw, who was to become one of the century's foremost choral directors.)

Warner put Priscilla Lane to work making five films in 1938 and five more in 1939. By the end of them, she was on the movie map. Although she starred alongside Powell, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan in it, Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938) was a typically minor entry, although it firmed up the game plan of assigning her a song or two, regardless of the film genre in which she appeared. In this case, it was the memorably unmemorable duet with Powell, Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride. Brother Rat (1938), about romantic and other hi-jinks in a military academy and filmed at the Virginia Military Institute ("rat" in this case refers to first-year cadets) came from a Broadway stage hit, but while she and Morris dutifully keep the romantic pot boiling, the film is chiefly remembered today as the shoot on which Reagan met his first wife, Jane Wyman.

Four Daughters (1938), a tear-jerker taken from Fannie Hurst's novel, Sister Act, brought Priscilla, Rosemary and Lola together on screen, but Gale Page, not Leota Lane, was cast as the fourth sister of a musical family. It was successful enough to spawn two sequels - Four Wives (1939) and Four Mothers (1941). Priscilla Lane's unforced warmth is its emotional center, but it was the breakthrough film of John Garfield, as the sharp-edged music arranger who falls for her. Garfield said he based the character - a precursor of England's postwar Angry Young Men - on the famously sardonic Hollywood wit and sometime pianist, Oscar Levant. (Four Daughters also was remade in 1954 as Young at Heart, starring Frank Sinatra.)

By the end of 1939, Lane began to get better movies and better billing. While Cagney rode the crackle of his crisp toughness in the Prohibition gangster melodrama, The Roaring Twenties (1939), Lane matched him step for step, armed only with her characteristic sweetness as the woman in his life. The film, jammed with period musical standards, gives Lane a chance to show what she can do as a nightclub singer with I'm Just Wild About Harry and, not without a certain irony, It Had to Be You. She does plenty. As cocky Cagney gives her a quick peck on the cheek in a dressing room filled with flowers, her skeptical glance as he says, "You want the Brooklyn Bridge? All ya gotta do is ask for it. You can't buy it, I'll steal it," has equal emotional weight. At the end, riddled with bullets as he does his great ballet of death down a sidewalk to die on the steps of a church, her distress as she follows behind makes us miss him as she does.

The great Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer Blues in the Night is of course the big number in the film of that name (1941). But it's in that film that Lane belts out perhaps her most vivacious song on film as the band singer she was. Sung in a boxcar in which she's traveling hobo-style with a jive combo, she beats time with her foot and hits all the right goofy notes in a number called Hang onto Your Lids, Kids, reprised later with Jimmie Lunceford's band. Minor, but sublime. Check it out. In 1942, Lane got star billing opposite Robert Cummings, doing her bit to stop fascism in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur. Also in 1942: Silver Queen (1942), a sturdy if not world-beating Western with Lane as a saloonkeeper opposite George Brent and Bruce Cabot.

Lane played her most quintessential - and literal -- girl next door role opposite Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace, filmed by Frank Capra in 1942, but by contractual agreement put on the shelf until the hit play completed its Broadway run in 1944. Grant had all he could do to not be upstaged by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as his batty maiden aunts, fluttering genteelly through their Brooklyn gothic mansion adjoining a graveyard, murdering one and all with their poisoned elderberry wine. Engaged to Lane's character, he's afraid to go through with marriage because of his bloodline. "Insanity runs in my family," he tells her. "It practically gallops." When she emerges from the cellar of his family house, wide-eyed at the discovery of bodies there, he's delirious with joy because he just learned he'd been adopted. As she's about to blab to the cops who just walked in, he silences her with a kiss. "Oh, Mortimer," she replies. From most other mouths, no matter how attractive, the line would dissolve in insipidity. In Lane's it doesn't.

Lane took a sabbatical from filmmaking during the war, following her Air Force husband from base to base, sometimes singing to boost servicemen's morale. After the war, she appeared in the forgettable comedy Fun on a Week-End (1947) and the solid, noirish Bodyguard(1948), playing the loyal homicide division filing clerk girlfriend of Lawrence Tierney. The latter exchanged his usual nasty characters for a role as a cop tossed off the force for using his fists once too often. When he's hired as a bodyguard, and framed for a murder, she helps him put things right. In an interview at the time, Lane said, "I love this work and I hope to make many more pictures." She should have. But she didn't. Priscilla Lane, sweet virtuoso of the reaction shot, moved to New England with her husband, turned postwar building contractor, and their four children. Lane, nee Mullican, died in 1975, aged 79.

Jay Carr

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