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Starring Mamie Van Doren
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Mamie Van Doren Profile

Mamie Van Doren was born Joan Lucille Olander on February 6, 1931 (or 1933, to hear Van Doren tell the story). Her birthplace of Rowena, South Dakota, was home to a conclave of Swedish, German, and Irish immigrants, among them her maternal grandfather, a so-called Black Swede, a descendant of Mongolians who had settled in Scandinavia. Though her father, Warner Carl Olander, was the scion of affluent farmers, he supported his family with labor in a rock quarry, where he earned seven dollars a day. When he was offered a better-paying job as a mechanic, Warner Olander and his wife moved to Sioux City, Iowa, leaving 4 year-old Joan with her maternal grandparents in Rowena. During these formative years, Van Doren was raised by flinty, hard-working people who rejected the promise of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. A sickly child, she witnessed death at first hand from the ravages of such familiar scourges as polio, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and tuberculosis. In 1939, when she was six, Van Doren's parents brought her to live with them in Sioux City.

While her parents worked, young Joan Olander was deposited during the summer in one of a number of local cinemas, where she admired the dancing of Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard's flawless platinum hair. (She herself had been named in honor of actress Joan Crawford.) With the outbreak of World War II late in December 1941, the Olanders joined the westward migration of Americans eager to join the wartime workforce. The family landed in Hollywood and eventually settled in an apartment on Harvard Boulevard. At age 13, Van Doren got a job as an usherette at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Already full-figured at this young age, she dyed her hair platinum blonde in the hopes of attracting the eye of a Hollywood talent scout and spent her off-hours idling in a nearby drugstore frequented by people in the picture business. When an offer came for her to appear in an early television broadcast, Van Doren's parents attempted to dissuade her - fearful that their impressionable young daughter might wind up another Black Dahlia. Eventually, a compromise was struck and Lucille Olander accompanied her daughter to the television taping - and a bombshell was born.

In her teen years, Van Doren entered a number of beauty contests, eventually winning the titles the Los Angeles Press Club's Miss Eight Ball (Marilyn Monroe had won the year before) and Miss Palm Springs. Attracting the attention of maverick movie producer Howard Hughes, who had just acquired RKO Radio Pictures, Van Doren was given a walk-on in Jet Pilot (1957), directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring John Wayne. The production did little for Van Doren's career, shot as it was in crazy-quilt fashion between 1949 and 1953 and shelved until 1957. Also of dubious long-term good was an early marriage, at age 17, to sportswear entrepreneur Jack Newman. The union lasted less than a year, with Van Doren fleeing her new husband due to his erratic and often abusive behavior. Under the mentorship of Hughes, Van Doren received high visibility in the press and posed for artist Alberto Vargas, who featured her form on the cover of the July 1951 issue of Esquire. Given only bit roles at RKO, in the trouble-plagued His Kind of Woman (1951) starring Robert Mitchum and in Two Tickets to Broadway (1951) in support of Janet Leigh, Van Doren traded up for a contract at Universal-International.

It was at U-I that Joan Olander was rechristened Mamie Van Doren, the name cadged from the given name of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's First Lady and the surname of celebrated scholars Carl and Mark Van Doren. She made her debut for Universal in the college romance The All American (1953), one of several films she would make alongside rising star Tony Curtis. Though her subsequent film roles were far from prestigious (a harem slave in Yankee Pasha [1954] opposite Jeff Chandler and Lee J. Cobb and a busty Air Force enlistee in Francis Joins the WACS [1954], fifth in Universal's Francis the Talking Mule series), she was making a name for herself and a living as an actress. During this time, Van Doren was linked romantically with her Francis costar Donald O'Connor and with hotelier heir Nicky Hilton, then freshly-divorced from Elizabeth Taylor. In 1955, she married bandleader Ray Anthony, with whom she had one child before their 1961 divorce. While lunching at the Universal commissary, Van Doren made the acquaintance of producer Albert Zugsmith. Against the better judgment of the U-I brass, Zugsmith slotted Van Doren into the Grace Kelly role in his western Star in the Dust (1956), the studio's answer to High Noon (1952).

For the producer-director team of Howard Koch and Aubrey Schenck, Van Doren played a Hollywood hopeful detained in a rural prison in Untamed Youth (1957), which featured a vocal appearance by rocker Eddie Cochran. She also made a decorous appearance in Paramount's Teacher's Pet (1958), sharing the screen with Clark Gable. The burgeoning vogue for youth-oriented features brought Van Doren and her Universal acquaintance Albert Zugsmith back together in common cause when Zug landed a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to produce a series of films catering to teens. First out of the gate was Jack Arnold's juvenile delinquency melodrama High School Confidential! (1958), which limited Van Doren's screen time to a silky cameo as bad boy Russ Tamblyn's ill-defined and coquettish aunt. Van Doren teamed with Zugsmith again for The Beat Generation (1959) and The Big Operator (1959), both costarring Steve Cochran. A spate of likeminded low budget crime films followed, which included Edward L. Cahn's Guns, Girls, and Gangsters (1959), Charles F. Haas' Girls Town (1959), and Cahn's Vice Raid (1960), and invariably found Van Doren cast as an essentially good girl in an ineluctably bad situation.

Van Doren reteamed with Zugsmith for Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) and College Confidential (1960), frothy comic bagatelles that endeavored to expose the true story of how the age-old battle of the sexes was being waged on the well-tended lawns of the nation's institutes of higher learning. Cast as a comedy coed in College Confidential, Van Doren was upgraded to the role of a former stripper turned campus intellectual in Sex Kittens Go to College, who uses her understanding of male psychology to ankle a staff of unwelcoming but malleable male colleagues. Having begun her career in CinemaScope and Technicolor, Van Doren grew tired of making low budget black and white comedies and crime dramas. Having turned down a potentially career-redefining role on Broadway in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (the part went instead to Jayne Mansfield, and helped launch her career as a successor to the throne of Marilyn Monroe), Van Doren found her options severely limited. She posed for Playboy in 1963 and continued in films but ultimately called it quits after the ignominy of Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966), The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966), and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968).

Surviving her sisters in pulchritude Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren endured career disappointments and five marriages (as well as liaisons with boxer Jack Dempsey, actor Steve McQueen, and pro baseball player Bo Belinsky) to enjoy a second celebrity as a cult icon. During the Vietnam War, she went in-country to entertain the troops and enjoyed a successful nightclub career. In 1987, she published her memoirs, Playing the Field: Sex, Stardom, Love and Life in Hollywood, in which she alleged that she had a sexual encounter with gay heartthrob Rock Hudson and fought off the predatory gossip rag Confidential, who threatened to go wide with the fabricated story about how Van Doren and her mother had once been prostitutes. In 1994, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame just a few blocks from the Pantages, where her career in show business had begun nearly fifty years earlier. In 2005, the former Miss Palm Springs became the recipient of a Golden Palm Star, positioned between those awarded posthumously to Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe.

By Richard Harland Smith

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