Groomed by Universal Pictures as a potential successor to Deanna Durbin, Gloria Jean never did supplant the better-known singing starlet in the hearts of moviegoers during World War II, but enjoyed a star ascendancy all her own. Pennsylvania's own Baby Skylark had been selected by producer Joe Pasternak to star in Universal's summer musical "The Under-Pup" (1939) and audiences immediately warmed to the 11-year-old newcomer, whose lilting soprano voice was offset by a refreshingly middle-class demeanor. Often cast as an underprivileged youth at odds with her societal betters, Jean sailed through a string of wartime songfests aimed at lifting homefront morale, teaming with hoofer Donald O'Conner for "What's Cookin'" (1942) and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" (1943), and with jazz drummer Mel Tormé for "Pardon My Rhythm" (1944). As she edged towards the edge of consent, Jean's status as Shirley Temple-style Li'l Miss Fixit declined and the studio shoehorned her into vehicles largely unworthy of her talents, including the Olsen and Johnson farce "Ghost Catchers" (1944) and the dockside crime drama "The River Gang" (1945). Unable to regain her celebrity footing on the big screen or in the burgeoning medium of television, Jean quit showbiz to help found Redken Cosmetics, where she remained for 30 years. Retired to Hawaii in 2007, Jean seemed at peace with her legacy as a Hollywood also-ran, albeit one who did more than her share to lift American spirits during the dark days of the Second World War.
Gloria Jean Schoonover was born in Buffalo, NY on April 14, 1926. At the age of six months, she moved with her family to Scranton, PA, where her father, Ferman Harold Schoonover, worked as a piano salesman at the Thomas Music Store on Main Street. Encouraged by her mother, the former Eleanor Watkins, to aim for a career as an opera singer, Jean began singing lessons when she was only three and was soon entertaining in Scranton movie houses and at community events. As a child vocalist, she appeared on the radio with Paul Whiteman's Band and was known as the Baby Skylark. When she was 11 years old, Jean's voice teacher entered her in a national contest sponsored by Universal Pictures to find a young singer for an upcoming musical feature. Auditioning with hundreds of area girls made up to resemble Shirley Temple, the dressed-down and pigtailed Jean made an impression on producer Joe Pasternak when she informed him that the accompanist's piano was out of tune. Though she returned to Scranton with little to no hope of being chosen for the film, the fledgling actress soon received an invitation to come to Hollywood.
Under the mentorship of Pasternak, Jean was groomed as a potential successor to singing starlet Deanna Durbin, her presence on the Universal lot a warning to Durbin to keep her weight down and her ambitions low. Surrendering her surname in favor of the more marquee friendly Gloria Jean, the newcomer made her film debut in "The Under-Pup" playing a city girl who charms a clique of summer camp snobs by the sheer force of her individuality. In "A Little Bit of Heaven" (1940), Jean played a like-minded street urchin who wins big on a radio quiz show but suffers the vagaries of newfound wealth. Between these features, the soprano was paired with crooner Bing Crosby for "If I Had My Way" (1940), playing the daughter of a fallen construction worker who helps uncle Allyn Joslyn make a go of a failing restaurant with an assist from steelworkers Crosby and El Brendel. Universal courted the custom of women and young moviegoers by partnering Jean with cantankerous comedian W. C. Fields in "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" (1941), the ailing vaudevillian's final feature film.
During World War II, Jean was pressed into service as a morale booster for the Allied effort. Between 1941 and 1945, she appeared in more than a dozen musical comedies. First of these was the generation gap musical "What's Cookin'" (1942), which folded Jean into an ensemble that included Donald O'Connor, Leo Carrillo, the Andrews Sisters, and Woody Herman and his Orchestra. The hepcat musical "Get Hep to Love" (1942) followed, casting Jean and O'Connor as collegiate love bugs suffering sundry misunderstandings between songs. The pair continued to partner for "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" (1942), "It Comes to Love" (1943), and "Mr. Big" (1943). Jean was in country mouse mode for "Moonlight in Vermont" (1943), playing a poor farm girl who seeks the brighter lights of theatrical school in Vermont, only to rely on the fall harvest to save the foundering institution. In "Pardon My Rhythm" (1944), she was cast opposite jazz drummer Mel Tormé in the tale of an amateur swing band en route to victory in a big competition.
Jean was tapped by French director Julien Duvivier to star in a segment of his arty English language omnibus "Flesh and Fantasy" (1943). Universal saw sufficient potential in the vignette to order it expanded to feather length. The result, "Destiny" (1944), was credited to efficiency director Reginald LeBorg, who shot additional footage for the tale of a blind farm girl with extrasensory sensitivities and an uncanny affinity with nature who offers fugitive Alan Curtis the hope of redemption. Though she received second billing for the old dark house spoof "Ghost Chasers" (1944), Jean spent much of the finale tied, gagged, and bricked up behind a false wall, having ceded the lion's share of the singing duties to vocalist Ella Mae Morse and a romantic subplot to third-billed Martha O'Driscoll. She had more to do in "River Gang" (1945), as a young orphan who learns all too late that her kindly uncle is the head of a gang of merciless cutthroats and must be saved in the nick of time by the scrappy members of a local youth band. As the actress inclined towards the age of consent, she began to lose her allure as a cinematic Li'l Miss Fixit, a milestone that coincided with the expiration of her Universal contract.
After back-to-back national and European tours, Jean returned to films as a free agent, appearing in the United Artists release "Copacabana" (1947), warbling in support of stars Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda. Though she sang her way through Columbia's "I Surrender Dear" (1948), Jean found her abilities slipping out of style. Additional roles followed in forgettable features like "An Old Fashioned Girl" (1949) and "There's A Girl in My Heart" (1949), before she sought work in the burgeoning medium of television. Guest appearances followed on "Death Valley Days" (1952-1975), "Colgate Comedy Hour" (NBC, 1950-55) and "Lux Video Theater" (CBS/NBC, 1950-59), but work remained scattershot. By the time Jerry Lewis offered Jean a small role in "The Ladies Man" (1961), Jean was reduced to working as a restaurant hostess. A 1962 marriage lasted only four years and Jean retired in 1963. Partnering with actress Paula Kent, Jean managed to get in on the ground floor of Kent's Redken Cosmetics and enjoyed a second career with the company that lasted until Redken's acquisition by L'Oreal in 1993. Jean retired to Hawaii in 2007, after authorizing the biography Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven.
By Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Began taking singing lessons (date approximate)
Went to NYC to audition for an opera production; also auditioned for movie producer Joseph Pasternak
Put under contract by Universal
Feature debut in the musical "The Under-Pup"
Starred in "A Little Bit of Heaven", a sequel to her film debut
Appeared with W C Fields in "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break"
Featured in the all-star "Follow the Boys"
First "adult" role, "Reckless Age"
Had first dramatic part in "Destiny", playing a blind woman
Last film for Universal "EAsy to Look At"
Toured the USA as a singer
Appeared in "Copacabana" with Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda
Went blonde for role in "There's a Girl in My Heart"
Hired by Jerry Lewis for "The Ladies Man"
Final feature "The Madcaps"