Star of the Month: Gloria Grahame
Tuesdays in November | 23 films
Born in Pasadena, California, and raised in Los Angeles by her English father and Scottish mother (who was also an actress), 19-year-old Gloria Hallward was discovered on Broadway in 1944. A talent scout saw her in “A Highland Fling,” a play starring Ralph Forbes and John Ireland, and raved about the young actress to Louis B. Mayer. Mayer promptly saw the show and signed Hallward to a contract at MGM, under the name Gloria Grahame. (“Grahame” was her grandmother’s maiden name.)
Grahame soon made her screen debut in Blonde Fever (1944), a comedy starring Mary Astor and Philip Dorn and based on a Ferenc Molnár play—not a B movie but more of a minor A.
With the supporting role of a waitress named Sally Murfin, MGM featured her prominently in the film’s advertising. “Meet Gloria Grahame,” read the poster. “She’s gorgeous! She’s dangerous!” Variety, in its review, reported, “Gloria Grahame, as the blonde waitress, shows possibilities, but [is] given a conflicting, indefinite role in this opus.”
That may as well have described Grahame’s overall tenure as an MGM contract player, which lasted a little over two years. She made only four other films at the studio during this time—Without Love (1945), It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), Song of the Thin Man (1947) and Merton of the Movies (1947)—all of which are included in this tribute, and all of which show MGM not really knowing what to do with her. Her best films in the period were loan-outs: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) for Frank Capra’s Liberty Films and Crossfire (1947) for RKO, which was lauded in its day and is now seen as one of the great examples of film noir.
Crossfire was produced by Dore Schary, who had a great interest in making films with socially conscious themes. In this noir drama centered on the murder of a Jewish man, starring Robert Young, Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, Grahame plays a floozy named Ginny. She only worked for two days on this film but regarded it as one of her proudest accomplishments. She later paid tribute to the film’s dialogue director, Bill Watts, who coached her and helped her to really understand the craft of acting. As Grahame said, “It’s thinking. I was doing my hair for a scene and he said, ‘forget the hair.’ And he [talked] to me about who the character was, where she was, what she was, until I was so immersed in what it was all about. After that... I did it for myself.” Grahame received her first Oscar nomination for Crossfire, which drew five nominations in all and lost Best Picture to another major film about anti-Semitism, Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947). But of the two, time has been kinder to Crossfire.
Schary was so impressed with Grahame that he bought her contract from MGM in June 1947. While Grahame was indeed more suited to the grit of RKO than she was to the glossy glamour of MGM, even RKO struggled to find her the right roles. Her first picture there, Roughshod (1949), a rare western for Grahame, was shelved for two years after it was completed. Next came A Woman’s Secret (1949), which was also shelved for about a year and became a significant flop. That film, however, was significant for introducing Grahame to its director, Nicholas Ray, and the two developed a romance. After filming, Grahame got a divorce from her husband, Stanley Clements, and married Nick Ray later the same day. Five months later, she gave birth to their son, Timothy.
A year and a half later, Grahame was loaned out to Columbia to star opposite Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place (1950), a heartbreaking film noir romance again directed by Nicholas Ray. By this point, however, their marriage had turned rocky, and shortly after filming began, they secretly separated, maintaining a fiction that all was fine between them for fear that the studio would otherwise fire them or stop production. All the while, Ray directed Grahame to one of her greatest performances. She is unforgettable as Laurel Gray, the beautiful and enigmatic neighbor of screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart). Dix’s dark personality and emotional instability leads everyone around him, and the police, to suspect him of being a killer. The plot of the film paralleled the disintegration of the real-life marriage between Ray and Grahame, and when production was over, their marriage continued to crumble until they divorced in 1952.
Following In a Lonely Place, director George Stevens offered Grahame a major role in A Place in the Sun (1951) which would ultimately be played by Shelley Winters. But RKO chief Howard Hughes refused to loan Grahame out for the part, despite much pleading by Grahame, who desperately wanted it. Hughes instead wanted Grahame for an RKO film noir called Macao (1952), which no one otherwise involved in its making, including stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, wanted to make. A troubled production, it was credited to director Josef von Sternberg but largely re-shot by Nicholas Ray and was shelved for two years before being released in 1952. Grahame is billed fifth in a film that has not stood the test of time. A Place in the Sun, meanwhile, was an enormous hit nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Shelley Winters, and stands as an all-time classic.
After Macao, Hughes released Grahame from her RKO contract and she went freelance, now entering the richest part of her career with three important movies released in 1952 alone (aside from Macao): The Greatest Show on Earth, which would win the Oscar for Best Picture, Sudden Fear, in which she was perfectly cast as Jack Palance’s treacherous girlfriend, and The Bad and the Beautiful, produced by her former studio of MGM. One of the great films about Hollywood, The Bad and the Beautiful was directed by Vincente Minnelli and stars Kirk Douglas as a movie producer who ruthlessly rises from making cheap B movies to reach the top of Hollywood, betraying three friends along the way: Lana Turner playing a movie star, Barry Sullivan as a director and Dick Powell as a screenwriter. Gloria Grahame plays Dick Powell’s wife, partly because producer Dore Schary (who was now at MGM) saw himself in the Powell character and thought that Grahame resembled Schary’s own wife. Whatever the reason she got the role, Grahame played it beautifully and wound up winning her first and only Oscar, as Best Supporting Actress.
Grahame was now at the peak of her stardom, but followed up The Bad and the Beautiful with two offbeat titles. In The Glass Wall (1953), an independently made production distributed by Columbia, she plays a deglamorized factory worker helping a Hungarian stowaway who has illegally entered the United States. (Ironically, Shelley Winters fought hard for this role, to no avail). In Man on a Tightrope (1953), directed by Elia Kazan for 20th Century Fox and shot in Germany, she plays the young floozy wife of a Czech circus owner (Fredric March) who is contemplating an escape from the Communist east to freedom in the west.
Next, back at Columbia, Grahame starred in one of her best and most famous films, the noir classic The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang. Sensationally violent and fast-moving, Grahame plays the moll girlfriend of criminal Lee Marvin, who, in one of the great moments in Hollywood movies, flings a pot of hot coffee into Grahame’s face, scarring her character brutally. The film also cemented Grahame’s persona as a strong-willed bad girl, sultry and seductive but also jaded, untrustworthy and dangerous. As biographer Robert Lentz put it: “She is the gorgeous dame who wants some of the action and isn’t above murder to get it; the mobster’s moll who just wants to be ensconced in mink; the bored woman too busy enjoying nightlife to pay any attention to her husband.
Now Grahame went to London to make one of her least-revived films, The Good Die Young (1954), opposite Laurence Harvey, Richard Basehart, Joan Collins and her old friend John Ireland. Grahame plays Ireland’s trampy wife, and the story concerns an elaborate robbery of, strangely enough, a post office; the source novel had it as a bank robbery, but British banks wouldn’t finance the film if it showed a bank being robbed.
Columbia then cast her in Human Desire (1954), reuniting her with her The Big Heat co-star Glenn Ford and director Fritz Lang in another noir, but this one didn’t come together as well. Ironically, her next film, the underrated Naked Alibi (1954), produced by Universal, actually did bear a strong and successful similarity to The Big Heat. It’s set in a border town with Grahame as a gangster’s moll who helps a decent cop played by Sterling Hayden. Grahame loved making this film so much that afterwards she sent a note to producer Ross Hunter saying it was one of her happiest experiences.
She would make six more feature films through the decade, before disappearing from the big screen for seven years. Three of those six are included in this tribute: The Cobweb (1955), a soapy drama from Vincente Minnelli set at a psychiatric clinic headed by Richard Widmark, Stanley Kramer’s Not as a Stranger (1955), a star-laden drama again set in the medical world and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), one of the last gasps of film noir from a major studio. Odds Against Tomorrow is about the planning of a bank robbery in New York’s Hudson river valley, by a group that includes a Black jazz musician (Harry Belafonte, who also produced) and a bigot (Robert Ryan). As Belafonte said of this film, “[Ryan] hates everybody, and the Negro is no stereotype of sweetness and light either. No brotherly love saves everyone here. Their hatred destroys them both.” Grahame has a small role. Martin Scorsese has written of this film: “Odds Against Tomorrow was made just as the old studio era was ending and different approaches and impulses in cinema were coming alive all over the world, and it’s comprised of so many distinctive elements that it feels unlike any other picture of its time.”
In 1960, Grahame married for a fourth time, to Anthony Ray, her former stepson. They kept it secret for two years, and when the news came out in 1962, Grahame was subject to such a scathing public outcry that she suffered a mental breakdown. As bizarre as the union was, it lasted 14 years—the longest of all her marriages—and produced two children. Her acting work came to a halt, aside from a few television appearances, until she resumed with stage work, and by the 1970s she was taking small roles in movies again for the big and small screen. Three of these late-career credits are included in this tribute: The Todd Killings (1971), Chandler (1971) and Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), which was written for the screen and directed by Joan Micklin Silver.