Noir Nook: Peggy Cummins – Her Path to Film Noir
As we begin another noir year, I thought this would be a perfect time to take a look at one of my favorite noir femmes, Peggy Cummins, and the path that she traveled to reach the realm of film noir.
A diminutive blonde with emerald-green eyes, the star of Gun Crazy (1950) was born Margaret Diane Augusta Cummins on December 18, 1925. Her parents lived in Killiney, just outside Dublin, Ireland, but baby Peggy was born in Prestatyn, North Wales; while visiting a relative toward the end of her pregnancy, Peggy’s mother was stranded by a storm that prohibited Channel crossings.
Peggy was drawn to acting from an early age; when she was seven, she started taking dance lessons, and in her first performance, she played a boy in The Duchess of Malfi at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. She was paid a box of chocolates for the role. This kicked off Peggy’s appearances in a variety of stage productions; at one point, she even appeared in two plays at the same time, changing her costumes in a taxi as she went from one theater to another. When she was 13, Peggy’s London debut in Let’s Pretend attracted the attention of Hollywood, and before long, she signed with Warner Bros. and was assigned to the British production, Dr. O’Dowd. On the day that filming completed, however, World War II was declared, and the contract was canceled by mutual agreement. Peggy honed her craft over the next several years, appearing in three British films, playing 1,000 performances in Junior Miss at the Saville Theatre in London, and portraying the title role in Alice in Wonderland in an eight-week run at the Palace Theatre. She was hailed by one enthusiastic critic as “the most enchanting performer of this decade,” and Hollywood came calling again.
Inking an agreement with Twentieth Century-Fox, Cummins arrived in America in 1945 and found herself in the midst of a feverish search for an actress to star in the studio’s production of Forever Amber, based on the popular Kathleen Winsor novel. By early 1946, Cummins had landed the role, joining a cast that included Cornel Wilde, Vincent Price, and Reginald Gardiner, with John Stahl in place as director. But just two months after filming began, Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck called a halt to the proceedings and, at a cost of $1 million, dismissed Cummins from the part and recast it with Linda Darnell. Other casualties were John Stahl, Vincent Price, and Reginald Gardiner, who were replaced with Otto Preminger, Richard Greene, and George Sanders. A year later, Zanuck told a Photoplay reporter: “We realized that Peggy could act the role, but could never look it. She was too young.” As for Cummins, while she reportedly “brokenhearted” over losing the role, her dismay was no doubt considerably lessened when the film received less than stellar reviews upon its release. “When I saw it,” Cummins said years later, “I just felt relieved.”
Meanwhile, Cummins was well-received in The Late George Apley (1947), in which she played the lead; she was praised for her “considerable vigor and authority.” This was followed by the noirish Moss Rose (1947); Green Grass of Wyoming (1948), a romance about rival families in the horse racing business, and Escape (1948), in which she starred opposite Rex Harrison. She was then cast in Gun Crazy (1950) – initially released as Deadly Is the Female – which is now considered to be one of the seminal examples of the noir canon.
In her role as Annie Laurie Starr, Peggy played a woman obsessed with securing the type of life that she dreamed of – by any means necessary – and her reluctant partner in crime was aptly portrayed by John Dall. Although there were a few reviewers who weren’t bowled over by the film, Cummins was almost universally applauded, with one critic noting her “commanding performance,” and another noting that she was “permitted to burn up the screen without apologies. She is the female – hence, deadly.”
Stay tuned for future posts on the journey to the big screen of noir’s femmes and hommes. And let me know if you have any special favorites that you’d like to see me cover!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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