Noir Nook: Uncommon Ladies of Noir – Loretta Young
Some film fans remember Loretta Young from her popular television show, where she’d sweep into the frame each week with an elegant flourish of her floor-length gown. Others think of her in her Oscar-winning title role of The Farmer’s Daughter (1947). Still, others know her best from her pre-Code features.
As for me, I like to shine the spotlight on Loretta Young’s film noir features, which are seldom discussed but worthy of note. This month’s Noir Nook takes a look at this veteran actress and her contribution to the noir era.
Gretchen Michaela Young was born in Salt Lake City in 1913, the third of four children born to John, a railroad auditor, and Gladys Young. (Her two sisters – Polly Ann and Elizabeth Jane – better known as Sally Blane – would also become actresses.) When Gretchen was three years old, her parents separated and the family moved to Los Angeles. Following her divorce, Gladys Young married a Los Angeles businessman and had a third actress-daughter, Georgiana, who would later wed actor Ricardo Montalban.
When Gretchen wasn’t yet five, she was paid $3.50 a day to play a child crying on an operating table in The Only Way (1917), and she and her sisters played extras in a variety of films, including Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik (1921), where they played a group of Arab children. She got her big break by accident, several years later, when Mervyn LeRoy, then an assistant director with First National Pictures, called the Young house in an effort to get Polly Ann for a part in a Colleen Moore picture. Polly Ann was already working on a film, and when Gretchen answered the call, she told LeRoy, “I’m an actress, too, and I’m available.” Gretchen wound up getting the part – and a new name. Colleen Moore, deciding that Young’s given name sounded “too dutchy,” insisted on renaming her after “the most beautiful doll I ever had.” And so, Loretta Young was born – and 20 years later, she starred in her first film noir.
The Stranger (1946)
Young dipped her toe in the film noir water with this feature, where she starred as Mary Longstreet, the daughter of a Supreme Court judge who marries a college professor, Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). Turns out, though, that Kindler is a Nazi war criminal, a fact that is first brought to Mary’s awareness by Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), a member of the Allied War Crimes Commission. Unsurprisingly, Mary is initially reluctant to believe Wilson’s claim: “He’s not one of those people!” she insists. But it doesn’t take long for Mary to see the light, and she ultimately winds up single-handedly bringing on her husband’s downfall. Literally.
She said: “Kill me, I want you to. . . but when you kill me, don’t put your hands on me!”
The Accused (1948)
Of Young’s three film noir features, The Accused is my favorite – Young plays Wilma Tuttle, a repressed, tightly wound college professor whose carefully crafted façade is pierced by Bill Perry (Douglas Dick), a handsome young student who gets his kicks from making inappropriate remarks. Bill pays for his behavior when he takes things too far and Wilma kills him. It’s an accident, but he’s no less dead, and in a panic, Wilma covers up her role in his death by making it look like an accident. The rest of the film focuses on Wilma’s efforts to quell her terror at being found out – which is heightened by her growing relationship with the attorney who was Bill’s guardian.
He said: “You little firecracker – don’t pretend you don’t like it.”
Young’s final foray into the land of noir has another “panic-stricken woman in peril” theme. Here, she’s a housewife, Ellen Jones, whose husband George (Barry Sullivan) is insanely jealous. While George is bedridden, recuperating from a heart ailment, he spends his idle hours imagining that Ellen is having an affair with his doctor and that the two are plotting his murder. George is so successful at convincing himself of this scenario that he puts his suspicions in a letter to the district attorney, which he gives to his wife to mail. He then reveals the letter’s contents to Ellen and promptly drops dead of a heart attack – and Ellen spends the rest of the film feverishly trying to retrieve the damning letter.
She said: “I did everything wrong. They’ll all think I’m guilty.”
If you’ve never seen Loretta Young in film noir, you’re in for a treat. Track these down and see what I mean!
– 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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