Noir Nook: Uncommon Ladies of Noir – Susan Hayward
Susan Hayward has long been one of my favorite actresses. When I was growing up, I thrilled with her performances in such films as Smash Up: The Story of a Woman (1947), for which she earned her first of five Oscar nominations; I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1951), where she starred as a ruthlessly ambitious fashion designer; and I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955), based on the life of singer Lillian Roth. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that she had quite a presence in the realm of film noir, with appearances in four features from the era: Among the Living (1941), Deadline at Dawn (1946), They Won’t Believe Me (1947), and House of Strangers (1949). This month’s Noir Nook shines the spotlight on this talented, versatile, and often-underrated actress.
Hayward was born Edythe Marrenner in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. At the age of seven, she was hit by a car, suffering a fractured hip. Although her doctors predicted that she would never walk again, the future star was able to get around on crutches after six months and a year later, she returned to school. The accident left her with one leg shorter than the other – she wore a lift in one shoe, contributing to the sexy, strutting walk that would become her trademark in years to come.
Edythe showed an early affinity for acting, performing in numerous plays at Girls Commercial High School, and started her career as a model for the Walter Thornton Agency. Shortly after she was featured in a spread in the Saturday Evening Post, she signed a test contract with Selznick Studios and became one of the countless young women who tried out of the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind(1939) The part, of course, ultimately went to Vivien Leigh, but Edythe was undaunted. She boarded a train to California and before long had engaged an agent, signed a six-month contract with Warner Bros., and changed her name to Susan Hayward.
Although she was dropped by Warner’s at the end of her contract, Hayward was snapped up by Paramount, where she appeared in a small but memorable role in Beau Geste (1939) and a couple of programmers before entering the shadowy world of noir.
Among the Living (1941)
Released near the start of the noir era, Among the Living stars Albert Dekker in a dual role as twins – John Raden is a millionaire and his brother, Paul, who was thought to have died in his childhood, is a criminally insane serial killer. Hayward plays Millie Perkins, whose father owns the boarding house where Paul rents a room. Unaware that Paul is a killer, Millie uses her flirtatious ways to solicit his help in securing the reward for finding the murderer – who everyone thinks is John.
Deadline at Dawn (1946)
In this feature, Bill Williams is Alex Winkley, a naïve sailor on a 24-hour leave who finds himself in hot water when he learns that a woman he encountered while drunk has turned up dead. Alex enlists cynical-but-good-hearted dance hall girl June Goth (Hayward) to help him track down the killer. (A bit of trivia – and who doesn’t love trivia? – Bill Williams later married actress Barbara Hale, of Perry Mason fame, and the couple had three children, one of which was William Katt, who would later star in the 1976 horror classic Carrie and on TV’s Greatest American Hero. You’re welcome. Back to Susan.)
They Won’t Believe Me (1947)
I was always fond of this noir-with-a-twist, but I liked it even more after seeing it with 20 minutes of restored footage as part of the 2021 TCM Virtual Film Festival. In this film, Hayward is Verna Carlson, one of three women involved with womanizing – and very married – stockbroker Larry Ballentine (Robert Young). Most of the film is presented in flashback, as we learn from Ballentine the circumstances that led to him being on trial for the murder of his wife.
House of Strangers (1950)
Richard Conte stars here as Max Monetti, whose bank owner father, Gino (Edward G. Robinson), and three brothers comprise the strangers of the film’s title. When Gino is arrested for his often illegal banking practices, Max is the only son to come to his father’s aid – but his methods land him in prison. As Max’s girlfriend, Hayward is devoted and passionate, but also strong-willed and independent – just what Max needs after a seven-year stint in the pokey.
Away from the big screen, Hayward was married for 10 years to actor Jess Barker; the couple had two children, but by all accounts, the union was a stormy one. Hayward fared far better with her second marriage, to Floyd Eaton Chalkley, an attorney and former FBI man from Carrollton, Georgia; they were together from 1957 to 1966, when Chalkley died of hepatitis. In 1973, Hayward’s son, Tim, revealed that she was suffering from several inoperable brain tumors and was only expected to live another six months. Like the strong-willed little girl who’d been told she would never walk, Hayward proved the doctors wrong; a year later, she appeared as a presenter at the 1974 Academy Awards, and she hung on nearly a year after that, finally succumbing on March 14, 1975, at the age of 56.
Hayward herself once summed up the determined, unyielding persona that propelled her to fame and saw her receive numerous accolades throughout her career, including the Academy Award for Best Actress for I Want to Live! In 1958: “I had to slug my way up in a town called Hollywood where people love to trample you to death. I don’t relax because I don’t know how. I don’t want to know how.
“Life is too short to relax.”
– 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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