Uncommon Ladies of Noir: Jeanne Crain
Sweet-faced Jeanne Crain was perhaps best-known for her performances in such fluffy, lighthearted romps as State Fair (1945), Margie (1946), and Cheaper By the Dozen (1950). But Crain also shared her talents with the dark side, with appearances in three features from the noir era: Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Vicki (1953), and The Tattered Dress (1957). This month’s Noir Nook takes a look at the actress and her contributions to the shadowy era of noir.
Born in 1925 in Barstow, California, Crain was the older of two girls born to educator and once-aspiring singer George Crain and his wife, Loretta. (Crain’s sister, Rita, would serve as Crain’s stand-in during her some of her 1940s films.) While an eighth grade student at St. Mary’s Academy, Crain was bitten by the acting bug after landing the role of a disfigured Indian maiden in a school play. “I was a quiet, introspective child,” Crain said years later. “I came out of my shell in school plays when I could be somebody else but Jeanne Crain.”
Crain appeared in numerous productions throughout high school and was screen-tested during her sophomore year for The Magnificent Ambersons after director Orson Welles spotted her in the RKO Studio commissary. She didn’t get the part (it went instead to Anne Baxter), but just a few years later, at the age of 17, Crain tested for 20 Century-Fox and was signed to a contract earning $100 a week. This time around, what really helped, Crain later said, “was that I had a great deal more determination.”
During the next several years, Crain earned favorable reviews in several films, was named as a “Star of Tomorrow” by Motion Picture Herald, and signed a new four-figure contact with Fox. She also entered the realm of film noir.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
One of my favorite noirs – and a rare color entry in the canon – Leave Her to Heaven stars Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent, a beautiful but psychologically damaged woman with a domineering, smothering persona that leads to the ruin of the objects of her affection. Crain plays Ellen’s adopted sister, Ruth, whose sweet, easy-going nature is a direct contrast to her sibling’s. As Ellen’s possessiveness and jealousy slowly erode her marriage to her new husband (Cornel Wilde), Ruth finds herself in the midst of a maelstrom of madness and murder.
Vicki, the remake of the 1941 Betty Grable noir I Wake Up Screaming, focuses on the murder of the title character (Jean Peters), a waitress-turned-famous model. The crime is doggedly investigated by a New York police detective (Richard Boone) who immediately zeroes in on the publicity man, Steve Christopher (Elliott Reid), who turned Vicki into a star. Crain plays Vicki’s sister, Jill, who is in love with Steve and works with him to find the real killer.
The Tattered Dress (1957)
Here, Crain portrays Diane, the estranged wife of James Cordon Blane (Jeff Chandler), a ruthless criminal attorney who, as he himself describes – with no shame – is “the mouthpiece for racketeers, dope peddlers, and panderers.” When he is hired to defend a wealthy resort town resident accused of murder, Blane goes up against the local sheriff (Jack Carson), who turns out to be even more unscrupulous than the attorney.
In 1945, Crain eloped with Paul Brinkman, a former actor (under the name of Paul Brook) who later found success as a businessman. The couple would go on to have seven children, the last one born on Crain’s 40th birthday. In later years, Crain started a clothing line called “Jeanne Crain of Hollywood,” and indulged her creativity with a variety of outlets including painting, sculpting, and cooking. Although her screen career spanned more than three decades, she once said, “You have to decide which is more important to you – an armful of babies or a scrapbook full of screen credits.”
– 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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