Classic Movie Travels: Joan McCracken
While the name Joan McCracken may not be familiar to many these days, in her heyday, she was a renowned actor, dancer, and comedian, notable for originating the role of Sylvie in Oklahoma!, taking on the nickname of “The Girl Who Falls Down” for her pratfalls in the show. An instant success and trendsetter in comedy and dance, her career and life were tragically cut short due to diabetes.
Joan Hume McCracken was born on December 31, 1917, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to sports reporter Franklin T. McCracken and Mary McCracken. Her father wrote for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, focusing on golf and boxing coverage.
A promising acrobat, McCracken was awarded a scholarship for her talents and studied dance under ballerina, choreographer, and artistic director Catherine Littlefield. McCracken would attend high school at West Philadelphia High School, though would drop out during her 10th-grade year to study dance under choreographer George Balanchine at the opening of the School of American Ballet in 1934.
In the following year, she returned to Philadelphia to join the Littlefield Ballet, which would become the Philadelphia Ballet. She secured a role as a principal soloist and garnered praise when the company embarked on a European tour. Despite the challenges of being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, McCracken proceeded with the tour and did not adhere to her treatment regimen. Extremely private and fearing that she would lose opportunities for employment, she kept her diabetes a secret. Unfortunately, the decision to continue working made her susceptible to fainting during shows and opened the door to future medical complications.
In 1940, McCracken married dancer Jack Dunphy and the couple moved to New York, where they both found work. She danced as part of Radio City Musical’s ballet, Jacob’s Pillow (a ballet company in Massachusetts), and Eugene Loring’s Dance Players. McCracken and Dunphy later auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Away We Go, securing anonymous dance roles in the show. As work on the show progressed, the name of the musical was changed to Oklahoma!, in which McCracken was crafting a more noticeable personality for her given role of Sylvie. Due to the pratfalls, her character made in the “Many a New Day” dance sequence, McCracken was dubbed “The Girl Who Falls Down.”
McCracken’s work in Oklahoma! led to her signing a contract with Warner Brothers, appearing in Hollywood Canteen (1944). Though initially excited to be working in films, she felt that Hollywood Canteen was patronizing and did not reflect well upon her husband and brother who were serving in the military. She also felt a lack of guidance in terms of choreography from choreographer LeRoy Prinz. As a result, she broke her contract and returned to Broadway to appear in Bloomer Girl, considered to be the first Broadway musical about feminism. In addition to receiving praise for her dancing in the show, she also cultivated a comic persona.
Following the success of Bloomer Girl, she starred in Billion Dollar Baby on Broadway in 1945 to positive reviews of her performance but lukewarm comments about the show. Returning to films, McCracken was hired by MGM to appear in Good News (1947) as Babe Doolittle. Though her dance numbers were enthusiastic, MGM did not renew her contract, with executives feeling she lacked “close-up appeal” and performed more in the style of a Broadway actor versus the understated style of a film actor. Additionally, her vocal range was limited, therefore preventing her from attaining many starring musical roles.
Wishing to advance as a dramatic actress, she began to study acting with Group Theatre alumnus Bobby Lewis, who would co-found the Actors Studio with Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford. The school was by invitation only, with McCracken securing a place as one of the Studio’s charter members. Her dramatic role in Galileo opened the door to many more serious and non-dancing roles. McCracken also appeared on television in the role of Essie in You Can’t Take it With You (1950).
McCracken and Dunphy divorced in 1951, with Dunphy going on to be Truman Capote’s partner until Capote’s passing. In relation to Capote and his work, McCracken was actually one of the real-life counterparts of Holly Golightly in his novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Golightly’s reaction to the death of her brother in the Army overseas mirrors McCracken’s violent reaction to the death of her brother. Additionally, Golightly is depicted singing songs from Oklahoma! while playing the guitar.
In the meantime, McCracken met choreographer and dancer Bob Fosse while working in Dance Me a Song in a starring role. They were married from 1952 to 1959, with McCracken working to advance his career and support his work. Her influence with producer George Abbott led to Fosse’s first major role as choreographer for The Pajama Game. As her health worsened, Fosse left McCracken for Gwen Verdon.
McCracken would go on to succeed Jean Arthur in a touring company production of Peter Pan as well as appear on the sitcom Claudia: The Story of a Marriage. She also appeared on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet.
McCracken’s decline in health hindered her career, as her dance abilities were impacted. She suffered from a heart attack in 1955 in addition to various health problems and extended hospital stays. Complications from diabetes made it difficult for her to work. Her last stage appearance was in the off-Broadway production of The Infernal Machine in 1958.
McCracken’s final relationship was with actor Marc Adams. She spent her final years at a beach house in The Pines on Fire Island, New York, dying in her sleep from a heart attack on November 1, 1961. She was cremated and her ashes were given to her mother, though they were later lost.
Today, there are some tributes to McCracken. The Girl Who Fell Down: A Biography of Joan McCracken by Lisa Jo Sagolla offers an intimate portrait of McCracken and her life.
While McCracken herself does not appear in this clip, her Sylvie character is spotted as the dancer who falls down in this sequence from Oklahoma!
In 1920, McCracken and her parents, as well as her maternal grandmother, resided at 920 Farragut Terrace in Philadelphia. The family also took in a boarder who was a fellow newspaper reporter. This is what it looks like today:
By 1930, the family relocated to 616 S. 54th St in Philadelphia, along with the addition of McCracken’s little brother, Frank. This is the home today:
Though few recordings of McCracken exist, we are lucky to have some of her performances captured in films.
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.
Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.