Noir Nook: The Luck of the Irish (and not so Irish)


The Luck of the Irish (and not so Irish)

The month of March is known for many things – the beginning of spring, the start of Daylight Savings Time…and St. Patrick’s Day! Where I’m from, in Chicago, we dye the local river green to acknowledge this foremost patron saint of Ireland – and with this same spirit of commemoration, this month’s Noir Nook is taking a look at 10 ladies of noir whose ente in show business was nothing but sheer luck! Read on…

Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger in They Live by NightCathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger in They Live by Night

Cathy O’Donnell (not Lana Turner, as legend has it) was sitting at the counter of Schwab’s Drug Store in Hollywood when she was discovered by agent Ben Medford. Medford took O’Donnell to see producer Sam Goldwyn, who offered her a contract without even viewing the screen test he gave her.

While a student at Southern Methodist University, Dorothy Malone was starring in a school play, Starbound, portraying a silver screen hopeful who was waiting for her big break. During the run of the play, Malone’s performance was seen by RKO talent scout Edward Rubin, who gave her a screen test in her mother’s living room, which led to her contract with the studio.

When Jan Sterling was 17, her mother enrolled her in an exclusive finishing school in Connecticut, but Sterling convinced her mom to let her go to New York, agreeing that she’d go to the finishing school if she wasn’t able to land an acting job within a month. Sterling wasn’t having much success when one day, while waiting for a friend outside the offices of the famed Schubert brothers, she ducked inside a producer’s reception room to get out of the rain. The producer emerged from his office, took one look at Sterling, and gave her a part in her first play.

Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford in Mildred PierceAnn Blyth and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

While Ann Blyth was eating lunch at the Professional Children’s School, she was spotted by Broadway director Herman Shumlin and playwright Lillian Hellman. They asked her to read for a part in their new production and she was cast as Paul Lukas’s daughter in Hellman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Watch on the Rhine. She was 13 years old.

As a drama and art student at UCLA, Jeanne Crain interviewed for a part in Max Reinhardt’s stage production of The Song of Bernadette and was glimpsed by Reinhardt’s wife, who gave her tickets to see another play, Two on an Island. When Crain attended that play, she caught the eye of three separate talent scouts, including Ivan Kahn of 20th Century Fox, who arranged for a screen test. A short time later, she signed a contract with the studio.

Not long after Rosemary DeCamp played on radio’s The Career of Alice Blair, the show’s star, Martha Scott left the airwaves for the starring role in Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941). Scott recommended her old pal DeCamp for a role in the film playing a Danish woman – DeCamp later said Scott “fought with the producer, director and everyone to give me the part.” Whatever Scott said obviously worked – DeCamp got the role.

Yvonne DeCarlo and Dan Duryea in Criss CrossYvonne DeCarlo and Dan Duryea in Criss Cross

Yvonne DeCarlo was working as a dancer at the Florentine Gardens in Hollywood, where her exotic good looks caught the attention of numerous celebrities, including Orson Welles, Franchot Tone, and bandleader Artie Shaw, who encouraged her to quit her job and seek a career in the movies. She followed his advice, signed on with an agent, and a short time later appeared in her first film, Harvard, Here I Come (1942). (It wasn’t exactly Shakespeare, but a break’s a break!)

After graduating from Northwestern University in 1945, Jean Hagen headed for New York, working on radio series and supplementing her income by ushering at the Booth Theatre. One night, she encountered playwright Ben Hecht, whose play, Swan Song, was playing at the Booth. Hecht asked Hagen what she thought of the production, and she frankly responded, “It stinks.” After briefly arguing the point, Hecht offered Hagen a part in the play!

Evelyn Keyes was living in the Hollywood Studio Club in L.A., unsuccessfully making the rounds at the local movie studios, when she met Jeanie MacPherson, a one-time silent film actress and screenwriter for director Cecil B. DeMille. MacPherson introduced Keyes to DeMille, who – after ordering Keyes to shed her southern accent – signed her to a seven-year contract.

Loretta Young in The AccusedLoretta Young in The Accused

Loretta Young and her older sister, Polly Ann, were both budding actresses, when Mervyn LeRoy, then-assistant director for First National Pictures, called their home to see if Polly Ann was available for a part in a Colleen Moore movie. Loretta answered the phone, told LeRoy that Polly Ann wasn’t available, but SHE was, and was promptly hired for the role.

And how’s YOUR luck this month???

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

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.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:


This entry was posted in Noir Nook, Posts by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Noir Nook: The Luck of the Irish (and not so Irish)

  1. I like hearing about those lucky breaks.

  2. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    And a Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you, too! My favorite of these stories was Loretta Young.

  3. Jodi says:

    I didn’t know Ann Blyth was discovered so young. She is definitely one I love to hate in “Mildred Pierce.” I’d call her Daughter Dearest, LOL.

    • I love to hate her in Mildred Pierce, too! I got a chance to see her in person a few years ago at the TCM film festival — she was so close I could have tapped her on the shoulder. Later on, I had the opportunity to ask her to autograph the magazine I’d taken to the festival for just such a chance, but I didn’t have the nerve! LOL

  4. Sara Stewart says:

    I love Yvonne DeCarlo and Loretta Young. Both were incredible actresses who mastered both drama and comedy genres.

    • I like them both, too, Sara — especially Yvonne DeCarlo. I actually love Loretta Young’s pre-Code work more than her noirs, but she definitely showed her versatility in both types of films, as well as in her other work!

  5. David Hollingsworth says:

    These are great stories about women in noir. I think Cathy O’Donnell was especially wonderful to watch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.