Stardust: TCM’s January Star of the Month
By The Editors
TCM’s Star of the Month for January is Jane Wyman. Many people who still remember her today know her for being married to Ronald Reagan or for her long run on the TV soap Falcon Crest. Yet, she was a great actress who won the Oscar for her starring role in Johnny Belinda (1948) and also won three Golden Globes over her long career.
She was born Sarah Jane Mayfield on January 5, 1917, in St. Joseph, Missouri. Her father was a laborer for a meal company and her mother a stenographer and office assistant. Her mother filed for divorce in October 1921 and her father died unexpectedly the following year at age 27. After her father passed away, her mother moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and left young Sarah with foster parents, Emma and Richard D. Fulks. (Richard was the chief of detectives in Saint Joseph.) She adopted their surname, using it for her school records and her first marriage certificate. She attended Lafayette High School in St. Joseph, dropping out in 1932 at the age of 15.
She moved to Hollywood that year, supporting herself as a manicurist and switchboard operator before landing small uncredited parts in films. She was a “Goldwyn Girl” in The Kid from Spain (1932), a gold digger in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), a socialite in My Man Godfrey (1936), and a chorus girl in Cain and Mabel (1936). After taking the surname of her first husband and changing her name to Jane Wyman, she signed with Warner Bros. in 1936 as a contract player. Her first credited role came as Dixie the hat check girl in Smart Blonde (1937).
After years as a supporting player, she won notice for her role in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945). She received an Oscar nomination for The Yearling (1946), and as noted above, won the Best Actress statuette for Johnny Belinda (1948). Other notable films included Stage Fright (1950), The Glass Menagerie (1950), The Story of Will Rogers (1952), So Big (1953), Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Lucy Gallant (1955). Her last film was How To Commit Marriage (1969).
She also did quite a lot of television, beginning in the ‘50s. Her first guest-starring role was on General Electric Theater (1955), ironically, hosted by ex-husband Ronald Reagan. In 1957, she hosted the anthology series, Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theater. Later she hosted The Bell Telephone Hour and Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater. She went into semi-retirement in the ‘70s, appearing on only a few shows. In spring 1981, Wyman was cast as the scheming vintner and matriarch Angela Channing in The Vintage Years, which was reconfigured as the primetime soap opera, Falcon Crest (1981-1990).
Angela Channing revitalized Wyman’s career. She was nominated for a Soap Opera Digest Award five times (Outstanding Actress in a Leading Role and for Outstanding Villainess: Prime Time Serial), and was also nominated for a Golden Globe award in 1983 and 1984, winning in 1984 for (Best Performance By an Actress in a TV Series). Over the years, health problems cut back her appearances, and in the ninth and final season, she was written out of the series as comatose in a hospital bed following an attempted murder.
After Falcon Crest, Wyman only had one more screen appearance as Jane Seymour’s mother in an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993). She then retired totally from acting, having appeared in 83 movies and nominated four times for an Academy Award (The Yearling, Johnny Belinda, The Blue Veil, and Magnificent Obsession). She won the Golden Globe for Johnny Belinda and The Blue Veil. She was also nominated twice for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre (1957 and 1959).
She was married five times: to Ernest Eugene Wyman (April 8, 1933, to sometime in 1935), New Orleans dress manufacturer Arthur Futterman (June 29, 1937, to December 5, 1938), Ronald Reagan (January 26, 1940, to June 28, 1948), and twice to Hollywood music director and composer Frederick M. Karger (November 1, 1952, to December 7, 1954, and March 11, 1961, to March 9, 1965).
She died in her sleep from natural causes at her Rancho Mirage home on September 10, 2007. Because she was a lay tertiary (associate) of the Dominican Order, she was allowed to be buried in a nun's habit.
January 5: Let’s begin at 8 pm with Public Wedding (1937). It was her first starring role and, as such, is an Essential. William Hopper, future psychotronic star who won fame for his role as investigator Paul Drake on the popular Perry Mason show from the ‘50s and ‘60s, was the son of powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
At 10: 30 pm, it’s Brother Rat (1938), a harmless comedy about a VMI cadet (Eddie Albert) whose secret marriage to girlfriend Kate Rice (Jane Bryan) is about to become public with the news that she is pregnant. Priscilla Lane and Wayne Morris are the stars, but this is more of an ensemble piece. Wyman has a supporting role as Claire Adams, a friend of Lane who is set up on a blind date with Dan Crawford (Ronald Reagan). Things proceed from there. This is the movie where Jane met Ronnie and off-set sparks began to fly.
January 12: A bumper night of Wyman, beginning at 8 pm with her Oscar-winning turn in Johnny Belinda (1948). As the deaf-mute farm girl Belinda, Wyman gives one of the most sensitive performances on film. This was the first time in the Sound Era that an actress won the Oscar for playing a character who doesn’t speak. Co-star Lew Ayres, as Dr. Robert Richardson, teaches Belinda sign language and lip reading, and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.
At 10 pm, it Wyman in her Oscar-nominated role in The Yearling (1946) as Orry Baxter, mother of Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), whose pet deer threatens the family farm. Co-star Gregory Pack, as the family’s father, Penny, received a nomination for Best Actor.
Following at 12:15 am is Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), a groundbreaking film that deals with the problem of alcoholism. Ray Milland is struggling writer Don Birnam, a talented man who takes solace for his lack of self-confidence by crawling into the bottle. Wyman is his girlfriend, Helen McBride, who loves him and wants to save him from himself. Newcomer Lillian Fontaine, who plays Helen’s mother, was herself the real life mother of sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
As evening becomes early morning, Wyman stars in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950 Stage Fright as Eve Gill, an aspiring actress who goes undercover as a maid in order to flush out who committed the murder that Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) is wanted for by the police, as she believes him innocent. The movie is overlooked by many film buffs as a misfire, but I believe it’s one of Hitchcock’s most underrated movies. Part of its reputation may come from the fact that Wyman never really connected with Hitchcock, who admittedly cast her with box office on his mind, as she had recently won the Best Actress award. Years later, Hitchcock revealed to Francois Truffaut, in his book Hitchcock, that he had “great difficulties” with Wyman stemming from her disguise as a lady’s maid. In this disguise, she was supposed to look unattractive, but each time Wyman saw the rushes she burst into tears over how unglamorous she looked on film, while co-star Marlene Dietrich was the epitome of glam. In response, Wyman kept improving her makeup every day until she rivaled Dietrich, and for Hitchcock, that caused her to lose the character. Stage Fright was the last movie Hitchcock filmed in England until 1971, when he made Frenzy.
January 26: Two of Wyman’s most iconic films are showing back to back, beginning at 8 pm with Douglas Sirk’s slick soaper, Magnificent Obsession (1954). A remake of Universal’s 1935 hit with Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor (directed by John M. Stahl), Rock Hudson takes over Taylor’s role as spoiled playboy Bob Merrick, whose irresponsibility behind the wheel of his speedboat leads to a crash and a diversion of life-saving equipment that could have saved the life of heart attack victim Dr. Wayne Phillips, a man who has done much good in the community. At first churlish, Bob falls in love with Wayne’s widow, Helen (Wyman). He attempts to give her a check, but she turns it down. After another accident, this time in a car, Bob is led to the home of Wayne’s friend, artist Edward Randolph. There he learns Wayne’s philosophy of life from Ed – that people can access their source of power, and thus live out their true destinies, only by performing works of great generosity in private and without compensation. So Bob, under the influence of this “Magnificent Obsession,” begins to do just that. When he bumps into Helen, he announces his plan, but she runs away – and straight into the path of an oncoming car. A resulting blood clot leaves her blind. As she copes, he secretly supports her and goes to medical school, eventually becoming a neurosurgeon, helping his patients both in and out of the hospital. When he learns that Helen is in a coma he operates to remove the old blood clot, saving her life and restoring her eyesight. He also learns she’s in love with him and we have a happy ending. Unlike Stahl, who treats his material in a straightforward manner, Sirk directs with a wink and a nod, making the film into more of a morality play. Today, it’s considered an example of high camp. And, as the original made a star out of Robert Taylor, the remake made a star out of Rock Hudson.
Then, at 10 pm, it’s another Sirk soaper, All That Heaven Allows (1955), again with Rock and Jane in the leads. This time, Wyman is a lonely widow who falls for her younger, hunky gardner, played by Rock. Set in a conservative New England town, their relationship is something of a scandal and Wyman must choose between the hunk and social acceptance. For years the film was dismissed as a woman’s weeper, but the resurgence of interest in Sirk caused cinephiles to take another look, and it is now seen as a beautifully stylized film with a sharp social critique. See it for yourself and decide on whether or not you agree.
Two films made before Wyman became an acknowledges star merit our attention.
January 6: At 7:00 am, it’s a lively little B, Private Detective (1939), with Dick Foran as a homicide detective who must reluctantly team with private eye Jane Wyman to solve the murder of a millionaire. Foran finds himself constantly upstaged by the wise-cracking Wyman is what is really a retooling of the Torchy Blaine series, However, the snappy dialogue and fast pacing make for enjoyable viewing.
January 19: At midnight comes one of the most enjoyable comedies from Warner Bros., Larceny, Inc. (1942) Edward G. Robinson is marvelous as J. Chalmers “Pressure” Maxwell, a recently released convict who finds he needs $25,000 to go into business. As the bank won’t lend him the necessary capital, Maxwell, decides on a scheme to break into the bank’s vault. He buys the failing luggage store next to the bank and plans to tunnel into the bank from his basement. Robinson has everything going for him: business is terrible and the street outside has been under construction seemingly forever. However, everything goes wrong, as customers begin pouring in and his fellow merchants elect him as their spokesman. His half-hearted plea to the city on their behalf to fix the street unexpectedly gets action. It seems that no matter what he does he succeeds. Wyman is his adopted daughter, Denny Costello, who falls for charming luggage salesman Jack Carson. Broderick Crawford and Edward Brophy shine as Robinson’s underlings, and Anthony Quinn is Leo, the guy with the original plan to break into the bank, which was turned down by Robinson. When he learns what Eddie G. and his cohorts are up to, he breaks out of jail to collect his cut. Director Lloyd Bacon does an admirable job of keeping everything in play and he is helped with a sharp script from Everett Freeman and Edwin Gilbert. The whole thing was based on the Broadway farce, The Night Before Christmas by S.J. and Laura Perelman.