Saturday, December 2, 2017

Lana Turner

Stardust: TCM's Star of the Month for December

By Ed Garea

My goal was to have one husband and seven children, but it turned out to be the other way around.”

She was one of the most glamorous film stars of all time, and the story of her discovery became the basis of a few Hollywood legends. Early in her career she was known as “the sweater girl,” a name she hated, according to her daughter. She was a better actress than she was given credit for being, though the studio rarely took advantage of those skills and cast her in turgid melodramas. Yet, over the length of her almost 50-year career, her life frequently intersected with her film roles. According to film historian Jeanine Basinger in her book The Star Machine (2008), Turner’s person became her persona: “She was cast only in roles that were symbolic of what the public knew – or thought they knew – of her life from headlines she made as a person, not as a movie character.” 

She was born Julia Jean Turner on February 8, 1921, in the small mining town of Wallace, Idaho, in the Idaho Panhandle region. She was the only child of miner John Turner and his wife, Mildred Francis (nee Cowan). Her father was 26 when Julia was born, her mother 16.  As a child, Julia Turner, known to family and friends as “Judy," expressed interest an early in performance, performing short routines at her father’s Elks Club in Wallace.

When she was six years old, hard times forced the family to move to San Francisco. Her parents separated soon afterward. In December 1930 her father won a tidy fortune in a craps game, stuffed his winnings in his left sock, and headed back home. He was later found murdered on the corner of Minnesota and Mariposa Streets, his left shoe and sock missing. The crime was never solved.     

In the mid-1930s, respiratory problems forced Turner’s mother to heed her doctor and find a drier climate. She and Julia moved to Los Angeles in 1936. Their stay in L.A. was marked by poverty and there were times when Julia had to stay with friends or acquaintances so her mother could save money for the family, money she earned by working 80-hour weeks as a beautician. After Turner was signed to a movie contract, her mother quit work to oversee her daughter’s career.    

Her discovery in Hollywood is considered to be a show-business legend, and has been recounted numerous times with only slight variations. The most famous version of has her having a soda at Schwab’s Pharmacy, where she was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout. 

However, Turner always maintained the truth was that, during her junior year at Hollywood High, she skipped a typing class and bought a Coke at the Top Hat Malt Shop, located on the southeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and McCadden Place. It was there that she was spotted by William R. Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. Taken with her beauty and physique, Wilkerson secured the permission of her mother to refer her to actor/comedian/talent agent Zeppo Marx. In December 1936, Marx introduced his client to director Mervyn LeRoy. LeRoy signed her to a $50 weekly contract with Warner Bros. on February 22, 1937. LeRoy changed Julia’s first name to Lana, a name she legally adopted several years later.     

Her first picture with Warner Bros. was James Whale’s comedy The Great Garrick (1937) in a supporting part. LeRoy then cast Turner in her second film, They Won’t Forget (1937), a crime drama in which she played a teenage murder victim. Though the part was minor, William Wilkerson wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that Turner's performance was "worthy of more than a passing note." Turner earned the nickname “The Sweater Girl” from her form-fitting attire in a scene in They Won't Forget. In late 1937, she signed a contract with MGM for $100 a week, and graduated from high school in between filming. The same year, she was loaned to United Artists for a minor role as a maid in The Adventures of Marco Polo.    

When LeRoy left Warner Bros. to work at MGM, he took his protege with him on the advice of Warner’s studio head Jack L. Warner, who told the director that she would never “amount to anything.” Her first starring role at MGM was scheduled to be an adaptation of The Sea Wolf, with Clark Gable, but the project was shelved. Instead, she was cast opposite Mickey Rooney in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938). Her role as the flirtatious Cynthia Potter was noticed by none other than Louis B. Mayer. 

Convinced that Turner could be the next Jean Harlow, Mayer began casting her in such youth-oriented films as Dramatic School (1938), These Glamour Girls (1939) and Dancing Co-Ed (1939). The studio also changer her hair from its natural auburn to blonde, the better for the public to make the connection with Harlow. 

Turner was all set to ply Ivy in MGM’s 1941 remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but Ingrid Bergman, who was cast as Jekyll’s bland fiancee, Beatrix Emery, used her star power to get the studio to switch the roles where Bergman would now play Ivy. If she was disappointed, it wasn’t for long, for she became a popular pin-up girl during the war, though she wasn’t given a role that would test her.

It wasn’t until after the war that Turner landed a juicy role. That came by playing Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1946. She never looked so beautiful, and it was easy to see why co-star John Garfield’s character became instantly smitten by her. Few played the role of a femme fatale with such ease and eroticism. The film was a hit with both the public and critics. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times noted that it was the best role of her career, noting she was “remarkably effective as the cheap and uncertain blonde who has a pathetic ambition to ‘be somebody’ and a pitiful notion that she can realize it through crime.”     

In a 1946 newspaper interview Turner spoke about her lack of meaningful roles: “I finally got tired of making movies where all I did was walk across the screen and look pretty. I got a big chance to do some real acting in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I'm not going to slip back if I can help it. I tried to persuade the studio to give me something different. But every time I went into my argument about how bad a picture was, they'd say, ‘Well, it's making a fortune.’ That licked me.”

In a sense, her lot improved after The Postman Always Rings Twice, but not really for the better. Instead of taking advantage of her newly found status as a major sex symbol, the studio decided to place her in such bland fare as Green Dolphin StreetCass Timberlane (both 1947), HomecomingThe Three Musketeers (both 1948), A Life of Her Own (1950), and The Merry Widow (1952). She managed to break the trend with an admirable performance as Gloria in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), but then it was right back to uninspiring roles in such humdrum as Latin Lovers (1953), Flame and the Flesh (1954), and The Prodigal (1955).

Moving over to 20th Century Fox it seemed as if she was still stuck in a rut with her first film, The Rains of Ranchipur (1956). But then her career received a much needed boost when she was cast in Peyton Place (1957). Her turn as Constance MacKensie, a small town mother with a secret to hide, namely the fact that her daughter is illegitimate, earned Lana her first Oscar nomination as Best Actress. 

And then her private life made her movie roles seem tame by comparison. In the spring of 1957 Turner made the acquaintance of Johnny Stompanato, a bodyguard and enforcer for L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen. After she discovered his line of work she tried to break off the affair for fear of bad publicity. But Stompanato was not easily dissuaded and over the course of the following year they carried on a relationship marked by violent arguments, physical abuse, and repeated reconciliations. 

On the evening of April 4, 1958, Turner and Stompanato were engaged in a loud argument in Turner’s bedroom. Daughter Cheryl later testified that she was in her room when she heard Stompanato threatening to harm her mother. She ran down to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and heard towards her mother’s bedroom. Banging on the door, she heard Stompanato again threaten her mother. Lana was crying and wailing, begging him to leave. Suddenly the door flew open and Cheryl saw Stompanato behind her mother with his hands raised like he was about to hit her. Cheryl stepped forward with the knife in her hand, and Stompanato moved right into it as she stabbed him in the abdomen. As he pulled backward off the knife he fell to the ground. 14-year-old Cheryl dropped the knife and ran into her bedroom, where she curled up into a ball and cried. Lana wasn’t sure what had just happened. Seeing that John’s sweater was cut, she lifted it up and was shocked when blood started gushing out.          

An inquest declared that the crime had been justifiable homicide, and the DA decided not to prosecute Cheryl for murder. Lana was now in massive debt; Cheryl’s legal bills averaged about $1,000 a day during the entire ordeal. In addition she still owed money to MGM. After the media circus that accompanied the inquest and branded her as the mother of a murderess, Turner wondered if anyone would want to cast her again. 

But Ross Hunter, producer of lavish melodramas at Universal, did. He approached Turner about starring in Douglas Sirk’s remake of Imitation of Life, a 1934 film about two single moms, one white and one black, and their respective struggles with their teenage daughters. 

Hunter was honest with Lana about his interest in the ways in which the material would take advantage of what the public knew about Lana’s real life. To exaggerate them in the remake, he had Lana’s character written as an actress whose career causes her to neglect her daughter – until her daughter becomes involved with the mother’s boyfriend. While Lana took the job for only $2,500 a week, she also negotiated a deal that would net her 50% of the film’s profits. The film was an unqualified hit, in large part due to the curiosity about Turner. Released in 1959, Turner earned $11 million during its first year of release.

She followed it up the next year (1960) by making another box-office hit, Portrait in Black, with Anthony Quinn and Lloyd Nolan. A string of undistinguished box-office flops followed until she returned to Ross Hunter and Universal for a remake of the sturdy soaper Madame X in 1966. It was her last major starring role on the silver screen. Turner spent most of the late ‘60s, 1970s and early 1980s in semiretirement, working occasionally. In 1982, she accepted a much publicized (and lucrative) recurring guest role in the television series Falcon Crest. Her participation gave the series the highest rating it ever achieved. Turner made her final film appearance in Witches’ Brew (1980) and her final television appearance in The Love Boat (1985).     

Awards were few. On October 25, 1981, the National Film Society presented Turner with an Artistry in Cinema Award. In 1994 at the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain, she received the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award.          

In 1982, Turner released an autobiography entitled Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth. In the book Turner admitted that she had two abortions (in one case the child was Tyrone Power’s) and suffered three stillbirths. She also confessed to attempting suicide in 1951 by slitting her wrists following the collapse of her fourth marriage to Bob Topping. It was only through the intervention of her business manager, Benton Cole, who broke down her bathroom door and was able to call emergency medical services, saving Turner's life. In addition, she revealed that she was an alcoholic and for much of the 1970s she was drinking heavily, not eating, and missing performances, though she states that she was never drunk. She decided to stop drinking, crediting herbalism with helping her to overcome her alcoholism and her decision to eat only organic food. In 1980, she experienced a "religious awakening" and became a devout Roman Catholic. For most of her life she was a lapsed Catholic. As a young girl she attended the Convent of the Immaculate Conception in San Francisco, hoping to become a nun when she grew up.

Turner was married eight times to seven different husbands: bandleader Artie Shaw, actor and restaurateur Steve Crane (twice), millionaire socialite Henry J. “Bob” Topping, actor Lex Barker, rancher Frederick May, a member of the May department store family, producer Robert P. Eaton, and nightclub hypnotist Ronald Pellar, aka Ronald Dante or Dr. Dante. Her first marriage took place in 1940 and her last marriage ended in 1972. In between marriages she was romantically involved with John Garfield (an on-set romance), Howard Hughes and Tyrone Power.           

Her only child was daughter Cheryl, born during her marriage to Crane. In her memoir Cheryl Crane states that during her mother’s marriage to Lex Barker, Barker molested and raped her. When she informed her mother about what had happened, Turner forced Barker out of the home at gunpoint and immediately filed for divorce. A heavy smoker throughout most of her life, Turner was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1992. At Cheryl’s urging she underwent radiation treatment and in February 1993 announced that she was in remission. But the cancer returned in July 1994, and during her final public appearance in Spain at San Sebastian International Film Festival she was bound in a wheelchair for much of the proceedings. Turner died nine months later at the age of 74 on June 29, 1995, of complications from the cancer at her home. Her remains were cremated and scattered in Oahu, Hawaii.

She was survived by daughter Cheryl Crane and Crane’s life partner Joyce LeRoy, whom she said she accepted "as a second daughter.” They inherited some of Turner's personal effects and $50,000 in Turner's will. The majority of the $1.7 million estate was left to Carmen Lopez Cruz, her maid and companion for 45 years and her caregiver during her final illness. Cheryl challenged the will with Lopez claiming that the majority of the estate was consumed by probate costs, legal fees, and medical expenses.      

TCM is showing 44 of Turner’s films on December 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27. Of these films the following are our recommendations.  

December 5

8:00 pm – THEY WON’T FORGET (WB, 1937): Claude Rains, Gloria Dickson & Lana Turner. A southern town is rocked by scandal when a teenager is murdered on Confederate Decoration Day. Turner’s first film.

10:00 pm – LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY (MGM, 1938): Mickey Rooney, Ann Rutherford, Lewis Stone, Lana Turner, & Judy Garland. Young Andy tries to juggle two girlfriends. Turner is quite good as Cynthia Potter, who Andy promised to mind while her boyfriend Beezy Anderson was away.

11:45 pm – DANCING CO-ED (MGM, 1939): Lana Turner, Richard Carlson. College girl Lana its caught up in a rigged dance contest. Richard Carlson helps her uncover the truth.

1:15 am – THESE GLAMOUR GIRLS (MGM, 1939): Lew Ayres, Lana Turner & Ann Rutherford. Drunken college student Ayres invites taxi dancer Turner to spend the weekend at his snobbish school, then forgets he asked her. When she shows up he tries to get rid of her, but she stays and shows up both him and his classmates’ snooty dates.

2:45 am – ZIEGFELD GIRL (MGM, 1941): Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr & Lana Turner Three young ladies discovered by Ziegfeld find their lives changed when they come to Broadway.

5:15 am – HONKY TONK (MGM, 1941): Clark Gable, Lana Turner. Turner is a young girl who falls in love with crooked gambler Gable. Chill Wills is Gable’s sidekick and Albert Dekker as the heel. 

December 6

10:15 am – THE GREAT GARRICK (WB, 1937): Brian Aherne, Olivia de Havilland. French actors set out to deflate the ego of legendary stage star David Garrick in director James Whale’s comedy. Turner has a small role as Auber.

1:45 pm – CALLING DR. KILDARE (MGM, 1939): Lew Ayres, Lionel Barrymore, & Laraine Day. Assigned to a street clinic by Dr. Gillespie, Kildare treats a suspected murderer he believes is innocent. When the cops collar him for it, he has to try and prove his patient's innocence, especially for his sister Rosalie’s (Turner) sake.

December 12

8:00 pm – THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (MGM, 1946): John Garfield, Lana Turner. A drifter and a married woman fall in love and kill her husband, unleashing consequences they had not foreseen.

12:30 am – JOHNNY EAGER (WB, 1942): Robert Taylor, Lana Turner. A suave gangster Taylor seduces D.A.’s daughter Turner for purposes of revenge, but unexpectedly falls in love with her. 

December 13

7:00 am – WE WHO ARE YOUNG (MGM, 1940): Lana Turner, John Shelton. Office workers Shelton and Turner violate strict company policy by getting married. 

3:15 pm – SLIGHTLY DANGEROUS (MGM, 1943): Lana Turner, Robert Young. Small-town girl Peggy Evans (Turner) is bored with her lot in life. She leaves a note, which is taken as suicidal, and heads for New York, where she gets a make over. A new outfit, a new look and an freak accident gets her in the paper as an amnesia victim. Because she does not want to be Peggy Evans anymore she searches the paper and decides to be missing heiress Carol Burden. But Carol’s father has already jailed other claiming to be his daughter. Can she trick him and keep her old manager (Young) from spilling the beans?

December 19

8:00 pm – PEYTON PLACE (Fox, 1957): Lloyd Nolan, Lana Turner. Mark Robson directed this glossy filmed version of the bestselling novel about the scandals behind the closed doors of a small New England town.

11:00 pm – IMITATION OF LIFE (Universal, 1959): Lana Turner, John Gavin. Turner dominates this remake of the 1934 soaper as aspiring actress Lora Meredith. She meets homeless black woman Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), and soon they share a tiny apartment. Each woman has an intolerable daughter, Annie's daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), is neurotic and obnoxious. She doesn't like being black; since she's light-skinned (her father was practically white), she spends the rest of the film passing as white, much to her mother's heartache and shame. Lora, meanwhile, virtually ignores her own daughter in her quest for stardom.

1:15 am – THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (MGM, 1952): Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner & Dick Powell. The rise and fall of tough, ambitious Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas), as seen through the eyes of people he took advantage of on his rise to the top, including a writer James Lee Bartlow (Powell), a star Georgia Lorrison (Turner) and a director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan).

December 20

9:30 am – WEEKEND AT THE WALDORF (MGM, 1945): Ginger Rogers, Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, & Robert Benchley. The misadventures of a group of diverse guests at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan in a glossy remake of Grand Hotel.

11:45 am – CASS TIMBERLANE (MGM, 1947): Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner. Aging judge Tracy creates a scandal when he marries Turner, a woman from the wrong side of the tracks.

December 26

8:00 pm – MADAME X (Universal, 1966): Lana Turner, John Forsythe. A fallen woman on trial for murder is defended by the son she abandoned years earlier.

10:00 pm – PORTRAIT IN BLACK (Universal, 1960): Lana Turner, Anthony Quinn. A woman and her lover kill her husband and are blackmailed by someone who knows of their crime.

4:15 am – THE BIG CUBE (WB, 1969): Lana Turner, George Chakiris. Easily Turner’s worst film. She plays a retired star who lands in an asylum after her medicine is spiked with LSD by her stepdaughter (Karin Mossberg), whose boyfriend (George Chakiris) is only after her late father’s fortune.

December 27

7:30 am – THE SEA CHASE (WB, 1955): John Wayne, Lana Turner. A German freighter captain tries to elude British warships in the early days of World War Two. Turner is Elsa Keller, a Mata Hari type.

9:45 am – THE PRODIGAL (MGM, 1955): Lana Turner, Edward Purdom. Biblical story of a wealthy young man (Purdom) led astray by evil pagan princess Turner.

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