Lana Turner - Tuesdays in December
The ever-glamorous Lana Turner was chosen over Virginia Mayo as December's Star of the Month by members of the TCM Backlot, the ultimate classic-film fan club, with benefits that include the ability to influence programming. Although there's no family connection, of course, this month's selection gives new meaning to the term "Turner classic movies"!
Turner was one of the great Hollywood glamour queens - a platinum-blonde beauty with a slightly imperious air and knack for melodrama that allowed her to maintain a career in films and television for almost 50 years. Turner survived seven marriages, numerous love affairs, a major scandal and a number of routine movies. When well-cast and well-directed--as in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Peyton Place (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959)--she held the screen with the authority of a true star.
In 1951, the Academy of Contemporary Arts named Turner "the most glamorous woman in the history of international art." Always candid about the role that romantic allure had played in her career, she once remarked that "Forsaking glamour is like forsaking my identity. It's an image I've worked too hard to attain and preserve."
She was born Julia Jean Turner in the mining town of Wallace, Idaho in 1921. Her family relocated to California when she was six years old, and her father was murdered on the streets of San Francisco when she was nine. She was discovered while still a junior at Hollywood High School in a manner that has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. The most celebrated version of the story had her sitting on a stool at Schwab's Pharmacy and being spotted by a talent agent, but Turner later said it was at a malt shop and the fellow taking notice was William R. Wilkerson, founder and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter.
The encounter led to a referral to director Mervyn LeRoy who signed Turner to a weekly contract with Warner Bros., where she was cast in a small role in LeRoy's They Won't Forget (1937). She played a murder victim and wore a form-fitting knit top that won her instant notoriety as "The Sweater Girl." Even so, after a couple of other bit parts at Warner Bros., she was released from her contract. Studio head Jack Warner was happy enough to see her go, reportedly commenting at the time that Turner would "not amount to anything." When LeRoy moved to MGM, Turner followed and made her debut at her new studio in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938).
MGM's Louis B. Mayer quickly saw Turner's potential as a successor to such sex symbols as Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow, and arranged for her to play the leads in several youth-oriented films including Dancing Co-Ed (1939) and Two Girls on Broadway (1940). Her breakthrough as a star came as a troubled Ziegfeld Girl (1941) alongside Judy Garland and Hedy Lamarr. Turner's hair, formerly a soft auburn, was now a glistening blonde.
Turner had been scheduled to play the "bad" girl opposite Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), but costar Ingrid Bergman wanted that role leaving Lana to enact the innocent heroine. She quickly took her place among MGM's top female stars by playing opposite the studio's other A-list leading men, receiving equal billing and striking sparks opposite Robert Taylor (Johnny Eager, 1941) and Clark Gable (Somewhere I'll Find You, 1942). The high point of her MGM career, and her personal favorite among all her movies, was the film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), a steamy version of the James M. Cain crime thriller costarring John Garfield. With her platinum hair and all-white costumes, Turner created an all-but-blinding vision of sensuality.
MGM most often cast Turner in romantic dramas including Green Dolphin Street (1947) with Van Heflin; Cass Timberlane (1947) with Tracy; Homecoming (1948) with Gable; and A Life of Her Own (1950) with Ray Milland. A non-singer, she tried a couple of musicals in which she was dubbed by Trudy Erwin - Mr. Imperium (1951) and The Merry Widow (1952). In the lightweight but lavishly produced Latin Lovers (1953) she is romanced by Ricardo Montalbán.
Another of Turner's standout films at MGM was The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Vincente Minnelli's study of ruthlessness within the film industry, with Kirk Douglas as a self-interested producer and Lana as the film star he exploits. In 1954, she changed to brunette hair for a couple of films: Flame and the Flesh with Carlos Thompson; and Betrayed, the last of her four pairings with Clark Gable. Turner finished out her MGM studio contract with the Biblical tale The Prodigal (1955) and the historical drama Diane (1956).
Ironically, Turner found some of her best vehicles after leaving her home studio. She received her only Academy Award® nomination for 20th Century Fox's very popular Peyton Place (1957), in which she plays a New England mother obsessed with conventional norms even though she has an illegitimate daughter.
On April 4, 1958, Turner's 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, killed Turner's boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, by stabbing him with a knife. His death was ruled "justifiable homicide" because of Cheryl's testimony saying she thought her mother's life was in danger. Despite the ensuing scandal, Turner pressed on with her film career.
She scored one of her biggest hits with Imitation of Life (1959), produced by Ross Hunter at Universal and directed by the master of melodrama, Douglas Sirk. For the same producer and studio, and with similarly sumptuous settings, Turner starred in the entertaining mystery thriller Portrait in Black (1960, TCM premiere) and the grand old soap opera Madame X (1966).
Other dramas of the period include By Love Possessed (1961) distributed by United Artists and the Columbia Pictures production Love Has Many Faces (1965). Back at MGM, Turner tried her hand at comedy with Bachelor in Paradise (1961) opposite Bob Hope.
Turner finished out her career with low-budget films (The Big Cube, 1969; Bittersweet Love, 1976) and television work. The TV series in which she appeared included ABC's The Survivors with George Hamilton and CBS's Falcon Crest, starring Jane Wyman. A lifelong smoker, Turner died of lung cancer in 1995 at age 74.
By Roger Fristoe