Jeanne Crain: Miss Pan-Pacific and Pinky

Jeanne Crain (1925-2003) represents an interesting and somewhat rare phenomenon: she is at the center of numerous important, popular, and lasting classic movies — but one tends to remember these movies without recalling her too much. A star of the post-war era, Crain possessed a wholesome quality, and in photos she resembles better remembered stars of the same period and the same type, like Jennifer Jones or Donna Reed. It’s not just that her characters were “nice” and bad girls get to chew the scenery. Her personality was reserved and modest, admirable traits offscreen (and apparently much admired onscreen in in her day) but not the sort of quality that grabs a corner of your mind and won’t let go.

From an Irish-Catholic household in Barstow, California, Crain’s first moment of distinction was being named Miss Pan-Pacific in a California beauty pageant. She then went on to win Miss Camera Girl of 1942. She was only 18 when she got a chorus part in the 1943 Busby Berkley musical The Gang’s All Here with Alice Faye, Phil Baker, and Carmen Miranda. Being the ingenue type, she would often be cast in musicals over the next few years, although her singing was dubbed by others. In the early years her characters all seemed to be name Maggie, Margie, or Peggy. But her star rose rapidly. Her best known early films included Moss Hart’s patriotic WW II recruitment drama Winged Victory (1944), State Fair (1945) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945).

In 1946 she married RKO contract played Paul Brooks (Paul Brinkman). Interestingly, the couple adopted the opposite strategy from the more usual approach when actors “settle down”. Brooks (who had the more modest career) retired from the screen and became a businessman. Crain had SEVEN children and never even slowed down her career. The youngest of her children, Christopher Brinkman was the original lead guitarist for Jane’s Addiction. After a decade of marriage Brinkman and Crain separated but they quickly reunited, although they appear to have led fairly independent romantic lives throughout their marriage. They were later separated.

The late ’40s-early ’50s were the high water marl of Crain’s career: Letter to Three Wives (1949), The Fan (1949, an updated screen version of Lady Windermere’s Fan), Elia Kazan’s seminal race drama Pinky (1949, for which she was nominated for an Oscar), the original 1950 version of Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel Belles on Their Toes (1952), and the comedy People Will Talk (1951) opposite Cary Grant. Her most notable films of the mid ’50s were westerns: City of Bad Men (1953), Man Without a Star (1955) and The Fastest Gun Alive (1956). The Joe E. Lewis bio-pic The Joker is Wild (1957) is one of the last movies vehicles of the original studio phase of her career. Increasingly during the decade, TV work made up most of her professional activity.

Crain began the ’60s by starring in a couple of Italian pictures, Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile (1960) and Pontius Pilate (1961). In 1967 she reunited with her old co-star Dana Andrews in the exploitation picture Hot Rods to Hell. In a similar vein was the low-budget horror film The Night God Screamed (1971). After the 1972 airplane thrilled Skyjacked with Charlton Heston, she called it quits. Most of her retirement was spent puttering around on her ranch, an apt avocation given her roles in some classic westerns. She died 12 days before the release of the 2003 remake of Cheaper by the Dozen, starring Steve Martin.

For more on show biz history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,