Rita Johnson: Hobbled by a Hair Dryer

Rita Johnson (1913-1965) may not be a household name but old time film buffs have seen her in many a minor classic. The Worcester, Mass. native studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, and got her start in summer stock and radio in the mid ’30s. She was best known as the lead on the radio show Joyce Jordan, M.D. which premiered in 1938.

Johnson’s movie career was launched in 1937 with RKO’s London by Night, in which she co-starred with George Murphy. She was in nearly 50 films, including Honolulu with Burns and Allen, Eleanor Powell, and Robert Young; a couple of Ann Sothern’s Maisie films; Forty Little Mothers (1940) with Eddie Cantor; Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) with Robert Montgomery; The Major and the Minor (1942) with Ray Milland and Ginger Rogers; the My Friend Flicka films (and the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the first one); and The Naughty Nineties (1945) with Abbott and Costello.

In 1948 it literally came crashing down when she had — wait for it — an unfortunate beauty parlor accident. One Syracuse newspaper headline got it right, though it sounds twisted, when they said that she suffered a “Hair Dryer Blow” (as opposed to a Blow from a Hair Dryer, or a Hair from a Blow Dryer, oh…never mind). Basically one of those big clunky old mid-century hair dryers FELL on her. And while it sounds like a great moment from a Jerry Lewis movie, for Johnson it was no laughing matter. Her head and legs were injured and she suffered brain damage. She could no longer move freely or focus. She took to drinking to dull the pain. She returned the screen in 1950, now in much smaller roles. You can see her, for example in Frank Tashlin’s Susan Slept Here (1954) with Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds. Her last screen credit was in the western family drama All Mine to Give (1957). She died of a brain hemorrhage at age 52.