Gloria Grahame: Bad and Beautiful

I’ve never met anyone who was less than enthusiastic about Gloria Grahame (Gloria Grahame Hallward, 1923-1981).

Grahame was the daughter of Scottish actress and acting instructor Jean Grahame (Jean MacDougall) and Englishman Michael Hallward, a modern Renaissance man who worked primarily as an architect and designer, but also wrote the children’s book The Enormous Leap of Alphonse Frog, and played “Lord Tommy” in the 1918 version of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man. Sadly, both parents were to outlive their famous daughter. The family had lived in British Columbia for a time, where Grahame’s older sister Joy Hallward was born (Hallward later became a bit player in movies after her sister became famous, and married Robert Mitchum’s younger brother Jack). Gloria was born in Los Angeles and went to Hollywood High, dropping out to become an actress.

Billed as Gloria Hallward, our subject made it to Broadway by age 20, in Nunnally Johnson’s The World’s Full of Girls (1943). This was followed by A Highland Fling (1944) with John Ireland, which naturally tapped into her ability to do her mother’s Scottish accent. And then, just like that, Hollywood, with a supporting role in Richard Whorf’s Blonde Fever (1945) with Mary Astor, Felix Bressart, and Dutch actor Philip Dorn, later best known for I Remember Mama (1948). That first year, Grahame married Stanley Clements of the East Side Kids/ Bowery Boys, who probably seemed like a catch at the time. Within three years she was to trade up, when she married her second husband, director Nicholas Ray.

Meanwhile, suprisingly early in her career, Grahame played what has become her most widely known role, that of Bedford Falls’ scarlet woman Violet in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Back in the day, it was far from her most prestigious turn — that would have to be her Oscar winning performance in Vincente Minnelli’s all-star melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Grahame’s most notorious screen moment had her getting her face disfigured by scalding coffee thrown by thug Lee Marvin in The Big Heat (1953). While fans adore her to this day, she was seldom cast as the lead or co-lead in a film, she was normally “the other woman”, usually a sexually promiscuous one. She had a sort of worldly smile and perky personality that made for an intriguing mix of “fallen woman” and “girl next door”. She was a “fallen girl next door” — a whore with a heart of gold. She gained early notice for her Oscar nominated turn in Crossfire (1947), the first B movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The distinction didn’t particularly elevate her status though. She was next in things like Merton of the Movies (1947) with Red Skelton, Ray’s A Woman’s Secret (1949) with Maureen O’Hara, and the western Roughshod (1949).

Certain themes emerge in Grahame’s work. For instance she’s in two thrillers about writers: In a Lonely Place (1950) with Humphrey Bogart, and Sudden Fear (1952) with Joan Crawford and Jack Palance. She’s in two pictures with circus settings, DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and Elia Kazan’s Man on a Tightrope (1953). Other interesting stuff includes the Casablanca-esque Macao (1952), in which she plays second fiddle to Jane Russell, who’d also been in The Greatest Show on Earth), Fritz Lang’s Human Desire (1954), Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), and of course Oklahoma! (1955), in which she took over Celeste Holm’s role as Ado Annie, the “Girl Who Cain’t Say No”.

In 1954 Grahame married her third husband Cy Howard, then best known for the radio, tv and movie versions of My Friend Irma. The union was over by 1957. Then, in 1958, a momentous development in her private life which affected her professional one. She began a serious relationship with her former stepson, Anthony “Tony” Ray. The pair were married in 1960; it was not publicized until 1962, although certainly people in the film industry knew and disapproved, for her last movie role for quite some time was in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). The relationship naturally raised eyebrows and set tongues wagging. Nicholas Ray alleged that it had begun when Tony was a teenager, and was a factor in the pair’s divorce, although Grahame denied it. It was a major scandal. (Oddly, I don’t remember anyone bringing it up during the Woody Allen and Soon-Yi mishigas three decades later). In 1964, Grahame was treated for depression with electro schock therapy. While she worked frequently on television, her only movie of the ’60s was the Chuck Connor western Ride Beyond Vengeance (1966).

Thankfully, the last decade of Grahame’s career was pretty wonderful (depending on your taste). There was a lot of schlock, horror and exploitation, but it adds up to a veritable oeuvre. It includes Blood and Lace (1971), Escape (1971), The Todd Killings (1971), Black Noon (1971), Chandler (1971), The Loners (1972), The Magician (1973), The Girl on the Late Late Show (1974) and Mama’s Dirty Girls (1974, as the title character). In 1974 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two months later, Ray divorced her. Luckily, she changed her lifestyle, and managed to bring the cancer down to remission. In 1976 she appeared in Mansion of the Doomed, and parts in the tv mini-series Rich Man Poor Man (1976) and Seventh Avenue (1977), then parts in Joan Micklin Silvers Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979) and Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard (1980), among other things. Her last screen credit was an episode of Tales of the Unexpected.

Grahame’s last relationship was with an actor named Peter Turner, who wrote a memoir about their December-May romance with the dreadul title Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, later made into a 2017 film starring Annette Bening (EXCELLENT casting!) Sadly, Grahame’s cancer recurred with a vengeance in 1981, taking her from us at the young age of 57. It would have been nice to have had another two or three decades of that one.