Happy 100th Birthday to Frances Gifford, Star of “Jungle Girl”

The career of Frances Gifford (1920-1994) is an illustration of the weird vicissitudes of fortune. Good luck struck from out of the blue to begin her career; bad luck did the same to end it, in both cases as thunderbolts, from out of nowehere.

A scout spotted Gifford when she was touring Sam Goldwyn’s studio and she began to get cast as an extra and bit player, in such films as Stage Door (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Eddie Cantor’s Forty Little Mothers (1940). In 1937 she married star James Dunn; the pair starred together in the B movie Mercy Plane (1939).

Stuff picked up in the new decade. Gifford had a decent speaking roles in Walt Disney’s The Reluctant Dragon (1941). And then she was cast as the star of the Republic Serial Jungle Girl (1941), becoming the first woman to star in a major serial since Pearl White. Later she would appear in Tarzan Triumphs (1943) opposite Johnny Weismuller. In 1942, she divorced Dunn, and enjoyed a middling career, appearing in such things as Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Cry Havoc (1943), She Went to Races (1945), Luxury Liner (1948) and several others.

Then the other shoe dropped. On New Year’s Eve (1947 into 1948) she was in a car accident that almost took her life. She recovered for a time, appearing in such things as Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950), and the war film Sky Commando (1953), along with a little television work. But the accident seems to have affected her brain somewhat. Her personality was said to have changed drastically. She was institutionalized in 1958, and spent the better part of the next 25 years in mental health facilities. By her last decade she had emerged on the other side of that experience, volunteering at a local library in Pasadena. Were Frances Gifford alive today, she would be 100 years old.