The Lana Turner Centennial

One of the most potent of all Hollywood legends is associated with Lana Turner (1921-1995). It’s one so pervasive, I’m quite certain more people know the story than the fact that Turner was the actress at the center. One day she was sitting at a lunch counter drinking a Coke and a Hollywood talent scout came in and spotted her, and that’s how she became a movie star. The story itself is quite true, though it’s been embellished from time to time. She wasn’t even an aspiring actress at the time. This had been known to happen scores of times with child actors, but it was rather like lightning striking for it to happen to a young lady. As a result, the number of movie star wannabes pouring into Los Angeles increased exponentially in the late ’30s and has been doing so ever since.

As it happens, Turner WAS a child star, however. She was a teenager, playing hooky from class when this happened to her in 1936. In her memoirs, she recounts her early studio years, when she was tutored in a trailer just like other kid actors. Her first agent, by the way, was none other than Zeppo Marx! And her initial studio supporter was Mervyn LeRoy. One can see what he saw in her in one of her first movies, The Great Garrick (1937), directed by James Whale. She only has a small role in it, but, without knowing she was in the movie, the first time I watched it I spotted her immediately. “Whoa! That’s Lana Turner!”! She’s still a kid in things like Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) and Ziegfeld Girl (1941). Yet from her very first film, Leroy’s They Won’t Forget (1937), what the audience seems to have noticed most… was her knockers. Agent Irving Fein dubbed her the “Sweater Girl” after the garment that best accentuated her endowments. She was 16!

By Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) Turner was playing the ingenue, but still a wholesome one, not one of the racier female characters in the tale she might have played later in her career. In Honky Tonk (1941) she’s a little more wily, and her screen image continues to evolve until by the time of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, with John Garfield) she’s the ultimate film noir femme fatale. This image was quickly capitalized on with Green Dolphin Street and Cass Timberlane, both in 1947, and the part of Milady de Winter in the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers.

Somehow, though Turner’s never made my shortlist of classic Hollywood sex symbols who “do it for me”, a list that includes, for the throngs who are interested, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, Barbara Stanwyck (when the part calls for it), and Hedy Lamarr (the pinnacle). Turner has always seemed somewhat bland to me, personality-wise. I like schemers and mirror-gazers; the femmes need to be fully fatale. Turner is terrific in Postman, but looking over her career, it occurs to me that ultimately, her real metier was so called “women’s pictures” — melodrama. My mother really loved Turner, and I’m certain that it was these kind of movies she loved best. I’m thinking of things like George Cukor’s A Life of Her Own (1950), Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Peyton Place (1957), the 1959 remake of Imitation of Life (1966) and Madame X (1966). It took me years to appreciate movies like these, and my gateway to them (originally) was camp.

And of course, she had a little melodrama in her private life that no doubt fueled this propensity. Her parents divorced when she was a child. She knew poverty. Her father was murdered and robbed of his gambling winnings. She was married no fewer than seven times and had dubious taste in men. Husbands include the famously abusive philanderer Artie Shaw; actor/restaurateur Steve Crane (who was still married to his previous wife at the time); Lex Barker, one of the lesser Tarzans, who raped and abused Turner’s underaged daughter; and hypnotist/con man Ronald Pellar a.k.a Dr. Dante. For a time, she dated gangster Johnny Stompanato, though he was removed from the picture when her daughter stabbed him to death.

In the wake of all this, arriving at the traumatic benchmark of 40, there was an awkward stretch where Turner resorted to comedies like Bachelor in Paradise (1961) with Bob Hope and Who’s Got the Action? (1962) with Dean Martin, followed by over-the-top full-on psycho-biddy exploitation like The Big Cube (1968) and Persecution a.k.a. The Terror of Sheba (1974), and the incest tale Bittersweet Love (1976). But on television she was able to return to her melodramatic comfort zone on Harold Robbins’ The Survivors (1969-70), The Last of the Powerseekers (1972) and Falcon Crest (1982-83).

Turner’s last theatrical film was Witches Brew a.k.a. Which Witch is a Witch? (1980) with Richard Benjamin and Terri Garr, then both at the height of their fame. Her last screen credit, an episode of The Love Boat, was in 1985. The heavy smoker died of cancer a decade later. She’s have been 100 years ago today as I write this!