A Journey to Asgard and Back with Janet Leigh

I was watching The Vikings (1958) on TCM the other day (and a surprisingly entertaining picture it is, if a preposterous one) but I feel compelled to to report that one of my main unanticipated takeaways was the va-va-voomishness of Janet Leigh (Jeanette Helen Morrison, 1927-2004).

My recent post on Jane Russell notwithstanding, I’m not the type of bloke who obsesses about the top half of women’s figures. After all, it’s so COMMON. Yet, I must tell you that, unwarned, unprepared, unbidden, I could not help noticing them in this movie. Like Russell’s in The Outlaw, they appear to have been showcased:

On a whim I just googled “Janet Leigh” and various euphemisms for the female lactational equipment, and yes, lo, and behold, it is a recognized and established thing. I know my dad and my father-in-law both liked her, so I reckon it was also a thing back in the day, when men hung up pictures of actresses in their lockers and painted them on the noses of airplanes. I never thought of her as a pin-up per se, in fact, I don’t think she was one. But she was a buxom and beautiful actress. One of her appeals, I think, is that over the life of her career she made a kind of journey from a wholesome image to a much more brassy and brazen one. From 1951 to 1962 she was married to Tony Curtis, whom, for whatever reason (his public image, I guess), I’ve always pictured being some sort of a sex freak, and those are the years when, forgive me, Leigh seemed to blossom. Perhaps Curtis was the Jack Cassidy to her Shirley Jones. (By the way, I never bought Jones as a prostitute in Elmer Gantry. Leigh would have been way better in that role).

Had enough of me talking about Janet Leigh as a sex object? Can’t help it! Everyone noticed her beauty, including, oddly enough, Norma Shearer, who spotted her photograph in some resort someplace and brought her in to MGM. She’d had some singing training, so her lack of experience wasn’t such a huge hurdle and she quickly established herself as a capable actress. Leigh was 20 at the time of her first film, The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947). Other early pictures included the Kalmar and Ruby bio-pic Words and Music (1948), the Lassie film Hills of Home (1948), the 1949 version of Little Women, That Forsyte Woman (1949), Angels in the Outfield (1951), It’s a Big Country (1951), Prince Valiant (1954), Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), and My Sister Eileen (1955).

With Curtis she co-starred in Houdini (1953), The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), The Vikings (1958), The Perfect Furlough (1958) and Who Was That Lady? (1960). There is a certain parallelism in their careers as well. For example, they were both in Anthony Mann westerns starring Jimmy Stewart: Curtis was in Winchester ’73 (1950); Leigh was in The Naked Spur (1953). They were also both good friends with Jerry Lewis, who was present at their private wedding. Curtis appeared in Lewis’s film Boeing Boeing (1965); Leigh was in Three on a Couch (1966).

I have always a perceived a relation between her performances in Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1958) and Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960). In the former, she is tortured, menaced and drugged in a motel room in the Southwestern desert. In the latter, she is stalked and killed…in a motel room in the Southwestern desert. (and I might also add, shown in her brassiere) Some of Leigh’s late classics include The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Harper (1966) and Hello Down There (1969).

Night of the Lepus (1972) was definitely an unwelcome low for her, and she stepped away from films for a time, although she was in a memorable 1975 Columbo episode, and did other tv shows like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and Tales of the Unexpected. In 1980 she returned to the big screen with her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter’s The Fog, and there is magic in it. Leigh’s last screen was posthumous, a supporting turn in the film Bad Girls from Valley High (2005). In that, perhaps less magic.