A Shallow Dive into the Career of Lori Nelson

As is invariably the case, my interest in Lori Nelson (1933-2020) stems from her appearances in classic comedies and B movies, though her brief career was more wide ranging. Broadly speaking, the first half of her decade-long career was spent in films, the second half in television.

Nelson had been a model and beauty queen prior to coming to films. She had been selected “Little Miss America” at age five, and Miss Encino at 17. She broke into films at 19, and, as sometimes happened during those boring mid-century years, she did so with a screen name that was worse than her given one, which was Dixie Kay Nelson (were they afraid that was too memorable? “Lori Nelson”, sure isn’t). Her first role was second female lead in the Anthony Mann western Bend of the River (1952) with Jimmy Stewart. The female lead in that picture was Julie Adams. The quick among you will ascertain the future connection between the two women. The rest will have to hang on for a couple of paragraphs.

Nelson played Rosie Kettle in Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952) and Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955), competed with a mule for Donald O’Connor’s attention in Francis Goes to West Point (1952), and provided the eye candy in the penultimate Dean MartinJerry Lewis comedy Pardners (1956). These were the classic comedies I spoke of.

Nelson was also female lead in the horror film Revenge of the Creature, the 1955 sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon, in which Julia Adams had starred (that’s the connection. Actually she had also appeared in one of Francis pictures, so that’s two connections. Both actresses were contract players at Universal-International). For Roger Corman she appeared in Day the World Ended (1955) as well as the AIP picture Hot Rod Girl (1956), which led to her co-starring in Untamed Youth (1957) with Mamie Van Doren, which also had Lurene Tuttle, Wally Brown, and Eddie Cochran. She’s in a couple of Audey Murphy westerns including Destry, a 1953 remake of Destry Rides Again. She played second fiddle to Jane Russell in Underwater! (1956) another vehicle produced by Howard Hughes to showcase that star’s physical assets. About a half dozen other pictures fill out her big screen career.

Nelson co-starred on the television version of How to Marry a Millionaire (1957-58) with Barbara Eden, her biggest TV credit. She guest starred on a couple of dozen other programs through 1961, most of them westerns. Her early retirement was a consequence of her marrying Johnny Mann of the Johnny Mann Singers in 1960 and raising two children. She returned to do one classic Family Affair episode in 1971 (she played the psychologist who tries to make Buffy give up her doll Mrs. Beasley).

Starting in the 1990s, she returned to take parts on a handful of occasions. Her final film was the campy 2005 horror tribute The Naked Monster, which also featured other old-timers like Kenneth Tobey, John Agar, George Fenneman, and Paul Marco (from Ed Wood films) as well as 80s horror star Brinke Stevens, Forrest Ackerman of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and others.

For more on classic comedy film please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube