The Coleen Gray Centennial

Today marks the centennial of the birth of movie star Coleen Gray (Doris Jensen, 1922-2015).

And yes the word “star” is used accurately here: Gray was top or second-billed in dozens of Hollywood features, several of which are well remembered even if she herself has become less so. One of my favorite of her performances was one of her first; she’s very affecting as Molly in the original (and best) version of the carny/con man drama Nightmare Alley (1947). Prior to this she had a major role in Howard Hawks western classic Red River, though that was not released until 1948. Other major stuff included Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950), the noir classic Kansas City Confidential (1952), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). Classic horror fans will know her from The Vampire (1957), The Leech Woman (1960), and The Phantom Planet (1961). Most of her films were noir pictures and westerns, however.

Underneath her dark, glamorous beauty Gray possessed a wholesome quality consonant with her origins as a midwestern farm girl. Of Danish stock, her childhood through her college years were spent in Nebraska and Minnesota, which adds a special sparkle to her screen debut, a walk-on in State Fair (1945).

Though one associates her with the ’40s and ’50s, Gray never actually retired until after the mid 1980s, though after 1960 most her work consisted of television guest shots. Appearances on western shows like Have Gun – Will Travel, Rawhide, and The Virginian made for a natural transition, but she also appeared on sitcoms like My Three Sons and cop shows like Ironside and McCloud. She also played supporting parts in minor movies during those last years, including John Guillermin’s P.J. (1968) with George Peppard, Gayle Hunnicutt, and Raymond Burr, and The Late Liz (1971) with Anne Baxter, Steve Forrest, James Gregory, and Jack Albertson.

Mother (1978) was an interesting little anomaly. Written and directed by a teenaged Brian Linette, it co-stars Gray and silent veteran Patsy Ruth Miller. The plot concerns Gray’s efforts to place the declining Miller into a home. Miller’s character’s insistence that she would rather attend the state fair (she is holding a ticket that is decades old) would have made this movie a nice symbolic bookend to Gray’s career, given where it started. But like the titular Mother, Gray wasn’t ready to “go gentle into that good night” and she did play a few more roles. Her last was a 1986 episode of Tales from the Darkside, which at least makes a nice bookend with Nightmare Alley.

From 1945 to 1949 Gray was married to Rod Amateau who later became a successful producer/writer/director whom we’ll be writing about subsequently as he had quite a unique body of work, with a unique talent for being associated with way-out clinkers. In 1952 she was romantically involved with John Payne, her co-star in Kansas City Confidential. She married two more times. She is also notable for being involved with various conservative and Christian causes.