The Jean Porter Centennial

Born 100 years ago today: Jean Porter (1922-2018).

Porter was a child performer from Cisco, Texas who won “Beautiful Baby” pageants and sang on local radio. Singing in vaudeville with Ted Lewis’s band led to a move to Hollywood where she studied dance at the Fanchon and Marco school. Allan Dwan saw the 14 year old perform there and cast her in his 1936 adaptation of George M. Cohan’s Song and Dance Man (1936), thus launching her screen career.

For several years Porter was a chorus girl and bit player in pictures; you can see her ever so briefly in such films as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. (1940), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Henry Aldrich for President (1941), Hellzapoppin (1941), Babes on Broadway (1941), That Nazty Nuisance (1943), and others. By young adulthood, she had risen to the status of a supporting actress, better than a bit player, but still not one of the principals as a general rule. Films of this period include Bathing Beauty (1944) with Esther Williams and Red Skelton, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945), What Next, Corporal Hargrove? (1945), and That Hagen Girl (1947). By now she was also starring in the occasional B picture, such as Betty Co-Ed (1946), Little Miss Broadway (1947), Sweet Genevieve (1947), and Two Blondes and a Redhead (1948).

In 1948 Porter married director Edward Dmytryk, whom she had met on the set of Till the End of Time (1946). She must have loved him a lot: Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten, fired from RKO and potentially jailable for his refusal to testify to HUAC. The pair were in exile in the UK for over two years, where Dmytryk continued to direct and Porter gave birth to three children. The family returned to the States in 1950, at which point Dmytryk did some jail time and finally testified before Congress. Porter returned to acting in films like Cry Danger (1951) with Dick Powell, Kentucky Jubilee (1951) with Jerry Colonna, The Clown (1953) with Red Skelton, and Dmytryk’s The Left Hand of God (1955). She also appeared on television programs like The Abbott and Costello Show, The Red Skelton Hour, and The Joe Palooka Story. Her final screen credit was in a 1961 episode of Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges.

Porter was not yet 40 at the time of retirement. But Dmytryk’s career was going great guns again by that point, and she had three pubescent children to raise. And stardom per se had never quite arrived. She was 95 at the time of her passing in 2018 — only six years ago as I write this!

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.