Remembering Lana Turner on her Centennial

In some ways, Lana Turner is not given credit as a serious actor because she was one of the “glamour girls” of Hollywood’s golden age, but no one can argue her status as a movie star. In her heyday where Lana went and who she was with made headlines, more than any studio’s PR people could have pushed just because she was Lana Turner. Most admirable perhaps, is what Robert Osborne referred to in a 1982 interview saying Lana Turner was “A real survivor of the Hollywood Battlefields.” On the 100th anniversary of her birth, I remember Lana Turner for all that she was – from glamour queen to survivor and all in between.

MGM portrait in 1939 by Everett

Lana Turner was born Julia Jean Mildred Francis Turner in Wallace, Idaho on February 8, 1921 to Mildred Frances Cowan and John Virgil Turner, who worked as a miner. When Julia Jean was about 8 years old, her father was murdered making life for the girl and her mother tougher than it had been, and it had never been prosperous.

In 1936 mother and daughter Turner ended up in Los Angeles after a wobbly road trip on an old jalopy. Julia Jean was 15 and enrolled in Hollywood High School when, about a month after arriving in Hollywood, she decided to skip typing class to go across the street for a coke. There she sat at the Top Hat Café – not Schwab’s Drug Store as myth goes – when a man named Wilkerson asked Judy Turner, the name she gave him, if she wanted to be in the movies. Wilkerson gave Judy his card and she went back to school. As it turns out, W. R. Wilkerson published The Hollywood Reporter and had great connections.

Thanks to the good word of Mr. Wilkerson, Judy Turner signed with Zeppo Marx’s agency, which proved instrumental in her meeting Mervyn LeRoy at Warner Bros. LeRoy was a top director at Warners having helmed the likes of Little Caesar (1931), and the influential I Am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). As luck would have it, LeRoy was looking for a 16-year-old for a small part in his next picture when Turner showed up and she was perfect for it. Mervyn LeRoy signed Judy Turner to a fifty-dollars-a-week contract and suggested she change her name to Lana Turner.

The first time the newly minted ‘Lana Turner’ saw her name up on a big screen she wanted to die of embarrassment. “Who’s the girl?” she heard other attendees ask at the premiere of Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget in 1937, the 16-year-old’s first movie, while she tried to hide in the seat beside her mother. You see, Lana made a big splash in the movie in one scene, a decision made by LeRoy that proved consequential to Lana Turner, as she described, “That walk down the street of a Southern town completely changed my life.” Lana walked down that street wearing a tight sweater and believed the image of that “sweater girl” clung to her for her entire career.

in They Won’t Forget, her first movie

Mervyn LeRoy cast Lana in his next movie, The Great Garrick and lent her to Samuel Goldwyn for The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) directed by Archie Mayo. Soon after that LeRoy left Warner Bros. for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and took Lana with him. She signed a contract with MGM in February 1938. The first picture she made there was George B. Seitz’s Love Finds Andy Hardy where she plays the flirtatious new girl in the neighborhood. By the end of Lana’s first year at MGM, she was making $250 a week.

MGM kept Lana busy casting her in movies opposite the likes of Clark Gable, the most popular male star in movies. She was making quite a stir in the social columns as well. It was in Robert Z. Leonard’s and Busby Berkeley’s Ziegfeld Girl (1941) that Lana Turner reached true star status, however. Ziegfeld Girl features stellar talent, la crème de la crème at the most prestigious studio: James Stewart, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Tony Martin, Jackie Cooper, and Eve Arden, to name a few.

In reviewing Ms. Turner’s filmography, I was surprised to see so many musicals, but then again, she worked at MGM. Her first picture in that genre was S. Sylvan Simon’s Two Girls on Broadway in 1940 where she received top billing over Joan Blondell and George Murphy. And Lana was still doing musicals in the 1950s like The Merry Widow in 1952 directed by Curtis Bernhardt and co-starring Fernando Lamas, and Mervyn LeRoy’s Latin Lovers (1953) with Ricardo Montalban, in which she does some decent Latin dancing. The point is that Lana Turner was one of MGM’s ‘go-to girls’ dictated by audience reaction. There is no denying she was popular. During Turner’s 18-year contract with that studio, her movies brought in more than $50 million.

Although audiences were fond of Lana in musicals, she is best remembered for darker sultry outings like Mervyn LeRoy’s Johnny Eager (1941) where she delivers a steamy performance opposite Robert Taylor, and of course in Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), her best remembered picture. There Lana steams up the screen with John Garfield who makes a perfect partner for her murderous shenanigans. Perhaps her finest turn, however, is as a famous movie star who falls for user Kirk Douglas in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

True to MGM’s signature of big stars and big pictures, what best illustrates how important Lana Turner became to the studio is the fact that they cast her in the big budget The Three Musketeers (1948) with Gene Kelly, June Allyson, Van Heflin, and Angela Lansbury. According to Robert Osborne, The Three Musketeers was sold almost entirely on the fact that audiences could see Lana in Technicolor.

Ms. Turner performed in a few radio shows during her Hollywood tenure and far be it from me to ignore those. Following are all of the Lux Radio Theatre productions in which Lana appeared.

From january 1942, “The Devil and Miss Jones” with Lionel Barrymore alongside Ms. Turner:

From March 1943, “Crossroads” with Lana and Pierre Aumont:

From October 1943, Lana co-starring with Victor Mature and Gene Lockhart in “Slightly Dangerous”:

This April 1946 presentation of “Honky Tonk” unites Lana and John Hodiak:

Lana and Van Heflin recreated their screen roles in “Green Dolphin Street” in September 1949 at Lux with Peter Lawford making his Lux debut:

Despite her career accomplishments, including an Academy Award nomination for Mark Robson’s Peyton Place (1957) and her work in Douglas Sirk’s remake of Imitation of Life (1959), Lana Turner made many more headlines for scandals and relationships than she did for her movies. She is frank about all of it in her book, her eight marriages and divorces, her mistakes and disappointments, and her numerous affairs with some of the most handsome men in Hollywood including Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor. Speaking of affairs, this is a good time to confirm that Lana and Clark Gable did not have an affair. Lana spoke openly about Carole Lombard’s tragic death and the story that Carole flew to Clark’s side because she feared he was having an affair with Lana Turner. Normally Carole would have taken a train. Gable and Turner were making Wesley Ruggles’ Somewhere I’ll Find You at the time. Lana and Clark were friends, but the two were never romantically linked. I believe her.

All of the negative stories, including those linked to the Carole Lombard tragedy, threatened Lana Turner’s career. None would compare, however, to the most dramatic episode of her life, which resulted from her relationship with Johnny Stompanato in 1957, a relationship that became violent over time. Stompanato had ties to the mob and Lana did not know it. In 1958, during an intense argument between Ms. Tuner and Johnny Stompanato, Lana’s 14-year-old daughter Cheryl came to her mother’s defense and, according to court records, stabbed, and killed Stompanato. Cheryl, who is Lana’s daughter with second husband Steve Crane, was tried and acquitted for Stampanato’s death.

Media coverage of “the tragedy,” as Lana Turner referred to the Stompanato affair, would have destroyed many a career. Lana Turner, however, survived it and went on to appear in more well-received pictures, including the aforementioned Imitation of Life, which became Universal’s highest-grossing picture up to that time and the most successful of Lana’s career.

After Sirk’s picture, Lana was signed to work on Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, but an intense argument ensued between director and actor and Lana dropped out of the picture well before shooting began. Instead, Lana did Michael Gordon’s Portrait in Black, a lesser-known, but terrific murder mystery co-starring Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart.

Soon the roles for female actors growing older grew scarce. There is one gem from the mid-1960s that is worth a mention though. In 1966 Lana played a woman who fakes her own death out of fear after her lover dies in an accident in David Lowell Rich’s Madame X. I really enjoyed her performance in that and the cast is terrific: John Forsythe, Burgess Meredith, Ricardo Montalban, and Virginia Grey.

Turner’s final big screen performance came in Richard Shorr’s and Herbert L. Strock’s Witch’s Bew (1980). After that, she concentrated on television with a recurring role as Jacqueline Perrault in prime time soap, Falcon Crest from 1982 to 1983.

Lana Turner died of cancer on June 25, 1995. She was 75 years old. She said that she would like to be remembered as a woman who lived through many fires and survived, and who could laugh at herself. I don’t think we saw that sense of humor often enough, but for being an integral part of the glitz and glamour of the old Hollywood we admire, for her passion and fascinating life, Lana Turner is remembered fondly.

Lana Turner (February 8, 1921 – June 29, 1995)

11 thoughts

  1. I remember her for the 1941 version of ‘Dr jekyll and Mr Hyde’. When I first saw it, I had assumed that Lana Turner would play the good time girl and Ingrid Bergman would play the virtuous fiancée – probably basing my assumption on Lana’s performance in ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’. I was quite surprised when the reverse was true, but both actresses did well in their roles.

  2. I’ve always been a fan of Lana’s and feel her movie star status and glamor overshadowed her talent. She may not have been one of the greats like Hepburn or Davis, but she certainly could act.

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