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Jeanne Crain: From PINKY Inanity to MARGIE Magic

Jeanne CrainJeanne Crain: From Pinky to Margie

Jeanne Crain, one of the most charming Hollywood actresses of the '40s and '50s, is Turner Classic Movies' "Summer Under the Stars" featured player on Monday, August 26, 2013. Since Jeanne Crain was a top 20th Century Fox star for about a decade – a favorite of Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck – TCM will be showing quite a few films from the Fox library. And that's great news. (Image: Jeanne Crain ca. 1950.) (See also: "Jeanne Crain Movies: TCM's 'Summer Under the Stars' Schedule.")

Now, my first recommendation is actually an MGM release. That's Russell Rouse's 1956 psychological Western The Fastest Gun Alive, an unusual movie in that the hero turns out to be a "coward" at heart: quick-on-the-trigger gunslinger Glenn Ford is reluctant to face an evil challenger (Broderick Crawford) in a small Western town. But why? Jeanne Crain is his serious-minded wife who refuses to reveal her husband's real reasons.

Despite elements in common with Henry King's The Gunfighter (1950), Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), and Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959), The Fastest Gun Alive ultimately goes its own way, rewarding Ford's eventual "bravery" by not only accepting but also by protecting his "cowardice." That's as subversive an approach to a Western as can be. And that's one key reason why The Fastest Gun Alive remains one of my favorite Westerns ever.

More Jeanne Crain movies

Guns of the Timberland (1960) is an unusual Western as well, but hardly a profound one. Ranchers are pitted against lumberjacks in what amounts to a B movie worth watching merely as a curiosity thanks to the presence of Jeanne Crain and former Paramount star Alan Ladd. Both performers deserved better.

Lloyd Bacon's You Were Meant for Me (1948), with Crain as bandleader's Dan Dailey's wife, is not only quite tedious, but also in black and white. Of course, there's nothing wrong with black and white – much to the contrary – but considering that both Dailey and Crain were mostly Technicolor stars, that makes the plain-looking You Were Meant for Me feel very much like a B movie. Believe it or not, Lloyd Bacon was the same guy who the previous decade had directed snappy Warner Bros. fare like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Wonder Bar, and Here Comes the Navy.

I haven't seen George Seaton's Apartment for Peggy (1948), one of the New York Times' top ten movies of 1948, or Joseph M. Newman's little-seen crime drama Twenty Plus Two (1962). Both are surely worth a look even if only for Jeanne Crain's sake. The same goes for Otto Preminger's The Fan (1949), starring Crain as the judgmental daughter of veteran Madeleine Carroll in this retelling of Oscar Wilde's play about pride and prejudice, secrets and lies, and husbands and wives among London's upper-class denizens. George Sanders and Richard Greene co-star. Ernst Lubitsch beautifully handled the various plot twists and turns in the 1925 version Lady Windermere's Fan, which starred May McAvoy, Irene Rich, Ronald Colman, and Bert Lytell. (See also: "Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, and Jeanne Crain in 'Leave Her to Heaven': One-of-a-kind non-noir film noir.")

Jeanne Crain in 'Pinky': Passing for part-black passing for white

Also in black and white is Pinky (1949) – though this socially conscious drama along the lines of Fox's 1947 Best Picture Oscar winner Gentleman's Agreement is an A production all around. After all, Pinky, based on a novel by Cid Ricketts Sumner, was directed by Gentleman's Agreement's Elia Kazan (replacing John Ford), from a screenplay credited to Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) and Dudley Nichols (The Informer, Stagecoach), and it was shot by cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (My Darling Clementine, Niagara).

In this melodrama about anti-black racism, Crain plays Ethel Waters' granddaughter, which is just about as believable as having Susan Kohner playing Juanita Moore's daughter in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life. (Coincidentally, Moore has a bit part in Pinky). Now, imagine how hard it must have been for someone who looked like Jeanne Crain to try to pass for white to the folks she meets on screen ("Does she have mental issues? What else could she be?") while trying to pass for part-black to audiences out there in the dark. Talk about absurd, inane miscasting, though obviously at least some Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members felt otherwise: a major box office hit, Pinky earned Jeanne Crain her one and only Best Actress Academy Award nomination. (She lost to Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress.)

Jeanne Crain: 'Margie'

If Pinky features one of Jeanne Crain's least effective performances, the nostalgia-filled Margie (1946) features what may well be her most engaging screen role. Note: Directed by veteran Henry King and shot by Charles G. Clarke (Hello, Frisco, Hello; Miracle on 34th Street), Margie was originally filmed in vibrant Technicolor (years ago, I watched a gorgeous print); unfortunately, the print previously shown on TCM and the Fox Movie Channel doesn't do the film justice. Yet, even in faded hues, Margie is pure delight – and so is Jeanne Crain's sweet, humorous, liberal-minded, ice-skating adolescent with wardrobe-malfunctioning issues and a big crush on handsome French teacher Glenn Langan.

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