- Honey-blonde (at times red-haired) siren Virginia Mayo, the sultry leading lady in numerous Technicolor Hollywood movies of the 1940s and 1950s, was most impressive as unsympathetic characters in black-and-white releases like The Best Years of Our Lives and White Heat.
Technicolor seductress Virginia Mayo was at her best as tough broads in black-and-white dramas
Hollywood actress Virginia Mayo is best remembered for playing decorative – albeit voluptuously spirited – heroines in a series of Technicolor productions of the 1940s and 1950s, ranging from fluffy musicals (A Song Is Born, Painting the Clouds with Sunshine) to period pieces (Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., The Iron Mistress) and Westerns (The Proud Ones, Westbound).
Yet Mayo was most effective in black-and-white dramas in which she was cast as sexually alluring but unsympathetic – or at the very least uncongenial – women.
Two key examples are her antiheroines in William Wyler’s Oscar-winning classic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), one of the biggest box office hits of the 1940s, and in Raoul Walsh’s ferocious thriller White Heat (1949), quite possibly the best gangster movie of the studio era.
Meteoric rise to Hollywood stardom
After working as a dancer in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, in the late 1930s, Virginia Mayo (born Virginia Clara Jones on Nov. 30, 1920) toured the United States for several years in a (fake) horse act with the comedy duo of Nonnie Morton and Andy Mayo – from whom she borrowed her show business surname. In the early 1940s, she went on to reprise her role in the Eddie Cantor revue Banjo Eyes on Broadway and at New York City’s world-famous nightclub Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe.
In 1943, Mayo was brought to Hollywood as a contract player for independent movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. The first time she saw herself on screen, she recalled thinking, “Oh, no. I’ll never make it!”
Despite her misgivings, in a year’s time she had gone from minor roles – e.g., a blink-and-you-miss-it bit in the Danny Kaye star vehicle Up in Arms – to playing the first half of the title and the comely object of Bob Hope’s lust in David Butler’s sizable Technicolor hit The Princess and the Pirate.
Never a great actress, Virginia Mayo would prove to be a beguiling screen presence, as can be attested by her soon becoming – along with redheads Maureen O’Hara, Arlene Dahl, and Rhonda Fleming – one of Hollywood’s leading exponents of Technicolored female beauty during the post-World War II era.
Color romance with Danny Kaye
Following The Princess and the Pirate, Mayo – carefully photographed so as to disguise her slight strabismus – was kept busy as the romantic interest of fellow Goldwyn star Danny Kaye, a former vaudevillian with whom she enjoyed a good relationship even though, as she would recall decades later, “Danny was a little moody.”
The Goldwyn duo headlined four color musical comedies:
- H. Bruce Humberstone’s box office hit Wonder Man (1945), starring Kaye as “super-identical twins” with super-contrasting personalities and Mayo as a librarian in what is easily their best pairing.
- Norman Z. McLeod’s The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), with Kaye as a milkman-turned-boxer and Mayo as a struggling singer.
- McLeod’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), with Mayo as the imaginative title character’s dream girl.
- Howard Hawks’ critical and box office disappointment A Song Is Born (1948), a musicalized remake of Hawks’ own 1941 black-and-white comedy Ball of Fire. In the old Oscar-nominated Barbara Stanwyck role, Mayo has some fun as a sassy nightclub singer.
Sultry Technicolor heroine
Although her performances in those and other Technicolor efforts lacked warmth and depth, Virginia Mayo displayed more than enough spunk and sultriness to compensate for such deficiencies.
At Warner Bros. since 1949, Mayo began alternating between (generally) more “serious” black-and-white productions and escapist Technicolor musicals and period dramas.
Looking radiant in color – bright red lips, rosy cheeks, blondish/reddish hair – she fascinated, among others:
- Burt Lancaster in Jacques Tourneur’s amusing swashbuckler The Flame and the Arrow (1950).
- Gregory Peck in Raoul Walsh’s stilted period adventure Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951).
- Laurence Harvey in David Butler’s moderately entertaining semi-historical adventure King Richard and the Crusaders (1954).
- Newcomer Paul Newman in Victor Saville’s unintentionally droll Christian drama The Silver Chalice (1954), a costly money-loser that marked the end of Mayo’s association with Warners.
Sympathy for unsympathetic black-and-white antiheroines
More pale-looking, more ill-tempered, and more memorable were Virginia Mayo’s black-and-white characters seen in the aforementioned Samuel Goldwyn-produced blockbuster The Best Years of Our Lives, winner of seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, and in Warners’ White Heat, which earned Virginia Kellogg an Oscar nomination in the Best Motion Picture Story category.
In the former, Mayo is a “selfish” young woman who doesn’t want to waste the best years of her life on returning World War II veteran pilot and soda jerk Dana Andrews. In the latter, she is demented gangster James Cagney’s bitchy, treacherous wife. Both characters are supposed to come across as morally repugnant, but one would be hard-pressed not to feel – at least some – sympathy for them.
After all, The Best Years of Our Lives’ young wife has only one life to live; unlike her clueless husband, she is fully aware that they’re no longer the same two people who had tied the knot shortly before his departure for war. Now that the bloody cataclysm is over, why shouldn’t she attempt to attain her vision of the American Dream?
As for Mayo’s White Heat character, she is the attractive, much younger wife of an aging psychopath who happens to be dominated by his equally psychopathic (and incestuous?) mom (Margaret Wycherly). So why shouldn’t she fall for virile, handsome crook Steve Cochran and act in what she believes to be her own best interests?
More Virginia Mayo movies
Below are a handful of other notable black-and-white Virginia Mayo vehicles:
- Roy Del Ruth’s independently made oddity Red Light (1949), a violent, Christian-themed film noir centered on the concepts of sin and redemption, with vengeful embezzler Raymond Burr as the sinner and tough-talking trucking company owner George Raft as the redeemed. In a secondary role, Mayo is Raft’s newly hired “assistant.”
- Flaxy Martin (1949), directed by the now largely forgotten Richard L. Bare. In the title role, Mayo plays a vixenish mob-linked showgirl who ensnares defense attorney Zachary Scott.
- Directed by White Heat’s Raoul Walsh, the Western Colorado Territory (1949) was a successful remake of Walsh’s own 1941 crime drama High Sierra. Mayo was cast in the old Ida Lupino role, here refashioned as the part-white, part-Indian Colorado Carson, in love with outlaw Joel McCrea, who himself is enamored of the all-white, ladylike, and greedy Dorothy Malone.
- The more lighthearted The West Point Story (1950), an all-star musical – Virginia Mayo, James Cagney, Doris Day, Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson – that, notwithstanding its talented cast and domestic commercial success, is one of the weaker entries in Roy Del Ruth’s lengthy Hollywood career.
- In another collaboration with Raoul Walsh, the great-looking, adult-oriented Western Along the Great Divide (1951), with Mayo torn between her attraction to righteous sheriff Kirk Douglas and her loyalty to her father, murder suspect Walter Brennan.
End of stardom: Cleopatra + Budd Boetticher Western
Virginia Mayo’s big-screen career went downhill with the demise of the studio system. Not helping matters was that the Technicolor siren was by then pushing 40.
Even so, she got to once again play Joel McCrea’s leading lady in Thomas Carr’s Civil War-era Western The Tall Stranger (1957), to breathe new life into Cleopatra in Irwin Allen’s all-star flop The Story of Mankind (1957), and to star opposite Guy Madison and George Raft in Byron Haskin’s low-budget The High and the Mighty rip-off Jet Over the Atlantic (1959).
Also noteworthy was Westbound (1959) back at Warner Bros., despite the general opinion that this Budd Boetticher Western is one of the lesser entries in the filmmaker’s well-regarded collaborations with actor Randolph Scott.
Later years: TV guest spots + B Westerns & grade-Z horror thrillers
In the ensuing decades, Virginia Mayo would guest on television shows (e.g., Daktari, Night Gallery, Murder She Wrote, and, as a former fan dancer named Peaches DeLight, the daytime soap Santa Barbara) and make sporadic, unremarkable movie appearances. Examples include the B Westerns Young Fury (1964) and Fort Utah (1967), and Alessandro De Gaetano’s little-seen horror thriller Haunted (1977), opposite 1950s leading man Aldo Ray.
Regarding her film legacy, the former Goldwyn and Warner Bros. contract star would tell television host Joe Franklin in 1977:
“The people who were typed made a groove in the public’s image as to being that type. So they were never forgotten, so to speak.
“Now, I was very versatile. And I didn’t make enough of a groove in the people’s minds to have established a type. I was never a type. So that’s probably a disadvantage in a way.”
Virginia Mayo was last seen in a supporting role in the 1997 grade-Z horror flick The Man Next Door (1997).
Battle of the Technicolor Queens: Virginia Mayo vs. Maureen O’Hara
Off screen, Virginia Mayo was the wife of actor Michael O’Shea from 1947 to his death in 1973. The couple had worked together in Alfred Santell’s The Adventures of Jack London (1943), in which the then-married O’Shea played the titular character and Mayo, on loan to producer Samuel Bronston, had a supporting part.
Also off screen, Mayo was known as a tough one. For instance, at a film convention in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, Mayo’s fellow Technicolor Queen Maureen O’Hara was up on stage complaining that old-timers like herself didn’t receive a penny from movies they had made decades earlier even though these still brought in a good chunk of cash to the conglomerates that own the old studios’ film libraries.
Sitting in the audience, Mayo hollered at her, “What? Don’t you get a pension?”
Virginia Mayo died at age 84 in January 2004 at a nursing home in Thousand Oaks, in the Greater Los Angeles area.
“Virginia Mayo: Technicolor Siren” notes
Starlift & Gene Nelson pairings
 The year after The West Point Story, Virginia Mayo, James Cagney, Doris Day, Gordon MacRae, and Gene Nelson would be featured as themselves in another black-and-white, all-star, all-but-unwatchable Roy Del Ruth-directed musical, Starlift.
In addition, in the early 1950s Mayo and Nelson would be reunited in three color musicals – two remakes; one sequel – that aren’t exactly considered classics in the genre:
- David Butler’s Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951), also starring Dennis Morgan, and the fourth Hollywood adaptation of Avery Hopwood’s 1919 play The Gold Diggers. Mayo was featured in a variation of the showgirl played by Joan Blondell in Gold Diggers of 1933.
- H. Bruce Humberstone’s She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952), with Virginia Mayo as an intellect-conscious exotic dancer in this second (and looser) big-screen adaptation of James Thurber and Elliott Nugent’s 1940 Broadway hit The Male Animal. Mayo’s personal favorite among her movies, She’s Working Her Way Through College also features Ronald Reagan, Don DeFore, Phyllis Thaxter, and Patrice Wymore.
- Gordon Douglas’ She’s Back on Broadway (1953), an unofficial sequel to She’s Working Her Way Through College and a not inconsiderable box office performer ($1.9 million in rentals according to Variety estimates) that also featured Frank Lovejoy, Patrice Wymore, and White Heat’s Steve Cochran. As usual, Mayo’s singing voice was provided by Bonnie Lou Williams.
“Virginia Mayo” endnotes
“Oh, no. I’ll never make it!” via the Joe Franklin interview.
Virginia Mayo’s remark regarding Danny Kaye via a 1980s interview.
Virginia Mayo “pension” quote via film historian Anthony Slide, who was present at the ceremony.
James Cagney and Virginia Mayo White Heat image: Warner Bros.
Ronald Reagan and Virginia Mayo She’s Working Her Way Through College image: Warner Bros.
“Virginia Mayo: Technicolor Siren Best in Unsympathetic B&W Roles” last updated in December 2021.