WEIRDLAND: Lana Turner: Bed of Roses and Thorns

Monday, June 12, 2017

Lana Turner: Bed of Roses and Thorns

Happy Anniversary, Tay Garnett! On the set of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) directed by Tay Garnett, based on the novel by James M. Cain, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield.

From this modest beginning, Lana Turner became America’s “Sweater Girl,” a pinup of World War II, and ultimately, the movie star goddess of the Silver Screen, a femme fatale linked to scandal and sex. No role she ever played, from The Postman Always Rings Twice to The Bad and the Beautiful and Peyton Place, ever matched the soap opera of her real life. In satins and white fox furs, she carved a trail through the boudoirs of Hollywood, collecting diamond rings from seven husbands. She seduced two future U.S. Presidents (Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy), and a host of Hollywood hunks, often her leading men: Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, Richard Burton, and Frank Sinatra. Her great love was Tyrone Power, “Hollywood’s handsomest matinee idol.”

Robert Taylor said, “Lana Turner virtually invented the Hollywood blonde bombshell, and was the inspiration for Marilyn Monroe.” She expressed her sentiment about Tinseltown as she was dying in the 1990s: “Once upon a time, there really was a Hollywood. It was called the Dream Factory. It’s gone today, but let it be known that for one moment long ago, I was its dream girl.” Christmas of 1937 was approaching, and Lana was busy. She wasn’t emoting before the camera, but selling lingerie at a fast pace in the shop where she worked on Hollywood Boulevard. Except for a day’s work on A Star is Born (1937), no other job had surfaced. Although a photographer had approached her about posing for some nudes. She turned him down, although the blonde who would later “replace” her, Marilyn Monroe, would eventually say “yes” to an equivalent request.

Lana may not have heard of Mervyn LeRoy, but ninety percent of Hollywood had. LeRoy was known at Warner Brothers for making mostly taut, punchy, and socially critical films such as Little Caesar (1930), starring Edward G. Robinson and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) starring Paul Muni. LeRoy had helped launch the careers of a young Ginger Rogers and Loretta Young. He also produced The Wizard of Oz (1939), starring Judy Garland. LeRoy would direct Lana Turner in They Won’t Forget (1937) and in the sophisticated film noir Johnny Eager (1941) alongside Robert Taylor.

Lana looked like the girl next door—that is, if you lived next door to the winner of the Miss California beauty pageant. During her nightly prowls, whenever she made an entrance into a chic club, she was always a show-stopper. She could party all night and still emerge from makeup the next morning at 5AM looking fresh, young, and glamorous. After They Won’t Forget (1937) until as late as 1941, she had no more particularly memorable movie roles. But she was learning her trade, building up a name in Hollywood. Frances Wyndham, in The London Times, summed up her status at this time: “Wearing sweater and skirt, insolently hunched over an ice cream soda, Lana Turner exuded a homespun glamour in the late 1930s that was particularly American. Both frail and tough, she appealed to the masculine protective instinct at the same time she promised danger.”

For some bizarre reason known only to himself, her agent, Henry Willson, hooked Lana up with George Raft for a date. Raft had been born in 1895 in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Lana had seen only two of his films, Night After Night (1932) with Mae West, and Scarface (1932) with Paul Muni. Lana didn’t know what to expect when Raft showed up on her doorstep. He was the best dressed man she’d ever seen, with a tight-fitting tailored black suit, black shirt, and white tie. He’d slicked back his hair with Vaseline, and he wore a pearl gray Fedora pulled down over one eye. He arrived in a black Packard with a driver to take her to the Cocoanut Grove. Although Raft tried to seduce her, Lana ended their romance one night at the Trocadero. Months after Raft stopped dating Lana, she agreed to star with him in the radio dramatization of his 1941 film, They Drive by Night. The film had starred truck-driving brothers, Raft and Humphrey Bogart, with Ida Lupino and Ann Sheridan. Since both actresses were not available for the radio broadcast, Lana and Lucille Ball assumed their roles.

Lana Turner’s days at Warner Brothers were numbered, as were Mervyn LeRoy’s. Under personal contract to the director, Lana was said to view him as a father/mentor figure: “I turned to him for guidance in my career. He taught me how to act, even how to dress.” During her brief stint at Warners, Lana met the studio mogul, Jack Warner. He was used to working with such icons as Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and George Raft. Warner was not impressed with Lana, and predicted no future for her in movies.

It would be at MGM that Lana Turner set out on the road to worldwide fame and glory. It would be from a base within MGM that she’d become a benchmark for Hollywood glamor during the war years when American GIs made her one of their most desired pin-up girls. During her first week as an MGM starlet, she met the studio’s greatest star, Greta Garbo, at an afternoon tea hosted at the home of Mervyn LeRoy. In 1938 Lana dated Mickey Rooney (her co-star in Love Finds Andy Hardy) who would remember her fondly: "When I first saw her at the malt shop on Highland Avenue—I thought, Here is a woman. My fantasies about her soon came true. When I asked her to go out with me, she said yes. And I soon found out that she was as oversexed as I was, warm, passionate, soft. You may wonder what she saw in me. I don’t know. You’d have to ask her. I do know that on a dance floor I could make her breathless."

Following her divorce from Shaw, Lana would continue the pattern she’d previously established of late-night club-going. Her daughter, Cheryl Crane, called the post-Artie Shaw period as “Lana’s Boys in the Band” era. “Mother was a bit infatuated with all of the incredible musicians whose talent thrilled her,” Cheryl said. “She loved being in on their late-night jam sessions, and they loved having her present. There were a number of big band names whom she dated… all young and talented.” Lana met Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, and would date Tommy Dorsey, one of the most famous band-leaders of the Big Band era. Other famous singers who also dated Lana were Tony Martin and Frank Sinatra. In October 1946, Sinatra took Lana to a duplex apartment in Hollywood that he’d just had furnished with $30,000 worth of antiques and furniture simply for the purpose of entertaining her there. However, Lana wasn’t impressed. In fact, when she walked into Sinatra’s new love nest, she took one look around and said, “Who needs this dump!” “You’re right, it is a dump,” said Frank, anxious to placate her. He took her to the upscale Beverly Hills Hotel. On the morning of October 6, Frank told George Evans he intended to marry Lana “as soon as Nancy gives me a divorce.”

The Saturday Evening Post asked Lana who her favorite character had been in all the films she’d ever shot. She chose Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice. “Playing a wicked woman makes the audience more aware of you as an actress. The role gave me something to work with. Cora was not the usual heroine. I thought I understood the odd, twisted reasoning that made her yearn for a small piece of property out in the hills—for what she considered respectability and security—and yet, at the same time, led her to do things which ruined her chance of getting what she wanted.”

Lana Turner reflected on her life and career: with these words: "I wouldn't have survived without my sense of humor, and thank God I have always been able to laugh at myself. The thing about happiness is that it doesn't help you to grow; only unhappiness does that. So I'm grateful that my bed of roses was made up equally of blossoms and thorns." Superficially and in hindsight, the life of Lana Turner resonates with a faint air of the perverse and utterly tragic – that is, until one stops to reconsider that Lana Turner never regarded herself as such. In fact, she lived her own life on her own selfish terms.  She enjoyed herself immensely while riding the tidal wave of stardom to its inevitable end. “MGM prepared us for stardom,” Lana once said: “They didn’t prepare us for life.” Lana Turner was left behind. She was and remains one of cinema’s most elusive, surreal and enduring screen goddesses. -"The Stormy Life of Lana Turner" (2008) by  Nick Zegarac

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