By Susan M. Kelly
From her legendary discovery to her torrid love life, off-screen drama always seemed to overshadow big screen success for lovely “sweater girl” Lana Turner. Despite the many turns her life would take, she stuck with her first love and left behind an acting legacy as unique as her glamorous looks.
Julia Jean Mildred Francis Turner was born in Wallace, Idaho on February 8th. The year of her birth was a cause of dispute throughout her life, with some sources citing 1920 while the lady herself claimed 1921. Regardless, Lana and her family moved to California to make a living after her father was murdered in 1929. It would prove to be just the first tragedy in a rocky life.
As young Lana grew up she became a stunning beauty and decided to parlay that asset into a life on the big screen, as many young actresses did. Though the story of her discovery at a drug store counter in Hollywood would become a well known legend, alas, as with most legends, it was not true. In fact, Lana made her way into the business with good old fashioned hard work.After answering casting calls and knocking on doors, Lana began getting her first small roles at the age of 17. They Won’t Forget, The Great Garrick and A Star Is Born (all 1937) were her introduction to the silver screen. After getting her toe in the water, Lana earned a bit part in the Mickey Rooney film Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938). Though her role was small, her appearance on film caused young men across the country to take notice. Her exquisite beauty and choice of signature wardrobe quickly earned her the nickname “The Sweater Girl” and made her a Hollywood icon. Her image was only enhanced further when she died her natural auburn hair blonde for a role in Idiot’s Delight (1939). As a blonde, Lana would make far more of an impact than she ever imagined.
With the dawning of the 1940’s, Lana had become a household name and she finally began to garner meatier roles in films such as Johnny Eager (1942), Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942) and Week-End at the Waldorf (1945). Despite earning the admiration of her directors for her acting ability, Lana couldn’t quite shake the bombshell image the studios stuck her with. Her personal life further clouded the picture, as she entered into a string of eight marriages and numerous affairs. She was married to Ronald Dante, Robert Eaton, Fred May, Lex Barker, Henry Topping, bandleader Artie Shaw and twice to Steve Crane, with whom she had her only child, daughter Cheryl.
In 1957, Lana managed a star turn as the lustful mother Constance MacKenzie in Peyton Place. The roll would garner her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress but even this accomplishment would be dwarfed by her lurid personal life. The following year, Lana’s young daughter Cheryl Crane fatally stabbed her mother’s boyfriend, the gangster Johnny Stompanato. Though Cheryl was ultimately acquitted when it was ruled a justifiable homicide, the case became a leading scandal of the day and certainly didn’t do much to help Lana’s continuing battle with alcoholism.
Despite it all, Lana persevered and in 1959 she gave an outstanding, almost autobiographical, performance as a struggling actress and single mother trying to make it big in Imitation of Life. A box office success, the film reminded audiences of the talent beneath the sheen and helped Lana’s career rebound, if briefly. That same year, she was slated to star opposite James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder but opted out when she objected to the wardrobe chosen for her. Roles in films such as Portrait in Black (1960) and Bachelor in Paradise (1961) kept her in the public eye, though never quite at the same level. The roles petered out as the 60’s wore on, though she managed a few appearances such as Madame X (1966) and The Big Cube (1969).
The 70’s and 80’s proved even more difficult as the aging beauty fought to hold on. She began to vary between movies and television, with roles in films such as Persecution (1974) and in television programs such as The Last of the Powerseekers (1971). After appearing in Witches’ Brew (1980) she had a memorable turn as Jacqueline Perrault in the prime time soap opera Falcon’s Crest. Her final film appearance was a brief one in 1991’s Thwarted. She retired to her Culver City home where she died at 75 on June 25, 1995, leaving an impact that would resound throughout Hollywood.
Though she fought to be taken seriously as an actress for most of her career, Lana Turner was indeed a rare talent. Combining extraordinary beauty with outstanding acting skill, she embodied the Hollywood starlet. The drama of her personal life often clouded her onscreen accomplishments, yet she managed to leave behind a film legacy unlike any other. To her legions of loyal fans, she will remain the legendary beauty who would not fade.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
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