Monday, December 22, 2008
The Christmas Album: Jane
The Twenty-Second Day of our Holiday rounds finds us dropping by a proud Jane Wyman's house. Ms. Wyman, resplendent in festive red, seems determined to show the world in the early 1950s that, despite her many years as a working stiff on the Warner's lot, playing dumb blondes, chorines and gold-digging ornaments on the arm of actors like Jack Carson or Dennis Morgan (or was it the other way around?) , she still had unplumbed depths of glam as well as surprising sensitivity.
A radio singer and chorus girl born to a struggling actress in Missouri, her lasting acting reputation may have been built on her eloquent if silent performance in Johnny Belinda, as well as her fine supporting work in The Lost Weekend (1945) as Ray Milland's girlfriend and her quietly detailed work as the backwoods mother in The Yearling (1946), but the fact that at the same time she was making The Yearling, she played a brashly amusing babe from burlesque who befriended Cary Grant's Cole Porter in Night and Day (1946) may have been one of her more challenging feats. Equally adept at comedy and drama, Wyman, who was wed to future prexy Ronald Reagan for some years, found herself at the top of the Hollywood heap just as they divorced, following, it is said, Reagan's deepening commitment to politics, the loss of a longed for baby. The couple, who were the parents of Maureen and Michael Reagan, found a way to have a public life without speaking ill of one another in public, saying only after his death that her ex-husband was "a great, kind and gentle man."
However, after five marriages, including two to Fred Karger in two decades), Jane, who became a Catholic convert, concluded that "I guess I just don't have a talent for it, some women just aren't the marrying kind - or anyway, not the permanent marrying kind, and I'm one of them."
Though she was in her mid-30s by the time that stardom came to her, this viewer thought her ethereal presence in the role of the girl who owns The Glass Menagerie (1950) was unexpectedly touching, and her down to earth working girl in the unpretentious A Kiss in the Dark (1949) opposite David Niven was a surprise charmer. Some favorite film appearances in the fifties were directed by Douglas Sirk, who gave Wyman juicy roles in Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955) with Rock Hudson. Many would like to see Jane's Oscar nominated role in The Blue Veil (1951), (though that film appears to be lost in litigation), since that is often said to have been her favorite role. Two other forgotten '50s roles that fit her like a glove were in So Big (1953) and Miracle in the Rain (1955) , which have their devotees, as does the fashionista fave, Lucy Gallant (1955), which offered Wyman a chance to wear some elegant duds and to pitch woo with Charlton Heston. A particularly enjoyable Wyman romp, directed by Frank Capra (with a minimum of Capracorn), was the comedy, Here Comes the Groom (1951) in which a frisky Jane sang “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” with Bing Crosby.
After a long career, Jane shifted to television in her last years, notably in the wine country soap opera, Falcon Crest, and a few choice made for tv roles, which included a beautiful performance in The Incredible Journey of Doctor Meg Laurel (1979) as an elderly mountain woman with a healing touch, a role that she chose carefully and played with great attention to detail. While still offered many parts as she aged, her standards for material remained fairly high. As Wyman explained it, “Nonexposure is better than appearing in the wrong thing.”