In 1969, when I was a patrol sergeant in Hollywood I got a call to the Desilu studios on Gower. Eddie Albert greeted me on the set. In the next room was Lana Turner. Albert prevailed upon me that Turner was not feeling well and that it was nothing to worry about. I don’t recall the exact nature of the call, but I could tell that Albert was interested in keeping it low profile. Once I felt convinced there was no foul play, I had no problem in not going into the next room and checking on Turner. Albert was quite persuasive. I suppose I was a bit foolish, but often having been around actors, I understood their need for privacy, particularly in “iffy” situations like this one.
Lana Turner (February 8, 1921 – June 29, 1995) was an American actress popular during the 1940s and 1950s. Turner was born Julia Jean Turner in Wallace, Idaho. She was the only daughter of John Virgil Turner, a miner from Montgomery, Alabama (January 23, 1903 – December 14, 1930), and Mildred Frances Cowan, a sixteen-year-old native of Lamar, Arkansas (June 19, 1904 – February 22, 1982). Her father was of Dutch ancestry and her mother was of Scottish, English and Irish ancestry. A common and often repeated error is to add the given names of her mother Mildred Frances to her birth name. These names she used when she converted to Catholicism as a child.
Until her film career took off, young Julia Turner was known to family and friends as “Judy”. Hard times eventually forced the family to re-locate to San Francisco, where her parents soon separated. On December 14, 1930, her father won some money at a traveling craps game, stuffed his winnings in his left sock, and headed for home. He was later found dead on the corner of Minnesota and Mariposa Streets, on the edge of Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch District in San Francisco, his left shoe and sock missing. The robbery and murder were never solved. Soon after, her mother developed health problems and was advised by her doctor to move to a drier climate. With her ten-year-old daughter, she moved to Los Angeles in 1931.
Mildred and Lana were very poor, and Turner was sometimes separated from her mother, living with friends or acquaintances so that the family could save money. Her mother worked 80 hours a week as a beautician to support them. After Turner was discovered, her mother became the overseer of Turner’s career.
Turner’s discovery at a Hollywood drug store is a show-business legend. As a sixteen-year-old student at Hollywood High School, Turner skipped a typing class and bought a Coke at the Top Hat Malt Shop located on the southeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and McCadden Place (not Schwab’s Pharmacy, as is commonly believed), where she was spotted by William R. Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. Wilkerson was attracted by her beauty and physique, and referred her to the actor/comedian/talent agent Zeppo Marx. Marx’s agency immediately signed her on and introduced her to film director Mervyn LeRoy, who cast her in her first film, They Won’t Forget (1937).
Turner earned the nickname “The Sweater Girl” from her form-fitting attire in a scene in They Won’t Forget. According to her daughter, this was a nickname Turner detested throughout her entire career.In late 1937, she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $100 a week, and graduated from high school in between filming. According to LeRoy, it was thanks to him that she made the switch, for he left Warners to work at MGM and was advised by studio head Jack Warner to take her with him, because Warner believed that she wouldn’t “amount to anything.” Her first starring role for MGM was scheduled to be an adaptation of The Sea-Wolf, co-starring Clark Gable, but the project was eventually canned. Instead, she was assigned opposite teen idol Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy film Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938). It was this appearance, as a flirtatious girl described as “the kissing bug,” that convinced Louis B. Mayer that LeRoy’s protégée Turner could be the next Jean Harlow, a sex symbol who had died six months before Turner’s arrival at MGM.
Mayer turned her into a glamorous star, mostly popular among college boys, and gave her the leads in several teen-oriented films in the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as Dramatic School (1938), These Glamour Girls (1939) and Dancing Co-Ed (1939). In early 1940, she was also set to star in a remake of Our Dancing Daughters, but the film was never made. From the beginning of her career, Turner stood her ground on her beliefs and was one of the few actresses at MGM to go against Mayer’s wishes.
Turner, an actress bolstered by her extreme beauty, reached the height of her fame in the 1940s and 1950s. During World War II, Turner became a popular pin-up girl due to her popularity in such films such as Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Johnny Eager (1942), Slightly Dangerous (1943) and four films with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “king of the lot”, Clark Gable. The Turner-Gable films’ successes were only heightened by gossip-column rumors about a relationship between the two. Turner even had a B-17 Flying Fortress—the Tempest Turner—named after her. Following the canned The Sea Wolf project, Turner and Gable were set to star in The Uniform in December 1940. Turner was eventually replaced by Rosalind Russell and the film was released as They Met in Bombay (1941).
Meanwhile, Turner was receiving much publicity for her personal life, and her career was one of the very few to be furthered by this. MGM boosted this by changing the title of her latest film to Slightly Dangerous (1943).
After the war, Turner’s career continued successfully with the release, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), which co-starred John Garfield. As claimed in a documentary, Turner did not get along with him and when she found he was her male lead, she responded: “Couldn’t they at least hire someone attractive?” The now-classic film noir marked a turning point in her career, and it marked Turner’s first femme fatale role. Reviews of the film, and in particular, Turner’s performance, were glowing, with a critic of The New York Times writing it was “the role of her career.” While not exactly giving up her pin-up credentials, Turner established herself as a skilled actress. The Postman Always Rings Twice was thus a turning point in her career. Turner commented on this:
“I finally got tired of making movies where all I did was walk across the screen and look pretty. I got a big chance to do some real acting in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I’m not going to slip back if I can help it. I tried to persuade the studio to give me something different. But every time I went into my argument about how bad a picture was they’d say, ‘well, it’s making a fortune.’ That licked me.”
She got the role after turning down “four pretty-pretty parts in a row.” The film became a box office success, which prompted the studio to take more risks on the star. In August 1946, it was announced Turner was set to replace Katharine Hepburn in the big budgeted historical drama Green Dolphin Street (1947), a role for which she darkened her hair and lost 15 pounds. She was cast due to the persistence of producer Carey Wilson, who was overwhelmed by her performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Turner later recalled she was surprised about replacing Hepburn, saying: “And I guess I’m about the most un-Hepburnish actress on the lot. But it was just what I wanted to do.” It was her first starring role that did not center on her looks. In an interview, Turner said: “I even go running around in the jungles of New Zealand in a dress that’s filthy and ragged. I don’t wear any make-up and my hair’s a mess.” Nevertheless, she insisted she would not give up her glamorous image.
Later that year, Turner headlined Cass Timberlane, a role that Jennifer Jones, Vivien Leigh and Virginia Grey were previously considered for. As of early 1946, Turner was set for the role, but schedules with Green Dolphin Street almost prohibited her from taking the role, and by late 1946, she was almost recast.Production of Cass Timberlane was very exhausting for Turner, as it was shot in between retakes of Green Dolphin Street. Nevertheless, she took the female lead in Homecoming (1948) in August 1947, only moments after finishing Cass Timberlane. She was the studio’s first choice for the role, but they were reluctant to offer her the part, considering her overbooked schedule. Paired again with Clark Gable in Homecoming, their chemistry projected on the screen was well received by the audience, and they were nicknamed “the team that generates steam”. By this period, Turner achieved the milestone of her film career, and was not only MGM’s most popular star, but also one of the ten best paid women in the United States.
In 1948, Turner appeared in her first Technicolor film, appearing as Lady de Winter in The Three Musketeers, opposite Gene Kelly, Van Heflin and June Allyson. In November 1947, she agreed to do the film, thereby giving up an unfinished film project called Bedeviled. However, in January 1948 it was reported that she had withdrawn from the film. Initially, Louis B. Mayer gave her permission for doing so because of her schedule, but she was later that month put on suspension. Eventually, Turner agreed to make the film, but did not start production until March due to having to lose weight. In 1949, she was to headline A Life of Her Own (1950). The project was shelved for several months, and Turner insisted in December 1949 that she had nothing to do with it, saying: “Everybody agrees that the script is still a pile of junk. I’m anxious to get started. By the time this one comes out, it will be almost three years since I was last on the screen, in The Three Musketeers. I don’t think it’s healthy to stay off the screen that long.”
During the 1950s, Turner starred in a series of films that failed to succeed at the box office, a situation MGM attempted to remedy by casting her in musicals. The first, Mr. Imperium (1951), was a flop, while The Merry Widow (1952) was more successful. She gave a widely praised performance in Vincente Minnelli’s film, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (in a role partly based on Diana Barrymore), and later starred with John Wayne in the adventure film The Sea Chase (1955). She was then cast in the epic The Prodigal (1955), but the film and her performance in general were not well received. After the film Diane (1956), MGM opted not to renew her contract. This was a difficult time for Hollywood’s major studios because a recent court decision forced them to divest themselves of their movie theaters. In addition, television had caught on in a big way; the public was staying home. Turner was just one of MGM’s star roster to be let go.
Turner’s career recovered briefly after she appeared in the hugely successful big-screen adaptation of Grace Metalious’s best-selling novel, Peyton Place (1957), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Another few box-office failures followed (Another Time, Another Place (1958), for example) when the 1958 scandal surrounding her daughter’s killing of Stompanato threatened to derail her career completely.
In the trail of the related negative publicity, Turner accepted the lead role in Ross Hunter’s remake of Imitation of Life (1959) under the direction of Douglas Sirk. Universal Studios capitalized on her new-found notoriety; the result was one of the biggest hits of the year, as well as the biggest hit of Turner’s career: she owned 50% of the earnings of the picture and for only the first year of the film’s career she earned $11 million. Critics and audiences couldn’t help noticing that the plots of both Peyton Place and Imitation of Life had borrowed heavily from Turner’s private life. Each film depicted the troubled, complicated relationship between a single mother and her teenage daughter.
She made her last film at MGM starring with Bob Hope in Bachelor in Paradise (1961). Other highlights of this era include By Love Possessed (1961), based on the James Gould Cozzens novel and two Hunter productions (for whom she did Imitation of Life), Portrait in Black (1960) and Madame X (1966), which proved to be her last major starring role.
In 1969, Turner appeared in her only lead starring role on television in ABC’s Harold Robbins’ The Survivors, but despite the presence of other big-name stars, the program fared badly opposite Mayberry R.F.D. and The Doris Day Show on CBS and The NBC Monday Movie, and was cancelled midway into the season.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Turner appeared in several television roles, most notably as a guest star for several episodes on the series Falcon Crest as the mysterious Jaqueline Perrault and The Love Boat, but the majority of her final decade was spent out of the public eye.
On October 25, 1981 the National Film Society presented Lana with an Artistry in Cinema award. In 1994 she received Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, Spain. In 1982, Turner released a memoir, in which she stated that she had two abortions and three stillbirths. She said she was an alcoholic and had attempted suicide.
Turner spent most of the 1970s and early 1980s in semi-retirement, working only occasionally. In 1982 she accepted a much publicized and lucrative recurring guest role in the television series Falcon Crest. Her first appearance on the show gave the series the highest rating it ever achieved. Turner made her next final film appearance in 1991, and died from throat cancer in 1995.