I thought I’d make a quick mention of Priscilla Lane on the occasion of the anniversary of her birth. When I first got into classic movies she was one of my early favourites, and while I haven’t watched one of her movies in a while, nor managed to come across any of the ones I’ve yet to see, I still have fond memories of her. She always struck me as someone who could have achieved a lot more with the right studio or directorial support but who nonetheless gave her best in all the (usually second rate) roles she was given.
During her comparatively brief career (1937 – 1948 with 22 screen appearances) she starred alongside Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and John Garfield and worked with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh and Frank Capra. That’s a pretty impressive resume and for most people that would guarantee at least some recognition but sadly these days she’s been relegated to the list of contract actresses who were there just to make up the numbers.
Part of this is obviously because of the sudden end to her career. It seems, like Kay Francis she got on the wrong side of Jack Warner and lo and behold, the decent roles suddenly dried up. Personally, I’ve always thought that her good looks, particularly her girl next door wholesomeness held her back from the roles that weren’t marked “junior lead”. Sometimes she looks like she was born to be the sappy love interest for the nominal lead in an Abbott and Costello picture. She just looks like one of those pretty girls whose sub plot gets in the way of what everyone actually paid money to see (does anyone ever pay attention or care in the slightest about these parts in comedy films?). Anyway, she has that unique wartime “Forces Sweetheart” look that belied her real ability and range as an actress.
Despite not having watched one of her movies in a while, her charm, sparkle and gift for light comedy made a lasting impression on me. When she’s in a picture with something for her to do she’s very good, such as in the excellent Dust Be My Destiny with John Garfield or Blues in the Night with Jack Carson. However, in pictures where she’s really just there as the “Generic Female Lead” she more than holds her own with the likes of Bogart, Benny and Cagney. Though I haven’t seen it in many years I remember particularly enjoying her in the early Bogart obscurity Men are Such Fools. It’s not a great movie but she really brings a bit of life to an otherwise dull (and slightly odd) film. In fact that’s generally what she did throughout her career.
Though most people agree that Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant is her best role (and ironically her last major film appearance), I was never too fond of it (both the film and her part in it). Perhaps I was overpowered by everything else going on, and reading the recent reviews tells me it’s possibly worth another look. Strangely enough, I’ve been disappointed by Cary Grant in the few of his films I’ve watched lately and my once favourite star has seen his stock drop quite a bit, so now perhaps is the time to give the film another go and view it through less star struck eyes.
All in all, Priscilla Lane isn’t the most memorable actress in the galaxy of stars but I always found her to exceed expectations. Her good looks let you think that she’s going to make little impression but she always does something, a look, an eye role, a smile that draws you in and makes you realize that there is a great deal of subtlety and talent behind the make up. As I said, her look was perhaps what held her back, but with a suitably interested director I think a lot of depth could have been coaxed out of her. Apparently Hitchcock wasn’t too pleased with her casting in Saboteur so the opportunity to dig beneath her surface was largely lost there. If only she had stayed around a little longer as I think she would have fitted in perfectly in the era of film noir. It would have been an opportunity to put her good looks and wholesome charm to use while concealing all sorts of sinister thoughts and deeds!
She was one of the first stars I started to follow, and writing this has put me in a mind to go and watch one of her films again. For anyone who feels like celebrating her birthday I’d recommend Dust Be My Destiny because she worked so well with John Garfield. I’ve never been disappointed by any of her performances that I’ve seen, and I can’t say that about too many other film stars. Happy Birthday Miss Lane!