Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lana Turner, Birth of a Starlet, Part 1

Lana Turner became one of the most glamorous, most talked about, most married and most courted stars ever to hit Hollywood. The killing of her then boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato in 1958, by her daughter was one of the most sensational stories of the entire decade. It was the kind of story that fit perfectly into Lana Turner's very colorful and eventful life. Her persona was one of smouldering sex appeal, both on screen and off. But the life and career that exuded so much glamour and fame began quite differently.

It is Hollywood legend how Lana Turner was "discovered" by a talent scout inside Schwab's drugstore in Hollywood in the mid 1930's. As a matter of fact, Schwab's would become synonymous with Turner as a result of the famed fable. Although the legend is similar to the real events that led to Lana Turner's discovery, it was not Schwab's, but the Top Hat Cafe where the future star was sitting that fateful day.

Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner was born in Wallace, Idaho on February 8, 1921 (although many sources say 1920, Turner in her autobiography claims this is a mistake and she was actually born a year later). Her father was a gambler and sometimes bootlegger. Her mother, practically a child bride. The family moved to San Francisco when little Judy, as she was called, was still very young. In 1930, when she was nine, her father was murdered and robbed after winning big in a crap game. Her mother, Mildred, unable to give her daughter full time care, put her with several foster families. Mildred found work as a hairdresser and she and Judy eventually moved back in together. When Judy was fifteen, mother and daughter moved south to Los Angeles. There the already developed teenager enrolled at Hollywood High School, which was located across the street from the Top Hat Cafe and that was where fate smiled on young Judy Turner.

Cutting a typing class at Hollywood High, the precocious teen was sipping a Coke at the Top Hat soda fountain when she was spotted by Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, who noted her pretty face and shapely figure. He referred her to comedian cum agent Zeppo Marx (the fourth Marx Brother), which in turn led to a meeting with director Mervyn LeRoy. LeRoy signed Turner to a personal contract and placed his new protege in his upcoming film They Won't Forget (1937). at Warner Brothers. She had the small but pivotal role of Mary Clay, the young victim, who sashays down the street of a small southern town in a tight sweater which showcases her natural endowments. The role earned her the moniker of "The Sweater Girl", a title she kept well into the war years. She and LeRoy decided to change her name to the more glamorous Lana and the legend was born. She was loaned out to Samuel Goldwyn to play an Oriental handmaiden in the epic The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938), starring Gary Cooper. The role required that the starlet's eyebrows be shaved and a higher arch be drawn in by the makeup department. They never grew back and she would have to draw them in for the rest of her life.

When her mentor, LeRoy, moved from Warners to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Turner followed, signing a contract with the top rate studio in early 1938 for $100 per week. Still a teenager, she joined fellow contract juveniles Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Metro's famed Little Red School House where they were tutored on the set. Early on she was given the glamour build up, despite her young age. Even among her contemporaries in her first film at MGM, Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), it is Lana who is given the role of the glamorous teen aged vamp. Under LeRoy's tutelage she thrived at her new studio. She also thrived socially. Besides Rooney and Garland, her circle included young MGM hopefuls Robert Stack and Ann Rutherford. It also included handsome young men aplenty. Columnist began calling her the "Nightclub Queen". Out late and up early on the set, the underage starlet was burning the candle at both ends. It got to the point that a concerned Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, called a meeting with Turner and her mother. The meeting climaxed with Mayer shouting, "The only thing you're interested in is....", as he pointed to his crotch.

The whirlwind of men and nightlife would finally culminate in the first of her seven marriages and numerous affairs. On February 8, 1940, her nineteenth birthday, she and bandleader Artie Shaw eloped on their first date. They would divorce four months later.


  1. Lana Turner for me exists in The Postman Always Rings Twice. No other movie does it for me with her. Outside of her personal life, this was the role made for her... When I interviewed actor Johnny Duncan by telephone a few years ago he told me the story of being called in by the Studio to teach Lana the Lindy (Jitterbug) and Johnny only had good things to say about Lana. He said she was very beautiful and very natural. While Lana will never make my top ten female stars, her role in the movie remains amongst my favourites (not to mention the fact that John Garfield is one of my all time favourites) One of the most underrated stars of Hollywood especially considering McCarthy helped kill his career and he was dead by age 37...

  2. My favorite movies of Lana's is two different roles big time. I think she was a good actress, why most people would consider her a star more and not an actress really. Not my top actress but she could play different roles, My two favorites are The Postman Always Rings Twice and Imitation of Life of course Imitation of Life was later on in her career but I thought she was wonderful in it. Two totally complete different roles. Actually I think in Postman I can't see anyone else in that role. lol. She could play sexy, sensual and a mother, business woman. I always thought it was so ironic that she played Madame X and did the court scene. Something like her real life.

  3. Wow - talk about myth-busting! Not Schwab's?! Rupert, I always learn something absolutely new from you.

    I've always had a kind of up-and-down regard for Lana Turner. In Postman, she's at the top of her form, the best work she's ever done. Playing opposite Garfield changed her game; anytime a good actor plays opposite a better one, you see the same thing happen. I frankly think her glamour gets in the way too often, and directors and studios should have let her wallow in the mire a little more. Postman is a great example of how that could pay off.

    Great post, Rupert.

  4. Postman is a great film. She really shines there. I'm a big fan of Lana. She's beautiful and talented. I learned some new things from your blog post. Good job.

  5. The Postman Always Rings Twice is a fabulous film, and my absolute favorite of Lana's....interesting blog Rupert. 7 marriages? You'd think you'd call it quits after number 6. :)

  6. There are a few images of Lana with Ronald Reagan taken around 1938 showing them both formally dressed in breeches and boots as if they had been horseback-riding together: did they have an affair (Ron was always a horse-person and was in the U.S. Army Cavalry Reserve at the time) or would they have been just providing publicity shots for a film/movie that they were both acting in at the time (any idea which one?). ; J.H.



Related Posts with Thumbnails