Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Farewell to Coleen Gray

The news that Coleen Gray has passed on, which I first learned from Alan K. Rode last evening, has hit particularly hard.

In 2012 I wrote a 90th birthday tribute to Coleen Gray expressing my admiration of her. The tribute was noticed by Coleen's friend David Schechter, who kindly arranged for me to interview Coleen on the phone.

A condensed version of our talk appeared in the Dark Pages film noir newsletter's 2013 tribute to the film noir classic NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947); I described a portion of our interview here. I expect to share that interview in sections here in the future.

Some of the stories Coleen told me were also used in a 2013 tribute to her which I wrote for ClassicFlix.

Coleen was a remarkable lady who had nerves of steel, whether it was spontaneously reciting monologues to audition for a room of intimidating Fox executives or being an unknown contract actress who dared to make an appointment with studio head Darryl Zanuck to ask for the role of Molly in NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

Coleen then further had the courage to turn down the NIGHTMARE ALLEY part she wanted so much when Fox tried to wiggle out of a contractually mandated salary increase in exchange for giving her the role. The young actress, about 24 years old at the time, told the studio they weren't being fair and "cried a lot." The studio eventually caved.

In her first featured roles the young actress worked opposite some of Hollywood's biggest names: John Wayne, Victor Mature, and Tyrone Power. (RED RIVER was filmed first but released after KISS OF DEATH and NIGHTMARE ALLEY.) I asked Coleen how it felt to be a newcomer to films and whether acting opposite big names she'd admired for years was intimidating, and she said, "It was exhilarating. Nobody made me uncomfortable. Everybody was nice."

Although Coleen very occasionally played a femme fatale, such as in THE SLEEPING CITY (1950), she is best known as the "good girl" of film noir. I asked how she felt about that and she said, "I didn’t like being a sweet, wholesome type. I wanted to be sexy. I wanted to be evil and do all those juicy parts. I realize now that the good Lord was protecting me. Better to stay where you are and be good at it..."

Coleen was a woman of strong Christian faith, and something else I admire about her is that later in life she and her husband ministered to women in prison, encouraging them to turn their lives around and start fresh when they were released.

Below is a gallery of some of Coleen Gray's most notable films.

KISS OF DEATH (1947) with Victor Mature; her fresh, natural performance grabbed my attention and made me a fan of her work:

Starring with Tyrone Power in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947):

With John Wayne in Howard Hawks' RED RIVER (1948):

Reunited with Victor Mature in FURY AT FURNACE CREEK (1948):

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952) with Preston Foster and John Payne; she and Payne also costarred in THE VANQUISHED (1953) and TENNESSEE'S PARTNER (1955) and for a time shared an offscreen romance:

ARROW IN THE DUST (1954) with Sterling Hayden:

With Hayden again in Stanley Kubrick's classic THE KILLING (1956):

Starring with Jeff Morrow in COPPER SKY (1957), a personal favorite of mine:

Obituaries have been posted by Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Los Angeles Times.

Update: The Los Angeles Times has now published a much more complete obituary, and there was also a good story in The Guardian.

Update: Here's a tribute from Toby at 50 Westerns From the 50s.

Update: I recently realized that my interview with Coleen with cited in her obituary in the Washington Post. Thanks to obituary writer Adam Bernstein for including my talk with her in his story and linking back here.

Coleen Gray was extra-special to me, and while I'm very sad she's no longer with us, she leaves behind a distinguished body of work which we can all enjoy in the years to come.

My sincere condolences to Coleen's family and friends.

Coleen Gray films reviewed at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: KISS OF DEATH (1947), NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), FURY AT FURNACE CREEK (1948), THE SLEEPING CITY (1950), FATHER IS A BACHELOR (1950), APACHE DRUMS (1951), THE FAKE (1953), SABRE JET (1953), ARROW IN THE DUST (1954) (also here), LAS VEGAS SHAKEDOWN (1955), TENNESSEE'S PARTNER (1955), THE WILD DAKOTAS (1956), THE KILLING (1956), and COPPER SKY (1957).

Notable Coleen Gray films not yet reviewed include RED RIVER (1948), SAND (1949), RIDING HIGH (1950), KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952), THE VANQUISHED (1953), DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL (1956), HELL'S FIVE HOURS (1958), and THE LEECH WOMAN (1960).

Update: I've now reviewed HELL'S FIVE HOURS (1958).


Blogger Jerry E said...

An especially nice and heartfelt tribute to an "unsung" heroine (generally) of some of our favourite movies. Thanks for marking a long life so graciously, Laura.

2:32 PM  
Blogger DKoren said...

Awww, man. That is sad. I had the privilege of meeting her at one of the Hollywood shows a few years back, and I have that Nightmare Alley picture you show here, with Tyrone Power, autographed by her. She told me some fantastic stories about Dana Andrews, etc. I have really enjoyed her movie performances over the years and will enjoy catching more in the years to come. Very nice tribute. RIP.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Her performance in Red River, though brief, is essential to making the film work. Her few moments with Wayne are indelible.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for the kind words and for sharing your appreciation of a wonderful actress.

Jerry, it was definitely heartfelt, she meant a lot to me, especially KISS OF DEATH and COPPER SKY, and of course the memories I have of our delightful chat. All these years later she still had a sense of wonder that she had idolized Tyrone Power and Loretta Young as a girl growing up on a farm, and then there she was acting with Tyrone!

Deb, that's so wonderful you met her and got to chat with her! I'm really happy to hear that and would love to hear more in the future. :)

Mark, I've seen RED RIVER a couple of times yet it was long ago, before I really knew Coleen's work. I have the Criterion DVD here, I just need to make the time to catch up with it. Thaks for sharing your thoughts.

Best wishes,

7:18 PM  
Blogger john knight said...

A wonderful tribute to one of my all time favorites.
Even in the B Movies that Coleen made,she always gave wonderful performances.
Very sad to hear of Coleen's passing,I will run one of her films tonight as a
personal tribute-so many great ones to choose from.
I look forward to Laura's reviews of the Coleen films that she mentioned,in the
"to be reviewed" section.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Amanda said...

RIP. Alas, we lose another star. I adored her in 'Nightmare Alley', but don't recall seeing her in anything else.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Kristina Dijan said...

Wonderful tribute to a memorable actress and admirable person. What a special thing to have had that interaction with her, and these personal memories.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Joel Williams said...

Lovely write-up. So nice to know that she and her husband did prison ministry.

9:45 AM  

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