Jennifer Kellow Fiorini
Lana Turner - The Ultimate Movie Star
Lana Turner’s greatest performance was the role of the movie star, and she was so good at it that no one could think of her as anything else. Although she was never in the top ten box office stars list put out by the Motion Picture Exhibitors of America, she was born a star and died a star, with a personal life full of disaster, poverty, and legend.
Lana was born Julia Jean Mildred Francis Turner in 1920. When she was ten years old her gambler father was murdered, presumably for his winnings, but the crime was never solved. Turner said the murder was a dominant influence on her life. Her mother went to work at a beauty parlor but had little education and no family support during the Depression. Mother and daughter went to the movies to escape reality before moving to Hollywood where Lana attended Hollywood High School. She often cut class to hang out at Currie’s Candy and Cigar Store. in January 1936, just before her sixteenth birthday, she was spotted by a talent scout who asked if she’d consider being in movies. Lana replied “I don’t know, I’ll have to ask my mother.” To this day some form of that story exists as Hollywood legend promoted by the studio she worked for. Although the details became more glamorous, life and legend were already indistinguishable.
A young Lana Turner in the late 1930's.
The first film that got her noticed, “They Won’t Forget ” in 1937, featured her in a small key role as a young girl who was raped and murdered. She needed to be innocent and sexy, memorable enough to have the audience root for her to be avenged and not forget her after her off screen death. Director Mervyn LeRoy knew she had the makings of a star and became her mentor in the early years of her career. LeRoy was respected, and when he left Warner Bros to work at MGM, he took Lana with him. Lana finished high school at MGM’s Little Schoolhouse with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney while the studio gave her acting lessons, tried her in B pictures, and molded her star appeal. The move to MGM changed Lana’s life forever — it was the studio she was destined for.
Lana Turner in her controversial film debut They Won't Forget, 1937.
Lana Turner loses her brunette locks for These Glamour Girls, 1939.
At the end of 1940, MGM decided it was time to put Lana in A-list movies to see if she had what it took to be a big star. Cast in “Ziegfeld Girl” she was fourth billed after James Stewart, Judy Garland, and Hedy Lamarr. The iconic scene in “Ziegfeld Girl” when a beautiful Lana, decked in furs and jewels, but sick, collapses on the staircase and dies, made her an instant sensation.
Lana Turner in Ziegfeld Girl, 1941.
In real life, she loved the nightlife and dating scene. A week after her twentieth birthday she married band leader Artie Shaw on the night of their first date. The marriage lasted 4 months and 17 days. Audiences loved seeing her in the role of the beautiful girl gone wrong, paired with leading men like Robert Taylor in “Johnny Eager”, Clark Gable in “Honkytonk”, and John Garfield in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Offscreen she lived up to her glamorous reputation, and less than two years after her divorce, she impulsively married again in Las Vegas. Not long after the marriage she discovered second husband Steve Crane, lied about being single, but Lana was pregnant and had to re-marry a guy she knew she’d never stay with. Her only child, Cheryl Christina Crane, born July 26, 1943, was an Rh-negative baby who needed special blood transfusions to survive. Turner divorced Crane in 1944. At 24 she was a movie star, a mother, and three-times-married.
John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946.
Even in Hollywood this was scandalous, and MGM decided if they couldn’t control her, they would exploit her private life in the movies they put her in. While filming the big budget epic “Green Dolphin Street” in 1947, she made headlines when she flew to Mexico for a weekend to see her current lover, Tyrone Power. The press went wild photographing the dazzling couple at parties and nightclubs. But as quickly as it started, Power unceremoniously ended it announcing his engagement to another woman who he subsequently married. The affair not only hurt Lana emotionally, but greatly tarnished her reputation. She jeopardized production on an expensive MGM film to go after him, and he jilted her. From there, her press became a downward spiral of negativity. They viewed her as spoiled and reckless, but it was only the beginning. Her involvement with a real-life gangster would take her to the bottom.
Lana and Tyrone Power during their brief but glamorous reign as the hottest couple in Hollywood. 1947.
Lana Turner and Tyrone Power circa 1947.
Photoplay magazine - note the story on Lana and Ty Power's first pictures as a couple. This photo was possibly a teaser for costume drama Green Dolphin Street released in November of 1947.
Resources for this blog post
The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger
You Must Remember This Podcast - MGM Stories Lana Turner