Loretta Young: From Naughty to Nice

Last year the centennial of actress Loretta Young was celebrated with an exhibit at the Hollywood Museum, a ceremony at the Palm Springs Historical Society, and the rededication of Young's namesake memorial chapel at the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, Young's longtime home. Young was also the Star of the Month on Turner Classic Movies. These were all most deserved honors for an Oscar-winning actress and television pioneer.

Young was born in Utah on January 6, 1913. Her family moved to Southern California, where the pretty young girl began appearing in silent films as a child. By the time Loretta was in her teens she had emerged as the star among a family of actors which included her older sisters Polly Ann Young and Sally Blane; the extended Young clan would later grow to include Sally's husband, actor-director Norman Foster, and half-sister Georgiana's husband, Ricardo Montalban.

For years Loretta was known best for her later, 'ladylike' roles in films such as the Christmas perennial The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and on her long-running TV series. The availability of Young's pre-Code work, thanks to DVDs and Turner Classic Movies, has allowed viewers to see her career in a new context.

The young Loretta was a riveting stunner, with her performances in films such as Taxi! (1932) and Midnight Mary (1933) conveying a glamour and steam quite different from her later, better-known roles. Historian-critic Mick La-Salle, author of the pre-Code history Complicated Women, refers to these roles as the 'Drinking-Smoking Loretta,' while historian Jeanine Basinger wrote in The Star Machine 'This is not our mothers' Loretta Young.'  Getting to know Young's early work is fascinating, giving viewers a more complete picture of her many career accomplishments.

As her career moved on throughout the '30s, Loretta starred in everything from romantic comedies to a DeMille epic to biopics such Suez (1938) and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). The '40s saw her starring in more comedies, interspersed with wartime dramas such as the hard-hitting China (1943) and Ladies Courageous (1944).

Several of Young's best films came in the late '40s, including the Orson Welles film The Stranger (1946), the previously mentioned classic Bishop’s Wife, and her Oscar-winning role as The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), not to mention another Oscar-nominated role in Come to the Stable (1949). In the early '50s Loretta left films behind for television, producing her own long-running, Emmy-winning series and helping to blaze a trail for other female television executives.

After her TV series ended in the early '60s Loretta retired from the screen, returning to make a pair of TV-movies in the late '80s, Christmas Eve (1986) and Lady in the Corner (1989).

Loretta Young passed away on August 12, 2000. Her family maintains an official website honoring her life and career.

There are several good books on Loretta Young, including her authorized biography Forever Young by Joan Wester Anderson; her daughter Judy's memoir Uncommon Knowledge; and a recent biography by Bernard Dick, Hollywood Madonna.

It's quite surprising that The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) isn't available on DVD; it holds up today as a wonderful movie with a charming performance by Loretta. Another favorite which has yet to make it to DVD in the U.S. is Rachel and the Stranger (1948), costarring William Holden and Robert Mitchum.

Here are a dozen recommended Young titles which showcase her varied films and performances over a couple of decades:

Taxi! (1932) - Viewers who only know Loretta from her later roles are sometimes surprised by the pre-Code roles she enacted in her late teens and early 20s. Here she more than holds her own opposite James Cagney; in their nightclub scene she's impossibly cool and glamorous. It's hard to believe Loretta was just 18 when this was filmed.

Employees’ Entrance (1933) - One of the most infamous of all pre-Code titles, Loretta plays the young wife of Wallace Ford, a woman so desperate for a job she gives in to spending a night with the amoral head of the store (Warren William). 

Midnight Mary (1933) - My favorite Young film, in which Loretta plays a gangster's moll who wants to go straight for love of a lawyer (Franchot Tone). Ricardo Cortez is the villain who won't let go. Loretta even plays herself as a child in this remarkable piece of pre-Code cinema, directed by William Wellman.

The Crusades (1935) - Loretta was in the early stages of her secret pregnancy with Clark Gable's child while making this very entertaining Cecil B. DeMille epic, but the stress she was under does not appear onscreen in her performance as the brave Princess Berengaria of Navarre, wife to King Richard of England. It's hard to think of another actress of the era who could have carried off this role, equal parts nervy and soulful. Loretta's absence from the screen after The Crusades was explained as illness, and she later was said to have 'adopted' daughter Judy, a charade which allowed both Young and Gable to preserve their careers and enabled Young with the means to raise her child.

Café Metropole (1937) - One of five films of the '30s which teamed Loretta with Tyrone Power; was there ever a more gorgeous screen team?  This well-written romantic comedy has an original, complicated plot to go with a perfect cast.

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) - Loretta plays Mabel, the beloved deaf wife of Alexander Graham Bell (Don Ameche), in a very entertaining film which is one of my personal favorites. It's especially fun to see Loretta's real-life sisters, Polly Ann Young, Sally Blane (born Elizabeth Jane Young), and Georgiana Young, as her onscreen siblings.

A Night to Remember (1943) - One of my favorite Young comedies, in which she's the giddy wife of a mystery writer who insists they move into a Greenwich Village apartment with lots of 'atmosphere.'  Young and costar Brian Aherne have excellent chemistry in this underrated, very enjoyable film.

Along Came Jones (1945) - Another comedy, this time a Western, with Young playing opposite Gary Cooper, who's mistaken for a dangerous outlaw. Young's dazzled, thunderstruck 'Thank you!' after Cooper kisses her is the film's best moment.

The Stranger (1946) - A change of pace, with Loretta starring opposite Orson Welles and Edward G. Robinson in a nail-biting suspense film which was also directed by Welles. Loretta comes to the realization that she has just married an infamous Nazi war criminal who's masquerading as a teacher in a small Connecticut town.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947) - There's little that needs to be said about this Christmas perennial, but I strongly encourage anyone who hasn't seen it, or perhaps hasn't watched it recently, to take another look. Pure Christmas movie magic.

Come to the Stable (1949) - This isn't a Christmas film, yet it feels like one, as nuns Young and Celeste Holm relocate from France to America and struggle to build a hospital. It's to Young and Holm's credit that the movie is sweet but not cloying. The movie was nominated for seven Oscars, including Young's second Best Actress nomination.

Cause for Alarm! (1951) - A fun example of what some call 'housewife noir,' as Loretta comes to realize her husband (Barry Sullivan) is insane and has framed her for his murder. Young's in virtually every scene of this low-budget yet entertaining film.

Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005.