The Girl Next Door: Jeanne Crain

Jeanne Crain was the quintessential girl next door, a teenager who became a star overnight and went on to a long and successful career while also parenting a large family off the screen.

Crain was born in the California desert town of Barstow on May 25, 1925.  Her family later moved to Los Angeles, where legend has it she was spotted by Orson Welles while she was on an RKO studio tour.  He had her tested for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); that didn't work out, with Anne Baxter cast as Joseph Cotten's daughter, but shortly thereafter beautiful young Jeanne won a beauty contest in Long Beach and was put under contract at 20th Century-Fox.

Crain made her feature film debut in Home in Indiana (1944), where she followed director Henry Hathaway's advice, 'Look, you're just a kid, and this is just a kid you're playing.  Be yourself.'  It worked; Crain simply glows, whether she's a tomboy with her hair in braids or dressed up as a young lady.  The camera loved Jeanne, and her looks and her effervescent personality made her an immediate star.

Just a year after Home in Indiana, Jeanne was starring in films which would be come to be recognized as classics, State Fair (1945) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945).  It was just the beginning of a busy career which would last the better part of three decades.

1945 was significant to Crain for another reason; she married Paul Brinkman, who had a brief film career under the name of Paul Brooks, at Hollywood's Church of the Blessed Sacrament on Sunset Boulevard.  It was a marriage which would endure, despite some publicized ups and downs, until his death in October 2003. 

One of the ironies of Crain's film career is that she was playing ingénues while simultaneously off the screen she was the mother of a growing family, giving birth to seven children over a span of 18 years.  Jeanne lost a number of roles over the years due to her constantly expanding family, but when one looks at her long list of fine credits, it's rather impressive she managed such a substantive film career while also raising a large family.  In James Robert Parish's THE FOX GIRLS, she was quoted as saying she preferred 'an armful of babies to a scrapbook full of screen credits.'

Jeanne's screen acting career finally came to a conclusion in 1972 with a role in the all-star cast of the very diverting Skyjacked, starring Charlton Heston. 

Jeanne died on December 14, 2003, just a few weeks after the death of her husband Paul.  Her funeral was held at Mission Santa Barbara.

Jeanne was survived by five of her seven children as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Some key Crain films have not yet made it to DVD, the Jerome Kern musical Centennial Summer (1946), and the film that's the favorite of many Crain fans, Margie (1946).

That said, here are a dozen titles available on DVD which Jeanne Crain fans will want to check out:

State Fair (1945) - Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote their original score directly for the screen, and it's delightful in every respect.  Jeanne stars as farm girl Margy Frake, who finds love with a handsome newspaper columnist (Dana Andrews).  Jeanne introduced the Oscar-winning song 'It Might As Well Be Spring,' dubbed by Louanne Hogan, who served as Jeanne's voice double in three additional films.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) - Jeanne plays evil Gene Tierney's good cousin, 'The Girl With the Hoe,' in this 'color noir,' a film especially memorable for Leon Shamroy's stunning Technicolor photography.

You Were Meant for Me (1948) - A partial remake of Orchestra Wives (1942), this is a fine film in its own right, with a strong performance by Crain.  She perfectly captures the youth, inexperience, and nerve of a young lady who falls for a band leader (Dan Dailey).

Apartment for Peggy (1948) - This is classic Jeanne Crain, one of her best performances and most-loved films.  Jeanne plays Peggy, the young bride of a veteran (William Holden) attending college.  She hits all the right notes as the buoyant Peggy, who is determined that her husband will get his degree despite the fact they're living on a shoestring with a baby on the way.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) - Jeanne plays Deborah, one of the three wives in this Oscar-winning classic.  Her Deborah was a farm girl who fell in love with her husband (Jeffrey Lynn) while serving during the war; when they lose the equalizing effect of their military uniforms, Deborah finds herself very uncomfortable adapting to life as the wife of a financially well-off man.

Pinky (1949) - Half a decade after her film debut Jeanne received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Pinky.  Jeanne starred in the title role as a light-skinned African-American woman who 'passes' for white.  The film costars William Lundigan, Ethel Barrymore, and Ethel Waters; it was directed by Elia Kazan.

Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) - Jeanne gave birth to her third child shortly after playing Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy's oldest daughter Ann in this classic family comedy.  She was also on board for the sequel, Belles on Their Toes (1952).

People Will Talk (1951) - This unusual film, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is a personal favorite.  In a rather daring storyline for its day, Jeanne plays a suicidal unwed mother who marries an unorthodox doctor (Cary Grant).  The extended scene in which Jeanne believes she's become pregnant with her new husband's baby, realizes the truth, and then accepts his assertion that who fathered the baby doesn't matter in the slightest is a classic piece of writing and acting.  The movie was ahead of its time; in my opinion, it should have received some Oscar nominations.

Dangerous Crossing (1953) - In the early '50s Jeanne starred in some good suspense films, this being one of them.  Jeanne is a bride who embarks on her honeymoon cruise only to 'lose' her husband and his luggage.  There's no record her husband ever boarded the ship.  Is she crazy?  Michael Rennie plays the ship's doctor.

Vicki (1953) - Jeanne took the role originally played by Betty Grable in this remake of I Wake Up Screaming (1941).  Jean Peters has the title role as Jeanne's sister, a beautiful model who's murdered.  Whodunit?

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) - In this solid Western Jeanne plays the pregnant wife of mild-mannered storekeeper Glenn Ford, who's trying to escape his past as a gunslinger.  Broderick Crawford plays a man who comes to town determined to usurp Ford's title as 'the fastest gun alive.'

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.