It’s 1947. Out of the Past has just been released to huge critical acclaim. Its leading lady, Jane Greer, appears on the front cover of Life magazine. Time will rate her as one of Hollywood’s six most promising actresses alongside Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor.
She’s attractive, intelligent and seriously talented. She has what it takes to make it big in Tinseltown. And she is about to see her career crash and burn. In just a few years’ time, she will have all but faded from public consciousness.
Use the suggestions at the bottom of this page if you want to read a detailed biography. What follows is a drama in three acts that encompasses some big early turning points in Jane Greer’s life told as far as possible in her own words and those of her contemporaries.
Act 1 – Jane makes the most of an early setback
Born in 1924, by age 12 Bettejane Greer (she will drop the Bette in 1945 – “a sissy name … too Bo-Peepish, ingenueish for the type of role I’ve been playing”) is already a professional model.
Then one day in 1940 she is asked by her party date why she is pulling such a funny face. Checking in the mirror, she’s appalled to find that the muscles on the left side of her face have gone totally slack. She is diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a form of facial paralysis. The doctors tell her she is unlikely to recover.
For a time she has to close her left eye with her hand when she goes to sleep and she has to push the left corner of her mouth up into a frozen smile before going off to school. Every day she has to do a series of painstaking exercises to maintain muscle tone and stimulate her facial nerve. Over time she manages to get back almost complete control of her face.
Later in her career, Jane will tell people how the experience helped her become an actress:
I’d always wanted to be an actress, and suddenly I knew that learning to control my facial muscles was one of the best assets I could have as a performer.
And nowhere are the lessons she learns put to better use than in arguably the greatest of all films noirs – Out of the Past.
Act 2 – Jane puts in a performance
Like many other films in the genre (The Big Sleep and The Lady from Shanghai spring to mind), Out of the Past has a pretty labyrinthine plot that’s not always easy to follow. When Bosley Crowther reviews it for The New York Times, he writes that its 97 minutes of back stabbing and double-dealing are such that they have to be “reckoned by logarithmic tables”.
Having said that, I’ve read another view that the plot is so simple a child can understand it. Everybody dies, and the story elegantly shows each character moving inexorably, often knowing and unable to halt the march, to his/her destiny. And there certainly is an air of inevitability and desperation about this film about an ex-private investigator, reluctantly dragged back to his old profession to track down a gambler’s girlfriend who has run off with $40,000. “I just want her back. When you see her, you’ll understand better.”
The girlfriend, Kathie Moffat, is played by Jane Greer; the private investigator, Jeff Bailey, by Robert Mitchum. And needless to say, he falls under her spell the moment she appears “coming out of the sun,” elusive but radiant. A few days later she reappears, this time “out of the moonlight,” and under that subtropical Acapulco moon they walk on the beach and then run to her bungalow when a sudden deluge drenches them to the skin and blows open the door to their passion.
The scenes in Acapulco have a lyrical, almost hallucinatory quality. Time seems to stand still. Whereas in the second half of the film, set mostly in a dark and sinister San Francisco, events career along at breakneck speed and out of control.
Kathie is a manipulative, duplicitous, scheming vixen. Or, to use another metaphor, a vamp who causes good men to make bad decisions while showing all the empathy and compassion of a preying mantis. “She can’t be all bad. No one is,” says Jeff’s nice girlfriend, Ann Miller. But he replies, “She comes closest.”
Elsewhere he likens Kathie to “a leaf that the wind blows from gutter to gutter”. She is victim just as much as predator, not just a conventional, hard-boiled femme fatale. We can empathize with her because, as we get to know her, we realize that her actions are motivated as much by fear as by greed or lust. Just like Bailey, she is trapped and trying desperately to find a way out.
Jane Greer manages to convey the complex thoughts and emotions that lie beneath the surface of her character. In the beginning, she appears quite warm, frightened and sincere. When she turns hardboiled, it’s subtle, with only a change in her eyes and voice. The way she alternates between domination and submission is just awesome and totally convincing.
It was a wonderful part, with a wonderful introduction for the character; this was a girl of which one man says, ‘She shot me, I want her back, go find her.’ People wanted to see what she looked like! And when I finally did show up twenty minutes later, people had heard so much about me that they thought, ‘She must be something!’ And they said, ‘My God, she’s stunning! Look at that hat!’ and all that. It was all contrived, you know.
Act 3 – Jane meets her nemesis
Jane Greer is brought to Hollywood by Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire and film producer.
In 1945, while I was still living with my parents, we got along and I saw him quite a bit for a while. We often went to the Chi Chi bar on Hollywood Boulevard where he would eat the same things all the time: hamburgers, peas, mash potatoes, salad and a chocolate sundae. He would call me at odd hours, like at eleven o’clock in the evening, and ask me out to dinner. I would say, “Howard, I’ve gone to bed.” “But it’s not that far, and please don’t let me eat alone.” So I would get dressed.
He loved to talk on the phone; we were once at the Chi Chi and he got up. “I’m not going to make any phone calls,” he said, “I’m just going to the men’s room.” After a long time he came back and sat down. I said, “You made some phone calls, didn’t you?” “I didn’t, I swear, I didn’t.” But his shirt was all wet. I said, “What happened to your shirt?” “I just washed it, I took it off and washed it, there was some chocolate sauce on it.” That’s when I first noticed the washing syndrome, the compulsive washing hands syndrome that I had heard about. Years later he had a lot of problems with this compulsive behavior, but then I wasn’t around him anymore.
In another interview:
I found him rather endearing, like a child. His idea was to go to the amusement park. He won a large collection of Kewpie dolls for me.
Hughes signs Jane up to an exclusive contract only to keep her shelved with no screen test and no movies to make, just strict instructions not to get involved with anyone. “He wanted to own people – he collected them.” She sues, pays to end her contract, then joins RKO, where she makes Out of the Past… only to have Hughes buy the studio and make trouble for her.
After I finished Out of the Past, Howard Hughes bought the studio. He had me come into his office which was at the Goldwyn Studios; he never came onto the RKO lot. He said to me, “I know you’re not happy.” I said, “What do you mean? I am happy, I have a baby now, and I hope to have more. I am happy!” He said, “You’re not happy with your husband, Edward Lasker.” I said, “Yes, I am!” He knew Edward and he didn’t like him. Then he said, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, as long as I own the studio, you won’t work.” So I said, “This will kill my career!” He said, “Yes, it will.”
…When The Big Steal came along, Robert Mitchum had been arrested for possessing marijuana and his leading lady Lizabeth Scott already had her wardrobe. But when she found out he had to go to jail, she said, “I don’t want to do it.” So they were trying to find someone to work with him, because they wanted him to go to work in Mexico the next Tuesday. Several people were asked to do it, including Joan Bennett, but they all turned it down. I really wanted to do it, because I didn’t want Bob to be hurt by all this turning down. Finally, and I guess they got stuck, the head of the studio, Sid Rogell, came to my house and said. “Howard’s going to call you and he’s gonna try to trap you, so be careful.” “Trap me?!” He said, “Don’t tell him I was here!” I said, “I won’t!” Well, when the phone rang, it was Howard. “Bettejane – he always called me Bettejane – Bettejane, are you interested in doing this picture with Bob Mitchum?” I said, “I’d love to, Howard. I love Bob, you know that, I worked with him and I’d love to work with him again.” He said, “Well then, all right, but you’d have to wear Lisabeth Scott’s wardrobe. You leave next Tuesday.” “All right.” “You have anything else to tell me?” I said, “No, I don’t think so.” “You liar, you’re pregnant! You’re knocked up.” I said, “Am I?” “Yes!” I said, “I didn’t know, they haven’t called me yet. I did take a test, but I haven’t gotten the result of the test yet.” “Well I got it, and you’re knocked up.” “But I still can do the picture. If we start next Tuesday, I’ve still got some time ’cause it won’t show until the fourth or fifth month.”
Well, we went to Mexico and I realized that these costumes they had made were going to be tough, a tight short skirt, a bolero, things like that – no big hats, nothing to hide behind. Everybody thought that if Bob Mitchum is working, in Mexico especially, the judge will think, “Well, we’ll bring that guy back from Mexico, give him a light tap on the hand, send him back to Mexico and let him finish the picture.” No way! The judge sentenced him to sixty days. So Bob went to jail and regarding my pregnancy, it was a tight squeeze towards the end, ’cause we went back to Mexico and we worked another couple of months there. When we came back to America, we did most of the close-ups and the car chases; I could at least sit down.
Postscript – Jane gets her just deserts
It’s the early 1970s and one of Jane’s sons comes home from his film class at UCLA. “Mother,” he says, “You’re the queen of film noir.”. “What’s that?” It’s the first time Jane has heard the term for the genre in which she excelled.
Want to know more about Jane Greer?
There are excellent obituaries, which give an overview of Jane’s life and achievements, in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Telegraph.
You can find extracts from interviews with her in Movies Were Always Magical: Interviews with 13 Actors, Directors and Producers from the Hollywood of the 1950s by Leo Verswijver and Ronnie Pede, and Ladies of the Western: Interviews With Fifty-one More Actresses from the Silent Era to the Television Westerns of the 1950s And 1960s by Michael G Fitzgerald, Boyd Magers and Kathryn Adams.
There are some great insights into Out of the Past at IMDb, hal0000 and Film Noir of the Week. Also a nice review of The Big Steal, another Greer/Mitchum vehicle, at Mark Bacon’s Nostalgia City Mysteries.
I sourced the account of Jane’s discovery that she had Bell’s palsy from an article (apparently no longer available) Hollywood.com. And you can watch Jane being interviewed by cable TV host, Skip Lowe, on YouTube (the interview runs from 1:05 to 12:30).