Jane Greer – the queen of film noir

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.

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Majorette

Majorette

Around 1946. RKO Radio Pictures publicity shot of Jane Greer by Ernest Bacharach.

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Changing nature’s black tresses to golden brown

Changing nature’s black tresses to golden brown

1947. Publicity portrait of Jane Greer for They Won’t Believe Me. Photo by Ernest Bacharach.

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In trouble

In trouble

1949. Jane Greer playing a woman on parole in The Wall Outside. Photo by Ernest Bacharach.

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Glamorous ex-convict

Glamorous ex-convict

1949. Jane Greer playing a woman on parole in The Wall Outside. Photo by Ernest Bacharach.

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Jane Greer looking forward

Jane Greer looking forward

1946. RKO Radio Pictures publicity portrait of Jane Greer by Ernest Bacharach.

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Exotic beauty

Exotic beauty

1947. Publicity shot for Two O’Clock Courage, Jane Greer's debut movie. Photo by Ernest Bacharach.

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Femme fatale

Femme fatale

1947. RKO Radio Pictures publicity portrait of Jane Greer by Ernest Bacharach.

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Disciplinarian

Disciplinarian

1947. Publicity shot for They Won't Believe Me. The caption on the back suggests that Jane Greer seems to be disciplining an off-screen dog. Photo by Ernest Bacharach.

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.

jane greer da-22c
1946. Jane Greer during her early Hollywood days.

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”.

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Kathie in a bar in Acapulco

Kathie in a bar in Acapulco

1947. Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past soon after she appears for the first time – "out of the sunlight."

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Femme fatale

Femme fatale

1947. Drenched by the rain, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) is all set to make love for the first time to Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) in this scene from Out of the Past.

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The mood darkens

The mood darkens

1947. The mood, the sets, the lighting, even the costumes get darker as the plot of Out of the Past moves inexorably toward its dénouement. Jane Greer's costume here is designed by Edward Stevenson.

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Preparing to shoot

Preparing to shoot

1947. Jacques Tourneur (director) makes a final adjustment to Jane Greer's hat as they prepare to shoot a scene for Out of the Past.

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Partners in crime

Partners in crime

1947. Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in a scene from Out of the Past.

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Kathie and The Kid

Kathie and The Kid

1947. Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) with “The Kid,” Jeff Bailey’s deaf-mute young assistant (Dickie Moore) in a scene from Out of the Past.

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Final instructions

Final instructions

1947. Jacques Tourneur (director) gives instructions to Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum on the set of Out of the Past. Cinematographer Nick Musuraca looks on.

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Kathie the killer

Kathie the killer

1947. Pistol in hand, Kathie Moffat prepares for the dénouement in Out of the Past. Kathie is played by Jane Greer.

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.

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on-the-trail

1. On the trail

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) travels to Acapulco to track down Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). He waits for her in a bar. "And then I saw her, coming out of the sun and I knew I didn’t care about that 40 grand."
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passion-rising

2. Passion rising

Jeff (Robert Mitchum) and Kathie (Jane Greer), caught in a tropical storm, run to her Acapulco hide-out. It’s torrential outside and it's steamy indoors.
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bang

3. Bang!

Jeff Bailey’s partner turns up looking for a fight. He gets more than he bargained for. Robert Mitchum is Jeff, Steve Brodie is his partner, Jack Fisher, Jane Greer is his partner-in-crime, Kathie Moffat.

Act 3 – Jane meets her nemesis

Jane Greer is brought to Hollywood by Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire and film producer.

bachrach greer leopardskin dress
1945. It’s not difficult to see why Jane Greer caught the eye of Howard Hughes.

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?

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.

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).

Marguerite Chapman – a real trooper

Lady of mystery – Marguerite Chapman in The Walls Came Tumbling Down. Photo by Bob Coburn.
1946. Lady of mystery – Marguerite Chapman in The Walls Came Tumbling Down. Photo by Bob Coburn.

Marguerite Chapman wasn’t just a beautiful, blue-eyed brunette. She was a fun, sassy actress who put in a shift to graduate from ‘B’-star to ‘A’-star status – no mean achievement.

Age 21, at the behest of Howard Hughes, movie mogul, business tycoon, aviator and all-round eccentric, she arrives in Hollywood on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1939  ‘lonelier than I had ever been in my life’.

Hughes had arranged for Pat di Cicco, Cubby Broccoli and Bruce Cabot to squire me here and there. When I met Ruth and Hoagy Carmichael, they gave me advice appropriate for a young girl visiting Hollywood for the first time. They told me to keep away from my three escorts and to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I did everything they told me not to…

Cubby Broccoli will go on to produce many of the James Bond films.

Things don’t work out with Hughes, and Marguerite moves to 20th Century Fox. Her stint there lasts just six months. This might have something to do with her first encounter with the studio’s production chief, Darryl Zanuck. The venue is Ciro’s, a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard opened in January 1940. With its luxe baroque interior, it is one of ‘the’ places to be seen and guaranteed being written about in the gossip columns of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

Zanuck, who was short, asked me to dance. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t like to dance with men who are shorter than I am.’ That was a mistake.

Later Marguerite is signed by Columbia and, like most Columbia employees, is not happy with her pay. The night the film Pardon My Past is finished, she attends a dinner party thrown by Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, at his house.

I was wearing this cute little dress and Harry asked me where I got it and then asked, `How much did you pay for it?’ In front of the other guests I replied, `I paid $75, my week’s salary. Aren’t you ashamed?’ I always talked like that to Harry. He was always calling me into his office. I think he enjoyed sparring with me.

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Symphony in black satin

Symphony in black satin

1947. Marguerite Chapman and her stand-in, Mary Ann Featherstone – a symphony in black satin on the Columbia Pictures lot during the filming of Mr...

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With a couple of admirers…

With a couple of admirers…

1947. Marguerite Chapman and two admirers on the set of Mr District Attorney. Wonder if she’s wearing Perc Westmore’s panchromatic base for when that...

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Foxy lady

Foxy lady

1945. Modelling a seductive black creation and a scheming look on her face accentuated by atmospheric lighting, Marguerite Chapman looks more like a femme fatale...

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Baroque beauty

Baroque beauty

Around 1945. Great diagonal composition that highlights Marguerite Chapman's striking profile. She must have learned all about make-up during her days as a model; and...

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A touch of the orient

A touch of the orient

1945. The camera tilt, emphasised by the vase, lends this shot a real tension. Perhaps Robert Coburn was remembering his early experience as a boy...

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Heavenly houri

Heavenly houri

1944. Probably a publicity photo for A Thousand and One Nights in which Marguerite Chapman starred as ‘a heavenly houri’. With its exotic ensemble and...

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Packing for the weekend

Packing for the weekend

Around 1943. Part of a fashion shoot to keep up the morale of the troops and their girls. The caption on the back of the...

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Something in the air

Something in the air

Around 1947. Ostrich feathers are a great prop that Bud Graybill used to particularly stunning effect with Hazel Brooks in the most provocative still...

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Marguerite Chapman’s career in short

Like Hazel Brooks, Marguerite worked as a John Powers model before decamping to Hollywood.

During World War II, she entertained troops, kissed purchasers of large war bonds and helped churn out movies about the war as well as appearing in a variety of films.

Marguerite Chapman by George Hurrell
1942. Marguerite Chapman vamps it up. Photo by George Hurrell.

In 1943, Los Angeles Times columnist Jerry Mason said dismissively of those early films:

I saw none of them, and you probably didn’t either. Her chances of getting up into the A-picture class were – roughly – one in 200. But she made it.

Her big break came in Destroyer (1943) starring Edward G Robinson and Glenn Ford. She went on to become a leading lady for Columbia, starring in a string of movies.

With this film, my career finally took off. Robinson was a charming man, but I remember that he grew increasingly concerned because he was shorter than I, and he spoke to the director about it. If you look at the film, you’ll notice that I’m sitting down a lot.

During the 1950s she continued to perform, mostly in secondary film roles including in Billy Wilder’s 1955 Marilyn Monroe vehicle, The Seven Year Itch. She also appeared on TV and on the stage.

Want to know more about Marguerite Chapman?

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