Crain, Jeanne Elizabeth

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Crain, Jeanne Elizabeth

(b. 25 May 1925 in Barstow, California; d. 14 December 2003 in Santa Barbara, California), film actress in girl-next-door roles who received an Academy Award nomination for her dramatic performance in Pinky (1949).

The daughter of George A. Crain, an educator, and Loretta (Carr) Crain, a homemaker, Crain had one sibling. Soon after Crain’s birth, the family moved to Los Angeles, where her father became the head of the language department at Inglewood High School, from which Crain graduated. Crain told interviewers that she first thought of becoming an actress in the eighth grade while playing a facially scarred Indian in Scarface. She continued to act in school productions. In 1940, when she was fifteen years old and touring the RKO studio on a class trip, Crain was seen by the actor and director Orson Welles, who asked her to take a screen test for the role of Lucy in his upcoming film The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Crain, “petrified” by the experience, did not come across well and did not get the part but continued her interest in acting. In 1941 she won the Interscholastic Shakespearean Contest. The same year, Crain’s fellow students at Inglewood voted her Grid Queen for the football season. Crain also was crowned Miss Long Beach, which qualified her for the Miss America Pageant, in which she was second runner-up. Resultant publicity led to a number of modeling jobs and cover-girl assignments for popular magazines, such as Coronet and Ladies’ Home Journal.

In 1942 Crain entered the University of California, Los Angeles, to study art and drama, but she did not stay to receive a degree. Attending the Los Angeles opening of the play Two on an Island (1940), Crain was noticed by talent scouts from major studios. The following day she entered the annual Long Beach bathing beauty contest and was chosen Camera Girl of 1942. When Crain’s picture appeared in the newspaper, Ivan Kahn, a scout for Twentieth Century–Fox, called and offered her a screen test. Fox signed Crain to a long-term contract in February 1943. Her first part was a walk-on as a bathing beauty in the Busby Berkeley musical The Gang’s All Here (1943). In July 1943 Darryl Zanuck, the vice president of production at Fox, was looking for new starlets, saw Crain suntanned and right off the beach, and gave her a starring role.

Playing the part of the tomboy Char in Home in Indiana (1944), Crain charmed both audiences and critics. She then played the lead in the comedy In the Meantime, Darling (1944) and an Air Force wife in the drama Winged Victory (1944), but neither film was a success for Crain. Her next film, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical State Fair (1945), is perhaps her best remembered. As the daydreaming teenager who falls in love with a worldly reporter, Crain was a hit and became one of Hollywood’s top stars. Audiences were wowed by Crain’s wistful rendition of the year’s Oscar-winning song “It Might As Well Be Spring,” although Louanne Hogan did the actual singing.

On 31 December 1945 Crain eloped with Paul Frederick Brinkman, whom she had been dating for two years. Brinkman had acted under the screen name Paul Brooks but left the field to become a business executive. A succession of films kept Crain in the public eye. She played her first all-dramatic role in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and was in the musical Centennial Summer (1946). One of Crain’s most popular films was Margie (1946), in which she played the title role. The volume of Crain’s fan mail grew, equaling that of the superstar Betty Grable. Other memorable films were the comedies You Were Meant for Me (1948) and Apartment for Peggy (1948). In the drama A Letter to Three Wives (1949), Crain’s portrayal of a socially insecure wife convinced critics that she was more than a pretty face.

Crain’s most important part was the title role of a fair-skinned black girl passing as white in Pinky (1949). Trained as a nurse in New England, Pinky is in love with a white physician. When she returns to her home in the South, Pinky encounters racism. The film was directed by Elia Kazan. The renowned actors Ethel Waters and Ethel Barrymore played supporting roles. Although controversial because of the subject matter and banned in a number of southern towns, Pinky was a box office hit. The film received several Academy Award nominations, including one for Crain as best actress. Variety named Crain the top box-office star of 1949, and Crain had her hands and high-heeled shoes commemorated in concrete at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Crain was such a favorite of Zanuck’s that for a time he offered her every important role for women younger than twenty-five. Crain turned down many of these roles, including the lead in All about Eve (1950), because of pregnancy. She and Brinkman had seven children, and motherhood directly impacted Crain’s career opportunities.

After her success in Pinky, Crain was cast in an ingenue part in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950). People Will Talk (1951), a controversial film with Cary Grant as a gynecologist who marries a pregnant student played by Crain, followed. The film was not well received, and Crain’s reviews were poor. Her next film, The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951), was another box office failure, and Fox began to stop giving Crain good roles. She reprised her role of eldest daughter in Belles on Their Toes (1952), the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, and starred in the segment “The Gift of the Magi” in the film O. Henry’s Full House (1952). After being in some low-budget films, Crain left Fox. In an attempt to change her wholesome image, Crain dyed her hair and appeared as a sexpot in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955). Working as a freelance actor, Crain appeared in a number of films, notably the western Man Without a Star (1955) and The Joker Is Wild (1957), about the life of the comedian Joe E. Lewis.

Crain’s television portrayals of Daisy in the Playhouse 90 production of The Great Gatsby (1958) and Rose in Meet Me in St. Louis (1959) were well received. During the 1950s and 1960s Crain appeared in a number of television series. Her last screen role was that of an airline passenger in Skyjacked (1972). Crain died of a heart attack at her home in Santa Barbara and is buried in Santa Barbara Cemetery.

Crain appeared in sixty-four films with leading men such as Cary Grant, William Holden, Kirk Douglas, and Frank Sinatra. She was a popular actress in the 1940s and 1950s, but because of videotapes and digital video discs, her best films have acquired new generations of fans.

For information about Crain’s contributions to film, see James Robert Parish, The Fox Girls (1971); and Karen B. Hannsberry, Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film (1998). Photographs and a filmography are in Douglas McClelland, “Jeanne Crain Proved You Don’t Have to Be Neurotic to Be an Actress,” Films in Review (June 1969): 357–367. Obituaries are in the New York Times (16 Dec. 2003) and Variety (22 Dec. 2003).

Marcia B. Dinneen