Allyson, June (1917—)
Allyson, June (1917—)
American actress, popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Born Kathryn Ann Eleanor "Ella" van Geisman on October 7, 1917, in the Bronx, New York; daughterof Arthur van Geisman (a building superintendent) and Clare van Geisman; attended public schools in New York and in Pelham in Westchester County, and Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx; married Dick Powell (1904–1963, actor-director), on August 19, 1945; married Alfred Glenn Maxwell (Dick Powell's barber), 1963 (divorced 1965, remarried 1966, divorced); married David Ashrow (a dental surgeon), October 30, 1976; children: (first marriage) Pamela (adopted on August 10, 1948); Richard, Jr. (b. December 24, 1950); (stepchildren) Ellen Powell and Norman Powell.
Girl Crazy (MGM, 1943); Best Foot Forward (MGM, 1943); Thousands Cheer (MGM, 1943); Two Girls and a Sailor (MGM, 1944); Meet the People (MGM, 1944); Music For Millions (MGM, 1945); Her Highness and the Bellboy (MGM, 1945); The Sailor Takes a Wife (MGM, 1945); Two Sisters From Boston (MGM, 1946); Till the Clouds Roll By (MGM, 1946); The Secret Heart (MGM, 1946); High Barbaree (MGM, 1947); Good News (MGM, 1947); The Bride Goes Wild (MGM, 1948); The Three Musketeers (MGM, 1948); Words and Music (MGM, 1948); Little Women (MGM, 1949); The Stratton Story (MGM, 1949); The Reformer and the Redhead (MGM, 1950); Right Cross (MGM, 1950); Too Young to Kiss (MGM, 1951); The Girl in White (MGM, 1952); Battle Circus (MGM, 1953); Remains to Be Seen (MGM, 1953); The Glenn Miller Story (Univ., 1954); Executive Suite (MGM, 1954); Woman's World (20th, 1954); Strategic Air Command (Par., 1955); The McConnell Story (WB, 1955); The Shrike (Univ., 1955); The Opposite Sex (MGM, 1956); You Can't Run Away From It (Col., 1956); Interlude (Univ., 1957); My Man Godfrey (Univ., 1957); Stranger in My Arms (Univ., 1959); They Only Kill Their Masters (1972); Blackout (Can.-Fr., 1978). Television: "The June Allyson Show" (1960).
June Allyson, the husky-voiced actress with the tiny lisp and the Peter Pan collar, was born Ella Geisman in the Bronx, New York, on October 7, 1923. Her alcoholic father Arthur left home when Allyson was six months old, taking a brother with him. Mother Clare, with babe in arms, moved in with her parents and scrambled for work in a printing plant; she also worked as a switchboard operator and restaurant cashier, anything that would help pay the bills. The death of Allyson's grandmother in those early years left the future actress inconsolable.
A freak accident at age eight added to the family woes. In 1925, while Allyson was riding her tricycle with a neighborhood boy, a dead tree limb fell on both of them. The tricycle was crushed, her friend was killed, and the branch broke "half the bones" in her body. Allyson spent that summer learning to walk again; she went from a wheelchair to crutches to a corrective back brace that she wore for four more years. Eventually, she swam for therapy, once winning a Greater New York City free-style championship. Though the cause of the accident had been negligence on the part of the city, they were only reimbursed $100 for medical costs. Under the weight of medical bills, June and her mother were destitute. On those days when there was only food for one, her mother would claim a lack of appetite.
Life changed for the better when Allyson's mother remarried and the family moved to 1975 Bryant Avenue. Despite her brace, the young girl began to dance. June plunked down a hard-to-come-by $20 to enroll in a dance school, but it went bankrupt before she had her first lesson. She learned to dance by watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee, attending the local bijou 17 times. Flying Down to Rio served as advanced training. On a dare, at age 21, Allyson auditioned for the chorus line in a musical and landed her first Broadway show, Sing out the News (1938). "They hired me for laughs," she said. Professionally naive, she hadn't known to bring her own sheet music to the audition, so when they asked what she was prepared to sing, she answered, "What do you wanna hear?" Even so, the show was a hit, and the choreographer gave her a new name—June Allyson.
Following a turn in Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II's less-than-successful Very Warm for May, where she shared the chorus line with Vera-Ellen , Allyson joined the cast of the even-less-successful Higher and Higher. "I've been in more flops than you can imagine," she commented. "I couldn't dance, and Lord knows I couldn't sing, but I got by somehow. It was Richard Rodgers who was always keeping them from firing me, as every dance director wanted to do." Finally, she managed to snag another chorus part in Ethel Merman 's Panama Hattie, which included understudying Betty Hutton . When Hutton came down with measles, Allyson had her big break; during one of those five performances, George Abbott was in the audience and hired her for Best Foot Forward, starring Rosemary Lane . In that hit musical, Allyson shared a showstopper "The Three B's" with Nancy Walker and Erlene Schools . One night backstage, in the celebrity crush, she was introduced to Dick Powell, while somewhere in the crowd was his wife Joan Blondell .
At age 26, in 1943, Allyson arrived in wartime Hollywood, having been signed for the movie of Best Foot Forward, which also starred Lucille Ball . The first day on the set Allyson was told to go home and come back after she had shaken her cold. "But I haven't got a cold," she claimed, "I talk like this all the time." She then landed a part in Girl Crazy, starring Mickey Rooney, followed by Thousands Cheer and Meet the People, both again with Ball. Meet the People also starred the still-married Dick Powell.
By now, Powell had become a sort of precise mentor. For example, when offered the part of the pretty sister next to Gloria De Haven 's plain sister in Two Girls and a Sailor, Allyson notes in her autobiography that she sought out Powell for advice. "There are two lines in the script that absolutely negate your doing the role of the beautiful sister," declared Powell, "and they are when the grandfather asks Gloria, 'Is your sister as pretty as you?' and she says, 'Oh, prettier,
much prettier.' Nobody is going to believe that. Gloria is a real beauty. So what I want you to do is go in and tell Mr. Mayer that you want to test for the role of the plain sister…. And when he agrees, which you will make him do, I want you to go home and cut off your hair. Just straight across bangs and short, straight sides and don't use any makeup in the test." The rest, as they say, is movie history.
When Powell separated from Blondell, the Allyson-Powell courtship started, despite Louis B. Mayer's demands that she date her frequent co-star Van Johnson. Powell was a take-charge kind of guy, a professor Higgins. When he asked Allyson what her philosophy of life was, she replied, "If you see someone without a smile, give him yours." Powell addressed the heavens, "Oh God, don't ever let her change." They were married on August 19, 1945. He was 41; she 22.
Allyson, who quickly became typecast as the girl-next-door in the MGM musicals of the 1940s, made movie after movie in rapid succession: Music for Millions, Her Highness and the Bellboy, The Sailor Takes a Wife, Two Sisters from Boston, Look for the Silver Lining. She and Margaret O'Brien began to be known as the Town Criers. If the part called for tears, they could cover two age groups. It was wartime in Hollywood, a time when the character of the "virtuous woman left behind to wait for her soldier" was in vogue. "New personalities, such as Jane Powell , June Allyson, Debbie Reynolds , and, in the early fifties, Doris Day and Janet Leigh , brought a disarming naïveté to the screen," writes Marjorie Rosen in Popcorn Venus, "a novel scrubbed kind of heroine, one without pretense, without maturity, and without the womanly stature that had been so distinctive of the greatest stars of the past two decades." They were dubbed bobby-sox films.
In 1949, the remake of Louisa May Alcott 's Little Women was released, starring Elizabeth Taylor , Janet Leigh, Margaret O'Brien, and Allyson. Despite press comparisons to Katharine Hepburn who had starred as Jo in the 1933 version, Allyson's performance as Jo was deemed authentic. Leaving MGM, her "all powerful and benevolent crutch," in 1954, she signed on for the highly successful Glenn Miller Story opposite Jimmy Stewart at Universal. Allyson teamed with Stewart for two more pictures: The Stratton Story, in which her performance was praised by Bosley Crowther, and Strategic Air Command. More noble wives followed. Generally cast, says Rosen, as the "perfect, selfless martyr," one of the many who "sobbed and suffered for their men rather than themselves," June Allyson stayed home and waited for her man in The Stratton Story, The Glenn Miller Story, Executive Suite, Woman's World, Strategic Air Command, and The McConnell Story. It was not until 1955, when José Ferrer asked her to play his insanely possessive wife in The Shrike, that Allyson defied the sweet-wife casting trap and played the opposite stereotype: in the shrike world, the female bird preys upon the male and destroys him. Some thought her performance was spine-chilling; others found it strident.
After undergoing a kidney operation and throat surgery in 1961, momentarily causing her voice to rise to a high soprano, Allyson learned that her husband had cancer of the lymph glands. When Powell died on January 2, 1963, her world fell apart, and it would take many years before she shook her lethargy and depression. In later years, she returned to the stage, replacing Julie Harris in 40 Carats, and undertaking the national tour of No No Nanette. Remarried, Allyson moved to Ojai, California.
"I never did feel quite right about the roles I was called upon to portray," she once commented, "the gentle, kind, loving, perfect wife, who will stand by her man through 'anything.' In real life I'm a poor dressmaker and a terrible cook; in fact, anything but the perfect wife."
Allyson, June, with Frances Spatz Leighton. June Allyson. NY: Putnam, 1982.
Parish, James Robert, and Ronald L. Bowers. The MGM Stock Company. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1973.
Rosen, Marjorie. Popcorn Venus. NY: Coward, McCann, 1973.