Doris Bernice Jensen was born in Nebraska in 1922. In the mid 1940s she moved to Hollywood, signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and changed her name to Coleen Gray. She acted opposite some of the most famous leading men in silver screen history. Victor Mature, John Wayne, Sterling Hayden, Bing Crosby and Tyrone Power were among the lucky ones. Sadly she passed away last month at the grand age of 92. You may have missed this news during the August hiatus so today I’d like to celebrate her and the Hollywood she graced. If you have never heard of her, you will certainly have heard of some of the films she starred in. Among the cult horror classics there are some genuinely heavyweight films. Let’s start with the big one, Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film noir masterpiece The Killing.
Based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break Kubrick’s film is the story of a journeyman criminal planning one last hurrah in the form of a heist. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is putting together a crack team for the job before he intends to settle down and marry Fay (Coleen Gray). It’s film noir so if you haven’t seen it you can probably work out how well Clay’s plan turns out. Spoiler alert…not well. Shot on a shoestring budget the film is as claustrophobic as you might expert and it demonstrates Kubrick’s stylistic prowess as a filmmaker. He worked on the screenplay of White’s novel with Jim Thompson, although he awarded the writing credit to himself. Kubrick was 28 when the film was released and he emerged as a major Hollywood force.
Post-war Hollywood was booming and the output of its major studios was extraordinary. The role of women had undergone a dramatic transformation in the UK in the early part of the 20th century, mainly because of two devastating wars. In the US the same transformation was also occurring and this was reflected in the portrayal of female characters on screen. Women eschewed their hitherto traditional roles and adopted the persona of a more radical, more dominant muse, that of the femme fatale. In his 2001 book Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir Eddie Muller paints a picture of this part of Hollywood history. He focuses on the lives of a handful of women who dominated the silver screen at this time. He charts two periods in their lives, one in the late 1940s and again in the late 1990s. It is an outstanding exploration of their role in the development of film noir and the B-movie thriller. The only surprise perhaps was that among the likes of Ann Savage and Jane Greer, Muller also picked Coleen Gray.
Coleen Gray landed role after role but they all seemed to be characterised by the same thing. She only ever seemed to play nice girls. She was the down trodden wife, eager to stand by her man. She was the sensible girl, the girl you’d settle down with once you’ve pulled off one last job. Of course film noir doesn’t do happy endings and Gray was destined never to play the role she coveted above all others. All she wanted was to play a femme fatale. In a 1999 Los Angeles magazine interview she said this,
When I started out, I wanted to be a sex goddess, but I guess I was the wholesome type.
She grew up in the 1920s and 30s and her parents were strict Lutherans. Her sanctuary and escape came in the form of magazines about Hollywood. She took a degree in Minnesota where she discovered the theatre. The acting bug took her all the way to Hollywood and into the arms of John Wayne, in Red River, Tyrone Power, in Nightmare Alley and Victor Mature, in The Kiss of Death. Hollywood being Hollywood the industry eventually moved on and the roles dried up. Gray shrugged off the disappointment and turned her attention to television. She landed a series of roles in shows like Mister Ed, Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Finally, just before she retired she played the part of June Talbot in The Leech Woman, a 1960 cult horror classic. Released as a double feature alongside Hammer Film Productions’ The Brides of Dracula starring Peter Cushing, The Leech Woman is a joy. June is an aging alcoholic who discovers that she can reverse the aging process and stay young by killing men and drinking the fluid from their brains. That makes The Brides of Dracula sound mainstream. It is perhaps her greatest accomplishment and the transition from old woman to dominant vamp demonstrates that Hollywood was foolish to cast her as a naif for so long. I urge you to watch it. In fact watch The Brides of Dracula too. After all they were meant to be seen together.
When researching Dark City Dames, Eddie Muller visited Coleen Gray and told her that he had recently watched her play a schemer on Perry Mason. She said this in reply,
Did you believe me as a nasty person? I’m so happy.