JANE GREER: OUT OF THE PAST
By Paul Freeman
[Written in 1984, as Ms. Greer was promoting “Against All Odds.” She passed in 2001. She starred in such ‘40s and ‘50s films as “Sinbad The Sailor,” “They Won’t Believe Me,” “Out of the Past,” “Station West,” “The Big Steal,” “Man of a Thousand Faces,” “Run for the Sun” and “The Prisoner of Zenda.” Greer later appeared on such TV series as “Falcon Crest” and “Twin Peaks.”
The magic of Hollywood may have dissipated, but, fortunately, there are still some sparkling reminders of more glamorous days.
Jane Greer starred, with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, in the 1947 film noir classic, “Out of the Past.” The new version, a steamy tale of passion and corruption, titled “Against All Odds,” features Greer as the mother of the character she portrayed in the original.
Columbia Pictures held a press junket in a Los Angeles area hotel to promote the remake’s release. Publicists ushered an elegant-looking Jane Greer over to our table, which was jammed with journalists. Still beautiful, the lady radiated a sort of star quality missing from so many of today’s film performers.
Ms. Greer compares the old and new versions of the story. “Practically everything’s been changed from the original picture. The love triangle is the only thing left. Of course, that was an important aspect of the story. That’s what Taylor [director Taylor Hackford] found intriguing.”
One obvious change is the heavy use of profanity in the ‘84 model. “The language is a bit much,” acknowledged Ms. Greer. “It’s like a Richard Pryor special.”
I tentatively asked if the charming screen veteran had a Howard Hughes story. Ms. Greer glanced around and whispered in conspiratorial fashion, “I should be talking about the picture.” After a little prodding, she launched into a fascinating behind-the-scenes tale of one of Hollywood’s most eccentric powers.
“I modeled the first WAC uniform in 1942. The publicity from that was tremendous. It was covered extensively in the newsreels and in Life magazine. I tested for Selznick. I was 18 at the time and Selznick thought I was too young to bring out. His casting director also cast for Howard Hughes. He saw the test and recommended me. Mr. Hughes said yes. I left my home in Washington, D.C. and signed an option agreement.
“They sent me to a coach. I was taught to exit, cross my legs, and drink a cup of tea properly. She also taught me to smoke a cigarette, so if it was called for in a scene, I wouldn’t do this [gags daintily]. That’s how I started smoking. I’ll never forgive her for that,” she said with a half smile.
“As for acting technique, the instruction consisted entirely of going to the phone, and the phone rings, and you’re told it’s a sad call and you react [she does a crestfallen take]. Then it rings and you’re told it’s a happy call [she looks joyous]. That was it.
“I went twice a week. There were others studying there, but we could never see one another. It was top secret. They didn’t want us to know who else was attending. We were scheduled so we would never pass each other.
“My curiosity finally got the better of me. One day I left and got on the bus. I got off at the first stop and ran back. I hid. I watched them come in. They all looked liked me - young and dark. We never worked. We never had a still taken. I hadn’t even seen Mr. Hughes.
“I finally met him six months later in a dark lot at the Goldwyn studio at midnight. His man called me at 11 o’clock and told me to get dressed, that Mr. Hughes wanted to see me. So good little Betty Jane - I was Betty Jane in those days - got dressed and got down there as she was told.
“So there I was. It was my first time on a lot. I was awestruck. I mean, I used to stand on Hollywood and Vine with my mother, waiting for movie stars. The only one we ever saw was Lee Bowman. Anyhow, I was afraid to go in. I finally gathered my courage and pulled the heavy, creaking door. [She acts out this mini-drama] There was another heavy door. I opened it.
“The only light on was a stage light. There were rows and rows of theater seats. I spotted a pair of long legs sticking out in the front row. They belonged to Mr. Hughes. He told me to get up on stage, handed me two pages from ‘The Awful Truth,’ and said, ‘Read to me!’
“My coach had warned me, ‘Don’t let him know that you know he’s deaf. Don’t shout or mouth the words. Just speak up plainly.’ He read the first line. In the middle of the second line, I paused for dramatic effect. He read the next line before I could finish mine. Then I knew - he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. I must have looked right though, because a week later, I was under contract at $100 a week. The next I saw him was after I sued to get out of that contract.
“I had been under contract for a year and hadn’t worked, so I sued to secure my release. He didn’t show up in court, of course. Under the ruling, I had to pay him $25 a week for life. I paid it for about two months and then stopped. He had so much more money than I did. I was sure he’d never notice anyway.
“I saw him at a party at Chasen’s and he came up to me and reminded me that I had missed several payments. I told him I had decided that I needed the money more than he did. He said, ‘Ah, forget it.’
“We dated later on. I liked him very much. He was appealing - like a shy child. He’d had a childhood illness and everyone always thought of him as being a sickly boy. His mother over-protected him.
“When we went out, he loved to go find amusement parks. He’d throw baseballs at the milk bottles and I’d end up with an armful of kewpie dolls and stuffed animals. It was great fun. I suppose he was trying to make up for his lost childhood.”
She winced slightly, as she was asked about the billionaire’s germ phobia. “That didn’t start until after the accident. The plane he was flying hit a house on Whittier Boulevard. The plane caught fire and a young marine pulled him out. Howard was very seriously injured. Two fingers were fused.
“The first glimpse I got of his cleanliness fetish was when he called me one night at 11 o’clock and asked me to go out to dinner. I told him I’d already eaten. He said, ‘Come sit with me.’
“He had a steak. He always ordered the same thing - steak or hamburger with mashed potatoes and peas.
“He was constantly on the phone. I said I would keep him company, if he promised not to make any calls during dinner. He agreed. Just after dessert, he said he was going to the men’s room. Twenty minutes later, he was still gone and I was wondering if I was going to be stranded there.
“Finally he came back. I was furious I accused him of having been on the phone. He denied it. I asked him what had happened to his shirt - it was absolutely sopping wet. He said he had washed it in the men’s room. I said, ‘It’s cold in here! What’s the matter with you?’ He said, ‘Chocolate sauce.’ He had spilled some on his shirt and couldn’t bear it.”
Following her release from the Hughes contract, Greer had signed with RKO. She debuted in a minor role in a 1944 murder mystery, “Two O’Clock Courage.” She appeared in seven more films as “junior bad girl,” before being elevated to star billing in “They Won’t Believe Me” with Robert Young and Susan Hayward. Her career seemed to be taking off, when an ironic twist of fate altered the course.
“Howard Hughes took over RKO,” she said. “I had just married [producer Edward Laskey]. I thought, ‘My God, what he won’t do to get even with me!’ I saw him at Goldwyn studio. He told me calmly, You’ll never work as long as I’m at this studio.’ I said, ‘You’re going to kill my career.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And he did.
“After two years of my not working, a few stockholders and studio folk started complaining - ‘Why is she getting paid a tremendous amount of money and not being put to work?’ He eventually had to relent. He stuck me in something called ‘The Big Steal.’”
As the Columbia people edged in to whisk Ms. Greer to another table, she brushed a graceful hand across her hair and gasped guiltily, “I haven’t talked about the picture at all, have I?”
Her thoroughly captivated questioners voiced no complaints. About to be jarred back into the world of modern movie hype, we were grateful for a few moments of magic.