Of the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, very few could boast as long a career as Loretta Young had. She first appeared on screen in 1917 at age three in an uncredited role in The Primrose Ring. Her last appearance was in the television movie Lady in the Corner in 1989. While she was not acting that entire time (she cam out of retirement for Lady in the Corner), Loretta Young spent many more years in front of cameras than some of her contemporaries, acting regularly from the Twenties into the Sixties. It was 100 years ago today, on 6 January 1913, that Loretta Young was born.
Loretta Young remains one of the best known stars of the Golden Age, largely because she not only had a highly successful career in film, but also a successful career in television. Indeed, it can be argued that Miss Young's career spanned three media, if one considers silent film a different medium from talkies. Loretta Young was born Gretchen Young in Salt Lake City, Utah on 6 January 1913. Her family moved to California when she was only three years old, and it was not long before she and her sisters Polly Ann Young and Elizabeth Jane Young (who used the stage name Sally Blane) became child actresses. Of the three young sisters, Gretchen (who would first be billed as "Loretta" in 1928) would prove to be by far the most successful. As a young child Miss Young appeared in bit parts in such films as Sirens of the Sea (1917) and The Sheik (1921). She would take a break from acting for her education, but when she returned to acting it was not long before her star was on the rise. Appearing in small parts in Naughty But Nice (1927) and The Whip Woman (1927), she found herself playing opposite Lon Chaney in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) at the tender age of 15. She was named one of WAMPAS Baby Stars (WAMPAS being short for the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) the following year.
It would be in talkies that Loretta Young would become one of the biggest stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. Not only beautiful, but also elegant, Miss Young would develop a screen image of the wholesome, ladylike, yet glamorous woman who more often than not played devoted wives and even nuns. This was not always the case, however, as early in her career Miss Young played roles that were very different from those she was play later in her career. A perfect example of this is Born to Be Bad (1934), one of the very last Pre-Code films (indeed, it was released only six weeks before the MPAA began a much stricter enforcement of the Production Code). In the film Loretta Young plays an unwed mother whose job was essentially pleasing male buyers for a department store, often receiving money and clothes in return. In fact, it was a role originally written for Jean Harlow. It could well have been the most lurid role Miss Young ever played.
Here it was must pointed out that Born to Be Bad was not an isolated case, as in her early career Loretta Young played several roles that may well have shocked fans familiar with her later career. In Midnight Mary (1933) she played an orphan who took up a life of crime (indeed, the movie begins with her on trial for murder). In Man's Castle (1933) Loretta Young played a character closer to those later in her career (Trina is sweet, innocent, and naive), although the character is not only homeless, but eventually winds up pregnant out of wedlock. In Devil to Pay (1930) Miss Young, perhaps better known for more serious characters, played a madcap heiress.
While later in her career Loretta Young would find herself cast in primarily wholesome, elegant, ladylike roles, even then she played parts that departed from that image to a degree. In The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), Miss Young played the deaf love interest and later wife of Alexander Graham Bell, Mabel. In Ladies Courageous (1944) she played Roberta Harper, who is in charge of the WAFs (the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, who ferried planes across the United States). In The Stranger (1946) Loretta Young played a woman who did not realise that her husband was a Nazi war criminal.
While many might be tempted to underestimate Loretta Young's acting talent because later in her career she primarily played wholesome, ladylike characters, her early career and various parts later in her career proved she was capable of playing different sorts of characters and doing so very well. Even had she not played a wide variety of roles early in her career, it must be pointed out that Loretta Young played the elegant, wholesome roles for which she was best known very well, making each character different from the others. Indeed, this can be seen in her what today may be her two best known movies. In The Bishop's Wife Loretta Young played Julia, the intelligent, sophisticated, and fashionable wife of Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven). Although as as elegant and as ladylike as any of Miss Young's later characters, she endowed Julia with both a sense of fun and a sense of romance--indeed, Julia even exudes a certain amount of sex appeal, wholesome though it may be. In The Farmer's Daughter Loretta Young played a character who was in some ways quite different from Julia in The Bishop's Wife. She played Katie Holstrom, a Swedish American fresh from the farm who finds herself working as a maid for a United States Congressman. Although sweet and intelligent in the same way that Julia in The Bishop's Wife was, Katie was also not nearly as educated and a little bit naive. Although similar, then, Loretta Young's two best known roles were also quite different, and she gave great performances both times.
Loretta Young's film career reached its peak in the Forties, when she made such films as A Night to Remember (1942), The Farmer's Daughter (1947), and The Bishop's Wife (1947). In fact, the height of her career may well have been from 1947 to 1949, when what may well be her best known films were released (The Farmer's Daughter, The Bishop's Wife, and Come to the Stable). Unfortunately, the string of hit films Miss Young made in the late Forties would come to an end. Whereas the movies she had made for much of the Forties were particularly strong, the movies she made in the early Fifties would be somewhat weak. Films such as Half Angel (1951) and her last feature film, It Happens Every Thursday (1953), did not match the quality of her work in the Forties, something that was reflected in their box office takes as well.
With her film career in decline, Loretta Young made the move to television. Letter to Loretta debuted in 1953. The series was a dramatic anthology. In its original format Miss Young would read a letter from a fan in which the answer would be the teleplay. This format would be dropped early in the series' run and it would be renamed The Loretta Young Show. Although it did not possess the prestige of such anthology series as Studio One and Playhouse 90, it was very well respected. Over the years it was nominated for several Emmys and won Emmys for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series (Miss Young herself) and Best Cinematography for Television. Loretta Young not only hosted the show, but starred in many of the teleplays as well. The show would have a fairly good syndication run, although the introductions were omitted (Miss Young was concerned about the dated fashions and hairstyles she wore in them). More recently the show has appeared on such channels as ME-TV, with the introductions intact.
Following the end of The Loretta Young Show in 1961, Loretta Young returned to television in The New Loretta Young Show.The New Loretta Young Show was a comedy with dramatic touches centred around Christine Massey (played by Loretta Young), the widowed mother of seven children who was also a freelance writer. Despite following the hit Andy Griffith Show, The New Loretta Young Show did not prove successful and ran for only one season. After The New Loretta Young Show, Miss Young went into retirement. She came out of retirement for two television movies, Christmas Dove (later renamed Christmas Eve) in 1986 and Lady in the Corner in 1989. In 1994 she was one of the narrators of "Life Along the Mississippi," a segment of the American Traditions series. Loretta Young died 12 August 2000 from ovarian cancer.
One hundred years after her birth Loretta Young remains one of the best known stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I suspect this is not because she starred in a number of hit movies that remain popular today or even because she starred in a popular television show that ran for several years I don't even think it was because Loretta Young was an incredibly beautiful woman whose beauty apparently never faded. Instead I think it was because she was actually quite a good actress, although the fact is not often acknowledged these days. Early in her career she played a number of roles that would actually shock those familiar with her later career. Even during her later career she played roles that were often different from her typical, wholesome and ladylike roles, and there was even a bit of variety in the elegant wholesome roles for which she was known. Quite simply, Loretta Young was a good actress who could add depth to nearly any character she played and do so convincingly. I rather suspect, then, that it is because of her talent and not necessarily her great beauty or her many hit movies that she remains remembered today.