Tuesday, July 11, 2006

June Allyson R.I.P.

June Allyson died Saturday at the age of 88 of complications from acute bronchitis and pulmonary respiratory failure. She was the wholesome star who often played the role of wives in movies.

Allyson was born in the Bronx as Ella Geisman. She was raised by her mother, her parents having divorced when she was very young. At age 8 she had an accident that would leave her in a steel brace for several years. She took up swimming and dancing as therapy. This would lead to her career in entertainment. She started entering dance contests upon graduating high school. In 1937 she appeared in her first film role, in Ups and Downs, a musical short. She would appear in several more musical shorts throughout 1937 and 1938. In 1938 she played a role in the chorus on Broadway in Sing Out the News. She would appear on Broadway in specialty parts in several more musicals until 1940. She played the role of Minerva in the Broadway musical Best Foot Forward in 1941. This led to her being cast in the same in role in the 1943 film (starring Lucille Ball) based on the play. In 1944, with Two Girls and a Sailor, Allyson became a leading lady.

Allyson played in several more musicals, including Two Sisters from Boston and Good News. She also played straight comedic roles and dramatic roles, in such films as The Sailor Takes a Wife, The Three Musketeers, and the 1947 version of Little Women. Eventually she would play the wife in several movies, such as The Stratton Story and Strategic Air Command. In nearly all of her films Allyson played the non-threatening, optimistic, sweet natured girl next door (Jo in Little Women was typical of her roles). Only once did she play an unsympathetic role, as Jose Ferrer's sadistic wife in The Shrike. Audiences couldn't accept her in the role and the movie bombed.

In the late Fifties, Allyson increasingly appeared less in film and more on television. She made appearances on such shows as Zane Grey Theatre, The Dick Powell Show (she was married to Powell for many years), Burke's Law, The Name of the Game, The Sixth Sense, and Hart to Hart. She was spokesman for Depends adult undergarments for many years in the Nineties. She had her own series, The June Allyson Show, from 1959 to 1960. In 1970 she returned to Broadway in the play Forty Carats as the replacement for Julie Harris in the role of Ann Stanley.

It has often been said that in the Forties, while men might desire Rita Hayworth, it was June Allyson that they would want to take home to their mothers. I'm not so sure of that, as I suspect that they would rather take Betty Grable home to mother (Grable was both wholesome and sexy), but Allyson was certainly a taltented performer. She was a good singer and a fair dancer, good enough that she could turn in enjoyable performances in her musicals. In comedies and dramas she was perfect for the role of the wholesome, sweet natured girl next door. It was almost as if she was born to play the role of tomboy Jo in Little Women. If Allyson wasn't the typical movie star, she was a movie star nonetheless.

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