Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Janet Blair R.I.P.

Janet Blair, the lively actress who starred in musicals and on television, passed on yesterday of complications from pneumonia. She was 85 years old.

Janet Blair was born Martha Jean Lafferty on April 23, 1921 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. She started performing early, and by her teens she was singing with Hal Kemp's band at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. She was spotted by a talent scout for Columbia and, following Kemp's death in a car crash and the subsequent break up of his band, she signed with Columbia for $100 a week.

Initially, Blair appeared in B pictures, such as Three Girls About Town and Blondie Goes to College. Her breakthrough role in the title part of the comedy My Sister Eileen in 1942 came about when she was recommended by Rosalind Russell. She would go on to play opposite Cary Grant in the comedy fantasy Once Upon a Time and the Dorsey Brothers themselves in The Fabulous Dorseys. She may have been best known for her roles in The Fuller Brush Man (opposite comic legend Red Skelton) and The Black Arrow (1948).

Unfortunately, following The Black Arrow, Blair found herself typecast and was only being offered parts as the damsel in distress. Blair left Hollywood and went on tour with the road version of South Pacific, taking the role originated by Mary Martin. She also turned to television, making her debut on the small screen in The Ford Theatre Hour episode "Joy to the World". She would go onto appear in such series as The Goodyear Television Playhouse, The U.S. Steel Hour, Climax, Burke's Law, Switch, and Murder, She Wrote. She was a regular on Caesar's Hour with Sid Caesar during the 1956-1957 season. She was also a regular on The Smith Family, playing the wife of Jimmy Stewart's Detective Sergeant Chad Smith. Blair also appeared on Broadway in 1952 in the play A Girl Can Tell.

This is not to say that Blair did not occasionally appear in movies later in her career. Among her later films were Night of the Eagle (AKA Burn, Witch, Burn), Boy's Night Out, and The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band.

Although not often given credit for her talent as an actress, Janet Blair was a lively, energetic presence on the screen. She was gifted as a comedienne, with nearly perfect timing. She was well suit as a foil to such talents as Red Skelton and Cary Grant. And while she took such talent to the small screen, it is perhaps sad for movie buffs that she did not continue making major motion pictures. She was a talent that will certainly be missed.

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