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Into the Past 

A conversation with Jane Greer

Wednesday, May 23 2001
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Today is a good day for Jane Greer. Approaching 77, the actress is in frail health, but this morning she‘s able to take time for an interview in the home she has lived in for the past 40 years. Her house, perched on a steep slope of the Sepulveda Pass, once surveyed only green ridges; now it faces the Getty Center. Even so, it is tranquil up here, the quiet broken by Greer’s three parrots, who alternate their shrill whistles with snatches of “Hello!,” “Come on!” and “Sommmewherrre” sung in tune to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

As Kathie Moffat in the noir classic Out of the Past, Greer was the blackest of the genre‘s black widows, the most fatal of its femmes fatales. Her honeyed eyes drew Robert Mitchum’s character, Jeff Markham, to a shared doom; her tenuous smile floated across the screen like a smoke ring. “I had never read a part like that,” she says. “It was like Alan Ladd‘s part in Whispering Smith -- all through the picture they talk about you, so that by the time you come onscreen, everyone thinks you’re going to be 9 feet tall.” Of co-star Mitchum, she says, “He was wonderful, I loved Bobby. He helped me, he groomed me. ‘What are you wearing?’ he‘d say, ’What are they doing to you? Where‘s the top to this? Get her something nicer!’” Greer remembers director Jacques Tourneur as helpful but not expansive. “He did not tell his actors very much,” she says. “He said to me, ‘First half of picture, Good Girl. Last half of picture, Bad Girl. No big eyes.’”

Today Greer speaks softly, yet those eyes are as lustrous as ever and they hold the visitor in a shared anecdotal conspiracy. Like the time she tried to keep a pregnancy secret (her second husband, following a brief marriage to Rudy Valle, was attorney Edward Lasker) while shooting The Big Steal, telling William Bendix that her morning-sickness pills were to ward off Montezuma‘s revenge -- only to have her co-star ask her for the pills for himself. Or when an open wound got infected in a Mexican swamp while shooting Run for the Sun, and the “pleurisy” she later suffered from for years turned out to be Cocksackie B virus, which necessitated open-heart surgery.

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Greer spent her teenage summers modeling in Washington, D.C. She still recalls working from 7 till 5 in unrelenting heat and humidity for $5 a day, showcasing heavy black outfits for New York furriers. Her mother, who wrote children’s stories and traced her family back to poet John Donne, worked in the War Department‘s Public Information Office. When World War II erupted, military PR suddenly became a sexy hub of activity attracting many young show-business people from Hollywood and New York.

Her mother’s pull got Jane a job modeling uniforms for the Women‘s Army Corps. A newsreel featuring her caught the eye of Howard Hughes, who put her under contract. Mother and daughter arrived by train at Union Station and were put up in a little hotel near the Ambassador, but the two hardly acted like Eastern sophisticates. “She knew I was going to be a big star, and so I came out here to be one,” says Greer. “We went up and down Hollywood and Vine looking for movie stars. We finally figured out that we should each work one side of the street, and that’s how we finally met one -- Lee Bowman [later television‘s Ellery Queen]!”

Soon her father and brother moved west, too; the family lived in a house on Orange Grove Avenue. But Howard Hughes Productions was paralyzed by its neurotic owner’s lack of interest in making films at that time, and so his employees, Greer among them, languished, doing nothing. “He wanted to use me in other places,” Greer says of the billionaire‘s reluctance to let her act. Conflicting accounts of her relationship with Hughes have appeared in the past, and when asked today to clarify those “other places,” she simply widens her eyes for a moment and says, “He wanted to own people -- he collected them.”

Eventually Greer sued to get out of her contract and went to RKO, where she made Out of the Past. The film would transform her into an icon, but at the time it did not make her a major star, because shortly afterward, in a noirish twist of fate, Hughes bought RKO. The vindictive mogul kept Greer’s career on ice; we‘ll never know what might have been had she been allowed to work more. Greer herself seems forgiving of the past and will tell you how well Hollywood treated its women in her day. “RKO was wonderful at grooming its actors,” she says. “They gave me acting and singing lessons.”

Out of the Past climaxes in a car, in a tableau mort of temptress and chump -- Kathie, a sleeping beauty cushioned on scattered stolen money; Jeff, his corpse spilling out of their car and into the Sierra mud -- representing not so much a moral lesson about the futility of crime as a warning against falling in love. Did she and her noir co-stars (such as Ann Savage, Marie Windsor and Yvonne De Carlo) ever think about the strangeness of these films that had unhappy endings and stood so far apart from other movies?

“No, I don’t think so at all,” Greer says. “We just felt lucky to get those roles.”

Jane Greer appears at the American Cinematheque‘s film noir seminar and signing of Eddie Muller’s book Dark City Dames, Saturday, May 26, 2--4 p.m., at the Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.; (323) 466-FILM.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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