Virginia Grey was a major character actress in Hollywood films especially in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. She is especially associated with the film s produced by Ross Hunter. She was born in 1917 in Los Angeles. Her major movies include “All That Heaven Allows” in 1955, “Back Street” in 1961, “Madame X” in 1965 and “Airport” in 1970. She died in 2004 aged 87.
Virginia Grey, who has died aged 87, spent a career before the cameras hoping for a role that would catapult her to international stardom; but she never showed the spark which launched her contemporaries Ruth Hussey and Laraine Day, and had to content herself with second lead ingenues.
In more than 100 films she had supporting roles to such stars as Joan Crawford, Betty Grable, Susan Hayward, and even the Marx Brothers (in The Big Store, 1941). Off screen she attracted publicity by dating Clark Gable; she gave him a dachshund. But although she waited patiently for his divorce from Rhea Langham to come through, Gable married Carole Lombard instead. Heartbroken, Virginia Grey vowed never to let herself become too close to a man again and, although George Raft became a figure in her life, she never married. Pressed to talk about her affair with Gable in 2003, she replied simply: “I adored him, I always will.”
Virginia Grey was born in Hollywood on March 22 1917, the daughter of Ray Grey, an original Keystone Cop who became Universal Studio’s comedy films director; among her babysitters was the actress Gloria Swanson. After Ray’s death in 1925, Virginia’s mother became a film cutter at the studio.
When Mrs Grey heard that the studio was planning to remake Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1927, she encouraged young Virginia to do a screen test, which won her the role of Little Eva. Parts followed in Heart to Heart, with Mary Astor (1927); Jazz Mad, with Marian Nixon and George Lewis (1928); and the western The Michigan Kid, about two boys who become rivals for the same girl (1928).
Virginia Grey then retired for three years to go to school, but – after starting to train as a nurse – she returned to the screen in the indifferent comedy Misbehaving Ladies.
Tall and elegant with shoulder-length hair, Virginia Grey embarked on a tireless journey through pictures, playing small parts in Mary Pickford’s Secrets (1933) and in the musicals Dames (1934), Gold Diggers of 1935 (1934), and in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which won Luise Rainer an Oscar for Best Actress. At the same time, Virginia Grey modelled for Vanity Fair.
Her fortunes rose in 1937 when she was given the lead in the MGM “B” movie Bad Guy, opposite Bruce Cabot. She was then loaned to Republic Pictures for Ladies in Distress (1938), only to become one of “Les Blondes” chorus line in Idiot’s Delight (1939), in which Clark Gable was a dancer. Her next big chance came when MGM gave her a sizeable build-up in Thunder Afloat (1939), in which she played Wallace Beery’s daughter. The veteran actor thought that she had an understated talent, and told the studio head Louis B Mayer: “Let her free. You might learn something.”
Her next film was The Women (1939), in which she had a small part as a perfume-counter assistant; one critic singled her out as “particularly catty” and “a delight”. Virginia Grey recalled that while Joan Crawford was sweet to her, the star bickered with Norma Shearer over billing. Virginia Grey’s other films of that period included Sweet Rosie O’Grady (1943), Wyoming (1947) and Cecil B De Mille’s Unconquered (1947).
With the advent of television, she rode the range in such westerns as The Fighting Lawman (1952), Desert Pursuit (1952) and The Last Command (1955). Some regarded her finest role on the small screen as that of the ailing former sweetheart of Ward Bond in Wagon Train; but she also made a mark as a fading star who sees Kim Novak winning “her” part in the stage production of Rain.
Most important for Virginia Grey’s film career during the 1960s was her close friendship with the producer Ross Hunter. He first used her in his plush All That Heaven Allows, then cast her as a succession of well-dressed spinsters, secretaries and as a headmistress in Tammy, Tell Me True (1961). In Airport (1970), she had a tiny part as a passenger with a precocious brat of a child.
Perhaps her most interesting role during the twilight of her career was that of Irene Talbot, a bored, rich housewife living in Mexico who seeks the pleasures of a gigolo in Love Has Many Faces (1965). Bejewelled, and sporting Edith Head creations and an unconvincing blonde wig to make her look as youthful as possible, Virginia Grey had a somewhat desperate, eager-to-please look which was perhaps a telling commentary on her own life.
In 1980, after a short run in the play Sugar and Spice, which fizzled in Toronto, she found herself a new agent and appeared in the soap operas General Hospital, Moneychangers and Love, American Style.
Virginia Grey, who died on July 31, took a pragmatic view of her career: “I consider myself a professional who acts, not to express my soul or elevate the cinema, but to entertain and get paid for it.”
The above “Telegraph” can also be accessed online here.