Ronald Bergan’s obituary of Janet Blair from the “Guardian” in 2007:
Audiences familiar with Janet Blair’s neurotically charged performance as a woman who uses voodoo and witchcraft to further her professor husband’s career in the British occult classic, Burn, Witch, Burn aka Night of the Eagle (1962), may not realise that until then her parts had been almost all sweetness and light.
In fact, in a film, stage and television career stretching back to 1941, that was the first time Blair, who has died aged 85, had had a chance to get her teeth into a dramatic role. An attractive blonde, she had first made a name for herself as an energetic, cheerful lead in comedies and musicals, mostly at Columbia Pictures, where her first contract paid $100 a week.
Born Martha Jean Lafferty in Altoona, Pennsylvania, she took her name from the Pennsylvania county called Blair. She took ballet lessons as a child until she discovered, while singing in the local church choir, that she had a fine voice. Aged 18, she auditioned for the bandleader Hal Kemp, and became vocalist with a band celebrated for its sweet sound, touring with it for nearly two years and making recordings. A few years later, in 1943, she married one of the band’s arrangers and pianist, Louis Busch, later known as Joe “Fingers” Carr.
It was while Blair was appearing at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles that she was spotted by a Columbia talent scout, just a few weeks before Kemp was killed in a car accident. The scout, who said “I could not reconcile myself to so much talent being confined to band work”, got her a screen test.
Her debut film at the studio was the comedy-thriller Three Girls About Town (1941) playing Charity, the young sister of Hope (Joan Blondell) and Faith (Binnie Barnes). The following year, Blair appeared in four films: as a flirtatious co-ed after Dagwood (Arthur Lake) in Blondie Goes to College; in Two Yanks in Trinidad – in which she was, according to the New York Times, “wholesomely sexy” as a cafe entertainer over whom gangsters Pat O’Brien and Brian Donlevy have a falling out; as hoofer George Raft’s dancing partner in Broadway (for Universal); and in the title role in My Sister Eileen.
Although Rosalind Russell dominated the last film as the older sister and aspiring writer, Blair, as the flighty would-be actor, was pretty enough to make audiences believe she could attract dozens of men, including what seemed like the entire Portuguese navy.
After this run, Blair was finally given a chance to display her vocal talent in three musicals: Something to Shout About (1943), in which, as a girl from Altoona, she sings seven Cole Porter numbers, including You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To (with Don Ameche); Tonight and Every Night (1945), set in London during the Blitz, gave her a chance to sing Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn’s Anywhere and The Boy I Left Behind (with a dubbed Rita Hayworth) before her character is killed in a bomb raid; and the tepid but tuneful The Fabulous Dorseys (1947), with bandleader brothers Tommy and Jimmy playing themselves.
In between, Blair co-starred with Cary Grant in Once Upon a Time (1944), a whimsical comedy about a caterpillar that dances to Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby. In 1948, after three movies – I Love Trouble, in which she played an ambivalent woman seeking the help of private eye Franchot Tone; The Fuller Brush Man, playing straight opposite Red Skelton’s clowning; and the swashbuckler Black Arrow – Blair decided to quit films for the stage and television. She felt she was not being given the roles she deserved.
She went straight into the touring company of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, playing Nellie Forbush (I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair) 1,200 times in three years – “and I never missed a performance,” she claimed proudly. During the tour, she married the stage manager, Nick Mayo.
In 1953, on Broadway, she starred in the comedy The Girl Can Tell, and appeared in several television specials, including two adaptations of Broadway musicals – A Connecticut Yankee and One Touch of Venus (both 1955). In 1956, she took over from Nanette Fabray as Sid Caesar’s wife in the last season of the comedy television series Caesar’s Hour.
In 1957, Blair starred in the Jule Styne musical Bells Are Ringing at the London Coliseum, though it was hard to find favour with critics who compared her to Judy Holliday, creator of the role on Broadway. She continued in many television series, one of which was as detective Henry Fonda’s wife in The Smith Family (1971-72), and a few films.
Blair, who is survived by two children from her second marriage, once said: “I love performing. If I weren’t working, I’d be performing free for friends.”
· Janet Blair (Martha Jean Lafferty), singer and actor, born April 23 1921; died February 19 2007
Gary Brumburgh’s entry:
When it came to bright and polished, they didn’t get much spiffier than singer/actress Janet Blair — perhaps to her detriment in the long haul. At Columbia, she was usually overlooked for the roles that might have tested her dramatic mettle. Nevertheless, she pleased audiences as a pert and perky co-star to a number of bigger stars, ranging fromGeorge Raft and Cary Grant to Red Skelton and The Dorsey Brothers.
Of Irish descent, she was born Martha Janet Lafferty in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1921. Raised there in the public school system, she sang in the church choir during her youth and adolescence. The inspiration and talent was evident enough for her to pursue singing as a career by the time she graduated. At age 18, she was a lead vocalist with Hal Kemp‘s band at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. While with Kemp’s outfit, Janet met and, subsequently, married the band’s pianist, Lou Busch, a respected musician, songwriter and, later, ragtime recording artist.
A Columbia Pictures talent scout caught her behind the microphone and spotted fine potential in the pretty-as-a-picture songstress. The death of Kemp in a car accident in December of 1940 and the band’s eventual break-up signaled a life-changing course of events. She signed up with Columbia, for up to $100 a week, and moved to Los Angeles while her husband found work as a studio musician. Janet made an immediate impression in her debut film as the feisty kid sister of Joan Blondell and Binnie Barnes in Three Girls About Town (1941) and also dallied about in the movies, Two Yanks in Trinidad (1942) and Blondie Goes to College (1942), until her big break in the movies arrived. StarRosalind Russell made a pitch for Janet to play her co-lead in My Sister Eileen (1942) as her naive, starry-eyed younger sister (Eileen), who carried aspirations of being a big-time actress. The film became an instant hit and Janet abruptly moved up into the “love interest” ranks. Usually appearing in a frothy musical or light comedy, she was seeded second, however, to another redhead, Rita Hayworth, when it came to Columbia dispensing out musical leads. Janet, nevertheless, continued promisingly paired up withGeorge Raft in the mob-oriented tunefest, Broadway (1942); alongside Don Ameche in the musical, Something to Shout About (1943), and opposite Cary Grant in the comedy-fantasy, Once Upon a Time (1944), one of his lesser-known films. She played second lead to Ms. Hayworth in Tonight and Every Night (1945) and was right in her element when asked to co-star with bandleaders Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey in their biopic,The Fabulous Dorseys (1947). A rare dramatic role came her way in the Glenn Fordstarrer, Gallant Journey (1946), but again she was relegated to playing the stereotyped altruistic wife. In retrospect, the importance of her roles, although performed quite capably, were more supportive and decorative in nature, and lacked real bite. By the time the daring-do “B” swashbuckler The Black Arrow (1948) rolled out, Columbia had lost interest in their fair maiden and Janet had lost interest in Hollywood.
A new decade brought about a new career direction. Putting together a successful nightclub act, she was spotted by composer Richard Rodgers, and made a sparkling name for herself within a short time. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”, starring Mary Martin, was the hit of the Broadway season and Janet dutifully took on the lead role of “Ensign Nellie Forbush” when the show went on tour in 1950. She gave a yeoman performance – over 1,200 in all — within a three-year period. Following this success, she made her Broadway debut in the musical, “A Girl Can Tell”, in 1953. She went on for decades, appearing in such tuneful vehicles as “Anything Goes”, “Bells Are Ringing”, “Annie Get Your Gun”, “Mame” and “Follies”.
Her career, however, took second place after marrying second husband, producer/directorNick Mayo in 1953, and raising their two children, Amanda and Andrew. The couple met when he stage-managed “South Pacific” and went on to co-own and operate Valley Music Theatre in Woodland Hills, California during the mid-1960s. There, she played “Maria” in “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan” opposite Vincent Price‘s “Dr. Hook”, among others. Her second marriage lasted until the late 60s. TV’s “Golden Age” proved to be a viable medium for her. A promising series role came to her in 1956 when she replaced Emmy-winning Nanette Fabray as Sid Caesar‘s femme co-star on Caesar’s Hour (1954) but she left the sketch-based comedy show after only one season because she felt stifled and underused. She also returned to films on occasion, appearing opposite her The Fuller Brush Man (1948) co-star, Red Skelton, in another of his slapstick vehicles, Public Pigeon No. One (1957); as Tony Randall‘s wife in the domestic comedy, Boys’ Night Out (1962), starring Kim Novak; in the excellent cult British horror, Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) (aka Burn, Witch, Burn); and was fresh as a daisy, once again, in the antiseptic Disney musical, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968). After her second divorce, Janet laid off touring in musicals and settled in Hollywood to raise her two teenage children while looking for TV work. She found a steady paycheck paired up withHenry Fonda on the sitcom, The Smith Family (1971), playing another of her patented loyal wives. She also found scattered work on such TV shows as Marcus Welby, M.D.(1969), Switch (1975), Fantasy Island (1977) and The Love Boat (1977). Her last guest showing was on the Murder, She Wrote (1984) episode, Murder, She Wrote: Who Killed J.B. Fletcher? (1991). Janet died at age 85 in Santa Monica, California, after developing pneumonia.