Evelyn Keyes obituary from “The Guardian” in 2008.
Evelyn Keyes, who has died aged 91, entitled her 1977 autobiography, Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister. But there was more to Keyes than her role of Suellen O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939). Her memoirs, subtitled My Lively Life in and Out of Hollywood, were more about her marriages, sexual liaisons and abortions than about her film career.
In 1940, after two years of marriage, her depressive first husband, Barton Bainbridge, shot himself. Her second marriage, to Columbia director Charles Vidor, lasted two years from 1943 before she left him to marry John Huston in 1946. From 1953, she lived with producer Mike Todd, and became jazzman Artie Shaw’s eighth wife in 1957. They separated in the 1970s, and divorced in 1985. After his death in 2004, she sued his estate and was awarded $1.42m.
The most interesting period of her career was in film noir. When told that she had become a film noir icon, she laughed: “It seems that I had a whole career I didn’t even know about!” Once past ingenue, the redhead showed a dark side in dramas in which her morality is altered by confrontations with sex and cupidity. As a showgirl in Robert Rossen’s debut, Johnny O’Clock (1947), she is drawn into a shadowy world in pursuit of the murderer of her sister.
Keyes was literally a femme fatale in the title role of The Killer That Stalked New York (1950). As a jewel smuggler on the run, carrying the smallpox virus, she moves effectively from cool confidence to desperation. In classic noir fashion, she tracks down her husband for one last embrace so she can infect him as a punishment for his infidelity.
The Prowler (1951), Joseph Losey’s tense thriller, had Keyes as a lonely, sexually-frustrated wife who has an affair with a cop (Van Heflin). After the cop shoots her sterile husband, making it seem as if he were a prowler, the two benighted lovers are locked in an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia.
In 1953, 99 River Street had her shifting between femme fatale and girl-next-door without stretching credibility. She plays an actor playing the part of a murderer, but gets involved in a real one.
Born in Texas, at 18 Keyes was talent spotted while dancing in a nightclub, and put under personal contract to Cecil B DeMille. However, she was merely asked to be passive and pretty in The Buccaneer (1938) and Union Pacific (1939) until, freed from her Paramount contract, David O Selznick asked her to play the selfish and weak Suellen, whose beau her elder sister Scarlett marries in Gone With the Wind. Apparently Keyes outran Selznick when he chased her around his office at their first meeting, but he cast her anyway.
In 1940, she signed a Columbia contract and began getting bigger and better roles such as mad scientist Boris Karloff’s daughter in Before I Hang (1940), and the blind girl whom disfigured gangster Peter Lorre loves in The Face Behind the Mask (1941). During the shooting, Keyes had to cope with Lorre’s dependency on drugs and alcohol.
Keyes is radiant in Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941) as the woman in love with Robert Montgomery, who reincarnates into the body of the businessman who ruined her father. Another huge success was The Jolson Story (1946), in which she played Al Jolson’s first wife.
While Harry Cohn, Columbia’s big boss, was polishing Rita Hayworth’s star image, Keyes languished in run-of-the mill comedies and westerns mainly opposite Glenn Ford, such as The Adventures of Martin Eden and The Desperadoes (both 1943). In 1949, she turned freelance, making a few interesting films, including Mrs Mike (1949), as a Boston girl who gives up everything to face the hardships of life in northern Canada to be with her Mountie husband (Dick Powell); and Shoot First (1953), a murky espionage tale filmed in a Dorset countryside crawling with spies.
Her final film, before retiring in 1956, was as Tom Ewell’s absent wife in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955). Keyes later returned to the screen in a couple of gothic melodramas directed by Larry Cohen: A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987) and Wicked Stepmother (1989).
A self-described “flaming liberal” who was once a “mush-minded bigot”, the plain-speaking Keyes explained that having an abortion just before filming Gone With the Wind, left her unable to have children.
· Evelyn Keyes, actor, born November 20 1916; died July 4 2008
The abpve “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.