Jeanne Crain: The Girl Next Door

By: Mike McCrann

In 1949 Jeanne Crain was the top box office star in the United States with three films, including the smash hit Letter to Three Wives and Pinky, for which she received her only Oscar nomination as Best Actress. To top it off, she was on the cover of Life magazine for the 2nd time in her career.

And Jeanne Crain was only 24 years old.

Born Jeanne Elizabeth Crain in Barstow, Calif., she moved to L.A. as a young child and won a number of beauty contests before signing to 20th Century Fox at a salary of $100 a week. She did a few bit parts before starring in the rural drama Home In Indiana. This film about horses and racing made over 4 million dollars, which was a fortune in those days, and the director, Henry Hathaway, wired Fox head Darryl Zanuck and said, "Better raise this girl's salary—she's going to be a star."

Soon Jeanne was making $5,000 a week.

In 1946, Crain married Paul Brinkman and eventually had seven children. One pregnancy even caused her to lose the part of Eve Harrington in the classic All About Eve. She left Fox when her contract expired and continued doing commendable leading lady work for another ten years. But, as her career was always second to her family, she spent the rest of her life being a mother and painting to fulfill her creative needs.

Jeanne Crain died in 2003 at the age of 78.

The essential Jeanne Crain films:

State Fair (1945)

In this musical, Jeanne introduced the Oscar-winning song “It Might As Well Be Spring,” even though her singing voice was dubbed in this and all of her musicals. This smash hit about a family going to the Iowa State Fair co-starred Dana Andrews, Dick Haymes (a ’40s pop singer), and Vivian Blaine, and showcased what Hollywood hoped was the typical American rural family.

Margie (1946)

The first film Jeanne Crain carried as a star was a smash hit and landed her on the cover of Life magazine for the first time. This study of a high school girl in the 1920s was nostalgia at its best.

Apartment For Peggy (1948)

This comedy about a young married couple trying to get through college with a child on the way and no money was a great change for Jeanne, as she played a feisty newly married woman who saves a professor from suicide and shows him that life is worth living. Co-starring a sexy young William Holden.

Jeanne_crain_3 Pinky (1949)

A controversial study of a light skinned black girl who returns to the south. Although Fox caught flak for casting a white actress in the role, Jeanne gave a beautifully subtle performance as the girl who finally realizes that passing for white in the north is not what her life is about. This groundbreaking film caused a furor in the south.

People Will Talk (1951)

In this oddity directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and co-starring Cary Grant as a progressive doctor with some mysterious secrets, Jeanne played a girl who is pregnant but unmarried. It was a pretty daring story for the Eisenhower era, and it's one of the best films Jeanne ever made. The New Yorker wrote that "her performance is not acting in the traditional sense of the word." I think it’s this critical comment that sums up the charm and realism of Jeanne Crain. She was never actressy and her best performances just radiated from her own personality.

On a personal note, I met Jeanne Crain three times: Once backstage in St. Louis during a summer stock production, once at an Academy screening of Leave Her To Heaven and once at the long gone Cugat's Mexican restaurant in Hollywood. Each time she was gracious and charming and signed everything I had brought. She was a true original and one of the enduring memories of mid-century American Life.