Despite a tempestuous personal life that frequently threatened to overwhelm Lana Turner’s career, the petite yet robust blonde beauty enjoyed a 20-plus-year run as one of Hollywood’s most popular and in-demand sex goddesses and forged a lasting body of work. Born in 1921 in an Idaho mining town, Julia Jean Turner was 10 when she lost her gambler father to a fatal robbery, and her mother moved the family to California in search of opportunity. While the oft-recounted tale of her discovery at the counter of Schwab’s sipping a Coke was an embellishment, the publisher of the story did actually take notice of the pretty 15-year-old at a restaurant–supposedly saying the much-repeated Hollywood line, “How’d you like to be in pictures?”–and an introduction was made to Zeppo Marx’s talent agency.
The story that her screen debut was an unbilled bit part in the original A Star Is Born (1937) is questioned by some sources (including her own daughter), but there’s no disputing that, after meeting producer/director Mervyn LeRoy, Turner made an immediate impression when he cast her as the sweater-clad young woman in They Won’t Forget (1937)…but as the murder victim, her on-screen time was short. More small parts in fare like The Great Garrick (1937) and Samuel Goldwyn’s The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938), with Gary Cooper in the title role, came in succession. And when LeRoy bolted Warner for MGM in 1938, Lana followed.
The next few years were spent in a typical starlet’s apprenticeship at the studio, with Turner popping up in numerous programmers like 1938’s Love Finds Andy Hardy–where she forged a lifelong friendship with co-stars Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney–and Calling Dr. Kildare the following year. A move up in billing came with her first starring role in These Glamour Girls (1939). The next year, Lana tried to balance her education and her yearning for a life on the stage in Dancing Co-Ed (1940) as showbiz-savvy Joan Blondell’s younger sister. Bandleader Artie Shaw was also on hand in the film and later that year they entered into a brief marriage, her first of many over the years.
Few screen actresses could claim a breakout year such as Lana had in 1941, as MGM upped the stature of her projects and positioned her against their foremost leading men. Ziegfeld Girl found her opposite James Stewart, plus Garland and another top Metro property, Hedy Lamarr. Turner also starred in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde along with Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman (She was originally set to play the role of the tavern tart and Bergman was to play Tracy’s proper fiancée, but the roles were reversed when Ingrid suggested the change.). In Honky Tonk, she starred in her first of four films with Clark Gable, and she was the District Attorney’s daughter who falls for mob boss Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager.
She became a favorite pin-up girl of the WWII years, busying herself with MGM fare like 1942’s Somewhere I’ll Find You (co-starring again with Gable), and entering into another tumultuous union with restaurateur Stephen Crane. Turner was top-billed when she was mistaken for dead in Slightly Dangerous with Robert Young in ’43 and co-starred with Laraine Day and Susan Peters in Keep Your Powder Dry (1945) as a spoiled heiress who enlists in the Women’s Army Corps. That same year, she starred in Week-End at the Waldorf, a remake of the 1932 classic Grand Hotel, whose posters proclaimed, “It’s Always Exciting and Romantic at the Waldorf!”
She continued to add to her professional resumé through the decade, and in 1946, she was never more gorgeous–or more dangerous–than when she co-starred with John Garfield in James M. Cain’s suspenser The Postman Always Rings Twice. Of all her films, it was the role of the scheming Cora that Lana liked best. Then came another co-starring film with Spencer Tracy, the May-December romance Cass Timberlane (1947 ) and another pairing with Gable in the WWII drama Homecoming in 1948. That same year, she starred as the villainous Lady de Winter with Gene Kelly in the Technicolor extravaganza The Three Musketeers…and found husband number three in millionaire Henry J. Topping.
Lana’s contract with MGM lasted through the mid-’50s, with highlights including a change-of-pace role opposite Ezio Pinza in Mr. Imperium (1951), Vincent Minnelli’s 1952 Tinseltown exposé The Bad and the Beautiful, the action-packed spy thriller Betrayed (1954) with Gable, and the Ancient Egypt epic The Prodigal in 1955. In 1953 she also moved on to another spouse, screen Tarzan Lex Barker (According to Hollywood folklore, Turner fainted during the ceremony.).
Finally free from the studio system, she remained in demand, as evidenced by 1955’s The Sea Chase at Warner Brothers with megastar John Wayne, The Rains of Ranchipur at Fox that same year, and one of the all-time favorite Hollywood melodramas, 1957’s steamy Peyton Place, which resulted in the sole Best Actress Oscar nomination of her career.
The fan sheets were as fueled as ever by her love life, but Turner’s career nearly floundered following the fatal 1958 stabbing of abusive lover Johnny Stompanato by her teenage daughter Cheryl Crane. The girl was later found in court to have acted in her mother’s defense in committing “justifiable homicide.” Six years would pass before the inevitable would happen; Producer Joseph E. Levine brought the lurid details behind the headlines to the screen in the 1964 drama Where Love Has Gone, adapted from a Harold Robbins novel. Susan Hayward played the fictionalized version of Lana.
Although the tabloids were ruthless, Turner would rebound, primarily in glossy sudsers like Universal producer Ross Hunter’s successful 1959 remake of Imitation of Life. She was slated to star opposite James Stewart in the ’59 courtroom thriller Anatomy of a Murder, but it was rumored that she opted out when she didn’t like Otto Preminger’s choices for her wardrobe: off-the-rack department store outfits. Lee Remick replaced her. Next came a stylish thriller where she played a dangerous game with Anthony Quinn, Portrait In Black (1961), and By Love Possessed, a shocking soaper (for its day) that’s known to trivia buffs as the first regularly scheduled in-flight airline movie. In another change-of-pace movie, she appeared opposite Bob Hope as the seemingly only single woman in town in the comedy, Bachelor in Paradise (1961). Her vogue was on the wane by the mid-’60s, but Lana’s fame was the draw that cast her in Hunter’s lush 1966 retelling of Madame X, in which she convincingly played a woman accused of murder being defended by her unsuspecting grown son.
She’d have another three marriages by the time the decade was through, for a grand total of seven (none of which lasted more than five years). Of her marriages, Turner once said, “I planned on having one husband and seven children, but it turned out the other way around.” Her acting output afterwards was intermittent; she retired from performing for good after early-’80s TV stints on The Love Boat and Falcon Crest. In 1988, daughter Crane penned a book, “Detour: A Hollywood Story,” detailing her life with her famous mother and telling everything–well, maybe not everything–about Lana’s septet of spouses and her many boyfriends.
Reflecting on her life, the one-time “Sweater Girl” offered, “The thing about happiness is that it doesn’t help you to grow; only unhappiness does that. So I’m grateful that my bed of roses was made up equally of blossoms and thorns. I’ve had a privileged, creative, exciting life, and I think that the parts that were less joyous were preparing me, testing me, strengthening me.”
Her final years until her 1995 passing, following a lengthy bout with cancer, were spent out of the public eye.
And now, watch Lana match wits with John Garfield in the theatrical trailer for 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: