Travel classic: Joan McCracken
While the name Joan McCracken is unknown to many these days, in her heyday she was a renowned actress, dancer, and comedian who was responsible for the role of Sylvie in is known Oklahoma!She adopted the nickname “The Girl Who Falls Down” for her pratfalls on the show. An instant hit and trendsetter in comedy and dance, her career and life were tragically disrupted due to diabetes.
Joan Hume McCracken was born on December 31, 1917 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to sports reporters Franklin T. McCracken and Mary McCracken. Her father wrote for them Philadelphia Public Ledger, with a focus on golf and boxing coverage.
A promising acrobat, McCracken received a scholarship for her talent and studied dance with the ballerina, choreographer and artistic director Catherine Littlefield. McCracken attended high school at West Philadelphia High School, but dropped out during her 10th grade to study dance with choreographer George Balanchine when the School of American Ballet opened in 1934.
The following year she returned to Philadelphia to join the Littlefield Ballet, which would become the Philadelphia Ballet. She secured a role as a soloist and earned praise when the ensemble went on a European tour. Despite the challenges of diagnosing type 1 diabetes, McCracken continued on the tour and disregarded her treatment regimen. In very private life and fear of losing job opportunities, she kept her diabetes a secret. Unfortunately, the decision to keep working made her prone to fainting during the shows and opened the door to future medical complications.
In 1940 McCracken married the dancer Jack Dunphy and the couple moved to New York, where both found jobs. She danced as part of the ballet for Radio City Musical, Jacob’s Pillow (a Massachusetts ballet company), and Eugene Loring’s Dance Players. McCracken and Dunphy later auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein We go awayto secure anonymous dance roles on the show. In the course of work on the show, the name of the musical was changed to Oklahoma!in which McCracken created a more noticeable personality for her given role of Sylvie. Because of the pratfalls her character made in the dance sequence “Many a New Day”, McCracken was dubbed “The Girl Who Falls Down”.
McCracken’s work in Oklahoma! resulted in her signing a contract with Warner Brothers and being in Hollywood canteen (1944). Although she was excited about working in films at first, she felt it Hollywood canteen was patronizing and did not reflect well on her husband and brother who served in the military. With the choreography she also felt a lack of guidance from the choreographer LeRoy Prinz. As a result, she broke her contract and returned to Broadway to perform in Bloomer girl, considered the first Broadway musical about feminism. In addition to receiving praise for dancing on the show, she also cultivated a weird personality.
After the success of Blooming girl she played along Billion dollar baby on Broadway in 1945 to positive reviews of their performance, but lukewarm comments about the show. When he returned to movies, McCracken was hired by MGM to work in. to occur Good news (1947) as Babe Doolittle. Although her dance numbers were enthusiastic, MGM did not renew her contract because executives felt she lacked “close-up” and performed more in the style of a Broadway actor than the low-key style of a film actor. In addition, her vocal range was limited, which prevented her from achieving many major musical roles.
Desiring to advance as a dramatic actress, she began studying acting with Group Theater Alumnus Bobby Lewis, who co-founded the Actors Studio with Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford. The school was by invitation only, and McCracken secured a spot as a founding member of the studio. Your dramatic role in Galileo opened the door to many more serious and non-dancing roles. McCracken also appeared in the role of Essie on television. on You can’t take it with you (1950).
McCracken and Dunphy divorced in 1951, with Dunphy being Truman Capote’s partner until his death. In terms of Capote and his work, McCracken was actually one of Holly Golightly’s real-life counterparts in his novella. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Golightly’s reaction to her brother’s death in the Army overseas mirrors McCracken’s violent reaction to her brother’s death. In addition, Golightly is depicted singing songs from Oklahoma! while playing the guitar.
In the meantime, McCracken met the choreographer and dancer Bob Fosse while working in Dance me a song in a leading role. They were married from 1952 to 1959, with McCracken working to advance his career and support his work. Her influence on producer George Abbott led to Fosse’s first major role as choreographer for The pajama game. When her health deteriorated, Fosse left McCracken for Gwen Verdon.
McCracken was featured in a touring production of Jean Arthur Peter Pan as well as appearing in the sitcom Claudia: The story of a marriage. She also appeared on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Me and Julia.
McCracken’s health hampered her career as her dancing skills were compromised. In 1955, in addition to various health problems and lengthy hospital stays, she suffered a heart attack. Complications from diabetes made her work difficult. Her last stage appearance was in the off-Broadway production of The infernal machine 1958.
McCracken’s last relationship was with actor Marc Adams. She spent her final years in a beach house in The Pines, Fire Island, New York, and died in her sleep of a heart attack on November 1, 1961. She was cremated and her ashes were given to her mother, although they were later lost.
Today there are some tributes to McCracken. The Girl Who Fell: A Biography Of Joan McCracken by Lisa Jo Sagolla offers an intimate portrait of McCracken and her life.
While McCracken himself does not appear in this clip, her Sylvie character is spotted as the dancer featured in this sequence of Oklahoma!
In 1920, McCracken and her parents and maternal grandmother lived at 920 Farragut Terrace, Philadelphia. The family also took in a boarder who was a newspaper reporter friend. This is how it looks today:
By 1930 the family moved to 616 p. 54the St in Philadelphia with McCracken’s little brother Frank. This is home today:
Although McCracken’s recordings are few and far between, we are fortunate to have captured some of her appearances in films.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on films and performers from the Film Noir and Pre-Code era, and the Editor-in-Chief of The dark side, a bimonthly newsletter about film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of the Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter below @TheDarkPages.
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