Noir Nook: Unusual Ladies from Noir – Susan Hayward
Susan Hayward has long been one of my favorite actresses. Growing up I was amazed by her appearances in films like Smash Up: A Woman’s Story (1947), for which she received her first of five Academy Award nominations; I can get it wholesale for you (1951), where she appeared as a ruthlessly ambitious fashion designer; and I will cry tomorrow (1955), based on the life of the singer Lillian Roth. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that she was quite present in the field of film noir, with appearances in four feature films from that period: Among the living (1941), Deadline at dawn (1946), You won’t believe me (1947), and House of Strangers (1949). This month’s Noir Nook puts the spotlight on this talented, versatile, and often underrated actress.
Hayward was born Edythe Marrenner in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. At the age of seven, she was hit by a car and suffered a broken hip. Although her doctors predicted she would never walk again, the future star was able to move on crutches after six months, and she returned to school a year later. The accident left one leg shorter than the other – she carried a lift in one shoe, which added to the sexy, proud gait that would become her trademark for years to come.
Edythe showed an early affinity for acting, appeared in numerous plays at Girls Commercial High School and began her career as a model for the Walter Thornton Agency. Shortly after being in a stretch in the Saturday evening post, she signed a trial contract with Selznick Studios and became one of the countless young women who starred in the role of Scarlett O’Hara Blown by the wind(1939) Of course, the role ultimately went to Vivien Leigh, but Edythe was not discouraged. She boarded a train to California and soon had hired an agent, signed a six-month contract with Warner Bros., and changed her name to Susan Hayward.
Though she was dropped by Warner’s at the end of her contract, Hayward was caught by Paramount, where she appeared in a small but memorable role in Beau gesture (1939) and a couple of programmers before stepping into the shadowy world of noir.
Among the living (1941)
Appears at the beginning of the noir era, Among the living Stars Albert Dekker in a dual role as twins – John Raden is a millionaire and his brother Paul, who presumably died in his childhood, is a criminally insane serial killer. Hayward plays Millie Perkins, whose father owns the guesthouse where Paul rents a room. Unaware that Paul is a murderer, Millie uses her flirtatious manner to solicit his help in securing the reward for finding the murderer – whom everyone thinks John is.
Deadline at dawn (1946)
In this feature, Bill Williams is Alex Winkley, a naive sailor on a 24-hour vacation who finds himself in hot water when he learns that a woman he met drunk has turned up dead. Alex hires cynical but kind-hearted dancehall girl June Goth (Hayward) to help him find the killer. (A bit of trivia – and who doesn’t love trivia? – Bill Williams later married actress Barbara Hale, of Perry Mason Fame, and the couple had three children, one of whom was William Katt, who would later star in the 1976 horror classic Carrie and on TV Greatest American Hero. You’re welcome. Back to Susanne.)
You will not believe me (1947)
I’ve always liked this noir-with-a-twist, but I liked it even more after seeing it with 20 minutes of restored footage at the 2021 TCM Virtual Film Festival. In this film, Hayward Verna Carlson, one of three womanizing women – and very married – is stockbroker Larry Ballentine (Robert Young). Most of the film is shown in flashbacks as we learn from Ballentine the circumstances that led to his being on trial for the murder of his wife.
House of Strangers (1950)
Richard Conte plays Max Monetti, whose father, bank owner, Gino (Edward G. Robinson) and three brothers are the strangers of the film title. When Gino is arrested for his often illegal banking practices, Max is the only son to help his father – but his methods bring him to prison. As Max’s friend, Hayward is devoted and passionate, but also strong-willed and independent – exactly what Max needs after seven years in the asshole.
Off the big screen, Hayward was married to actor Jess Barker for 10 years; the couple had two children, but after all, the relationship was stormy. Hayward fared far better off her second marriage to Floyd Eaton Chalkley, an attorney and former FBI man from Carrollton, Georgia; They were together from 1957 to 1966 when Chalkley died of hepatitis. In 1973, Hayward’s son Tim announced that she had suffered from multiple inoperable brain tumors and was only expected to live six months. Like the strong-willed little girl who had been told it would never work, Hayward proved to the doctors they were wrong; a year later she appeared as a presenter at the 1974 Academy Awards, and she held out almost a year later until she finally succumbed on March 14, 1975 at the age of 56.
Hayward herself once summed up the determined, unyielding personality that drove her to fame and received numerous awards throughout her career, including an Oscar for best actress for I want to live! 1958: “I had to fight my way up in a town called Hollywood, where people love to trample you to death. I’m not relaxing because I don’t know how. I don’t want to know how.
“Life is too short to relax.”
– 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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