Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jane Randolph (1915 - 2009)


It's happened again: I have to say goodbye to a guest I had no idea was still at the party.

Jane Randolph died earlier this month at the age of ninety-three.
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If forties noir is your thing, no doubt titles like Jealousy (1945) and Railroaded (1947) will mean something to you, and will conjure up a bunch of memories, the majority of them probably visual, and doubtless Jane will be a part of that.
But if you're a slob like me, it's Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein you think of first, where Jane is the blonde good girl, the better to underline the foxy wickedness of Lenore Aubert, who you'll recall has cooked up a scheme with Dracula to put Lou Costello's brain in the skull of the Frankenstein Monster.
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Ordinarily, we can sit here for hours thinking about the moving candle, and the bit with the big pile of suitcases, or the bit where Lou mistakes the sound of the wolf man for that of someone gargling.
But our minds race further, because of course, Jane Randolph is more than just that... she's also sneaky Alice Moore in Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1944), two very different masterpieces from producer Val Lewton making for one seriously weird double bill: indeed, quite possibly the most mismatched original and sequel ever. The first is a terrifying psychological horror film, one of the best and scariest ever made, the other a lyrical drama about the imagination of a child, and a beautiful film in its own right.
But why do I call Alice sneaky? I leave that to the judgement of the individual viewer. I'm still undecided how much is scripted, how much merely in the performance, and how much in my imagination. But I do know this: when you watch Cat People with girls, they have their claws out for Alice long before Simone Simon shows hers.
On the surface she's caring, dependable, decent and all that hooey, but she's manipulating Ollie, the big dumb lunk of a hero played by Kent Smith. She's taking him away from his wife, and to me at least she seems to be doing so quite calculatedly and deliberately. She wills poor Simone to madness and self-destruction.
But like so much else in the film, it's all under the surface.
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It's actually very good acting from Jane Randolph, who first got into the movies in the very early forties as uncredited secretaries and hat check girls at Warners, before being picked up by RKO in '42, following a stint as an ice skating model for the animators of Bambi (1942).
Universal borrowed her for Bud and Lou's great contribution to the art of cinema in '48, but it turned out to be her last movie (bar a walk-on in '55): she married, moved to Madrid and became a pillar of Spanish high society. She didn't really need the movies, and they didn't really need her.
Nonetheless, Randolph's image will endure forever, or at least for as long as the love of film endures. Her name may not mean a whole lot to most people, but there are worse things that can happen to a film star.
What Jane Randolph has is a pair of tickets to film immortality. One is for taking a walk in the night, and getting a bus, in one of the scariest mood sequences in horror film history.
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The other is for just possibly topping even that, by taking the movies' scariest ever swim.
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And both in the same film!
Every time you watch these amazing pieces of cinema, you may be thinking about Val Lewton, you may be thinking about Jacques Tourneur, you may even be thinking about Simone Simon. But you're watching Jane Randolph.
And with that, the image fades, and it's all over.
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Postscript (29/6/09): I've just seen Railroaded, and feel compelled to point out that not only is it excellent, but Randolph is absolutey superb in it; she plays not the heroine as I was expecting but as splendid a trampy, hard-boiled dame as was ever essayed by Gloria Grahame or Claire Trevor. A must-see, and further confirmation that Jane Randolph had what it takes.