On Oct. 7, we wrote about successful transformation of Dick Powell from singer-dancer to crime buster. Well, here’s another look at one of Hollywood’s more interesting career transformations.
Remember John Payne? Of course you do (says Joe, confidently). But do you remember him as a leading man in musicals or as a hard bitten detective? He starred and superbly acquitted himself in both. There he is above with Betty Grable and Victor Mature in Footlight Serenade.
Unlike Powell, Payne he never fully abandoned his skills as a singer, and kept at it in one venue or another pretty much up to his death at 77 in 1989 of congestive heart failure. But Frank remembers Payne less from his musical work than for his deft appearances in action movies and crime thrillers where nary a song crossed the actor’s mind.
Perhaps his best of the latter is director Phil Karlson’s 1952 crime drama, Kansas City Confidential. Payne plays a good-natured truck driver out on parole who is set up as the fall guy for band of nasties (Preston Foster, Jack Elam, Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef) pulling off an armored car robbery.
Payne’s falsely accused character is forced to hunt down the real robbers, a job complicated by the fact that the bad guys don’t know each other. A cleverly constructed, suspenseful noir with Payne handling the emotional shifts — from geniality to anger to violence — easily and credibly.
As film noir specialist Eddy Muller notes, director Karlson had a profitable association with John Payne, making two other punchy noirs, ’99 River Street’ (United Artists, 1955) and ‘Hell’s Island’ (Paramount, 1955), in which he transformed the popular songbird into a lonesome nighthawk.
Born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1912, Payne was musically trained from childhood. His mother was an operatic soprano. Before making his film debut in 1936, Payne sang professionally on the radio and in Shubert Brothers vaudeville/stage presentations. After a stint at Warner Bros. in the late Thirties, his largely musical tenure at 20th Century Fox began in earnest in the early Forties.
He teamed with former radio partner Grable in 1942’s Springtime in the Rockies before beginning a two-year Army hitch. After wartime service, he resumed his career at Fox mostly squiring onscreen Fox’s biggest female stars — Grable, Alice Faye and Sonja Henie — in an array of musical vehicles, many shot in glossy Technicolor.
Payne also had handily created a breezy, macho image for himself, which studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck found useful. When Tyrone Power went to (serve in World War II), there was John Payne to be the cocky heel-with-a-heart, wrote Zanuck biographer Mel Gussow.
Payne was a notable ladies man. Two of his three marriages were to fresh-faced actresses, first to Anne Shirley (1937-1943) and the second to Gloria DeHaven (1944-1951). Payne also enjoyed his share of extra-marital flings.
In her autobiography, Jane Russell confides that she began what she described as a “very serious affair” with Payne, whom she described as “a thinker, a reader, a writer.” He certainly was a far-sighted businessman. While employed at 20th Century Fox, Payne invested in land along the Malibu coastline.