Take a look at the tough femme fatale picture above. The actress who plays her went by just one name — Belita — and she was, to employ the overused expression, multi-talented.
She was an actress, yes, and a former ballerina. But the former Maria Belita Gladys Olive Lyne Jepson-Turner was principally renowned for her figure skating skills.
Like Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth, not to mention Marie Windsor and Claire Trevor, British-born Belita was a femme fatale — but with an added element: she was a figure skater of breathtaking ability, totally different in style than the skating world’s leading star attraction, Sonja Henie.
Belita’s athletic expertise on the ice has been heralded in print by fellow writer, Edward Z. Epstein (an erstwhile collaborator of Joe’s) — himself a formidable former ice skater.
Another Olympic-level figure skater in the movies? Sonja Henie wasn’t alone. Republic had Vera Hruba Ralston and Monogram Pictures had — Belita.
To showcase their star, Monogram pulled out the stops, producing one of its most expensive films EVER, 1946’s Suspense, budgeted at over $1,000,000. A hefty sum for the time.The movie presented a strange combo — alternating moody film noir with elaborate ice skating turns.
Imagine a crime drama where we pause before the next murder to enjoy a glitzy production number worthy of Carmen Miranda. But amazingly it all works. (The plot of Suspense involves an ice skating promoter eyeing an ambitious, amoral ex-peanut-vendor who is eyeing the promoter’s curvaceous figure-skater wife portrayed by Belita.)
Although she didn’t have the charisma of Henie, Belita was a pretty decent actress, and Monogram surrounded her with some top talent.
Suspense co-stars Barry Sullivan as the nefarious ex-peanut vendor, Albert Dekker as a fulsome ice skating impresario, Bonita Granville (in a surprisingly sexy turn) as a spurned gangster’s mistress and Eugene Pallette, one of Hollywood’s finest and most distinctive character actors as a deep-voiced producer’s managerial assistant. The movie was directed by Frank Tuttle. (We’re big Granville fans, thus the inclusion of one of her more demure photos at the very end of this blog.)
“Belita, the Ice Maiden” performs several big skating production numbers (staged by Nick Castle) in Suspense, notably one involving a jump through a circle of knives (See below. Ouch!) . Of course, the bad guy would attempt to slice and dice her to death by rigging the prop.
The director of photography of Suspense, Karl Struss, gives the movie a first-class look, moodily appropriate to its tough subject matter — adultery, revenge, murder. Belita’s performance is surprisingly saucy, and she looks in tip-top shape. The movie’s big bonus is the amusingly gruff, growly presence of character actor Pallette (yes, that’s him below).
We urge you to take a look at Suspense, one of classic Hollywood’s enjoyable movie oddities.