Although she made some fine films (after years of mediocre programmers at Warners) Jane Wyman is usually remembered today as the first wife of Ronald Reagan and not as an Oscar winning actress who had a career which spanned 50 years.

Many people would say Jane Wyman is only famous because she was Ronald Reagan’s first wife. Wyman would have said HE was famous for being one of her husbands!

But to describe their respective career achievements in such reductive terms would seriously diminish them.  Whatever your view of Reagan, Wyman was distinguished by her an unusually successful run as a durable actress who excelled on the big screen, and then drew worldwide recognition on tv.

She worked with some of Hollywood’s finest directors of the Forties and Fifties.  She won multiple awards, and put in some serious work.  She was by all accounts a pretty good person offscreen despite her marital vicissitudes.

Above is one of the few photos of Wyman projecting the sex appeal she so conspicuously lacks in most of the roles she plays at her peak as one of Hollywood’s most lauded female stars of the Forties and Fifties.

Viewing this shot, we can believe that she really did begin her movie career in the mid-Thirties play the tough-talking chorus girl “with bite and a seemingly natural hard edge,” according to the actress’ chroniclers, Edward Z. Epstein and our own Joe  Morella (1985’s Jane Wyman, A Biography).

Wyman excelled in melodramas as the handsome, understanding mother; the severely put upon (notably a deaf-mute half her real age); one-of-the-boys western figures. Later she was warmly received as the suffering heroine in “womens’ pictures” and, most famously, as the stylish, take-charge woman running a California winery on tv.

Some things you should know about Jane Wyman:

— She worked with directors: Frank Capra in 1951’s Here Comes The Groom; Alfred Hitchcock in 1950’s Stage Fright; Billy Wilder in 1945’s The Lost Weekend; and  Michael Curtiz in 1952’s The Story of Will Rogers.

—  In 1941, Wyman engaged in a smooching match with Regis Toomey in You’re In The Army Now.  The kiss lasted 3 minutes and five seconds, a record for the longest onscreen kiss in movie history.

— She won a best actress Oscar for playing a young deaf-mute rape victim in 1948’s Johnny Belinda. She was also nominated as best actress for 1946’s The Yearling, 1951’s The Blue Veil, 1954’s Magnificent Obsession.

— Wyman never discussed for public consumption the reasons why her marriage to Reagan fell apart.  She did, however, make cryptic references to his talkativeness, saying that if you asked him the time he would reply with a full-blown explanation of how a Swiss watch worked. Wyman and Reagan costarred in b) two movies: 1938’s Brother Rat and 1940’s Brother Rat and Baby.

— She married a total of five times, twice to the same husband, musician-bandleader Fred Karger.  Reagan was husband No. 3. Wyman was the surname of the actress’ first husband, to whom she was married for two years beginning in 1933.

 

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