It’s always fun to learn that actresses who played blowzy blonde bimbos in films were often born to well to do families, and were highly educated. Such was the case with Jan Sterling.
Perhaps best known for her the roles in 1951’s Ace In the Hole and 1954’s The High and the Mighty, Sterling had a checkered career that lasted many years and included multiple television roles in a variety of formats.
In movies, she is a notable presence in several film noirs and womens’ prison movies including that classic of the genre, 1950’s Caged, starring Eleanor Parker. (Sterling plays “Smoochie.”)
For her performance in The High and the Mighty (which was made for about $1.5 million and grossed about $8.5) she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. The movie stars John Wayne as an over-the-hill pilot forced in flight to take the wheel of a faltering plane. The record of the movie’s title song, composed by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, became as big a hit as the movie itself.
Jan was born Jane Sterling Adriance in New York City in 1923, and was educated at private schools in New York and Europe and by tutors. A little-known trivia item is that she is a descendant of not one but two U.S. presidents — the second, John Adams; and the sixth John Quincy Adams.
Be that as it may, Sterling made her Broadway debut in 1938, and appeared on Broadway into the early 1940s (when she was married to actor John Merivale). That six-year marriage ended in divorce in 1947.
Three years later, after her film career was underway (her debut outing was Tycoon followed by 1948’s Johnny Belinda) she became actor Paul Douglas’ fifth wife. The marriage was apparently a happy one, and lasted until the actor’s death in 1959.
Jan and her second husband occasionally worked together. In Paramount’s 1951 noir, Appointment With Danger starring Alan Ladd, she plays the moll attached to a bruising gangster portrayed by Douglas.
Sterling’s most notable on-screen husband is Humphrey Bogart in 1956’s boxing drama, The Harder They Fall. She is Bogie’s sports-writer-turned-shady-pr-man’s conscience in the film, giving him the backbone to stand up to his mobster boss (Rod Steiger).
But Sterling is most enjoyable in dark dramas in which she figures in less laudable ways. She plays a blond floozy fatally involved with a married man — her character is shot, stripped and tossed into the ocean — in MGM’s 1950 outing, Mystery Street, starring Ricardo Montalban.
In Ace in the Hole starring Kirk Douglas, Sterling cleverly plays with her tough broad facade delivering a performance that noir encyclopedists Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward describe as quiet and subtle, conveyed by the obsequious look of her saucer eyes, in the twist of her pouting mouth, and in the brassy tone of her voice.
Urged to pose praying for her husband in publicity photos, she snarls, ‘I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.’