Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie guys, wondering today about how the womanly actress seen in the photos here today wound up with a man’s name.
On Monday (Aug. 29), we published one of those wonderful, early Forties snapshots from The Donald Gordon Collection showing that devil Donald posing — hands interwined — with actress Jeff Donnell. (You see it in reduced form above right.) She looks wonderfully girlish, very pretty and certainly not someone you’d expect to call “Jeff.”
We didn’t identify the actress on Monday, and asked our most knowledgeable readers to come up with her name. One did, Patricia Nolan-Hill, who writes that she “first became aware of her on ‘General Hospital’ playing a maid to the notorious Quatermaines. Later on, she seemed to show up in every old movie I watched.”
No question that over a movie and tv career spanning several decades — Jeff’s first appearance, we figure, was in 1942’s “My Sister Eileen” — she became one of those pretty faces you couldn’t quite name. Jeff said she was never the “glamorous” type, and felt “lucky” to be an actress. For our money, she’s much too modest.
Born Jean Marie Donnell in 1921, she fell in love as a youngster with the “Mutt and Jeff” comic strip, and later decided to adopt the latter character’s first name when she turned professional. After studying drama, including a stint at Yale, she was spotted by a Columbia studios agent while working at a New England theater operated by her and her first husband.
Jeff had a defiantly wholesome look that led her to be cast in tomboy, virtuous wife or breezy girlfriend roles. She plays Frank Lovejoy’s virtuous, homebody wife in director Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film, “In A Lonely Place,” a rare rational character in a dark, cynical movie inhabited by Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart as an on-the-ropes screen writer.
She has an angelic but yet sexy edge as the befuddled secretary to Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in director Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 urban drama, “Sweet Smell of Success,” starring Burt Lancaster as an unscrupulous newspaper columnist who destroys lives with the flick of a wrist. Supposedly a steamy love scene with Curtis, playing a super ambitious press agent, was left on the cutting room floor.
But what intrigues us is that for all her surface wholesomeness, Donnell’s private life seemed deliciously racy.
She was married and divorced four times. Her second husband was Aldo Ray (pictured here with a brassier looking Jeff, above left), the early Fifties hunk who was the Hollywood flavor of several years. The union lasted only two years, and was marred by what have been described as “drinking problems.”
Her fourth marriage in 1974 was even shorter, lasting a year, after which Donnell was blissfully single until her death in 1988 at the age of 66. From the Fifties on, Jeff performed on TV a lot including four seasons as comedian George Gobel’s wife, Alice.
She also squeezed in maternal roles in in 1961 and 1963 in two “Gidget Goes…”movies. Her professional annuity, as our reader Patricia suggests, was in the daytime soaper “General Hospital,” which began in 1979 and lasted until her death.
We salute our very feminine actress with a masculine first name.