Classic Hollywood’s supply of stock “Other Woman” often included Rita Johnson, the subject of the second blog in our three-part series covering this shadowy screen designation. (Yesterday’s subject? Gail Patrick.)
Unlike Patrick, a sophisticated woman with a fine head for business, Johnson was a little-luck actress whose career was violently cut short by brain concussion. The headline from a Sept. 10, 1948 newspaper clipping — Actress Injured By Hair Dryer — tells the tale.
The dispatch by United Press is datelined Hollywood: Blond actress Rita Johnson, once billed as Jean Harlow’s successor, was near death today from a brain concussion. A blood clot was removed last night in an emergency operation…her condition remained ‘highly critical.’
The article went on to note that the concussion apparently occurred when a hair dryer tipped over on the veteran film player. Thus, Johnson and the hair dryer — a big industrial-sized version, not the hand-held convenience of today — entered into the lower ranks of classic Hollywood myth.
Writer Matt Weinstock, in an informative 2013 piece on Johnson’s career in the Los Angeles Review of Books, wrote that the story of Rita and the hair dryer depends almost entirely on the testimony of an actress (Mary Ainslee) best known for her work with the Three Stooges.
There’s no question that Johnson’s surgery did take place, and, according to Weinstock, she remained in a coma for over two weeks. It also put a severe dent in her movie career, which began with 1937’s London By Night, a light-hearted MGM mystery costarring George Murphy. Most of her appearances from 1948 on were on television. (In all, she racked up 46 credits over a 20-year period.)
The former Rita McSean, a native of Worcester, Mass., worked on Broadway and in radio before MGM transported her to Hollywood in 1937 to replace Jean Harlow in 1937’s Saratoga. (Harlow died of uremic poisoning during production; she was just 26.) Johnson didn’t make the cut, isn’t in the picture although she later got top billing with Murphy in London By Night.
Rita’s best known big screen appearances are as the murderous wife in 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan (with Robert Montgomery), as a scheming fiance in Billy Wilder’s 1942 comedy The Major and the Minor (with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland), and as a gold-digging mistress in 1948’s The Big Clock (with Milland).
Said former child star Gigi Perreau: Studios knew that if they had an ‘other woman’ part, Rita Johnson just always delivered. Johnson died (of a brain hemorrhage) in 1965, at age 52.