In Defense of June Allyson

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Honey. That word describes the tenor of both her voice and her roles. In 12 years as a star at the lion of studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and for decades afterward, June Allyson purred sweet reason to the prime men of her era: Jimmy Stewart (in three movies), Humphrey Bogart (in Battle Circus), William Holden (Executive Suite) and her husband, Dick Powell. Other women might get the showy parts, and the Oscars. Allyson, in her movies, got the wedding ring. And from her fans, she received the Photoplay Magazine citation as 1954's Most Popular Female Star.

Yesterday, when I learned of her death, at 88, from pulmonary respiratory failure, I was sad to think that sweet voice had been stilled. Then I heard it, whispering reassurance in my ear, as she had to so many of her screen husbands, saying, "It'll be all right. You'll be all right."

Maybe I hear, and feel, something different in Allyson. The Internet Movie Database Obit describes her as having a "raspy voice," and David Thomson, that most gifted of biographical sketch artists, refers to "her petite, sore-throated charm." To my ear, Allyson was a crooner, her voice a salve to her male co-stars' belligerence, grudges or indecision. Those nectarine vocals suited her sweet looks, and the roles assigned her by MGM, when that studio was still America's arbiter of middle-class propriety.

You'll just have to take my word, children, that once upon a time a movie company could set moral and behavioral standards — just as you'll have to believe there was a time when anybody could become a hot property by playing it warm-to-tepid, and could achieve prominence in the Hollywood cosmology inhabiting roles of sweetheart, wife and mom — when "nice" could be taken for star quality.

But that was Allyson's persona. Playing characters named Connie, Patsy, Annie, Kathy, Nancy, Penny, Sallie, Ellie — names that might have adorned any high-school yearbook, with hearts dotting the I's — Allyson held on to that amiable freshness for most of her career. She was the girl most likely to be hugged; the one who'd be nice to come home to; the postwar dream wife, if your dreams were domestic reveries that didn't get too lurid or extravagant.

From Ella to Cinderella

One of the few jolts June Allyson could provide is the knowledge that this Heartland heart was born (on Oct. 7, 1917) in the Bronx, not a borough renowned for gentility. And that little Ella Geisman endured a rough childhood. She was raised in poverty by her divorced mother. Then, as she related it on her website , "I had a very bad accident at age eight which killed my dog and totaled my bike, not to mention me! The doctors said I might never walk again. Because of the respect I gained for my doctors, I aspired for a time to become one myself. But after seeing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee 17 times, those thoughts were then replaced with dreams of someday filling Ginger's shoes. A girl can dream!"

At 20, she hit both Broadway and the movies — not that either medium took much notice. From 1937 to 1939 she appeared in nine two-reel musicals, made in New York for 20th Century-Fox and Warner Bros. And she hoofed in the chorus of shows with scores by some pretty sharp tunesmiths: Harold Rome (Sing Out the News), Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein (Very Warm for May ), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (Higher and Higher) and Cole Porter (Panama Hattie). In three of those shows she shared stage space with Vera Ellen, who would join Allyson in MGM musicals; in another she played with Eve Arden, who'd supply comic vinegar to Allyson's sugar in '40s Hollywood.

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