Remembering Evelyn Keyes . . .
November 20th is a banner day in the film noir world – it marks the birth date of film noir veteran Evelyn Keyes. This feisty femme appeared in four films noirs during her career, including one of my favorites, The Prowler (1951), and was also featured in such non-noir favorites as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), The Jolson Story (1946), Mrs. Mike (1949), and The Seven-Year Itch (1955). Join me (won’t you?) in celebrating this talented actress by taking a peek inside her life, both on the big screen and behind the scenes.
Evelyn Louise Keyes was born on November 20, 1919, in Port Arthur, Texas, but after the death of her oilman father, she moved with her mother, brother, and three sisters to Atlanta. By the age of 13, Keyes had decided to pursue a career as an actress; during her high school years, she took dance classes three times a week and performed on weekends for local organizations including the Masons and the American Legion.
Although legend has it that Keyes’s journey to Hollywood was initiated when she won a Universal Studios-sponsored beauty contest, the actress stated in her autobiography that she saved her earnings from the weekend dancing gigs to finance her travel to California after her graduation. Regardless of the path she took, she didn’t get anywhere after screen tests for RKO and Universal, but she finally got a break when she met Jeanie MacPherson, a one-time silent screen actress and screenwriter for Cecil B. DeMille. MacPherson introduced Keyes to DeMille who, after instructing her to lose her Southern accent, signed her to a seven-year contract beginning a $50 a week.
After participating in acting classes and taking voice lessons to eliminate her drawl, Keyes was cast in DeMille’s epic The Buccaneer (1938), starring Fredric March. Although her screen debut amounted to a total of only three lines, Keyes recalled that she was completely disconcerted by the “bright lights, the hubbub of voices, the boom through the microphone.” Later that year, she was interviewed for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, but she admitted that she was a nervous wreck and was promptly dismissed. A short time later, though, Keyes learned she was being considered for the role of Scarlett’s sister, Suellen, and by January 1939, the part was hers. As the spoiled younger sister of the main character, Keyes made a minor impact in the film, but she was frustrated to find that many of her scenes were missing from the final release. “I thought I was getting a wonderful break when Mr. Selznick agreed to let me play the role of Suellen in the year’s biggest picture,” Keyes said. “But Suellen, in spite of her importance in the novel, meant little in the finished movie.”
Despite this disappointment Keyes had more than just her budding film career to occupy her time – in 1938, after a whirlwind romance, Keyes had married Barton Leon Bambridge, a handsome architect and owner of a swimming pool corporation who was 10 years her senior. But the union was rocky from the start; Bambridge’s flagging business enterprises added little to the family coffers, and his penchant for heavy drinking led to frequent battles in the couple’s North Hollywood home. After one argument, during which Bambridge threatened his wife with a gun, Keyes moved out. Two years later, shortly after his separation from Keyes was formalized, Bambridge committed suicide.
Career-wise, Keyes’s option was dropped by Cecil B. DeMille and she signed a seven-year contract with Columbia Studios. Here, she was kept busy in a series of films over the next several years, but most were fairly forgettable, with the exception of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). But her first film at the studio, The Lady in Question (1940), was notable for another reason – the feature was helmed by Charles Vidor, a Hungarian director described by Keyes as “physically attractive with a most bewitching foreign accent, hinting of drama, intrigue, and Orient Express.” Before long, although Keyes was still married at the time to Barton Bambridge, and Vidor was legally bound to actress Karen Morley, the two began an affair. Vidor obtained a divorce in 1943 and he and Keyes were married in February 1944. But it didn’t take long for Keyes’s second union to collapse. After discovering her husband’s affair with a budding starlet, and herself engaging in a brief fling, Keyes filed for divorce after only a year.
But these two marital “strikes” didn’t deter Keyes from the altar; after dating such notables as Sterling Hayden, Robert Stack, and Peter Lawford, Keyes met John Huston, son of veteran actor Walter Huston and director of the classic The Maltese Falcon (1941). Keyes would later recall that while she found Huston to be “not beautiful at all, if anything, almost ugly,” she was instantly attracted to the charismatic director. Less than a month after their meeting, Keyes impulsively proposed to Huston and in July 1946, the two were married in Las Vegas.
Unfortunately, for Keyes, the third time was not the charm – according to Keyes, the hard-drinking Huston engaged in several affairs, and the often-rocky marriage improved little when the couple adopted a 12-year-old Indian orphan whom they had met on the set of Huston’s film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Keyes also objected to the menagerie of animals Huston maintained on their San Fernando Valley ranch, including wild horses, goats, monkeys, and a burro named Socrates. And the final straw came in 1950 when Huston became openly involved with Enrica Soma, an 18-year-old ballet dancer. Keyes told the press, “John is the best director and the worst husband.” On February 10, 1950, Huston obtained a Mexican divorce; the following day, he married Soma, who would give birth the following year to Huston’s daughter, future star Anjelica Huston.
Back on screen, Keyes entered the film noir realm in 1947 with Johnny O’Clock, starring Dick Powell in the title role of a small-time gangster and casino owner. In this first-rate feature, Keyes played the showgirl sister of a woman thought to have been killed by O’ Clock. She earned praise from critics for her “charming and appealing” performance. In her second film noir (and her last film under her Columbia contract), The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), Keyes starred as a jewel thief infected with the deadly smallpox virus. Her reviews for the film were mixed, but years later, her co-star Charles Korvin would call her “maybe the actress I loved to work with most in films.”
The following year, Keyes starred with Van Heflin in what she called ‘the best picture I ever made,” The Prowler. In it, she portrayed Susan Gilvray, a housewife who gets more than she bargained for when she reports a suspected prowler to police. After the film’s release, Keyes was hailed in the New York Times for her “unvarnished characterization,” and by the critic for Variety, who wrote, “She turns in an excellent performance, somewhat overshadowing Heflin.”
Keyes’s final film noir was 99 River Street (1953), in which she played an aspiring actress who teams up with a cab driver to find the killer of his wife. Although the feature stands up today as a taut thriller, it was not well-received upon its release. The reviewer for the New York Times wrote, “To say that this film is offensive would be kind; to point out that it induces an irritated boredom would be accurate.” This same critic was also unimpressed with Keyes’s performance, saying that she acts “as though she were animated by electric shocks.”
During preparation for 99 River Street, Keyes became involved in a lengthy affair with producer Mike Todd; although she was not initially attracted to him, Keyes was soon won over by Todd’s arduous courtship: “What Mike Todd wanted, Mike Todd usually got,” she said. Although the relationship was sometimes stormy, Todd proposed marriage in 1956, promising the actress a 15-carat engagement ring. Keyes accepted, but the marriage would never be. During the 1956 filming of Todd’s star-studded Around the World in 80 Days (in which Keyes had a cameo role), the producer fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor and two months later, by telephone, informed Keyes that their relationship was over. Todd and Taylor married the following year. While Keyes later admitted that she had been “delivered a knockout punch,” she philosophically concluded: “Nothing lasts forever. The good part was that I invested all my money in Around the World in 80 Days and that set me up for life.”
Not long after her breakup with Todd, Keyes met bandleader Artie Shaw, whose seven wives included Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, and Kathleen Winsor, author of Forever Amber, and Doris Dowling (who played Alan Ladd’s faithless wife in The Blue Dahlia). The two were soon an item , married in 1957, and moved to Shaw’s house in Spain. Unfortunately, Keyes soon grew disillusioned with Shaw’s quick temper and fastidious nature, and the couple separated in the 1960s, finally divorcing in 1985. (When Shaw died nearly 20 years later, Keyes sued his estate, claiming that, based on a verbal agreement with her ex, she was entitled to half of his fortune. She was eventually awarded more than a million dollars.)
Keyes’s appearance in Around the World in 80 Days was her last screen appearance for many years; she later said that her film career just “fizzled away, as things are apt to do if you don’t give them sufficient tender, loving care.” But she resumed her acting career in the 1970s, starring in plays, guesting on several television series, and appearing in two horror films in the 1980s. She also wrote an autobiographical novel, I Am A Billboard, in 1971; penned her first autobiography, Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister, in 1977, and her second, I’ll Think About That Tomorrow in 1991; and authored a regular column in the entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times called “Keyes to the Town.”
After suffering with Altzeimer’s Disease in the 2000s, Evelyn Keyes died of uterine cancer in 2008 at the age of 91, bringing to a close a life filled with versatile screen performances and a series of off-screen experiences that would rival any movie script. On a personal note, I devoted a chapter to Keyes in my first book, Femme Noir, and contacted her to request an interview and ask her to autograph a picture I sent. She very graciously signed and returned the picture, but she also included a Post-It Note, on which she wrote, “For information on me, read my books.” She was something else!
Happy birthday, Miss Keyes!