Jane Greer, whose warm beauty belied her status as Hollywood’s reigning queen of film noir during the late 1940s, died Friday of complications from cancer at her home in Los Angeles. She was two weeks short of her 77th birthday.
Greer, at one point married to matinee idol Rudy Vallee and was a lover-protege of Howard Hughes, is best remembered for her menacing role in RKO’s “Out of the Past” (1947), co-starring Robert Mitchum. Although Greer and Mitchum made only one more film together, “The Big Steal” in 1949, they were cemented in the public’s eye as the definitive film noir screen couple.
Born Bettejane Greer in Washington D.C., she quit high school in her senior year to take a job as a singer in the Ralph Hawkins band for $100 a week. She later joined the Enric Madriguera Orchestra, which had been hired to play Washington’s tony Club Del Rio.
Following America’s entry into World War II, Greer modeled for a recruiting poster and also for a photo layout of women at war for Life magazine. She reprised her WAC-outfit costume in a Paramount newsreel and was subsequently screen-tested by the studio for a possible contract, which didn’t turn out well.
But the WAC poster also caught the attention of singer-actor Vallee, who contacted Greer at her parents’ home and suggested that a trip to Hollywood under his guidance would result in a movie career. A short time later, David O. Selznick had Greer tested again, and the film wound up with Freddie Schuessler, then casting director for Selznick and Hughes. Selznick wasn’t impressed; Hughes was — and put Greer under personal contract. And they became romantically involved.
He started her on a series of acting, voice and dance lessons to prepare her for the screen, while Vallee, smitten with Greer, charmed her to the altar in late 1943; their union lasted six months.
In March 1945, Greer made her screen debut in “Two O’Clock Courage.” She subsequently appeared in a string of RKO films as Bettejane Greer including “Pan-Americana” and “George White’s Scandals.” She shortened her name to Jane Greer with her appearance in “Dick Tracy.”
Then Dore Schary cast her in “They Won’t Believe Me” in 1947, her ninth film and the first time she wasn’t typecast as the “bad girl.” The favorable reaction to her work in the Robert Young starrer resulted in Greer nabbing a part in “Out of the Past,” the breakthrough role she had been looking for. Schary was impressed enough to up her salary from $750 a week to $1,000.
It was at this time that she married wealthy attorney and future producer Edward Lasker. By this point she had bought out Hughes’ personal contract and had joined RKO Pictures on salary. When Hughes subsequently bought RKO in 1947, he was so jealous of the marriage that he kept her on salary but seldom allowed any good roles to be assigned to her.
Still, Greer went on to co-star in “Station West” with Dick Powell, “The Big Steal” with Mitchum, Gary Cooper in “You’re in the Navy Now,” and the Fox musical “Down Among the Sheltering Palms.”
In the early 1950s, Greer negotiated a settlement with RKO and moved over to MGM, joining friend and new head of production Schary. Following “You for Me,” “The Prisoner of Zenda” and her final Metro film, the Red Skelton starrer “The Clown,” she left moviemaking for three years to concentrate on her family.
She returned to the bigscreen in 1956 to appear with Richard Widmark in “Run for the Sun.” The following year, she starred opposite James Cagney in the Lon Chaney bio “Man of a Thousand Faces” as the horror-star’s second wife.
Greer also turned to television during the 1950s and appeared in many early TV shows including “Ford Theater,” “Thriller” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Later she guested on popular TV series including “Quincy,” “Murder She Wrote” and “Twin Peaks.”
In recent years, Greer devoted a great deal of her time to the charitable foundation SHARE.
Her longtime companion, drama coach Frank London, died in January.
She is survived by three sons, screenwriter Alex, Oscar-nommed screenwriter-producer Lawrence and Grammy-winning audio restoration engineer and jazz historian Steven; and two grandchildren.
A private celebration of her life will take place on what would have been her 77th birthday, Sept. 9.
Family suggests donations in her name be made to SHARE Inc., P.O. Box 1342, Beverly Hills, CA 90213.