Today is the 89th birthday of the actress Gloria Jean. She is alive and well, living in Hawaii, and introducing her clips on YouTube. Her life trajectory exemplifies resilience, adaptation and perseverance. We could all learn a couple things from her.
BEST KNOWN FOR: Gloria Jean is an American actress and singer who starred or co-starred in 26 feature films between 1939 and 1959, as well as making numerous radio, television, stage, and nightclub appearances.
Gloria Jean was born Gloria Jean Schoonover in Buffalo, New York. Her family moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she sang on radio with Paul Whiteman‘s band. She was being trained as a coloratura soprano, when her voice teacher, Leah Russel, took her to an audition held by Universal Pictures movie producer Joe Pasternak in 1938. Pasternak had guided Deanna Durbin to stardom, and with Durbin now advancing to ingénue roles, Pasternak wanted a younger singer to make the same kind of musicals. Up against hundreds of others, Gloria Jean won the audition.
Under contract to Universal, she was given the leading role in the feature The Under-Pup (1939), and became instantly popular with moviegoers. Universal’s publicity department initially claimed the singer was 11 years old instead of 13; her actual age was not well known for many decades. For her next two vehicles, she co-starred with Bing Crosby in If I Had My Way (1940) and starred in the well-received A Little Bit of Heaven (also 1940), which reunited her with many from the Under-Pup cast. Her best-known picture is her fourth, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), in which she co-starred with W. C. Fields.
Universal recognized the need for musical entertainment during wartime, and Gloria Jean became one of Universal’s most prolific performers; during the war years she made 14 feature films. Most were “hepcat” musicals, which were geared to the teenage market of the day, and Universal often used them to introduce new talent, including Donald O’Connor, Peggy Ryan, Mel Tormé, and Marshall Thompson.
Gloria Jean made a successful transition to young adult roles. Her dramatic tour de force, as a blind girl being menaced by an escaped killer, was filmed as one of four vignettes for Julien Duvivier‘s Flesh and Fantasy (1943). Her performance won raves at the film’s advance preview, and her segment was the best-received of the four. However, Universal removed the half-hour sequence and shelved it until 1944, when it was expanded into a feature-length melodrama, Destiny. She co-starred with Olsen and Johnson in the big-budget Ghost Catchers (1944), and in her last two Universal features, released in 1945, she was teamed with singer-actor Kirby Grant.
When Gloria Jean’s Universal contract expired at the end of 1944, she was persuaded by her agent to not renew it, but instead to make personal appearances across America. The successful tour prompted a new tour of Europe. In England, her rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” (and the lyric “forgive us our debts”) was taken by some critics as a pointed comment about America’s lend-lease policy. Thus the European tour ended abruptly and Gloria Jean returned to Hollywood.
She resumed her movie career as a freelance performer appearing in United Artists, Columbia Pictures, and Allied Artists productions, the best-known being Copacabana (1947) with Groucho Marx. Some stage and television work followed in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as four feature films. Wonder Valley (1953), produced on location in Arkansas, was Gloria Jean’s first color film and is not known to survive. Her next feature was Air Strike (1955), a minor military drama.
After Air Strike Gloria Jean was hired by the owner of a popular California restaurant as a hostess, greeting and seating dinner guests. She enjoyed the experience and occasionally ran the restaurant in her employer’s absence. Show-business patrons were surprised that a film star was now involved in restaurant work, resulting in sympathetic feature stories in the national press. Veteran Hollywood producer Edward Finney, himself a Gloria Jean fan, saw one of these reports and hired her to star in the lightweight comedy Laffing Time (filmed in 1959, re-released as The Madcaps in 1964). Jerry Lewis also read that Gloria Jean was working in a restaurant, and signed her for a singing role in his latest production, The Ladies Man (1961). Lewis removed almost all of her footage from the finished film; she appears only as an extra and has no dialogue. It was her last theatrical motion picture.
In 1962, Gloria Jean gave up show business to get married and raise a family. The marriage was not successful; her husband was frequently absent, living apart from his wife and son. Gloria Jean obtained a divorce and began a second career with Redken Laboratories, a national cosmetics firm, where she worked until 1993.
In December 1991, Gloria Jean was honored by the Young Artist Foundation with its Former Child Star “Lifetime Achievement” Award, recognizing her achievements within the film industry as a juvenile performer. Gloria Jean has also participated in various nostalgia and autograph shows, meeting fans and displaying memorabilia.
Gloria Jean’s films are beginning to receive new exposure: If I Had My Way has been restored to its original length and issued on DVD, followed by the DVD release of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. (Latter-day documentaries about W. C. Fields include recent clips of Gloria Jean, reminiscing about working with him.) Universal Pictures has also struck new 35mm prints of Mister Big and Get Hep to Love for theatrical use. Her 1947 film Copacabana is widely available on home video.
After her retirement from Redken, Gloria Jean lived in California with her sister, Bonnie. After Bonnie died in 2007, she moved to Hawaii, where she now lives with her son and his family. Her authorized biography, Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven, was published in 2005. A tribute website, GloriaJeanSings.com, followed, again with Gloria Jean’s cooperation. Her Internet presence includes a new series of videos showing the actress as she appears today; in 2009 she became the first movie star to introduce her own film clips on YouTube.