Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Gene Tierney Centenary, Pt. 1: "I felt luck was with me"

 Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Gene Tierney's birth on November 19, 1920


Marlene Dietrich once said, “The relationship between the make-up man and the film actor is that of accomplices in crime.” Amusing, and probably true of some whose faces have graced the silver – or Technicolor – screen, but not Gene Tierney. One of Hollywood's foremost leading ladies of the 1940s, she was a tall, elegant beauty, with cheekbones that might’ve been shaped by a master sculptor, eyes the shimmery green of the sea on a windswept day, lips plush as an orchid in full bloom. And yet she was more, a young woman who burned with ambition and the desire to be a respected actress. "I simply did not want my face to be my talent," she would reflect, looking back years later.

Gene as "Mrs. Muir"
Gene Tierney was just a kid when she made her Broadway debut at barely 18, and she was cast in her first role under contract to 20th Century Fox before she was 20. She would go on to star in an array of much-loved classics, films like the Lubitsch fantasy Heaven Can Wait (1943), the Preminger noir Laura (1944), John Stahl’s Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Edmund Goulding’s adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). 

Unlike most young women who become movie stars, Gene Tierney was born into a world of apparent ease and advantage. Her father was a wealthy Manhattan insurance broker whose mounting prosperity allowed him to move his family up and out of Brooklyn, where Gene was born, to the tranquility of Greens Farms, the oldest neighborhood in Westport, Connecticut. There, Howard S. Tierney would eventually set about building a mansion on acreage he would, by turns, sell off and expand over time. Gene was sent to St. Margaret’s, the private school her mother had attended. She traveled to Switzerland for two years at the Brilliantmont School, then on to posh Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut. Gene came out as a debutante in September 1938. This was the year that upper crust princess Brenda Frazier was named Debutante of the Year, becoming – as she was dubbed at the time – the first “celebutante.” Gene Tierney was never touted as a celebutante, but in February 1940, less than two years after her debut into society, she was the focus of a four-page spread in Life magazine and on her way to becoming world famous for something more than being rich and pretty:

  "Like half the daughters in America, Gene Tierney decided at 17 that she wanted to be an actress. Like most conservative, well-to-do families, the Tierneys  protested. But today at 19, Gene is acting in the Broadway hit, The Male Animal, and is being hailed as a rising starlet who “blazes with animation.”

  With her brother and sister, Gene grew up in the wealthy suburban town of Greens Farms, Conn. She “finished” at [a] fashionable Farmington school, [and] made her debut in 1938. After her parents saw that Gene was really in earnest about acting, they pitched in to help her. Mr. Tierney took every Wednesday off from his insurance business. He and Gene tramped all day on Broadway, making the rounds of producers’ offices. First producer to give Gene a part last winter was George Abbott, who cast her in two shows. Both flopped, but they gave Gene valuable training. 

  This winter, while Gene is working, Mrs. Tierney serves her breakfast in bed. Twice a week Gene studies acting with Benno Schneider…She often sees her old friends, sometimes lunches at the Automat and one or two nights a week goes dancing.
  In The Male Animal Gene acts the part of a spirited college girl. At right you see her opening a door for her first entrance on stage. Gene says it is the most exciting doorway in the world."
~ Life magazine, February 19, 1940

Gene was also featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar during her months in The Male Animal.

A lot had happened leading up to her sudden acclaim on the New York stage. A family trip to California in 1938 had included private studio tours made possible by her father’s business connections. During a guided tour at Warner Bros., director Anatole Litvak spied Gene and told her, based solely on her looks, that she should be in movies. Her brother laughed out loud, but she was screen tested the next day and offered a contract. Gene’s father adamantly vetoed the offer. But he did promise that if her interest in acting continued he would take her around to the offices of New York City agents and producers once she made her social debut. She agreed and he kept his word. After her Broadway debut in Mrs. O’Brien Entertains in early 1939, Gene signed a six month contract with Columbia Pictures. Nothing much would come of this. She was cast in Coast Guard (1939) opposite Randolph Scott but was quickly replaced by Frances Dee. And so it was back to New York and on to her breakthrough role in The Male Animal at the beginning of 1940. Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, scouted the play one evening and, with scant entries on her resume, Gene Tierney was soon on her way to Hollywood under contract to Fox. She was still just 19.

Gene and her father, Howard S. Tierney, Sr.
Though young, naïve and lacking a significant track record, Gene would strike an unusually generous deal with the studio. Her contract was negotiated with the help of her father, who managed her affairs. Both had learned a thing or two from Gene’s experience with Columbia.  Under her new agreement with Fox, Gene’s salary would be $750/week, more than twice what she’d earned during her six fruitless months with Columbia, with a raise every six months. Her new Fox contract also included a list of conditions. It was stipulated that she would begin filming within three weeks of arrival or the contract would be void. She would be allowed, with notice, to work six months of the year on Broadway. She would not be required to undergo any alterations to her appearance, including her hair and her teeth, which were slightly crooked. In addition, she wouldn’t be asked to change her name; she had been named “Gene,” not Jean or Jeanne, in honor of an uncle who had died young. With so much invested in her, Fox got her up on the screen in a hurry and poured its PR energies into building up its new starlet through carefully concocted magazine layouts, newspaper stories and radio items.

In her first film as a Fox leading lady Gene was cast opposite Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James, released in August 1940 and directed by Fritz Lang. The film was a follow-up to the 4th most profitable film of 1939, Fox’s production of Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Fonda as brother Frank. The sequel, like the original, was shot in Technicolor, a process reserved for A-pictures in those days. The film was a big hit. But this wasn't enough to satisfy Gene. She thought her voice sounded high and strident, like “an angry Minnie Mouse." Some who reviewed the film saw her as “mostly a pretty face, but a decent actress,” while the Harvard Lampoon wasn’t convinced and named her the “Worst Female Discovery” of the year. As Gene would later note, she was intense and  determined. Having learned from working with Henry ”One-Take” Fonda, she persisted with studying film performances and continued with her acting lessons. She'd also taken up smoking and this would change her voice by deepening it.

Publicity photo for The Shanghai Gesture

The films that followed Frank James came in quick succession, beginning with Hudson’s Bay, released in January 1941 and followed by Tobacco Road, Belle Starr, and Sundown. Josef von Sternberg’s exotic noir The Shanghai Gesture, starring Gene, Walter Huston, Victor Mature and Ona Munson, wrapped in 1941 and was released in January 1942. In this dark fantasia, Gene plays the gorgeous, spoiled and sulky daughter of a powerful man with a past (Huston). His past returns to haunt them both when they visit Shanghai on the eve of a Chinese New Year. Gene’s portrayal of a defiant brat who topples into decadence would prefigure two later performances as troubled and difficult women, Ellen the lethal beauty in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Isabel, the scheming socialite of The Razor’s Edge (1946).

Such a rapid rise at such a young age is the stuff of fairy tales; Gene appeared to achieve her dreams almost as quickly as she dreamed them. Seemingly overnight she became an actress, then a fledgling star. Off-camera she would meet and marry a charismatic young man who'd swept her off her feet in just a few months. He was Oleg Cassini, then a costume designer at Paramount.

But clouds had already begun to gather, casting shadows over Gene’s storybook world. While she’d been away at the Brilliantmont School in Switzerland, Howard Tierney’s business failed and the family estate in Connecticut went into foreclosure.  Gene didn’t learn of any of this until she returned home from school. It was at this point that Howard sent his family on the west coast vacation that took Gene to Hollywood and ignited her dreams of an acting career. A year or so later, thanks to her Fox contract, Gene became the family’s primary breadwinner with her income funneled into a trust administered by her father. When she became involved with Cassini, both her family and her studio opposed the romance. As a result, Cassini lost favor in town and soon found himself out of work. Although her husband was a talented designer who would go on to clothe Jacqueline Kennedy among others, Gene’s career as an actress became the couple’s main source of income. Luckily, she was making pictures one after another and becoming ever more popular with fans, but she had a great deal of responsibility resting on her slender young shoulders.

As it turned out, Gene Tierney would never appear on Broadway again, regardless of the terms of her Fox contract. Due to financial considerations, her father waived this option in 1940, preventing her from taking the title role in the 1941 play, Claudia. Dorothy McGuire would originate the role on Broadway and go on to portray Claudia in the 1943 film adaptation.

"I used to annoy my father by telling him how much I felt luck was with me" - Gene Tierney

 End of Pt. 1

Link to Pt. 2


Self-Portrait by Gene Tierney with Mickey Herskowitz (Wyden Books, 1979)

Life Magazine, February 19, 1940


  1. This is wonderful. Thank you! Gene was an early favorite of mine. Laura and so many of her films are wonderful.

    1. Thank you, Tynan. She has been underappreciated but there is plenty of proof of her talent in her films of the mid- to late '40s.

  2. Thanks for this! Gene was one of the greats of Hollywood’s golden era. Gone in 1990 at age 70; too bad she was a smoker, since lung cancer cut short her life!