Those not interested in older movies are probably hard-pressed to identify the face or name of today's featured actress. Her career was a fairly short one, but of her own choosing, for she was a compelling and reasonably popular persona on-screen. She costarred with several famous and enduring actors and it is interest in them which most likely leads viewers to her films now; their discovery of her beauty and talent a happy side effect. One of her biggest claims to fame happens to be the one thing she didn't want to be solely remembered for. The lady was Jean Peters.
Elizabeth Jean Peters came into this world on October 15th, 1926. She and her younger sister were the children of a farm couple in Canton, Ohio. There, Peters inherently developed a solid, down-to-earth quality that would see her through various ups and downs during her adulthood. When her father died in 1936, the ten year-old girl found herself assisting her mother with a campground that was built upon their property to generate income for them. There was never any inkling that she would be anything but a midwestern wife or schoolteacher (a career path she pursued after high school.)
One day, during her studies at Ohio State University in Columbus, her roommate secretly mailed her picture and registration in to the Miss Ohio State beauty pageant. Peters had grown into a lovely dark-haired girl with beguiling green eyes. Called upon to appear, she did so reluctantly, but won! Part of the prize package was a screen test in Hollywood for 20th Century Fox studio. She and her mother flew west where, upon meeting studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, the striking girl was placed under contract without her even having filmed the test!
She dropped out of college (a decision she later regretted, but also one that she eventually rectified) and stepped into the heady, make-believe world of life at a Hollywood studio. She was made-up, tested, photographed, sent on publicity jaunts and basically given the treatment that so many hopefuls before her had dreamed of. This was not Peters' dream, though. If she were going to be an actress then she wanted to act, and not in just anything. She withdrew from the very first part she'd been assigned to, a musical called I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now, that ultimately starred June Haver.
Her eventual first feature film was a big one and it came unexpectedly. Zanuck was producing Forever Amber, a potentially sizzling costume drama based on a notorious novel, and the lead actress (Peggy Cummins) was not living up to his expectations. He felt that she was reading too young and was incapable of living up to the demands of the part. In desperation, he took one of his favorite actresses under contract, Linda Darnell, and placed her in Amber, leaving Darnell's upcoming film without a leading lady. The 1947 film, Captain from Castille, was meant to reunite Darnell with her Blood and Sand costar Tyrone Power. Instead, Power was set to work with neophyte Peters (now known as Jean Peters.)
Despite her lack of training as an actress, she rose to the challenge of playing a feisty Spanish maiden. She was in awe of her handsome costar, referring to him later as being godlike. The Technicolor adventure film showed off Peters' gorgeous coloring; her silky brunette hair and dazzling eyes being paid tribute by the flattering film process. The chain of events behind the casting was a rare opportunity for any fledgling actress. That she succeeds in the role at all is remarkable since, apart from a couple of brief tests, she had never acted before.
Zanuck next chose to put her in the Gregory Peck western Yellow Sky, but she refused the role. Freshly twenty-one upon the release of Captain from Castille and still maintaining the moral code of her midwestern Christian upbringing, she felt that the part intended for her was “too sexy” (magazine covers and photos sittings to the contrary!) Anne Baxter was cast instead and Peters was placed on suspension. It was not the last time that the headstrong young lady would go up against her boss over the refusal of roles. Nevertheless, Peters was very interested in honing her craft and demonstrated a remarkable work ethic. Her farm upbringing meant that getting up early for calls to the set presented no difficulty. She also studied the talent of those around her, eager to absorb as much as she could from their example.
It wasn't long before she was put to work again, this time in 1948's Deep Waters, a black and white drama concerning lobster fisherman Dana Andrews (!), his fiancee Peters and a young orphan boy played by Dean Stockwell. The next year, she was cast with Ray Milland and Paul Douglas in It Happens Every Spring, a comedy about baseball (a sport which Peters enjoyed in real life) and what happens when a chemical fluid that repels wood is applied to balls that players are attempting to hit with a wooden bat! During downtime between roles and during periods of suspension, she went back to school and finally achieved her degree.
1950 brought Love That Brute, a comedy set in the 1920s about a gangster (Paul Douglas) who falls for pretty Peters and hires her as the governess for his children (even though he hasn't got any!) Her character wishes to be a nightclub singer, so he helps arrange for that, too. Her number is an interesting precursor to the later, and far more lavish and elaborate, “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend” that Marilyn Monroe performed in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953. Peters is dripping in jewels and has four tuxedo-clad male dancers supporting her. For the song, she worked with Betty Grable's dance instructor for a few weeks in order to polish up her limited movement experience and wore a dress that was so tight she could not sit down while wearing it.
Peters and Monroe were cast in the same film with 1951's As Young as You Feel. The ensemble comedy starred Monty Woolley (of The Man Who Came to Dinner fame), Thelma Ritter, David Wayne and Constance Bennett (her latest film in three years.) Next was Take Care of My Little Girl. This one was rather unusual for the time in that it explored the cruelty of sorority hazing. Jeanne Crain was the star and the cast included such interesting names as Dale Robertson, Mitzi Gaynor, Jeffrey Hunter and Betty Lynn (later to play Don “Barney Fife” Knotts' faithful girlfriend Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show.) The director, Romanian-born Jean Negulesco, would utilize Peters in two other later films.
Peters had been toiling away in minor films ever since her auspicious start in Castille, but in 1951 was finally given a starring role in a film mostly concerning her. It was an adventure oddity called Anne of the Indies. In it, she portrayed a female pirate captain! Her ship is infiltrated by a former pirate now working as a British spy (played by Louis Jourdan.) She falls in love with him, but it turns out he is already married to beautiful Debra Paget. Complications ensue...
Peters hurled herself into the physically exacting part and did several of the swordplay moves herself. Always a tomboy at heart (and resistant to a lot of frills, makeup and the color pink and preferring to wear simple clothes when not working), she welcomed the chance to take on such a project. Though it was likely considered more of curiosity rather than a deliberate attempt at female empowerment, it was a chance for her to demonstrate some of her sex's strength on-screen.
I have always been averse to watching female swashbucklers for some reason. I avoid Maureen O'Hara's (who I otherwise adore) sojourns into that realm and, like everyone else on the planet, never saw Cutthroat Island. Still, I think I could be persuaded to sit through this if I thought that there were some decent views of Jourdan's (atypically) hairy chest as well as some shots of this burly, shirtless pirate (the one at the far right in this photo.) Perhaps it will run on Fox Movie Channel sometime and I'll get to check it out.
She played David Wayne's wife in the nostalgic period film Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, all about Wayne's life as a fledgling barber who goes through many trials and tribulations. She got to play opposite the beautiful Jeffrey Hunter again in Lure of the Wilderness, another lushly photographed Technicolor movie that highlighted her prettiness. It told the story of an innocent man (Walter Brennan) on the run from authorities and hiding out in the Georgia swamp with his daughter (Peters.) Hunter discovers them and attempts to help them to the dismay of Constance Smith who has her eye on him and won't stand for any attraction to the beautiful Peters.
Full House (also known as O' Henry's Full House) was an all-star 1952 film featuring five of the famous author's stories being acted out on film. Many of the studio's stars were utilized in the project and Peters was placed in the segment called The Last Leaf. It's the rather gripping story of her sister suffering from a very serious illness who looks outside their apartment at a nearby tree and feels herself dwindling away as the leaves take their turn falling. The sister, played by Anne Baxter, feels that when the last leaf falls, she will expire as well. There's a terrific payoff to the sequence, making it one of the better vignettes in the film.
Zanuck seemed to become more appreciative of the appeal Peters possessed and started thinking of her for some of the studio's more important films, albeit usually after the first choice didn't pan out. One of those movies was Viva Zapata!, also in 1952. The film had first been considered as a vehicle for Tyrone Power, but ultimately the starring role went to dazzling screen newcomer Marlon Brando. Likewise, the film's leading female role of Zapata's wife had originally been earmarked for another actress (Julie Harris – what??), but Peters won out. (Peters' friend Marilyn Monroe wanted the role, too, but Zanuck had no desire whatsoever to explore her desire to be taken seriously as an actress.)
Directed by Elia Kazan, considerable care was taken to recreate the look of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata's life and times. Black and white cinematography lent the makers the ability to draw upon the visuals from many photographs taken during the period of his activity. Costar Anthony Quinn wanted the lead role, but had to settle for portraying Brando's brother. Amends of a sort were made when Quinn took home an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor the following year! Early on, the two actors who had both played Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Brando on Broadway and in the movie, Quinn on tour) attempted to settle their debate about who was more appropriate to play Emiliano by seeing who could pee the furthest into the Rio Grande! Brando won. (My God, the macho posturing some people feel the need to go through...) The two then bonded during filming like real brothers.
Next, in 1953, Peters was given the lead role in a mysterious story about adultery and mayhem at the honeymoon capitol of the world. Anne Baxter had first been slated for the part, but withdrew. Thing is, just as the story was being prepared and the preproduction aspects put into place, her costar in the movie, Marilyn Monroe, suddenly went from an attractive and appealing sexpot to a downright sensation. She was jettisoned to the top of the film's credits and featured heavily on all of the posters. She became the chief selling point of the movie, even though her role was not as sizeable or as primary as Peters'.
The film, Niagra, was about a honeymooning couple, Peters and Max Showalter, who come to rest at a motel run by Joseph Cotten and his sultry young wife Monroe. Monroe (who I personally don't think was ever quite as sexy or as beautiful anywhere else than she is here), brazenly taunts Cotten and is carrying on with a dark-haired stranger. As the story progresses, Peters is intrigued by the goings on she has witnessed and ultimately is placed in considerable danger with a small yacht she's in being broken up by rocks and headed over the falls!
It's a film noir type of story, but shot in vivid Technicolor. Monroe (whose stock actor salary here was less than that of her own makeup man!) is indisputably gorgeous, especially in that first scene, but Peters is lovely as well, her peaches and cream complexion and attractive coloring again being exploited to great effect by the filming process. She also plays an endearing, every day sort of character who curious audiences can identify with as she undergoes her adventure at the falls.
A more true-to-form film noir came next with Pickup on South Street. The story concerns a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) who nabs a purse that happens to contain some vital microfilm that was intended for a Communist agent. Gritty director Sam Fuller was preparing the film and having a tough time coming up with an actress to play the female lead, a down-on-her-luck prostitute whose stolen purse leads to immense complications. Betty Grable went on suspension rather that to take the part. One day while lunching in the studio commissary, he spied Peters and, feeling like her walk was slightly reminiscent of hookers he'd seen before (!), he decided to cast her in the part.
As was often the case, she rose to the occasion, her character being used, pummeled and generally abused by life while trying to find security in the wayward Widmark. The film has since become one of the most admired examples of its genre. Widmark and Peters had the combination good fortune/misfortune to have Thelma Ritter cast in a key role. Good because she added immeasurably to its success, but bad because she basically stole the movie and even copped an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (losing to Donna Reed for From Here to Eternity.) The movie was later remade as The Cape Town Affair with James Brolin and Jacqueline Bisset (with, again, a veteran, this time Claire Trevor, walking away with the acting acclaim.)
She got a great part in a brief, minor thriller called Blueprint for Murder. In it, she played the wife of a wealthy man whose will states that she will inherit his money only after he and both his children have died. He expires under fuzzy circumstances and then one of her stepchildren dies as well. That makes her an obvious suspect for murder and the dead husband's brother (Joseph Cotten) comes along to help figure it all out. I love this hooty publicity photo of Cotten and Peters struggling over the telephone.
She landed the title role (though not actually the lead) in 1953's Vicki, a remake of 1941's I Wake Up Screaming, that had Jeanne Crain playing the sister of a slain singer and model (Peters) who had managed to aggravate several people around her prior to her brutal murder. Owing more than a little to Laura as well, the film was not a major one, but gave Peters a chance to play a mouthy bitch in attractive clothes. She also got to work alongside Crain, who by now had become one of her very closest friends at Fox.
In what was meant to be Crain's next film, Peters was once again cast as a replacement when Crain departed the studio after nearly two-dozen movies, eager to expand her range. The picture Three Coins in the Fountain would be a staggering hit, spawning a smash title song by Frank Sinatra and inspiring countless people to head to Rome, where much of it was filmed. One can see why Crain was unexcited about it, however, because the role she vacated was not in any way special.
The story (one of many similar ones that director Jean Negulesco did during his career) concerned three ladies living in Rome and finding romance (and, at times, heartache) there. Dorothy McGuire had been carrying a fifteen year-long torch for her boss Clifton Webb (!), new arrival Maggie McNamara fell for Louis Jourdan and Peters risked breaking a company rule by cavorting with coworker Rossano Brazzi. Peters knew that her flimsy role was substandard, but with location filming amidst all sorts of historic and beautiful scenery and with handsome Brazzi as her love interest, how bad could it be?
She was loaned to another studio for the first time in 1954, cast incongruously as an Indian squaw in Apache. The only thing that helped diffuse the ridiculousness of this (although it was a common practice at the time to cast Caucasians in non-white roles) is the fact that the star, blue-eyed Burt Lancaster, was also playing an Indian (an Apache, as the title indicates.) Despite the now-strange sight of having an actress in a dark wig and makeup in order to play a Native American, her beauty remains and her eyes stand out even more vividly as a result.
Back home at Fox that same year, she was in another western, but this time as a white woman. She played the daughter of governor E.G. Marshall in Broken Lance, a major production that starred Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark and Robert Wagner. Tracy, playing a highly-established rancher, was the father of Widmark, Wagner, Hugh O'Brian and Earl Holliman, who is disappointed when a couple of his sons are involved in illegal activity. The widescreen production had Peters taking on the role of Wagner's love interest and there were rumors at the time of an affair between the two, but they appear to be unfounded. (Even Wagner, who claimed to have slept with practically everyone – everyone he didn't out as gay – in his autobiography, denied any such affair with her.)
In 1955, Peters filmed the movie that would be her last on the big screen. A Man Called Peter was the story of an Episcopal minister whose sermons proved inspiring to countless congregations, both in and outside of his church. Based on a book written by the man's wife, Peters played the woman in the beautifully-appointed widescreen production. Richard Todd played the Reverend Peter Marshall with supporting parts going to Marjorie Rambeau and Jill Esmond.
Here we take a moment to step away her career, even though we are close to the time at which it virtually ended, and turn the focus to her private life. After her costarring role in Captain from Castille in 1947, she had caught the eye of millionaire playboy Howard Hughes. Hughes, an aviation magnate and entrepreneur who also flew planes and dabbled in film production, was a dynamic and magnetic man who very few women could resist, especially if he set his sites on them. He'd once been a handsome young man (see left), but in the wake of a plane crash, had begun a slow decline in physical and mental health. Married once for four years in the 1920s (he was two decades Peters' senior), he had engaged in multitudinous affairs with many glamour girls in the meantime. Starlet Terry Moore claims to have been married to him from 1949 on, but the union is unrecognized legally, believed to be a ruse he used at the time in order to acquire the Morman for himself, temporarily.
At any rate, he soon became fixated with Miss Peters and the two began dating. Even though she was making her own way at 20th Century Fox, he set her and her mother up in a Bel Air house. Both of them generally private people, she resisted all attempts to have their relationship exploited by the press, the studio or anyone else. Always a complicated, complex man, he was more than a little controlling and possessive despite his own leanings toward infidelity. Their relationship continued for many years, all through her acting career, but he would never marry her. Tiring of this situation, she once issued him an ultimatum, which he refused to give in to, and married another man.
Stuart Cramer was a Texas oil man she met after filming Three Coins and her whirlwind courtship and subsequent marriage to him drove Hughes to distraction. Reportedly, his interference and pressure regarding it led to the couple's separation after only about a month as man and wife. They did eventually reconcile for a time, but the writing was on the wall. After her divorce from Cramer, which was in late 1956, Hughes finally relented with regards to marrying her, but it was on condition that she abandon her acting career.
She, after years of struggling with unwanted parts at Fox and having been suspended many times for her refusal of a lot of others, was only too happy to walk away from her career and become Mrs. Howard Hughes. Hughes was a billionaire at a time when even being a millionaire really meant something. They were wed in January of 1957 and she receded into the private world of one of the planet's wealthiest, most powerful and most reclusive men.
As the years wore on and Hughes slipped further and further into a state of germ-phobia and seclusion, their marriage became one of long distance conversation and infrequent time together. She attempted to take additional college classes as a means of self-improvement and to occupy herself, but once her real name was discovered and the hounds began to circle, she was forced to withdraw. She even toyed briefly with returning to Fox in 1959 for The Best of Everything (in the role Martha Hyer eventually essayed), but did not. She did various works of charity, as unpublicized as possible (she's shown at left in a rare shot with an autistic boy.) Hughes' undercover guards were always in evidence (this was in place well before their marriage even.) Though she enjoyed shopping and attending functions of the arts (and, as always, baseball), the union was not fulfilling for obvious reasons. Finally, by 1970, she had had it and the couple divorced.
Considering the amount of money that Hughes possessed and the fact that their nearly fifteen-year marriage (and more than twenty-year relationship) was clearly no flight of fancy, she took a surprisingly modest settlement of $70,000 annually (to be adjusted over the years for inflation.) Still, this was a decent chunk of change for that time. She agreed to waive any claim to Hughes' enormous estate. Seemingly unable to completely shake the specter of 20th Century Fox, she became reacquainted with a man she'd known as an assistant director during her time there, Stanley Hough, who had since risen to the title of vice-president in charge of operations. They married in 1971 and remained together until his death in 1990.
In 1973, he left the studio and began working as a film and (mostly) television producer. Strangely enough, this was also the year that Peters made a return to acting after a nearly two decade-long absence. She took a role in the TV-movie Winesburg, Ohio, based on a famous collection of short stories about life in her home state during the 19th century. Albert Salmi was her husband in the teleplay and real-life brothers Joseph and Timothy Bottoms played their sons. Her initial enthusiasm about the piece waned after she saw it on TV.
She was coaxed into another role by old acquaintance Ross Hunter, who was producing the star-laden miniseries Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers. She played the estranged wife of Christopher Plummer, who she admired greatly, and was pleased to be working with him in the cameo role. Hunter, aware of her place in the Hollywood canon, gave her prestige billing in the eight-hour project's opening credits.
It was 1981 before she acted on-screen again, this time in her husband's TV-movie Peter and Paul. The Biblical drama starred Robert Foxworth (as Peter) and Anthony Hopkins (as Paul) along with Eddie Albert, Jose Ferrer and Raymond Burr. She portrayed Priscilla, one of Paul's devoted followers.
Peters last set foot before the cameras in 1988 when she made what was by then a virtually mandatory appearance for old stars on Angela Lansbury's Murder, She Wrote. She played, stretch that it was, a reclusive star caught up in a murder and a disappearing diamond-studded tiara. One of the episodes, novelties, in addition to having Peters onboard, is the pairing of Lucie Arnaz and Patty “The Bad Seed” McCormick as a pair of New York detectives called Chadwick and Stacey. (Get it? As in Cagney and Lacey. Oh, brother...)
Peters continued to enjoy married life until Hough's passing in 1990, all the while contributing time and money to charitable causes that interested her, a chief one being autism. Autism at the time was not as familiar as it seems to be now and she did much to raise awareness about it. Of her life with Howard Hughes, she stood by her pact to never discuss it publically. While Terry Moore milked her comparatively brief association with him for all it was worth in interviews, articles and books, Peters merely said (in 1972), “My life with Howard Hughes was and shall remain a matter on which I will have no comment.”
Biographers have written reams about Hughes and there was even a book about Peters at the time of their divorce called Mrs. Howard Hughes, but all of them have have immense difficulty in finding anyone who worked with her who would say anything unkind about her. She was liked and respected by her costars and beloved by crew members who worked on her pictures. Known affectionately as “Pete” by many of her studio pals, she eschewed much of the pretense and affectation that so many of her peers possessed. Yes, she tangled with her boss over the roles he wished to assign to her, yet he kept her around and was distressed when she quit.
Her career could have and should have been a longer, better one, but it was not to be. Peters was diagnosed with leukemia later in her life and it claimed her on October 13th, 2000 when she was seventy-three. Even in the decade-plus since her death, there have been no sordid stories bubbling up, nor any revelations that would mar her character. She lived life on her terms, but in a way that positively influenced those around her. What else could a person hope for? Her work on screen stands as a testament to her inviting beauty and her ingratiating personality. See if you don't fall for her yourself the next time one of her movies rolls around.