Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Beauty Paget

Over the years, we've sort of kicked around the idea of profiling today's featured actress. A recent viewing of one of her key films sealed the deal and led me to go for it. Debra Paget, an actress who would be widely regarded for her portrayals of exotic, ethnic, dazzlingly-bedecked heroines, she hailed from... Denver, Colorado! Born on August 19th (which happens to be my own birthday!), 1933 (not my birth year...!), she was practically destined to achieve some level of fame. You see, her parents had five children and the mother (a former Vaudeville performer) had them move to Los Angeles in order to get one or all into the biz. Her brother acted for a time prior to successfully segueing into cinematic makeup and two of her sisters also had their turn at bat in the movies.

Older sister Teala Loring was in the movies from 1944-1950, retiring to marry. Younger sister Lisa Gaye did movies in the 1950s & '60s, supplemented by many TV appearances.

Paget first appeared on stage at age 9 and at 11 was enrolled at the Hollywood Professional School. She was soon doing Shakespeare and also played Joan of Arc on stage. When 20th Century Fox was having difficulty with a small, but key, role on one of their upcoming films, Paget's mother landed her a test there for it.

The movie in question, Cry of the City (1948), called for an innocent-looking 18 year-old to play Richard Conte's girlfriend. Two other actresses had already filmed the part and then had their work discarded! Paget - at 14! - won the role. (And I think you can see a little of her Joan of Arc stage role in this sequence.)

Delighted with her work, the studio signed her to a six-month option and soon enough she was used in the Loretta Young comedy Mother Is a Freshman (1949) and the baseball comedy It Happens Every Spring (1949), as seen here with leading lady Jean Peters.

She was then reunited with Richard Conte for House of Strangers (1949) as his fiancee. Still only 15, she was 23 years younger than the man playing her intended. But this wasn't anything too unusual at the time. At MGM, Elizabeth Taylor was playing the wife of the 21 years-older Robert Taylor in Conspirator.

1950 brought her breakthrough role, this time as the love interest of 25 years older James Stewart in Broken Arrow! (Stewart nearly had a fit when she celebrated her 17th birthday on set, though he was about to marry his longtime wife Gloria in any case.)

As was customary at the time, her role of a highly-prized Indian maiden was portrayed by a Caucasian. For the role, she was outfitted with brown contact lenses made of glass which burned heinously under the strong lights needed for Technicolor filming.

In what easily could have become a preposterous role, Paget imbued the part with immense subtlety and appeal. She is completely winning in the role and wins over not only Stewart but the viewer as well.

If you've ever seen other ladies (some more famous that Miss Paget) in these Native American guises, wherein they immediately come across as phony, anachronistic or just playing dress-up, you can understand how wonderfully the young girl portrayed this part.

Her next role was not exactly a reward (though was likely planned before Broken Arrow came out.) She was but one of an ensemble in Fourteen Hours (1951), about a man who's threatening to jump from a tall building while a variety of people on the ground watch in suspense. She was paired with Jeffrey Hunter.

About this time, Paget was becoming better-known and was being featured in movie magazines, in this case with her showbiz family.

In Bird of Paradise (1951), she was cast as a Polynesian princess. The dye was being cast as to her procession towards the exotic. But she was now receiving star billing.

As a visiting Frenchman who takes a liking to her (and to sarongs for himself), we find Louis Jourdan. (Paget's Broken Arrow costar Jeff Chandler was also on hand.)

The cosmopolitan Jourdan does not exactly look at home in this publicity still...!  Nonetheless, both stars were complimented warmly in reviews of the day.

The very same couple found themselves cast again as husband and wife in Anne of the Indies (1951), with Jean Peters as a female pirate. Jourdan and Paget play a Frenchman and his wife who are threatened by the swashbuckler.

Regardless of the adult roles she'd been playing, Paget was still only 18 when she was cast in Belles on Their Toes (1952), a sequel to the big hit Cheaper by the Dozen (1950.) She was one of the many children of Myrna Loy in the film.

All along as her star began to rise, she was tirelessly photographed by the 20th Century Fox publicity department in order to keep her face - and physique - in the public eye.

Always stunning in period finery, her next movie was Les Miserables (1952) portraying Cosette. Do you recognize her young costar? Initially intended as yet another pairing with Louis Jourdan, the role instead went to Cameron Mitchell.

A real change of pace came next with Stars and Stripes Forever (1952), the musical biography of John Philip Sousa. She was paired with Robert Wagner and they played fictional characters in order to supply young love interests. The film was successful and maintains a decent reputation, though I have to confess I've never seen it and, in fact, had never heard of it before now!

As 1952 turned into 1953, Paget had a strangely fallow period despite how busy she'd been to this point. A fair amount of the year was spent filming her next project, which wouldn't do her much harm, but became a blight on its star's resume.

Paget and Wagner were re-teamed (along with Janet Leigh) in what would emerge as one of Wagner's more embarrassing films, Prince Valiant (1954.) Faithful to the comic strip on which it was based, it was not successful and Wagner had to endure remarks about his pageboy wig.

Here we see Paget in costume for her supporting role in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), a total blockbuster and a sequel to The Robe (1953.) Victor Mature and Susan Hayward were the principal stars.

At last Paget achieved top-billing in a motion picture. Originally conceived as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe and Tyrone Power (the mind reels...!), Princess of the Nile (1954) had it's budget cut and wound up with Paget and former costar Jeffrey Hunter being paired.

This was Paget at her most beguilingly exotic to date. As a princess who leaves the palace via a passage beneath her bath (!), she was wet much of the time when not gussied up in revealing costumes. The movie used sets from Demetrius, but at least was lensed in color to help accent the stars' glorious looks.

She had a sensual dance number in the picture as well that showed plenty of Paget for 1954! TV was becoming a problem for the cinema and studios were trying to get rear ends off the couch and back into theaters. So admired by moviegoers by this point, her level of fan mail at the studio was topped only by Monroe and Grable.

After costarring with Dale Robertson in The Gambler from Natchez (1954), it was back to the plains for Miss Paget. She played a Cheyenne who falls for a land surveyor played by former costar Robert Wagner in White Feather. Fox having a closely-knit stable of young players at their disposal, Jeff Hunter was her brother. Both blue-eyed stars were outfitted with brown contacts. This part had been earmarked for Rita Moreno initially.

She and Hunter were together yet again - with their real eyes - in Seven Angry Men (1955), which starred Raymond Massey as militant abolitionist John Brown. Note Guy Williams - later of Zorro and Lost in Space - just behind Paget.

MGM ran into trouble on The Last Hunt (1956) when Anne Bancroft fell off her horse and was injured, so they quickly borrowed Paget for a part she could now have played in her sleep, an Indian maiden. It was her third and final time in that capacity, though she would still portray women from other cultures and backgrounds. The shoot was unpleasant for several reasons, including a winter setting shot in 100-degree heat, Stewart Granger's mutual loathing with the director Richard Brooks and those darn brown contacts again!

Along about this time, Paget began appearing occasionally on television. There was Matinee Theatre, an episode of 20th Century-Fox Hour (opposite Robert Wagner) and Climax!, as seen here with John Ericson. But she was about to be selected at the eleventh hour for what is likely her most enduring role.

Paget was the final principal cast member selected for Cecil B. DeMille's massive epic, The Ten Commandments. The famed director had long followed her career and felt that she was perfect for the part of water-bearing slave girl Lilia who is forced into sexual servitude to a shifty informant.

The informant was played by Edward G. Robinson, who'd starred in Paget's film House of Strangers a few years before. As her (hunky) love interest Joshua and potential rescuer, DeMille cast John Derek.

Paget was saddled with the brown contact lenses this one final time. This would not, however, be the end of her association with graven images or, as seen here, cobras! But first, there was a notable TV appearance on The Milton Berle Show, where she performed a complicated dance and then took part in a bit with another guest.

Paget was scripted to go ga-ga over Miltie's popular guest vocalist, young Elvis Presley! Little did either of them know that within months, they'd be sharing the screen together in his acting debut.

Love Me Tender (1956) was the film debut for Presley. He was third-billed under Richard Egan and Paget. The Civil War-era drama had two brothers in love with the same girl.

In real life, Presley was quite taken with his pretty, 23 year-old costar. And he was invited to her parents' home, eventually proposing to her! But it was not to be. (Paget claimed that her parents forbade her to wed him. And she had also carried a torch for the elusive Howard Hughes for two years, who in time married her fellow actress Jean Peters!)

In any event, it's been said that Presley's future wife Priscilla knew how much Elvis had been drawn to Paget and that she - already resembling her - began to style herself in a similar fashion in order to gain his attention when they first met in 1959. Hmmm.

For her own part, though, Paget went through a startling change in appearance in 1957. She apparently wanted to give Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl a run for their money in the redhead stakes. (For the record, I prefer her as a brunette!)

This was for what proved to be the final film under her 20th Century-Fox contract, The River's Edge. It was a crime drama set in Mexico with Anthony Quinn as her husband and Ray Milland starring as their antagonist.

Her next film, at Paramount, was Omar Khayyam (1957), about the famed Persian poet. Cornel Wilde was cast in the title role.

The alluring Paget was the love of Wilde's life (and the inspiration for some of his verse), though happiness was not to be. (You may be forgiven if you thought this portrait was of Ann-Margret and I included it by accident. But it is Paget!)

Shot in 1958, but not seeing the light of day in theaters until 1961(!), was the film depicted here, Most Dangerous Man Alive. It had a tormented production history and made nary a ripple when it finally came out.

Blonde now for a brief period, Paget's next movie was From the Earth to the Moon (1958), which starred Joseph Cotten and George Sanders. This was just as some major shifts were about to take place in Paget's life.

In January of 1958, a beaming 24 year-old Paget had gotten married for the first time. The hubby was a 41 year-old singer named David Street and this was his FIFTH marriage already. He had a habit of marrying actresses and seeing the unions dissolve swiftly. When, on their honeymoon, a couple of his exes came after him for thousands of dollars of back alimony, the writing was on the wall. The marriage was annulled by April.

Her next fiance was even more bizarre...! I'm kidding. This is her pet gibbon, to whom she was saying farewell as she headed off to Europe for a new chapter in her career....

The often-exotically-cast Paget had been selected by veteran German director Fritz Lang to play a Eurasian dancer in a colorful two-part epic he was filming in India. Part one was called The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959.)

The dazzling Paget was outfitted in a wide variety of filmy, bedecked costumes and eye-popping jewelry. Her dancing was showcased several times within the story as well.

To say that some of the costuming was suggestive in an understatement. Take the "oval" shaped red ruby between her legs in this get up. And check out the gold eye shadow. This costume is actually reworked from the earlier Princess of the Nile. Perhaps she'd hung onto it as it would have been made just for her 5'2" frame.

The second part was called The Indian Tomb (1959) and it went even further in its splendor. Lang did everything he could to make the film eye-popping and colorful. (The two parts were also trimmed down significantly into one feature, called "Journey to the Lost City.")

Having been used many times as alluring, picturesque females, this was the ne plus ultra of such for Paget. But even this is not what really stood out.

The everlasting highlight of The Indian Tomb had her appearing in a cloak and using her bejeweled hands as the head of a cobra only to suddenly cast off the cloak and seem practically nude but for some strategically arranged patches of material!

As a looming, big-boobed statue and a passel of eunuchs watched in awe, Paget proceeded to gyrate all over the place, tantalizing the aforementioned cobra (as well as many a male heart in the viewing audience.) This was some heady stuff for 1959.   

Still not finished with these sort of figures, she starred in the Italian-made Cleopatra's Daughter (released in 1960.) At this time, foreign movie-makers were paying American stars generous salaries to headline their epics. While it most often applied to men, there were actresses who also got in on the action.

Back in the U.S., she costarred with Terry Moore in Why Must I Die? (1960), which while not a direct rip-off of I Want to Live! (1958), did share a few similar elements. In this film, it was Moore who was facing the electric chair, despite Paget's emoting here.

Still unlucky in love, Paget wed for a second time in 1960 to veteran director Budd Boetticher. Boetticher found his greatest success with a period in which he took a small amount of money, a star whose luster had dimmed a bit (Randolph Scott) and turned out a series of well-received, compelling westerns. Sadly, this marriage was over with in less than a month! (My favorite thing about this photo is the dog nestled against Miss Paget's hip.)

Some things just never change. Debra Paget at 28 was cast as 51 year-old Vincent Price's wife in a segment of 1962's Tales of Terror. It was (and sometimes still is) the case in Hollywood, so it's not a personal knock on Price.

In fact, things went along so swimmingly that they were married on screen again the following year in 1963's The Haunted Palace.

Now looking at 30 on the horizon, struggling to maintain a secure place in a changing movie landscape (the studio system was crumbling, films were changing in tone and content, etc...) Paget was working on television in shows like Tales of Wells Fargo and Rawhide. However, she was soon to land in clover.

Paget, after years of portraying glamorous, well-to-do seductresses, had caught the eye of a spectacularly wealthy oil magnate. Louis C K'ung was a Chinese business executive, son of the richest man in the Republic of China and a nephew to Madame Chiang Kai-shek, one of the most powerful women in the world! They wed in 1962 and had a son, Gregory. (Good luck finding a viable photo of this couple.) 

This 1965 appearance on Burke's Law as a possible murderess would be the last time viewing audiences would lay eyes on Paget for quite a while. She left the acting profession and concentrated on her new life as the wife of an influential businessman and the mother of their boy. The two resided in Texas as part of the oil concern, but divorced in 1980.

As part of a family who'd always held strong religious beliefs, Paget was raised as a Christian. But after the dissolution of her third marriage, she was at a crossroads and weighed the option of returning to acting. She did do one play, but finally opted out of a return to the screen as an actress. However, as a Born-Again Christian, she would eventually find herself in front of the cameras once more.

In 1991, a still well-preserved Ms. Paget arrived at the TBN cable network. The Trinity Broadcasting Network was founded by Paul and Jan Crouch, who you may have seen at one time or another. (She often sported voluminous lilac-tinted wigs.) She hosted her own show called An Interlude with Debra Paget.

Now listen... If you are a person who enjoyed snorting over Brenda Dickson's over-the-top "Welcome to My Home" video, you owe it to yourself to watch at least part of this broadcast. I thought '80's glitz died by 1991, but no... it just slinked onto TBN, apparently! Paget looks radiant and amazingly fit. But the flower-filled set is off-the chain. And her guest is fellow BAC Donna Douglas of The Beverly Hillbillies.

The ever-lovely Paget continued to appear on TBN at one time or another for quite a few years. I, myself, have never gone in for this sort of thing, but it very obviously gave her a great deal of peace and satisfaction. Debra Paget is still with us today, living in Texas at age 89.

We salute the beautiful and beguiling Paget for her myriad of roles, both down-to-earth and otherworldly. More than just a pretty face, she was a talented actress and dancer as well.

When she departed the acting scene, we were denied the opportunity of seeing her penetrating gaze in whatever roles she might have inhabited, but in the end she decided to live on her own terms and not participate in projects she felt were too crude in language or exceptionally violent in content. 


A said...

What a great post, Poseidon!

I haven't seen many of her movies; I think I'm actually more familiar with her sister Lisa Gaye from television. Debra reminds me a bit of Rhonda Flemming.

Funny about her starting her career so young, probably encouraged by her mother (funny weird, not funny ha-ha). The picture with the kids makes her mom look like Mama Rose. I will say, though, when I was 14 I probably would have jumped on Richard Conte.

I've become a big Jeffrey Hunter fan, lately so it's nice to see him in this. I just watched him in the pilot episode of Star Trek's original series - he was pretty much the only good thing about it.

That costume (or lack of it) in The Indian Tomb was wild. And the Elvis tie-in is really interesting. I won't be able to look at Priscilla Presley without thinking of Paget.

Thanks for this wonderful detailed post!


BryonByronWhatever said...

Again, I'm gobsmacked. I knew the basics but the garnishes you heap on this dish are amazingly tasty. Now, if someone could finally explain to me why Debra Paget and Pamela Tiffin (a decade later and blonde) are forever confused in my head. The only reason I can think of are financially successful, if not lasting, marriages outside of the business. Tiffin's first, publisher/editor Clay Felker, vs. Paget's last. On second thought, don't try to explain. said...

Hi Poseidon,
Debra Paget was always code in my family's house for the starlet who had to jump in a volcano, fight Roman guards wanting to ravish her, or fend off Edward G. Robinson! We often wondered why she didn't become a nun, like other Elvis leading lady, Delores Hart!

Still, what a knock-out Debra was, and glad to hear she's still with us. And always love reading your comprehensive wrap-ups of a star's career...

Cheers, Rick

Ptolemy1 said...

What a beautiful woman. The photo of her in the turban is amazing. I do love that scene from "India Tomb", for the time you're right, it's jaw dropping. (there was definitely more than a two drink minimum in the tomb that night!) Paget had that feline quality to her face I love so much, Myrna Loy and Elizabeth Montgomery both had it as well. I have a friend who keeps insisting I see the '51 version of "Bird of Paradise" with her, but it's hard to find. Not sure why. Thanks!

Laurence said...

Interesting to note that Marilyn Monroe and Debra Paget both worked at Fox at approximately the same time. MM became a big star and Paget didn't, even though she was actually prettier than MM - her feastures were more delicate and better composed. Who knows why the public reacts to one person and not another?

joel65913 said...

Another gem Poseidon on someone who rarely gets a spotlight shone on them! While I can’t say I’ve ever been blown away by a particular performance of hers she’s always a welcome presence when she shows up. And SO beautiful!! At times she looked practically like a porcelain doll.

It’s funny that you’ve never heard of or seen “Stars and Stripes Forever” since that’s where I discovered the lovely Debra when I was a kid. It was one of the constants on channel 17’s (a UHF station when such things existed) Movie of the Week along with the 50’s version of “Titanic”, Susan Hayward’s “The President’s Lady” and “With a Song in My Heart”. Either the programmer had a real soft spot for Susie and Clifton Webb or more likely the station had a contract with 20th Century Fox since I also saw “Bird of Paradise” there for the first time too. The program was just what it sounds, one film played all week three times a day-early morning, at noon and again at seven so if you liked the film it was heaven for a nascent cinephile!

Anyway S&SF is a colorful pageant of great Sousa music with Webb paired most appealingly with Ruth Hussey as his patient but sometimes exasperated wife and Debra and Wagner almost supernaturally gorgeous in rich Technicolor. I highly recommend catching it when you can!!

Other than those two for years my only real awareness of her was in The Ten Commandments, which I love in all its over the top excess, but as time passed I’ve seen all her films most of which would fall under the escapist blanket. She almost always beautiful (the one exception is in “The River’s Edge” which is a decent film but saddled with a bad makeup job and Lucy hair she’s hardly looking her best!), gives a professional performance and moves well, she was actually not a bad dancer but that mystical punch of extra star power just isn’t there.

I had no idea she started so young!! There is no way she’d be able to be cast in those early roles she played nowadays. I’m sure there was on set supervision, only because it was required but it’s still rather shocking.

You didn’t mention it so I don’t know if you’re aware there is a short film about her called “Debra Paget, for Example” which came out about six years ago. It’s an odd little beast but interesting and she must have had some input into it since there are comments/reflections by her (though read by another woman). It’s on YouTube with the link below.

Gingerguy said...

This was fabulous. I always liked her as Lilia, and so many films. To me she looks apple pie American but go figure. Poor Louis Jordan! I feel his discomfort. I am totally gonna watch this TBN clip.

hsc said...

Thanks for posting this beautiful and entertaining-- and thorough-- career retrospective on Debra Paget!

I only saw her on the big screen twice, in theatrical re-releases of two VERY different movies-- THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE HAUNTED PALACE! (And Vincent Price was in both!)

And about 15 years ago, the university library where I used to work had a DVD of THE INDIAN TOMB playing, and I happened to walk through the AV room just as Debra Paget dropped her cape and went into her dance routine.

Even though the costume is actually not all that revealing, those frame grabs don't quite capture the effect of that glittery strategic covering in motion, which somehow makes it look even "nuder."

My eyes were so fixed on the wall monitor that I actually walked smack into a column! It must've been like something right out of that scene of men reacting to Jayne Mansfield in THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT!

"Are you okay?" asked the librarian. I replied, "Yes, but that's a LOT more of Debra Paget than I expected!"

Yet another great one, Poseidon! Thanks for all you do! Love to all and be safe and well, everyone!

Poseidon3 said...

Thank you, A! At least her mother did remain on-hand always to shoo away the wolves, in fact, she even went with Debra to Germany/India to do those movies when she was a twice-divorced adult. They were very close. (In one interview, Debra said that she was never alone with Howard Hughes, even though she loved him. Mom was there, too!) I just read a book that was quite unkind to Jeffrey Hunter, though I retain my adoration of him. He was so beautiful and a better actor than ever given credit for. After this post, I came upon a radio interview with Debra from 2019 and she didn't have a single bad word to say about ANYONE. The worst thing she had to say was that Robert Taylor was sort of distant during "The Last Hunt." Not exactly a tell-all. :-)

BryonByron, thanks much! I appreciate it that you liked the offerings in this one. It has been a while since I did a career-long profile of anyone. It's a lot...! But DP's career wasn't as long as those who kept at it forever. I enjoy Pamela, too, but always think of her as young and taller than Debra (I didn't look to see what the actual stats are.)

Rick, thanks! I guess the *principal* reason Debra was a nun is that she was Presbyterian! Ha ha ha!!!! I don't actually know if that's the denomination she stuck with or not, though.

Ptolemy1, I know from our correspondence that you did finally get to see "Bird of Paradise." Glad you were able to take it in!

Laurence, I find it fascinating, too, that DP and MM were working on the same lot. They somehow seem from different worlds to me...! But I have to say that Marilyn, at a certain point, was just traffic-stopping in my mind. "Niagra," "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." I mean, she just had a certain magnetism and arresting arrangement of features. And was expert at playing "dim."

joel, thank you. I don't know how SASF escaped me for half a century! LOL I did look it up and scan through it. Her song in Clifton's living room was a hoot! I enjoy prim Clifton Webb in several things. I like curmudgeonly disdain as I also offer it up here and there. Ha ha! And, yes, Ruth Hussey registered well, too! I looked at that video you shared and was startled to see that we covered a lot of the same ground. But I swear I had not seen it beforehand. It was neat to see the incredible similarity to Yvonne Furneaux. I think the voices on it were AI, which I'm not a fan of, at all. But it was a nice look at her nonetheless.

Gingerguy, there was something in her gaze that led people to brand her as "exotic." She was gifted when it came to looking beautifully forlorn or even damaged. :-)

hsc, I was obviously not on my game when I failed to notice that her latter-day movie husband, Vincent Price, had been her antagonist in "The Ten Commandments!" That's a fun career note. And, yes, we jusy don't expect to see *quite* that much of Debra Paget in a 1958 movie! Thanks very much.

By the way, I also failed to note it in this post, but there was one fan out there who dearly loved Debra Paget and who decided to name her daughter after her... a certain Mrs. Winger! Take care all!

K Jenkins said...

Fascinating post and interesting lady! I only knew Debra Paget from "The Ten Commandments"! I had no idea that she had such a life and career! On a side note - I wonder how those teen-age actresses such as Paget and Elizabeth Taylor felt about doing love scenes with aging actors that were old enough to be their fathers like James Stewart and Robert Taylor? When I was sixteen, thirty seemed ancient to me! LOL

Poseidon3 said...

K Jenkins, considering how limited in active years Paget's career was, it's remarkable how much was packed into it! I recently - long after writing this post - saw a fun photo on Facebook of her behind the scenes of "TTC" with John Derek and there were SO MANY COMMENTS on it proclaiming, "Debra Paget was my all-time favorite" or "I loved Debra so much" and so on. She did make an impact on a certain generation of filmgoers. Also, not only was there a big age gap between actors and their leading ladies but, to me anyway, the men usually looked EVEN OLDER than their calendar ages, thanks to cigs and booze in many cases! I won't even watch "Love in the Afternoon" with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn because he just looks icky by then to me... Thanks!