In this edition of Celluloid Sirens, we take a look at Julia Jean Turner, born in Wallace, Idaho. Popularly known as Lana Turner, she was the daughter of John Virgil Madison Turner, a miner from Hohenwald, Tennessee, and Mildred Frances Cowan, a sixteen-year-old Arkansas native.
Her first movie role was a small part in They Won’t Forget at age 17 in 1937. She didn’t speak a word but the skin tight sweater she wore created a sensation and gave her the title “Sweater Girl”.
The part got her noticed and she was signed by director Mervyn Le Roy who then guided her early career. It was he who advised her to choose a catchy Christian name and when he moved from Warner Bros. to MGM he took Lana with him.
She began appearing in numerous films, including The Adventures of Marco Polo and Love Finds Andy Hardy in 1938, These Glamour Girls, Calling Dr. Kildare in 1939 and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1941.
She took acting lessons and soon became a regular performer in MGM movies of the time. She co-starred successfully with top leading men such as Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Robert Taylor. Although she rose rapidly to national fame, it was because of her often lurid private life and not because of the movies she made, most of which were quite ordinary.
The highlight of Lana’s career in the 1940s was the film noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1946 in which she starred opposite John Garfield. The film was a major critical and commercial success.
It caused MGM to rethink their policy on which films to cast her in and they began to take more risks, casting her outside the glamorous sex symbol roles for which she had become well known.
In 1947 she appeared with Spencer Tracy in Cass Timberlane, which was panned by the critics but which did well at the box office.
A Life of Her Own in 1950 paired her with Ray Milland and although the film lost money, Turner received good reviews.
She was also widely praised for her performance in the 1952 hit movie, The Bad and the Beautiful, co-starring with Kirk Douglas.
When her marriage to Lex Barker ended in 1957, she started a relationship with notorious gangster Johnny Stompanato. He was a violent man and the relationship was abusive. Things came to a head on the evening of April 4th, 1958, when Lana’s daughter, Cheryl, stabbed Stompanato to death.
At the coroner’s inquest, she claimed that he was attacking her mother and would have killed her. The inquest returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.
The remainder of the 1950s were a disappointing time for Lana with a series of poor films. The exception was the hugely successful Peyton Place in 1957, for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
Receipts for the movie increased dramatically with the publicity from Lana’s real-life tragedy and the 1958 court case.
Lana’s career entered a downward path as movie offers dried up. Her last starring role was in 1966 in Madame X.
Turner made her final television appearance in 1991, and died from throat cancer in 1995.