by Allan Fish
It was in a casino, somewhere on the East Coast, if memory serves. Kathy Moffat is round the roulette table and has just squandered a fairly large amount in one spin of the wheel. Her lover Jeff Bailey observes dryly “that’s not the way to win.” She looks back at him quizically; “is there a way to win?“ “There’s a way to lose more slowly” he replies.
In Hollywood’s roulette game, there were stars who you knew were there for the long haul; Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis, even Hepburn, in between being declared box office poison at her actual peak. Others just came to the table, put everything on either black or red and kept doing so until they lost. Then they’d pick up their bag, make for the exit and never be seen again. Some never really gave a proverbial fig. Others were pre-destined it seemed to roar through the sky like a comet and ne’er be seen again.
Things hadn’t necessarily been easy for Bettejane Greer. She’d been a singer once, it had introduced her to Rudy Vallee, who became – if briefly – her first husband. In her teens she’s suffered from a rare form of palsy that left part of her face paralysed and it was only through face and eye exercises that she was able to overcome the disability. She did a bit of modelling, cheesecake stuff for the troops, and this attracted the attention of Howard Hughes at RKO. Obsessed with her, he offered her a contract, but it became a leash. Vallee had got her out of the contract, getting her a contract with RKO, but then Hughes effectively took over RKO. Half a dozen fillers, including a Dick Tracy film, were leading nowhere. She was even reduced to a bit part in Sinbad the Sailor (1947) before finally getting her break, as Skipper, by far the nicest of Robert Young’s three dangling women in They Won’t Believe Me (1947). It was only a supporting role, but Young and Susan Hayward were so taken by her they went to the RKO Front Office and insisted she got star billing with them. In late 1946, she was offered the plum part of Kathie Moffat in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947).
There’s something about film noir that brought out the best in some otherwise limited talents. Ava Gardner in The Killers, Ann Savage in Detour, Jean Gillie in Decoy, Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy, Yvonne de Carlo in Criss Cross, Lizbeth Scott in Pitfall. Greer had the talent of all those ladies put together, partly because everything she did was understated, at times almost ambiguous. At one point in the film, Wallace Scott’s taxi driver tells Mitchum’s Jeff that he’s in trouble “because he didn’t act like it.” Greer’s Kathie looked like trouble…because she didn’t act like it. Greer’s performance, as became her trademark, was all built around subtle use of the eyes, and of almost imperceptible smiles.
It should have been the touch paper to a fantastic career. She was still only 22 when it was released. But around the same time she met and fell in love with producer Edward Lasker. Howard Hughes was furious and effectively blacklisted his own discovery. She was sent off to do a western with Dick Powell as punishment, Station West (1948), but even there she turned a formulaic piece into something very nearly special with her form of fatalism. Then twelve months of nothing, until Hughes reluctantly agreed to let her join her old co-star and friend Bob Mitchum on The Big Steal. Mitchum was being punished himself for his marijuana prison term, and Greer was pregnant with Lasker’s first child. What better punishment than to send them off to Mexico with a relatively novice director, Don Siegel, in the hope it would prove a disaster. Even on set she was ‘punished’, forced to wear the same outfit in virtually every scene and her hair was now dark. Mitchum himself noticed that she was wearing the same shoes as in Out of the Past and did what he could to support her through the shoot. It shouldn’t have turned out so well, but Siegel’s film would show Mitchum and Greer’s chemistry, this time as genuine hero and heroine, and make one mourn it was their their last film together.
Returning to RKO she easily outshone Lizbeth Scott in The Company She Keeps (1950), though her performance aside there was nothing worth preserving in the film. Finally she was granted parole, but then only to MGM, the studio least likely to make use of such an unstarry, understated actress. She was Antoinette in the charmless remake of The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), there were a few more fillers, a nice part in Run for the Sun (1956), a remake of The Most Dangerous Game shooting which she came down with a virus that eventually required a cardiac operation. Then she was one of Lon Chaney’s wives in The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), dependable, lovely, but at times perhaps unavoidably weary. In ‘The Portrait Without a Face’ episode in Thriller (1961), as Ann Moffat – Kathy’s sister? – then in support to another old friend Susan Hayward in Where Love Has Gone (1964), which considering their equal footing in They Won’t Believe Me made one wonder where justice had gone. Then she can be glimpsed in The Outfit (1974), before a decade later playing the mother of her old character in the Out of the Past remake Against All Odds (1984). She even turned up in Twin Peaks (1990).
Essentially, it was a three year career, from They Won’t Believe Me to The Big Steal, less than a handful of roles. Most actors and actresses we try and imagine in great roles, adaptations of theatrical and literary masterworks, but Greer didn’t fall into that category. She just was and, as with Louise Brooks, it was enough. For as fans of Brooks can remember the first time they saw her on screen, so people who see Out of the Past can remember first seeing Greer, entering Le Mar Azul from the sunny outside, dressed in a pale knee-length dress and with a wide-brimmed hat, sitting down and removing one glove (her cigarette hand, naturally) while sipping bourbon, or dashing along the beach barefoot “like school was out.” Or they remember her walking arm in arm with Mitchum in Veracruz, answering each inquiry with “oh” (a two letter word meaning nothing in particular). All we ever had to go on was a place and a time to see her again.