Friday, December 6, 2019

This Day in Film History (John Payne, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ Male Lead, Dies)

Dec. 6, 1989—Even as the TV was on in the house playing his—and countless other people’s—favorite holiday movie, John Payne—a likable B-movie lead best known for Miracle on 34th Street—died at his Malibu home at age 77 of congestive heart failure. 

The proximity between death and Payne’s most famous role made it practically inevitable that I would write about him. 

As I learned more about his life, though, I found that Payne was far more interesting than that pleasant attorney he played who, by saving a department store Santa named Kris Kringle from an insane asylum, won the heart of a skeptical mother and her adorable little girl. 

Not unlike the trial in his holiday classic, Payne’s life took some unexpected turns. the scion of a well-to-do Virginia farmer, he saw the family circumstances sharply reduced after the Great Crash of 1929. While studying drama and voice at Juilliard and Columbia University, he took radio work and roles in low-budget Shubert shows. 

When Hollywood finally beckoned, studio execs, eyeing that lanky frame, cast him in musicals instead of in the obvious—Westerns and crime dramas. As a 20th Century Fox contract player, he appeared in the likes of Tin Pan Alley, Sun Valley Serenade and Hello, Frisco, Hello.

Actresses liked Payne just as much as their screen characters—so, while not in the same class as, say, Errol Flynn, he did quite nicely for himself, with three wives (Anne Shirley, Gloria DeHaven and Alexandra Crowell Curtis) and romances with the likes of Jane Russell and Kansas City Confidential co-star Coleen Gray.

One actress who enjoyed being around Payne—professionally, though not romantically—was Miracle on 34th Street co-star Maureen O’Hara. They had already co-starred in two films, To the Shores of Tripoli (1942) and Sentimental Journey (1946), and would go on to make another, Tripoli (1950).  

Miracle would turn out to be especially enjoyable for them. Early on, they realized they were working with fine material (the George Seaton screenplay would, in fact, win an Oscar). At the end of the day, the two would go out with co-star Edmund Gwenn, often strolling up Fifth Avenue. 

Even so, none in the group ever thought the film would remain a beloved Christmas film over 70 years after its release. 

Legends cling to the film and its star, some true (at the time of his death, O’Hara wrote in her autobiography, Payne was writing a sequel to it) and some not (when Miracle was being created, Payne’s daughter Julie later related, he could not have used his own money to get it produced because he was not only paying alimony and child support to his first wife but needed to support his third child, with his second wife). 

Like the somewhat older Dick Powell, aging forced Payne to demonstrate his versatility beyond the  musical comedy roles that gave him his start. Film noirs such as The Crooked Way and 99 River Street provided him with tougher roles, and a two-year stint in the TV western The Restless Gun gave him the opportunity to play an anti-hero.

Ironically, Payne’s last acting role, as a former musical star in the detective series Columbo, reflected in some senses his own dire circumstances of the decade before. 

On the show, his career feels guilt over a long-ago car crash that derailed his career and that of his co-star (played by Janet Leigh). In real life, Payne had been struck by a car in New York City in 1961. 

“No one thought I would live,” he recalled in an interview a decade later. “I had a fractured skull. My left leg was broken in four places. My chin was literally cut off. There was a question of whether or not the leg would have to be amputated."

Corrective plastic surgery, performed on the back of his head, allowed Payne to resume his career several years later. 

But the scars from the accident were still visible in close-ups and, having grown tired of hours of filming, he decided not to continue acting after his Columbo guest appearance in 1975. 

Fortunately, shrewd show business and real estate investments allowed him to live out his last years comfortably.

No comments: