Actress Laraine Day was, among other things, everyone’s ideal nurse, the first lady of baseball, and a devoted family woman. She may have missed out on being in one big noir, but proved that even with her ultra-virtuous screen image, she could play a darn good psycho, adulterous housewife and killer.
She was born LaRaine Johnson in Utah, in 1920, one of seven children. Her twin brother LaMar was also quite the entertainer, eventually becoming a professional performer on cruise ships. In 1927, the family moved to California, and Day started learning the craft of acting, eventually ending up with, and being spotted in, the Long Beach Players Guild. After she landed her first big part, as a girl at the soda fountain in Stella Dallas (1937), Goldwyn studios dropped Day because she “lacked talent”. Day then made several westerns at RKO. MGM “discovered” her and cast her in Sergeant Madden (1939), where she got her first credit under her new name; but since there was already an actress named Johnson under contract, Laraine picked the last name of her Long Beach acting coach and playhouse manager, Elias Day.
It was as Nurse Mary Lamont, in the Dr. Kildare films, one of MGM’s most popular and profitable series, that Day really hit it big and cemented her greatest and most lasting screen persona—caring, sweet, sympathetic and charming. The image was to both haunt and help her career, for she felt typecast by MGM. It also seemed to Day that Louis B. Mayer, who objected to her being in the Kildare pictures, but gave in to the casting director, never quite warmed to her. So, Day felt relegated to program pictures, and found that her best work came when she was loaned out to other studios, as was the case with My Son, My Son! (1940), and her leading role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940). In 1943, Day married big band singer Ray Hendricks, and they adopted two children. Day was in seven Kildare films, until they wrote off her character with the rather dirty trick of having her killed on her wedding day to the doctor, breaking the hearts of many a movie fan.
In one of Day’s favorite films, Mr. Lucky (1944), she played a society girl trying to reform scoundrel Cary Grant. That same year she played one of her most prominent roles, another nurse in The Story Of Dr. Wassell, with Gary Cooper. Director Cecil B. Demille said, back at the beginning of Day’s career, that she had no talent, yet he cast her in Wassell because she had become so closely associated with the role of a caring nurse, and it didn’t hurt that she knew her way around medical instruments. Day came close to being in a major noir, MGM’s Undercurrent, as a result of her hesitation over the WAC story Keep Your Powder Dry (1945), with Lana Turner and Susan Peters. Day accepted the role in Powder because MGM promised that if she did, she could also be in the movie she actually wanted, Undercurrent with Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum (a good friend who had acted with Day way back in the Long Beach Players Guild). However, when MGM gave the role in Undercurrent to Katharine Hepburn, Day requested release from her contract in May 1946.
Day may have lost out on a big studio noir, but events conspired to give her a far more juicy and memorable role in a dark little psychological melodrama. A friend, an executive at United Artists, introduced Day to a great script called What Nancy Wanted. Day fell in love with the story, and along with her agent approached RKO about making the film. RKO head of production Bill Dozier loved the script too, but not for Day. He thought it would be perfect for his then wife Joan Fontaine (guess what, Olivia DeHavilland was interested in the project too). Day and producer friend Bert Granet had to put up quite a fight to hold on to the film, which she did, and it was retitled The Locket and released in 1946. The film reunited Day with Brian Aherne, her co-star from My Son, My Son!, her old friend Robert Mitchum, as well as one of her idols, Ricardo Cortez. The Locket gave Day the best, and her favorite, role of her career.
Day perfectly plays off her natural charm; her wholesome, honest sweetness is the exterior that disguises her character’s true nature– a deeply disturbed kleptomaniac on the verge of breakdown. As Nancy, Day attracts several men who learn too late the dark truth about her. One is driven to his death, the next is driven mad and tries to warn off her newest
victim husband-to-be. The story opens like a series of Russian nesting dolls. The flashback-within-flashback structure invites and rewards more than one viewing of the movie, not just to savor Day’s great performance, but to catch the ways the story plants the seeds for Nancy’s compulsion in her childhood, Citizen Kane style, then pays off richly when the flashbacks fall away to reveal one of the most memorable twist endings you’ll ever see. Throughout, Day gives a fantastic performance, judiciously allowing hints of her character’s derangement to show through the cracks of her pleasant façade, with a stare that is alternately, and at all the right moments, vacant, piercing or calculating.
When, in 1947, Day and Hendricks were divorced and she married Leo Durocher, the Hall of Fame manager of the New York Giants, Day became known as the First Lady of Baseball. Despite later admitting that she never liked the sport, for a time she became quite the authority on the subject. Day hosted a pre- and post- Giants game radio show, and wrote a book, Day with the Giants in 1952. She had 2 TV shows, “The Laraine Day Show”, a half hour Saturday afternoon variety show, and “Daydreaming with Laraine”, a fifteen minute sports personality interview show every Thursday evening, and in 1953 was on TV with her husband in “Double Play With Durocher & Day”.
Day’s next entries in the noir genre were both in 1949. In Without Honor, she played a housewife who keeps her affair with blackmailing Franchot Tone a secret by killing him and stashing his body next to the washing machine, only to be tortured for the rest of the day by spurned brother-in-law Dane Clark, all while husband Bruce Bennett is so clueless and neglectful, you don’t wonder about the affair. Day’s initial love for the script was watered down right along with the final cut (due to censors’ changes) and she was glad the film ended up being overlooked by the public. Next she was in Woman On Pier 13, aka I Married A Communist, (produced by Howard Hughes), as the wife of former card-carrying party member Robert Ryan. Now the VP of a shipping company, Ryan is blackmailed by former love and tender comrade Janis Carter into doing favors for the party, while Day is puzzled by her husband’s behavior, suspicious over her brother’s attraction to Janis, and resolute about getting to the bottom of it all by confronting La femme fatale.
Day made few films in the fifties, most notably the airplane thriller High & The Mighty (1954). There were numerous stage performances and TV appearances, guest spots on shows ranging in time and genre from ”The Loretta Young Show” to “Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote”. She also wrote another book, The America We Love, and remained involved with church activities and various causes. In 1960 she divorced Durocher and married TV producer Michael Grilikhes; they had two daughters and remained married until his death in March 2007. Laraine died the following November.
For a relatively brief career in classic Hollywood metrics, around three dozen films—Day achieved a lasting popularity, fame and public appeal. She played lovable, virtuous women with a hint of mischief in those amused eyes, and when she played bad women they were frighteningly convincing, and had just enough virtue in them to be redeemable and sympathetic.
a version of this article was originally published in Dark Pages noir mag, hence the special focus on Laraine’s noir movies