Virginia Mayo

Virginia Mayo was so much more than just a blonde bombshell; in fact she wasn’t even that in real life. She was a welcome presence in any film, a great singer, dancer and comedienne, and especially fun in the crime films she made, because she was so good at being bad. Virginia Clara Jones, born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1920, accomplished her first great goal in life when she got a spot in the municipal opera. She thought she’d hit the big time but her next big step came in the form of her brother-in-law’s vaudeville act, namely “Andy Mayo and Pansy the Horse.” Andy’s wife was pregnant so he hired Virginia to take her place and named her Mayo to preserve continuity (which is so important in a horse act). Virginia got into films in 1943, and for the next five years was at Goldwyn, where she provided reliable romantic interest in Technicolor comedies galore with Bob Hope and Danny Kaye. In 1946 she got a small but great role in the postwar classic The Best Years of Our Lives, in a role that helped establish the bad side of her screen persona: a gorgeous pin-up girl with a real-life side unattractive enough to induce a serious case of buyer’s remorse for the men involved. The next year she was in the big hit the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and married actor Michael O’Shea; they were together until his death in 1973. In A Song is Born, Mayo got to sparkle alongside Danny Kaye in the swinging Ball of Fire remake, playing what else, but the moll. There was no love lost between director Howard Hawks and Mayo, but the movie is lots of fun. Once released from her Goldwyn contract, Mayo worried about her prospects, mainly because she felt she hadn’t been able to establish herself as a dancing star, a goal she’d dreamed of all along. Perhaps that was true, but she certainly needn’t have worried about her popularity; while at RKO she set a record for most fan photo requests in one day (4000!) and in 1948 was named “Miss Cheesecake of the year” by Stars and Stripes magazine.

Her decision to do Smart Girls Don’t Talk that year landed her a seven year contract at Warner’s, and she ended up staying there for ten. In Smart Girls Mayo plays good girl gone bad, then gone back. She’s at a nightclub that gets held up, and sees an opportunity to cash in by lying that she had priceless diamond jewelry stolen. Club owner Bruce Bennett sees through her scam and challenges her to prove the jewelry is insured, or even real for that matter, leading her to give up on that ruse and romance Bennett instead. Robert Hutton plays Mayo’s brother, a doctor who advises her against getting entangled with the gangster, but he then manages to get himself sucked in when he’s called on to help treat a gunshot wound. Eventually Hutton gets in too far to be saved, and that’s when Mayo helps turn the tables on Bennett.

In 1949 Mayo had a great little crime movie streak; the best known of these by far is her turn in the essential White Heat as the white hot Verna, someone who’d “look good in a shower curtain” but would sell out her own man in a second. However she also made some great lesser known gems, namely Red Light (which I already reviewed at the other end of this link) and Flaxy Martin. Mayo wasn’t excited about starring in Flaxy Martin, something she considered just another gangster movie, so soon after Smart Girls Don’t Talk, but having just been signed she didn’t feel she could “stir up a fuss by turning it down.” Good thing she didn’t protest too much because the enjoyable B noir gave her a different type of role, a super juicy one as the title character, a mean and nasty double crosser. Though she’s the moll of mob boss Douglas Kennedy, she pretends to be in love with the basically honest mob lawyer Zachary Scott to keep him on board because they need Scott to defend one of the mob’s gangsters on a murder rap. Unfortunately for Scott, he thinks Mayo’s love is the real deal. When a lying witness has to be bumped off, and Mayo is implicated in that murder, Scott steps forward to take the rap. But things go bad for Scott, and with Dorothy Malone’s support, he gets to dish out some revenge. In Flaxy Martin Mayo was at her best as a classic femme fatale, delightfully unscrupulous and traitorous, believably luring Scott (almost) to his destruction, and smacking Helen Westcott around. Roles like these were all a far cry from the real Virginia, who was forthright, funny, down to earth, unassuming, and guided by her deep faith.

Mayo started the 50’s with another good noir, Backfire, and through the decade she worked steadily, making a couple or three movies per year, appearing in many good westerns (The Proud Ones, Along the Great Divide) as well as swashbucklers (The Flame and the Arrow), historical epics (Captain Horatio Hornblower) and musicals (She’s Back on Broadway, and reuniting with Cagney for The West Point Story). After her contract with Warner’s was finished, she basically retired from movies, and continued working on stage. It was during one of the many stage tours she did with her husband that he suffered a fatal heart attack. She made numerous TV appearances, including a run on the soap Santa Barbara, and was also a talented artist, painting in oil and watercolor. Though she is surely best remembered for the Best Years of Our Lives and White Heat, her own favorite film was She’s Working Her Way through College, where she played “hot garters Gertie,” costarred with Ronald Reagan and got to dance. She said later in life that she didn’t like how aging actresses were sidelined, nor did she respect the way some of them wrote scandalous tell-all books in their later years; it was to get attention, she believed, and added that anyway, she had no scandal worth sharing, what with one husband, a happy marriage and the daughter she called her “greatest creation.” In interviews she enjoyed sharing memories of her moviemaking days, as well as her views on new movies and actors, and said she didn’t care if she was remembered or not, because love during life, and her belief in what comes after, was the only thing that mattered.  Mayo died in 2005.

A Little more about a couple of Mayo noirs:

The director of Smart Girls Don’t Talk and Flaxy Martin Was Richard Bare, for whom feature length movies were practically an anomaly during the first decade of his career. Aside from those two noirs, he directed one other, This Side of The Law, with Kent Smith and with Viveca Lindfors in 1950. The bulk of his resume is made up of dozens of the “So You Want To [fill in the blank]” series of short films, fun shorts meant to provide “instruction” on every conceivable subject from building a home to quitting smoking, to having fun in life to calling you out on the claim you made about never telling a lie. Bare almost unwittingly started this series when in 1942 he made the movie So You Want to Give Up Smoking, as an instructive filmmaking exercise while he was a film school instructor. When Warner’s saw the potential use and entertainment value of such shorts, they hired Bare and he directed all 60 films that followed in the series. Good thing he was given chance and time somewhere in between the shorties to make these noirs, because, while no essentials, they’re all great engaging fun. As the 50s rolled on Bare also made a bunch of westerns:  Return of the Frontiersman, with Gordon MacRae, Julie London and Rory Calhoun; Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend with Randolph Scott. By the time “So You Want to…” wrapped up, Bare went on to be a busy TV director, working on 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, Cheyenne, The Twilight Zone and many more. Unsurprisingly, this hard worker also set the record for most consecutive TV episodes directed, for Green Acres. He could have wrapped up his career with a dandy title: “So You Want to be a Prolific Director Who’s Done Some Fine Virginia Mayo Noirs?” You can buy a collection of the “So You Want” shorts from Warner Archive under the title The Joe McDoakes Collection, named after the main character in the shorts, played by George O’Hanlon, who also voiced the toons’ George Jetson.

A version of this article originally appeared in Dark Pages magazine

catch the Virginia Mayo fest on TCM NOV 30 starting at 6am est, with most of the noirs mentioned above showing, plus a few other great Mayo movies

related posts here at Speakeasy – RED LIGHT

picture sources 1-mayo  / 2-smart girls / 3- flaxy martin


10 thoughts on “Virginia Mayo”

  1. I thought Mayo was terrific in White Heat and Colorado Territory. However, I feel she was rarely used as well as she should have been – she was handed a real nothing role in Backfire.

    1. Yeah I like her other noirs better too, and I could (and might, or you could) almost write a whole separate post on her westerns 🙂 so many good actresses weren’t used to their full potential …

  2. Kristina, Virginia Mayo has been one of my favorites since I first saw her in the films of another of my faves, Danny Kaye! Much as I love her as a good girl, I agree she did lots of swell noir babes in WHITE HEAT and others. I’d like to catch up with BACKFIRE again, if only because it’s utterly insane, with its flashbacks-upon-flashbacks! Hmm, maybe I should make that one of my “Christmas movies” one of these days! 🙂 Incidentally, I actually own a LaserDisc of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, though I’m hoping that when the upcoming remake comes out, some enterprising company will put it out on DVD/Blu-Ray with cool extras and such. BRAVA on another superb post, my friend!

    1. Thanks so much! I kind of think of her as a Marilyn with grit, great for the crime movies. And those ones I focus on are no masterpieces but still fun so check them out if you haven’t seen them. She really was good at comedy & had good timing. Re: Mitty,that would be a great time to re-release the original, cross your fingers!

  3. What a nice profile of an actress I enjoy a lot. I got a real kick out of watching FLAXY MARTIN, which you highlight here.

    My dad is a big fan of SHE’S WORKING HER WAY THROUGH COLLEGE, got to catch up with that one!

    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks ! Yes like I said they’re really great examples of B noirs, and loved learning about the director Bare. Mayo could really do a lot with a good role in any genre.

  4. What’s not to like about Virginia Mayo. She was easy on the eyes and constantly appeared in movies opposite my heroes. From comedies with Kaye and Hope’s Princess and the Pirate to appearing with the more rugged leading men of the day. Cagney, Douglas, Lancaster, Peck, Ladd etc. I suspect Walter Mitty is probably the first time I remember seeing her as a kid watching late night TV. All I knew was Karloff was in the film so it must be a horror flick. Was I in for a surprise. This lead to the Kaye films and seeing her in Hornblower for the first time stands out. I know I am not alone but White Heat is an obvious highlight.
    It sure would be nice if the studio who owns the rights would release the Kaye-Mayo films on dvd in a box set.
    Thanks for the post Kristina.

    1. Yes please box set! Totally true, how many powerful & charismatic male costars she had and stood up to them well, being such a strong presence herself. Yup White Heat is so amazing & in a league all its own so i just went for suggesting some of the fun “lesser knowns” so people don’t miss out on those, which movie junkies know can be just as much fun as the grade A stuff 🙂 thanks !

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