On the life and notable noir of the spunky and sharp actress.
Noir could always be counted on to provide a meaty role and golden opportunity for an otherwise underexposed actress to strut her stuff, if she had any to strut. Many actresses made a huge and lasting impact in this way (I’m thinking of June Vincent and Ella Raines), some of them just with one noir (Peggy Cummins), and Wanda Hendrix was another such revelation in 1947’s Ride the Pink Horse. In that movie Robert Montgomery arrives in a sleepy little Mexican bordertown, in the middle of Fiesta time looking to settle a score. One of the first useful denizens he happens upon is Hendrix, who offers to show him around. As Pila, Hendrix gives an utterly captivating performance built upon some contradictions; at 19, she’s obviously a little older than the girl she’s playing, which works perfectly to make Pila needs to seem both childish and wise beyond her years.
Hendrix plays Pila as stunted in the maturity department, unaccustomed to the accoutrements of an older, sexier woman, and so while she gloms on to Montgomery and follows him around like a loyal puppy, she gives the viewer several touching and amusing glimpses at her extreme insecurity and self-consciousness. She observes Rita Conde interacting with Montgomery with an analysis almost scientific, her eyes covering every inch of the other woman, clearly comparing herself to this worldlier woman whom she assumes must be more appealing to Montgomery. When Hendrix later reappears she’s put on all the improvements gleaned from her observation—all of them, all on at once! It has the effect of a Halloween costume, almost a drag getup, a comically overdone failure. She tags along with Montgomery until she really becomes useful, helping him stagger and hide through the town when he’s injured. Though they seem destined to be together (spoilers ahead) her heartbreak, such as it is, sure seems fleeting, and she fatalistically shrugs it all off. She’s left behind enjoying her new popularity with an audience of other sheltered girls to whom she weaves tall tales about her escapades with the mysterious American.
I have mixed feelings about Ride the Pink Horse; it’s not a movie I like too much, but it’s definitely worth watching for noir fans, a must for Robert Montgomery fans like myself, and for the above mentioned highlights from a truly astonishing performance by Hendrix, who strings together many quick and intelligent acting choices. Little wonder that Montgomery, who directed Pink Horse, chose her specifically to play the role. As she was in Pink Horse, Hendrix basically remained for much of her film career– cute and spunky, doll-like but with refined features. She would have been perfect if there was ever a script requiring someone to play Gene Tierney’s pixie-ish and mischievous firecracker of a little sister.
Dixie Wanda Hendrix was born in 1928 in Florida, where her father worked for Lockheed aircraft company. She wanted to be an actress from childhood, got her career started on stage right out of high school, and unsurprisingly, given her striking, sharp, incisive look, she was noticed by a Warners scout and soon moved to Hollywood along with her parents. At 17 she was in her first film, Charles Boyer’s Confidential Agent, where she played Else, a hotel maid who gets unceremoniously shoved out a window. Right off the bat it was clear Hendrix could steal a scene, and some reviewers found her more exciting than the lead actress Lauren Bacall. With that debut Hendrix was already on her way but her next few movies got bottlenecked in the studio release schedule and did not make it out to theaters until almost two years later.
Though her film work seemed stuck, her personal life sure moved swiftly, because at 18 she was spotted on a magazine cover by Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated war hero, who was then just starting his climb up the Hollywood ladder. Murphy was under contract to the Cagney brothers and staying at Jimmy Cagney’s home to network while he took acting lessons. One of the best connections he ever forged was a date with his cover girl crush Hendrix. They dated for years, and, just as they had assured Hendrix’s parents, waited until August 1948 to get engaged. In the interim, Hendrix appeared in Nora Prentiss (as Kent Smith’s daughter), Welcome Stranger, and following Ride the Pink Horse, another minor classic and now cult comedy, Miss Tatlock’s Millions.
Tatlock is a Preston Sturges movie involving the engagement of an impostor (played by the underrated talent John Lund) to pretend he’s the crazy heir at a will reading. Hendrix plays one of the family who inevitably falls in love with the hunky Lund. After finishing up the Medici costume drama Prince of Foxes in Italy, during which she fell ill with a nasty case of flu, Hendrix and Murphy were married in January 1949. Toward the autumn of that year, as she was recovering from a broken ankle, the couple started work together on the western Sierra, fueling rumors of a split with their decision not to live together on location in Utah. Before the year was out they were separated. At the time their troubles were either flatly denied or publically attributed to either Hollywood pressures or gambling coming between them, but eventually it came out from Hendrix herself, that one of the problems was that Murphy suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, and often relived his wartime battles through nightmares, at times even pointing his gun at her while in the throes of a hallucination. They began divorce proceedings in early 1950, the year she was busy with the release not only of Sierra but also Captain Carey, U.S.A., The Admiral Was a Lady, and Saddle Tramp. Murphy remarried three days after his divorce from Hendrix was finalized in early 1951, while in short order Hendrix was seen on the arms of many a society gentleman and a few actors, including Tony Curtis and Robert Stack.
She appeared on New York stage in Picnic, and steadily continued to make films, now mostly westerns, also TV, but was clearly losing the traction toward a major career that her early successes seemed to predict. She was almost finished making films by 1954, when at the age of 26, after a few months of dating, she married James Langford Stack, a fabulously wealthy sportsman and brother of her aforementioned arm candy, actor Robert Stack. Hendrix said at that time that she looked forward to giving up acting after this marriage and wanted to dedicate herself completely to becoming a homemaker. After about a year, though, it seemed she was itching to get back into acting and appeared sporadically on TV. Unfortunately once again there were marital problems, and some high drama surrounding their separation when it made news that Hendrix collapsed at her lawyer’s office and was briefly hospitalized for shock when Stack refused to see her or reconcile. Their divorce settlement in 1958 after only four years of marriage brought her quite a hefty monthly allowance, on the condition she didn’t remarry for the next 120 months, plus nearly $200,000 in property and compensation for the attorney’s fees.
Hendrix went back to working on commercials, series like Bat Masterson, Wagon Train, My Three Sons, Bewitched, and a few more movies. She was just as much seen at social events, and sat on a Studio City economic advisory board dedicated to attracting business to the area. This likely led to her third marriage in 1969 to an Italian working in California as an oil company executive. Two years later in 1971 she was attending Audie Murphy’s funeral after he was killed in a plane crash while making a business trip as the spokesman for a new prefab home and trailer company. Sadly an early death was in the cards for Hendrix as well, in 1981 at age 52 of pneumonia; she’d been in a poor state of health for the two years preceding and her third husband divorced her while she was comatose. Her experiences of success and happiness seemed, like her life, all too brief and cut prematurely; so too her career seemed to have fallen short considering the early promise and undeniable talent she displayed so early on.
a version of this article previously appeared in The Dark Pages newsletter for noir movie fans