One great, sassy, gum-smacking dame spotlighted for the What a Character! blogathon.
Almost everything I’ve ever read about Iris Adrian made note of her gum chewing and that’s fair; she did it often, made great show of it and you’re bound to remember how she made herself stand out with that gum in the briefest of screen time, whether she was offering a cigarette, taking a coat, sitting next to you in the slammer, walking the street as a lady of the night or a gentleman’s arm candy. But she didn’t need to depend on gimmicks to get noticed or make an impression, because she had tons of talent, perfect comedic timing and such a natural, convincing way of phrasing everything from astonishment to insults that she was asked if she wrote her own lines. Iris Adrian was a wonderfully brassy, loud, wisecracking, scene stealing, self assured, tell-it-like-it-is dame, on and off screen. She was in over 130 movies and dozens of TV shows, and yet she remains one of the many “who?” players when named, one of the great “oh, HER!” actresses when seen.
Born Iris Adrian Hostetter in L.A. in 1912, she lost her father to the influenza epidemic. Inspired partly by a mother who had showbiz experience, and in greater part by poverty, Adrian started scoping out entertainment prospects early. At 13 she won a beauty contest, and soon got work as a chorus girl, appearing in hit bandleader Fred Waring’s show and often filling in for singer (later actress) Dorothy Lee.
At the crack of the 1930s Adrian was in a number of short films, appeared in The Vagabond King and with Jean Harlow in a 1928 Charley Chase comedy, Chasing Husbands. Mainly, she was working on stage, and it was from travels East for shows that she got a job as a Ziegfeld Girl. She got hot pretty fast, becoming known as “The Girl with the Million Dollar Figure” and had lengthy runs in shows like Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 and Hot-Cha!
She was also performing at the Hollywood Restaurant on Broadway, usually with Rudy Vallee, and it was during one of those appearances that a dancer named George Raft spotted her and they struck up a partnership. She toured as Raft’s dancing partner and then was in the Raft-Carole Lombard picture Rumba (1935). Apparently she also did a screen test in 1934 as Anna Karenina (I wonder if there was gum chewing?) which helped her land a Paramount contract. Barely into her Twenties she had already made her mark as an extremely hardworking, highly in demand nightclub act and would have no trouble being regarded the same way in Hollywood, a valued asset to many movies.
For the rest of the 1930s she was busy, often doing a couple pictures a day, and remaining down to earth while crossing paths with the industry’s biggest and brightest. She was in Our Relations with Laurel and Hardy (she was once heckled by Stan Laurel during her nightclub act), in Go West with The Marx Brothers. She’d have success with giants of comedy her whole career, later working with Jerry Lewis in The Errand Boy, and Bob Hope in The Paleface, Road to Zanzibar, and My Favourite Spy.
Adrian had the fondest memories for those she considered the most frank and professional, outspoken and direct people, and preferred confrontation and honesty to “faking laryngitis” which was how she described some directors’ habits of sending an underling to give criticism or instruction. She worked with some greats: William Wellman (Roxie Hart, Lady of Burlesque), Rouben Mamoulian (Rings on Her Fingers), Fritz Lang (Woman in the Window), and Ernst Lubitsch in her earliest movies. Michael Curtiz cast her a lot (My Dream is Yours, Flamingo Road, The Helen Morgan Story); when Adrian asked Curtiz why he kept giving her work when all he seemed to do was be mean and yell at her, he made up for it by saying he only screamed so much because he so loved her work.
You get a nice idea of her screen persona just from a glance at the characters she played: Bebe, Toots, Mazie, Jinx, Jailhouse Blonde, Wisecracking Blonde. The 1940s were extremely busy, with several pictures per year and some of her biggest roles. She claimed she was only playing herself, a “tough broad” when she was Two Gun Gertie in Roxie Hart (1942), the first “version” of the musical/movie Chicago starring Ginger Rogers. Lady of Burlesque (1943) had Adrian alongside Barbara Stanwyck, and she had a rare lead in Shake Hands With Murder (1944), a gangster comedy.
For such a natural in front of the camera it’s surprising that when it came to a live audience Adrian suffered from severe stage fright, but she didn’t let that stop her from frequently touring with plays, even tackling drama like Of Mice and Men. Into the 1950s she worked hard as ever, in the noirs Crime Wave, Once a Thief, and Highway Dragnet, in G.I. Jane (not that one) and The Fast and the Furious (not that one). And she started a long run of TV appearances with Racket Squad and The Abbott and Costello Show, which continued through The Munsters, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Green Acres, Get Smart, The Love Boat and many more.
One of her most frequent and favourite associations began when she joined Jack Benny in the 1950s; she worked with him for over 20 years on TV and on the road. She was also recurring on The Ted Knight show as a receptionist. Into the 1960s she became a familiar face to a younger generation thanks to all the movies she did for the Walt Disney company, starting in 1965 with That Darn Cat! and running all the way into 1980 with The Love Bug, Scandalous John, The Apple Dumpling Gang, Freaky Friday, The Shaggy D.A., and Herbie Goes Bananas. All her hard work may not have brought her huge stardom but she was very smart with her money, investing in real estate to ensure a comfortable life.
After a few marriages the one that lasted was to Raymond “Fido” Murphy, who Sports Illustrated once described as a highly accomplished “football, baseball and basketball star… football coach, baseball manager, umpire and club owner.” Of their 30+ years of happiness together Adrian said it was mostly because she didn’t get “hitched to an actor. If an actor gets a pimple on his butt he thinks he’s ruined for life.” Actors are “very vain, It would be like dating another dame.” When Burt Reynolds’ producer asked her for a head shot while casting Paternity (1981) she sent one that was almost a decade old, and said, “I look like that, only worse.” In an industry obsessed with youth, she never minded telling her age, saying “I want credit for all the time I’ve done.” Always the frank, take-it-or-leave-it approach.
She suffered a broken hip in the 1994 Northridge, California earthquake, never fully recovered and died later that year, aged 82. One writer said of her energy that “getting Iris Adrian to sit down long enough for something resembling an interview was like trying to corral a jackrabbit.” It was a vibrancy and spirit that sustained her career over many decades, and if it wasn’t easy to contain or describe in real life, it was really well captured on screen in every possible form. Usually with some gum.
Return Engagement by James Watters
Reel Characters by Jordan Young
Whatever Happened To…? (8th ed.) by Richard Lamparski