“Do you remember any direction that Howard Hawks gave you?”
“Oh yes, he told me to imagine daggers to my knees.”
“I should feel weak with passion, romance.”
I’m talking with Coleen Gray, (b. 1922, Doris Bernice Jensen) about her short but memorable appearance in one of the greatest American movies ever made, Red River. Coleen plays Fen, John Wayne’s first love who is murdered by Indians early in the film.
“What was Howard Hawks like as a director?”
“Oh, very relaxed and easy going. There was a cowboy who was having trouble with his scene and Howard just took him by the arm and they walked off for a while and chatted. And you know the producers were looking at their wrist watches because time is money, and then Howard and the cowboy-actor returned, they did the take and it was just perfect. That’s how Howard did things. Quiet, relaxed, no big drama.”
“And Duke, how was he to work with?”
“Oh, very easy. John Wayne was tall and good looking, very quiet and hard working, a real gentleman. You have to remember I was a young, innocent girl and just concentrating, really wanting to do a good job.”
“You are spectacular, truly memorable.”
Coleen shrugs, smiles. I get the feeling that Red River, made in 1948, is for Coleen, a distant, lovely dream.
I remember the first time I saw Red River, I was a dopey yeshiva student in Brooklyn, confused, lonely, struck by the brilliant imagery, the larger than life conflicts, the towering score by Dimitri Tiomkin, and the incredibly literate screenplay by Borden Chase.
Coleen Gray’s brief appearance is memorable for her beauty is luminous, and her love for the John Wayne character is absolutely palpable. Fen’s terrible death haunts Wayne and motivates him for the rest of the movie.
Red River also has one of my favorite scenes of all times. Joanne Dru is shot in the shoulder by a poison arrow and Montgomery Clift, get this, sucks the poison from her wound. Joanne slaps him, cause, y’know she loves him and hates him at the same time — and then she faints.
I mean, this is like heaven for a movie-mad yeshiva kid from Brooklyn.
Coleen played Fay in The Killing directed by Stanley Kubrick. Her two scenes with Sterling Hayden are notable for the utter sincerity of the love and devotion she projects to their relationship. Coleen is the exact opposite of Sherry, the bad girl character played by Marie Windsor. It’s a stark and fateful contrast and Kubrick’s casting is just perfect.
A few days later in a phone conversation, Coleen tells me how disappointed she was in Kubrick as a director.
“I had seen Killer’s Kiss and it was really wonderful and I was so looking forward to working with him. But Kubrick was so distant. I wanted direction. I wanted to know how to make my performance better, but he didn’t say anything.”
“Maybe your choices were just what he wanted.”
“Well we always want to do better, don’t we.”
“Do you remember anything else about Kubrick?”
“He was a slight man, a bit disheveled. Oh, and he wore clod-hopper shoes.”
Regarding Sterling Hayden Coleen says: “He was intensely focused. There wasn’t a lot of chit-chat on the set among the actors. You just learned your lines and did the very best job possible. You know how it is, Robert. Making movies is hard work.”
It’s the best kept secret in Hollywood.
Coleen adds: “I just love the way Sterling checks out the automatic rifle. He does it with such authority. That’s because he was in the service and he knew about guns.”
“Hayden was also in the OSS and parachuted behind enemy lines during World War II. He was quite a man.”
“You know who else was marvelous in the The Killing, Timothy Carey, what a wonderful actor he was.”
Carey plays Nikki Arcane, the sniper who shoots the race horse. His unique mouth-full-of-marbles delivery is utterly unique in American movies which favor well rounded vowels. Kubrick once again cast Carey in Paths of Glory.
“It’s an amazing film. Just 84 minutes, it’s lean and mean and completely unpretentious. It’s actually my favorite Kubrick movie.”
“Yes, before Kubrick became all full of himself.”
In the noir classic Nightmare Alley, Coleen gives a memorable and sensual performance as Molly opposite Tyrone Power.
“Tell me about Edmund Goulding, the director.”
“Oh, Eddie was a real pro, very precise in all his direction.”
“Yes, Goulding was one of those Hollywood directors who knew his craft from top to bottom. We’ll not see his like ever again.”
From IMBD: “Coleen Gray was born in Staplehurst, Nebraska in 1922. After graduating from high school, Coleen studied dramatics at Hamline University graduating with a bachelor of arts degree. Coleen then decided to see America and traveled to California, stopping at La Jolla, where she worked as a waitress. After several weeks there, she moved to L.A. and enrolled in a drama school. Her performances attracted a talent scout from 20 Century-Fox studios where she signed a contract after a screen test.”
“You remember the scene where Richard Widmark throws the old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs?”
“Well, sure, I mean that’s classic.”
“You know who was really in the chair?”
“A stunt double, I assume.”
“Rod Amateau, my Jewish husband.”
“He was a fine writer/director.”
“Yes, he was.”
“Coleen, I hope you don’t think this is really stupid, but I really want to get your autograph.”
Coleen waves her hand as if swatting a fly, then tells me that it’s time for me to speak.
Coleen rises, marches to the podium, and here at the Luxe Hotel, Brentwood, I watch and listen as this lovely lady, a real presence from my movie mad life, gives me a truly generous introduction before I speak to the Bel-Air Republican Women Federated.
For one brief moment I am trapped between past and present, and a sob like a walnut, is trapped in my throat.
I have traveled so far, from Brooklyn to Hollywood, and yet I still feel so out of place.
I speak for about thirty minutes: I speak about Hollywood’s capitulation to the poison of multiculturalism, I speak about Hollywood’s flight from the war on terror. Naturally, I tell the ladies about The Seven Samurai, and how it can serve as a model on how to fight terrorism.
I tell these wonderful and committed ladies that America and Israel are the front lines in the battle against jihad.
I thank the Bel-Air Republican Women Federated for providing me with a kosher lunch.
Afterwards, Coleen slips an envelope into my hand. My honorarium.
I’m too embarrassed to ask Coleen for her autograph. I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself.
But when I get home, I open the envelope, and there’s a note from Coleen, a private note, a prayer for me and Karen and for Ariel ZT’L—and Coleen’s flowing signature.
Her handwriting is so lovely it looks transcribed by an angel.