The Booby-Trapped Life of Rita Johnson
By Matt WeinstockAugust 13, 2013
Images courtesy Barbara Coulter.
IT’S ALWAYS SEEMED ODD to me that no romantic comedy has featured a meet-cute between two people flirting over a celebrity’s corpse. Last summer I convinced a date to attend Marvin Hamlisch’s wake, and a few years ago, the peculiar case of Rita Johnson — an actress who would have turned 100 today — seemed the ideal bait with which to ensnare my then-professor. He had a mellifluous voice and regularly took time out from class to regale us with horror stories from a friend who’d been Barbra Streisand’s chauffeur. My term paper was about the connection between the dying god trope and the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift; in my research I stumbled on Rita, an MGM contract player who’d been hit in the head with a hair dryer in 1948 and was thereafter reduced to playing bit parts as nurses and psychiatrists. A 1952 UPI article had her saying, “Sometimes I drive alone to the top of the hill. I shake my fist at the city and I say, ‘Hollywood, city of bright lights, I’ll lick you yet.’”
I wondered then if I was the first person who’d read that article since 1952 — and if the families who lived on top of the hill ever heard Rita yelling. Her plummet from grace felt like a Woody Woodpecker gag — one that my professor and I could relish over a shared pudding cup. “You should always keep your eye on your hair dryer,” I emailed him.
“I already do,” he emailed back. When we met to discuss my paper, he showed up wearing a mohair sweater so immaculate he must have spent an hour picking lint off it. But skittishness won out on both our parts, and as the prospect of an affair fizzled so did my interest in Rita Johnson, who I didn’t think much about until this June, when a concussion sustained on the Coney Island Cyclone left me bedridden for weeks. I found myself doing things like despondently looking at the expiration dates on Purell bottles and thinking that they’d outlive me. Now that we both belonged to the brotherhood of brain damage, Rita’s plight seemed less cartoonish, and during my recuperation I started watching her movies and interviewing her co-stars and relatives, in hopes of getting a better sense of the actress’s booby-trapped life.
Born Rita Ann Johnson on August 13, 1913, she grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she waitressed in her mother’s lunchroom and sold hot dogs on the Boston-Worcester turnpike to make ends meet. By 1936 she’d decamped to Manhattan and was appearing in ten radio shows a week — serialized schlock like John’s Other Wife and Joyce Jordan, Girl Interne. Orson Welles might have been thinking of Rita when he said, “There were a few of us back in radio’s golden age who used to make quite important bread by skipping nimbly from one soap opera to another.” Over the course of a few weeks on The Wonder Show alone, she was attacked by savages, bullied by society snobs, and pushed into an elevator shaft.
MGM brought her to California in 1937, and when Jean Harlow died midway through filming Saratoga, Rita underwent a highly publicized screen test with Clark Gable to replace Harlow in the remaining scenes. “I was found ‘not regulation,’” Rita recalled of her early days at MGM. “My forehead was too high; they cut it down ½ inch. They confirmed what I had been told in New York — my mouth was too big. [Gable] said not to worry, he had been told his ears were so big he never would get anywhere either.” (Rita repeated this last bit in multiple interviews, as if she’d been drilled on it.)
The Saratoga test didn’t pan out, and Rita did a series of B-movies in which she failed to make a dent. Watching them, I was captivated by her enormous, porcelain cookie jar of a head, almost a parody of generic white beauty. In pictures with Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and Joan Fontaine, Rita’s primary function is to point out the star’s hypnotic oddness. However, while many of those star performances have aged into hammy irrelevance, Rita’s work is never embarrassing. Although Edison, the Man is one of those crummy 1940s biopics where the first girl the Great Man meets is the one who’ll be at his retirement party with baby powder in her hair, her performance in it is remarkably modern. When Spencer Tracy’s Edison proposes to her via Morse code, instead of yelping or crying, Rita just gazes off in quiet disbelief. She imparted a glinting subtlety even to she-devil roles, like the murderous wife in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and the scheming fiancée in Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor.
Maybe Rita underplayed so much because she was preoccupied with her appearance. Studio costumers invariably put her in swooped black berets and birdcage veils to pull focus from her forehead, and she confessed to having developed “a mannerism of pursing my mouth to make it look smaller. In fact, I was afraid to smile for fear I’d stretch it.” Karolyn Grimes, a child actress who played Rita’s daughter in the 1945 film Pardon My Past, told me that Rita was “very serious all the time, and focused on her image. It took her away from everything around her. She cared about how my dress looked, and how we looked together. Other stars I worked with didn’t care as much about appearances; they cared more about chemistry.” Rita eventually loosened up — in Sleep, My Love (1948) she is delightfully dithery and breathless, the picture of the New England ninny. (Rita had a transfixing Massachusetts-gangster way of inflecting words: “wee-yuhd” for weird, “thuh-rah” for thorough.) Later that year in The Big Clock, she played a gold-digging mistress who reads Ray Milland’s palm, clasping it like she’s trying to figure out how much it’d melt down for. “Studios knew that if they had an ‘other woman’ part, Rita Johnson just always delivered,” said Gigi Perreau, who appeared in Family Honeymoon — the last movie Rita shot before her accident.
The story of Rita and the hair dryer depends almost entirely on the testimony of an actress best known for her work with the Three Stooges. In the account Mary Ainslee gave to reporters, Rita phoned her on the afternoon of September 6, 1948, to say that she was washing her hair. When Ainslee arrived at Rita’s Sunset Boulevard apartment to drive her to a party, Rita opened the door and said, “I’ve had a bad bump and my head hurts.” She collapsed before explaining what had hit her. The accident went untreated for three days; Ainslee later told the press that she was “unable to get an ambulance,” and Rita’s physician said he “tried without success for more than two days to get hospital accommodations.” On September 9, Rita finally had surgery to remove a large blood clot pressing on her brain, and remained in a coma for over two weeks.
Rita’s maid speculated that the injury was caused by an enormous beauty-parlor hair dryer, which had a 40-pound hood and a history of clattering to the floor. I like to picture it always in a state of lethal wobbliness, like the ladder at the end of Bringing Up Baby. The maid’s explanation is so unpersuasive that it acquires a sort of camp bravado, like Elizabeth Taylor’s claim that the bruising and black eyes that prevented her from working on Cleopatra for three weeks came not from Richard Burton but because “I bumped my nose on an ashtray.” (This was the story given to the press in 1962, and Taylor stuck to it for the rest of her life.) Studios were certainly capable of colluding with the law to repress scandal — as Modern Screen writer Sylvia Wallace once recalled, “Many knew about Joan Crawford and her children. She used to take dinner guests up and display her adorable children tied hand and foot to their beds so they wouldn’t be messy. But Crawford was bigger than child abuse.”
Was Rita attacked by someone bigger than coma-inducing assault and battery? Rita herself was unable to remember how she’d been injured, but a theory appeared in Walter Winchell’s syndicated column (adored by the young Philip Roth for “the three dots separating — and somehow magically validating — each hot news item ever so tenuously grounded in fact”). Winchell wrote, “Hollywood wonders if Rita Johnson’s concussion was caused by a former flame (screen actor-tough guy; not a writer), famed for knocking his darlings cold.” This was code for Broderick Crawford, a onetime pro fighter who’d been engaged to Rita in the late 1930s, and would soon win an Oscar for All the King’s Men (1949). During their engagement Rita had taken “Broddie” to Worcester to meet her parents, who “did not like him at all, for some reason,” said Barbara Coulter, Rita’s niece. “And they liked everybody.”
Los Angeles detectives seized the hair dryer, along with a few pieces of bridgework knocked from Rita’s mouth and a black Persian lamb coat of Rita’s that Mary Ainslee wore home the night of the accident. The opulent narrative promise of these items was not borne out in the September 14 police report, which drily dismissed Rita’s litany of “bruises, such as black eyes, back of ears, neck, arms, leg, swollen face” as side effects from surgery, ecchymosis, and injuries sustained prior to September 6. “There is no evidence of victim receiving a terrific beating,” the report concluded, as if to imply that the hair dryer came at Rita Johnson repeatedly, from multiple angles, like Jim Garrison’s magic bullet.
Conspiracy theories need earnest little basket cases to keep them humming, and Rita had none. Hedda Hopper noted the curious fact that “Rita was bruised from head to feet,” and in November, Winchell again wrote, “The Movietown police aren’t going to let Rita Johnson’s slugger get away with almost killing her, are they?” — but it came near the end of his column, below an item on Milton Berle’s love life. Rita later lamented being unable to capitalize on her brief notoriety. “Publicity helps careers, when you’re able to work,” she said in 1952. “If I could have stepped out of bed into a picture I’d have been hot stuff. But I was unable to work for a year.”
Hampered by hair-dryer-related memory issues, Rita landed a only few piddling roles — a shrink in the Debbie Reynolds film Susan Slept Here, a housewife on Ozzie & Harriet. (I watched a couple of Rita’s TV appearances, expecting she’d be bleary-eyed and propped up by two-by-fours, but her work remained charming and adept, even in long takes.) While a job as an announcer on the Lux Video Theatre series meant that she was the beneficiary of endless shipments of free Lux soap, Rita hankered for a role on “a weekly radio show, one of those real dramas.” Broderick Crawford once observed, “Hell, for an actor it’s doughnut-hunting time forever.” Rita gave up the hunt in 1957, after a small part in the Wild West orphan drama All Mine to Give.
It’s unclear when Rita began drinking heavily. In 1965 her niece Barbara Coulter came to Los Angeles for a two-week visit and was stunned to find “empty bottles, including one in the back of the toilet. She would pretend she was drinking water in front of me, but her voice would get a little more slurry, and I could tell it was vodka. She’d walk down to the corner store on North Orange Drive and come back with a brown bag.” Still, Barbara found her “a wonderful person [. . .] very sensitive and kind,” and remembered Rita sharing delectable gossip about Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power, and “all the people that were gay that you never knew about.”
A few months later, on October 31, 1965, Rita died of a brain hemorrhage. Lux continued sending what was apparently a lifetime-plus supply of soap — first to Rita’s mother, and later to her brother’s family. “We were getting boxes and boxes of Lux soap,” said Kathy Remenar, Rita’s niece. “More soap than we could ever use. We’d throw it away.”
Aside from a few kind-hearted Lux executives, though, Rita Johnson was more or less forgotten. She’s barely been written about, her Wikipedia page is a stub, and everyone who might have shed meaningful light on her life is gone. While I’m grateful to them, nieces and child actors are probably the least authoritative sources on earth. “She was a very pleasant, very nice lady,” said Diana Hale, who worked with Rita on two films. “She wasn’t a very big fish,” said Karolyn Grimes. Neither had heard of Rita’s accident, and her nieces mostly knew of it from press clippings. “Her life was kind of shrouded in secrecy,” admitted Remenar.
Like most of the figures of 1930s Hollywood, then, Rita is unconjurable. Munchkins are dropping like flies, and Luise Rainer, Mickey Rooney, and Olivia de Havilland are among the last limping soldiers of the star system. While researching an upcoming biography of Ann Dvorak, Christina Rice had to settle for interviewing (among others) “a lawyer who is still alive and has some vague recollections of Ann and her third husband,” and “a gent whose mother knew Ann during her M-G-M chorus girl days”. I suppose the fear is that, without living witnesses, Hollywood’s history will recede hopelessly into the morass of fan-magazine myth. The coverage in Photoplay and Movie Mirror has a maddening Loki inconsistency, alternating between the authentic (making-of scoops, lengthy interviews) and the absurd (gumbo recipes of the stars). Even contemporary newspaper accounts strain credulity; a 1937 Boston Globe profile of Rita climaxes with the lady reporter bellowing to Rita’s departing roadster, “Don’t you let them change you, Rita, and don’t you dare fall in love right now.” (Rita replied, “Don’t worry!” before tightening her head kerchief.) Has anyone ever spoken to anyone this way? If the hair dryer story sounds made-up, so does everything written about Rita. It’s hooey from start to finish.
The only unimpeachable source for Rita’s thoughts are her letters — two of which have survived. In an undated birthday note to her brother, she wrote, “I’d rather have a good-looking set of luggage than what was in it.” It’s tempting to read this line as toweringly superficial — and, in turn, to read Rita’s accident as some Berenstain Bears parable on the dangers of vanity and hair care. More interesting, though, is the letter’s tone (sweet, vigorous, throw-pillow sentimental), which jibes perfectly with the Rita who yelled, near the end of her career, “Hollywood, city of bright lights, I’ll lick you yet.”
That Hollywood quote was laughable to me in college. Now the notion of such a thing being shouted, without irony, seems unbearably sad. My term paper (printed in the most lascivious font I could find) argued that Marilyn Monroe was a nude in the vein of Saint Sebastian, and that the scene of Elizabeth Taylor cradling Montgomery Clift’s bloody head in her lap was a modern pietà scene. But Rita Johnson’s accident doesn’t rise to the level of mythology: it remains a cartoon, which only intensifies its poignancy. Think of the moment early in Who Framed Roger Rabbit when Eddie Valiant’s PTSD response to Daffy Duck is explained. “Toon killed his brother,” says Dolores, sounding brittle and wounded. “Dropped a piano on his head.” Nothing is more horrific than death by slapstick; every time the deceased is mentioned, it registers as a punch line. Rita Johnson’s Woody Woodpecker gag of a life is testament to that.
Matt Weinstock lives in Brooklyn. He has contributed to the New Yorker Page-Turner, the Paris Review Daily, and The Rumpus.
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