Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven
By Scott and Jan MacGillivray,
iUniverse, Inc., 2005.
A Coloratura I Can Get Behind
Charmed as I've always been by the late Deanna Durbin, I came late to the singing child star party. I have, therefore, been woefully remiss in appreciating Gloria Jean, Maybe it's because so few of her kind of films are shown on television anymore, nor are they readily available on DVD. Or maybe it's just that my memory of her is clouded by whatever else was distracting me in the films of hers I have seen: too busy hating Jerry Lewis, for instance, in The Ladies Man (1961); missing the rest of the Marx Brothers in Copacabana (1947); or just blocking out any operatic number that tended to turn up in Hollywood musicals for a time (whither Kathryn Grayson?).
But Gloria Jean was a sweet performer with a lovely voice, pretty good comic delivery, and some fancy dancing with the likes of Donald O'Connor. She was the ideal adorable young charge to whatever larger star dominated a picture. In other words, you could see why someone like W.C. Fields would give a damn.
She was born Gloria Jean Schoonover in Buffalo, New York, but her parents, a music store owner and a former circus bareback rider (guess which was which), moved the family to Scranton, which she thereafter considered her hometown. Young Gloria's singing talent was evident early on, and she became a local singing sensation by the age of five. When she was twelve, Gloria auditioned for Joe Pasternak, "the King of Musicals," who was looking for another little opera singer to replace (or to put contract pressure on) Deanna Durbin, who had the effrontery to grow up and get itchy to try something new.
Gloria became an instant, if short-lived sensation with her first picture, The Under-Pup, the story of a poor city girl (Gloria Jean) who goes to summer camp with a bunch of rich girl bullies, teaches them a thing or two, then wins them over. She made a succession of similar, charming vehicles, but by the early 1940s, was being pushed into jalopy and jitterbugging teenage B-pictures, and her career never quite recovered.
She made a few television appearances in the 1950s on popular shows, but quite the business altogether when she got married in 1962. The marriage lasted only a short while, but Gloria and her son built a happy life together and she enjoyed a new career with a cosmetics company until her retirement in 1993. New interest in her life and career emerged when a number of her public domain films were being bought and sold on eBay. Gloria's sister and good pal, Bonnie, made Gloria Jean memorabilia a hot commodity with a little online store of their own.
Why the hell not, I say?
I hope the renewed interest prompts more DVD releases of her work. Gloria Jean is certainly worth the effort.
Fun Number from If I Had My Way (1940)