Raoul Walsh called her his favorite actress, remarking, “She didn’t pose, you know. She was natural.” Walsh was right; there is no posing by Virginia Mayo in the classic White Heat. As James Cagney’s trashy wife, Virginia is near-perfect, and the famed one-eyed director knew the musical-comedy star was his newest leading lady. Walsh immediately cast Virginia in his two “noir Westerns,” Colorado Territory and Along the Great Divide. Colorado is a Western re-make of Walsh’s own High Sierra, with Virginia inheriting Ida Lupino’s role of a woman who falls in love with an outlaw and sticks with him to his inevitable death. Territory is an unsung classic, with tremendous work by Joel McCrea and Virginia as the doomed lovers. Her first shot, head down and washing her hair, until she looks up at McCrea in close-up is a stunner. Virginia Mayo was hot and that’s it. When I told her that she laughed and said, “Well, tell all your friends! Now I’m just an old lady!”
Born Virginia Jones to socially prominent parents in St. Louis, Missouri in 1921, her years of dance and voice training led to Broadway where she was seen by a talent scout who signed her to producer Sam Goldwyn. Goldwyn gave Virginia a huge star build-up, casting her opposite Bob Hope in 1944’s The Princess and the Pirate. The film was a smash and she was immediately starred in a series of musical comedies with Danny Kaye: The Kid from Brooklyn, Wonder Man, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. A less successful teaming with Kaye was in Howard Hawks’ A Song is Born in 1948. A re-make of Hawks’ own Ball of Fire, the director went to war with Virginia almost at once. (It’s said she rejected his physical advances.) Hawks treated her horribly, and when the shooting wrapped attempted to have her ostracized by letting it be known all over town that she was difficult.
Obviously the rumors didn’t phase Raoul Walsh (or anyone else at Warner Brothers), since Virginia was placed under contract after her triumph in White Heat. She had proved herself a dramatic actress in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, but she had not yet made the kind of rough-and-tumble outdoor films for which Walsh was well known. That changed immediately. After Colorado Territory, Virginia scored again in Walsh’s Along the Great Divide as the daughter of bad man Walter Brennan, who’s being escorted to jail by marshal Kirk Douglas. Virginia rides alongside her dad, but soon finds herself in Douglas’ arms.
Warner Brothers cast Virginia in everything from more film noirs (Flaxy Martin) to musicals (West Point Story, She’s Back on Broadway), but she also found a home in a series of strong Westerns. She teamed with director Gordon Douglas for three: The Iron Mistress, The Big Land and Fort Dobbs. Co-starring Alan Ladd, Land is a sprawling saga from a Frank Gruber novel while Mistress (also with Ladd) is a re-telling of the life of Jim Bowie from a script by James Webb (also responsible for How the West Was Won). Of the three films, Fort Dobbs is the best, featuring a solid performance by Virginia as a widow caught in the Indian wars. The stark screenplay was written by Burt Kennedy.
Virginia went to 20th Century Fox to star with Robert Ryan in The Proud Ones, a film she remembered as a favorite because “Robert Ryan was tremendous.” Ryan is excellent as the haunted lawman, but Virginia matches him scene-for-scene in this Western gem. She followed this film with the programmer Tall Stranger, co-starring Joel McCrea. Based on a novel by Louis L’Amour, Stranger is a typical Allied Artists Western of the period, rather long on talk and short on action. She fared better in Budd Boetticher’s Westbound, one of the last collaborations between the director and Randolph Scott.
Virginia married actor Michael O’Shea in 1947, and after the birth of their daughter concentrated on their home life while still working in TV and in movies like Castle of Evil, co-starring Scott Brady. Her final Western was A.C. Lyles’ Fort Utah, co-starring John Ireland. Reminded of this and some of her other later “B” films, Virginia Mayo would just laugh with a roll of her eyes and say, “Hey, you’ve got to make a living.”
But Virginia Mayo did a lot more than just “make a living.” Few actresses could claim to have held their own against James Cagney, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Ronald Reagan, Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck. Virginia was a tough, funny, multi-talented star who scored in every film genre imaginable and found a place of honor in several time-honored classics, but she did it with no muss and no fuss. She was, as Raoul Walsh said, “a natural.”