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Priscilla Lane in Four Daughters trailer (1938)
June 12, 1915
Indianola, Iowa, U.S.
|Died||April 4, 1995
Andover, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Joseph A. Howard (1942–1976; his death); 4 children|
Priscilla Lane (June 12, 1915 – April 4, 1995) was an American actress. She is best remembered for her roles in the films The Roaring Twenties (1939) co-starring with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart; Saboteur (1942), a Hitchcock film in which she plays the heroine; and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), in which she portrays Cary Grant's fiancée and bride.
Priscilla Mullican was born on June 12, 1915, in Indianola, Iowa, a small college town south of Des Moines. She was the youngest of five daughters of Dr. Lorenzo Mullican, DDS, and his wife, Cora Bell Hicks. Dr. Mullican had a dental practice in Indianola. The family owned a large house with 22 rooms, some of which they rented out to students attending nearby Simpson College.
Priscilla and one of her sisters, Rosemary, traveled to Des Moines every weekend to study dancing with Rose Lorenz.[who?] The girls made their first professional appearance September 30, 1930, at Des Moines' Paramount Theater. Priscilla, then 15, performed on stage as part of the entertainment accompanying the release of her sister Lola's Hollywood movie Good News (1930).
After graduating from high school, Priscilla was permitted to travel to New York to visit a third sister, Leota, who was then appearing in a musical revue in Manhattan. Priscilla enrolled at the nearby Fagen School of Dramatics, and Leota paid the fee. At this time, talent agent Al Altman saw Priscilla performing in one of Fagen's school plays and invited her to screentest for MGM. She was 16 years old. Priscilla wrote to a friend in Indianola, "Leota accompanied me to a sort of theater in a New York skyscraper. Others were there being made up. One was a strange looking girl with her hair slicked back in a sort of a bun. Her name is said to be Catherine Hepburn [sic]. Not very pretty, I thought, but Mr. Altman said she has something. Margaret Sullavan, the Broadway actress, was there too!" A follow-up letter said that her test had proven unsuitable. Neither Hepburn nor Sullavan were approved, and neither received a contract from MGM at the time.
In 1932, Cora and Rosemary arrived in New York. Cora immediately went to work pushing her two young daughters into attending auditions for various prospective Broadway productions, without success. During a tryout at a music publishing office, orchestra leader and radio personality Fred Waring heard them harmonizing. He found them attractive and talented and soon signed them to a radio contract. Priscilla, who at this time adopted the surname Lane, quickly became known as the comedienne of the group. Rosemary sang the ballads, while Priscilla performed the swing numbers and wisecracked with Waring and various guests. Back in Iowa, Dr. Mullican instituted divorce proceedings against his wife on the grounds of desertion, and the divorce was granted in 1933.
Rosemary and Priscilla remained with Fred Waring for almost five years. In 1937, Waring was engaged by Warner Bros. in Hollywood to appear with his entire band in Varsity Show, a musical starring Dick Powell. Both Rosemary and Priscilla were tested and awarded feature roles in the film. Rosemary shared the romantic passages with Powell, while Priscilla was a high-spirited college girl.
Warner Bros. purchased Priscilla and Rosemary's contract from Fred Waring and signed them to seven-year pacts. Priscilla's first film after Varsity Show was Men Are Such Fools (1938), in which she starred with Wayne Morris. This was followed by Love Honor and Behave (also 1938), another light romantic comedy with Morris, who, playing her husband, spanked her 47 times in a scene for which she declined a double, and Cowboy from Brooklyn, again teaming with Dick Powell. The publicity department at the studio suggested that Priscilla and Morris be seen together around town. They liked each other and did date for a period; however, Priscilla later said it was never serious on either side.
Priscilla was next assigned the lead in Brother Rat, which had been a very successful Broadway play. Again she played opposite Wayne Morris, and among the cast were newcomers Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman, Jane Bryan, and Eddie Albert. The film, when released in October 1938, was a big success for all the young players. At this time of professional success, the sisters were informed that Dr. Mullican had died in Iowa.
After winning her raise, Priscilla returned to work, but the films assigned to her were no better than those she had turned down. Brother Rat and a Baby (aka, Baby Be Good, 1940) was an inferior sequel and Three Cheers for the Irish (also 1940) gave her little to do.
The British Picturegoer magazine, always a supporter of the Lane Sisters, stated that all was not right with Priscilla Lane. In its June 15, 1940 issue, they wondered why "Priscilla was still knocking at the door of major stardom". They felt Warner Bros. was casting her as stooge to such actors as John Garfield and James Cagney. They went on to say Priscilla had great charm and while not a really great dramatic actress, deserved much larger and more important roles than she was getting. The same magazine, two years later on August 22, 1942, referred to their 1940 article and once again expressed disappointment at Warners' treatment of the star. They were unaware that she had already left the studio.
On April 28, 1941, she was heard on Lux Radio Theater with George Brent and Gail Patrick in Wife, Husband and Friend. At Warner Bros. she appeared opposite Ronald Reagan in a light hearted comedy, Million Dollar Baby (1941) and as a night club singer in Blues in the Night (also 1941).
Frank Capra requested her for the lead opposite Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace. The comedy film was completed in early 1942, but was not released until 1944; it was held up by contractual agreement not to distribute the film until the play's long Broadway run was over. It was Priscilla's last Warner film. Her contract was terminated by mutual agreement after five years with the studio.
She freelanced next, signing a one-picture deal with Universal Studios where she starred with Robert Cummings in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942). The director did not want either Cummings or Lane for their roles. Hitchcock felt Lane was too much the girl next door. Universal insisted that they play the leads, and when the film was released, her acting was praised while some criticism was focused on Hitchcock for reworking so much from his earlier films into this wartime spy drama.
She had commitments for two more films. The first was Silver Queen (1942) for producer Harry Sherman in which she co-starred with George Brent. She played the owner of a gambling house in 1870s San Francisco. The other film was a Jack Benny comedy, The Meanest Man in the World, released in January 1943. Lane then retired from films. For the duration of the war, she followed her husband across America as he moved from one military base to another. She was generous with her talents and often performed at camp shows.
While living in Van Nuys, she was offered and accepted the leading role in Fun on a Weekend (1947) for producer–director Andrew Stone, co-starring Eddie Bracken. When the film was released, Variety opined, "Miss Lane, who's been absent from films for some time, gives a good enough performance which should ensure her work in more pictures." However, Lane returned to domestic life. Once again she and her husband moved, this time to Studio City.
Lane accepted the offer of the lead role opposite Lawrence Tierney in a film noir, Bodyguard (1948), starring as Doris Brewster. During an interview with a Hollywood correspondent, she stated, "I didn't realize how much I miss filming until I came back. I love this work, and I hope to make many, many more pictures." Bodyguard would be her last picture. An expected contract with RKO Studios did not come to pass.
In January 1951, Cora Mullican died at the San Fernando Valley home her daughters had bought for her years earlier. Priscilla returned to show business briefly in 1958 with her own show on a local television station broadcasting from Boston. Titled The Priscilla Lane Show, she chatted and interviewed celebrities visiting the area. She enjoyed the television experience, but family demands proved too much, and she gave up after a year.
Lane dated assistant director and screenwriter Oren Haglund. Impulsively she eloped with Haglund to Yuma, Arizona on January 14, 1939, but left him the following day. The marriage was soon annulled. In November 1941, Lane became engaged to publisher John Barry, whom she had first met in 1939. She wrote in the November issue of Photoplay about how she looked forward to their marriage. She also stated she would continue her career.
In early 1942, the engagement to Barry ended after she met Joseph Howard, a young Army Air Corps lieutenant, at a dude ranch in the Mojave Desert. A native of Lawrence, Massachusetts, he had joined the Army Air Corps straight from college in 1939. He was scouting the area for likely sites for air bases and had taken a short vacation. The couple were married on May 22, 1942, in Las Vegas, Nevada at the home of the executive officer of an Army Air Force gunnery school.
At the war's end in 1945, Lane and Howard were living in New Mexico and she was pregnant with their first child. Their son, Joseph Lawrence, was born on December 31, 1945. In 1946 after Howard's discharge from the service, the couple moved back to California, where they resided in Victorville. Howard, who had a degree in engineering, became a building contractor. The family moved to Van Nuys in December 1945. Afterwards Howard and Lane moved to Studio City. Priscilla became pregnant again in 1949. On April 17, 1950, her daughter Hannah was born. By June 1951 the boom in the construction industry in New England had Lane and her family moving back to Howard's native Massachusetts. Howard left the final decision to end her career to Lane, who later declared she never regretted her choice. She fell in love with New England, and the couple settled with their children in Andover, Massachusetts. Lane was busy with her family. She gave birth to a second daughter, Judith, on August 22, 1953. The Howard's fourth and youngest child, James, was born December 4, 1955.
Outside her family, Priscilla remained busy. She was devoutly religious, having converted to Roman Catholicism, as had her elder sister Lola. The family attended church regularly, and she was involved with Catholic charities. She enjoyed tending her garden, growing flowers and vegetables. She ran a girl scout troop and volunteered at local hospitals.
In July 1972, Joe Howard retired from business, and he and Lane moved to their summer home at 7 Howards Grove in Derry, New Hampshire. Howard died suddenly on May 18, 1976, aged 60. He was still in the Air Force Reserve, which he had joined after his discharge from active duty in 1946. Heartbroken, Priscilla remained in Derry. She said, more than a year later in 1977, "I'm still trying to pull myself together after Joe's death." She busied herself with volunteer work and her garden.
Lane was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1994. She moved to a nursing home, Wingate, in Andover, near her son Joe and his family. She died there at 7:30 a.m. on April 4, 1995 from lung cancer and chronic heart failure, aged 79. A funeral mass was celebrated at St. Matthew's church in Windham, New Hampshire and burial followed at Arlington National Cemetery. Her husband had been buried there with full military honors. She was laid to rest beside him.
- Bodyguard (1948) .... Doris Brewster
- Fun on a Week-End (1947) .... Nancy Crane
- Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) .... Elaine Harper
- The Meanest Man in the World (1943) .... Janie Brown
- Silver Queen (1942) .... Coralie Adams
- Saboteur (1942) .... Patricia Pat Martin
- Blues in the Night (1941) .... Ginger 'Character' Powell
- Million Dollar Baby (1941) .... Pamela 'Pam' McAllister
- Four Mothers (1941) .... Ann Lemp Deitz
- Three Cheers for the Irish (1940) .... Maureen Casey
- Brother Rat and a Baby (1940) .... Joyce Winfree
- Yes, My Darling Daughter .... Ellen Murray
- Four Wives (1939) .... Ann Lemp Dietz
- The Roaring Twenties (1939) .... Jean Sherman, later Jean Hart
- Dust Be My Destiny (1939) .... Mabel Alden
- Daughters Courageous (1939) .... Buff Masters
- Brother Rat (1938) .... Joyce Winfree
- Four Daughters (1938) .... Ann Lemp
- Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938) .... Jane Hardy
- Men Are Such Fools (1938) .... Linda Lawrence Hall
- Love, Honor and Behave (1938) .... Barbara Blake
- Varsity Show (film) (1937) .... Betty Bradley
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