Jul 10, 2006

A New Star in the Heavens

Beloved television and screen actress and radio personality June Allyson died this weekend after a long illness in her Ojai, California, residence. The fresh-faced star, perhaps best known for her roles in lively musicals of the 1940's, was 88.

June was born Ella Geisman on October 7, 1917, and was raised in considerable poverty in her Bronx neighborhood by her divorced mother. A debilitating accident at age 8 left doctors doubting her future mobility, but as she neared adolescence (and after four years in the confinement of a steel brace), young Ella taught herself to dance under the impressive tutelage of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' The Gay Divorcee. As a teenager she auditioned for a Broadway musical on a dare, won the role, and continued to appear as a chorus girl throughout her high school career. She intended to study medicine and become a doctor, but until then, Geisman saw her stage success merely as ideal financing for her college aspirations. When she was scooped up by MGM for not only a screen version of her Broadway role in Best Foot Forward (1943) but a long-term contract with the studio as well, her future was drastically changed.

June Allyson was the refreshingly girl-next-door face in an era of screen sirens, a petite powerhouse of talent and pizazz amidst the sultry dramatic actresses of the day. If contemporaries like Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, and Barbara Stanwyck sizzled, then June Allyson sparkled and shone alongside the top male stars of her day: Jimmy Stewart, Peter Lawford, and Van Johnson, to name a few. Her role as rebellious softheart Jo March in the 1949 version of Little Women is not only one of my favorite of Allyson's performances, but one of the most faithful book-to-film transferences of a character and among the most heartbreakingly-endearing characters in classic cinema.

Rather than fading into obscurity or distancing herself from her illustrious and long-spanning Hollywood career, Allyson embraced her past in recent years, proving an invaluable resource in the preservation of information related to MGM's Golden Years. She also raised funds in memory of friends and former co-stars, helping to create museums in honor of Judy Garland and James Stewart in the 1990's.

May June find peace and know that she is remembered not only for her incredible film legacy, but for her enduring kindness and the darling image that she truly lived up to.

Photos courtesy of The Official June Allyson Website, which I encourage you to visit for a more detailed look at a legend via fabulous photo galleries, a detailed biography and wonderful interviews with Allyson

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