August 3, 1923– Jean Hagen
Shirley Verhagen was born in Chicago, but when she found work on Broadway in her early 20s, she became Jean Hagen.
On a cold winter evening in 2012, I had the thrill of viewing one of my favorite films in a new print on a big screen. It was a movie that I had seen many times on television, but never in a theatre. It did not disappoint. That film continued to delight with the mastery and freshness of the talent involved. Singin’ In The Rain (1952) holds a rightful place as one of the truly great works of art from the 20th Century. This time, what did take me by surprise was not so much the stunning beauty of Gene Kelly’s ass, but the staggering, startling, striking, stunning, stupefyingly stupendous work of Jean Hagen as vain and talent-challenged silent film star Lina Lamont who Debbie Reynolds has to dub. Without her finely crafted and perfectly modulated performance, the film would have fallen short of being a perfect. And, I do think it is rather perfect. Hagen deservedly received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Singin’ In The Rain, forever giving her an exalted place in “the cinema firmament”.
Hagen attended Northwestern University where she performed on stage with her BFF, Patricia Neal. In 1945, Hagen moved to NYC where she and Neal were roommates. She found roles in radio shows, and worked as a cigarette girl in a nightclub, and as an usher at the Booth Theater. During the run of the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play Swan Song at the Booth, Hagen was overheard by the playwrights criticizing their show. Hecht and MacArthur introduced themselves and they ended up asking her to audition for a small role. Her next stage role was in Lillian Hellman‘s Another Part Of The Forest a few months later, with Patricia Neal also in the cast.
Her film debut was as a femme fatale in gay director George Cukor’s comedy Adam’s Rib (1949) with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and her performance brought her a contract with MGM. She was especially good in John Houston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) for the studio and she received excellent reviews. Hagen appeared in MGM’s film noir Side Street (1950), especially apt playing a sincere, but dim, gangster’s gun moll.
In Singin’ In the Rain, her character Lina Lamont’s voice is dubbed in the talking segments by Kathy Selden, Debbie Reynolds‘ character. But actually, in a crazy twist, director Stanley Donen used Hagen dubbing Reynolds dubbing Hagen. Hagen’s own voice was quite versatile and Kathy Selden was supposed to have a cultured style of speaking and Burbank native Reynolds had a pronounced western accent. Lina Lamont’s singing was actually done by Betty Royce, dubbing Reynolds dubbing Hagen. Co-star Donald O’Connor wrote:
“Jean was a consummate actor. She was the sweetest gal in the world but she was on the quiet side, not like Lina Lamont at all with that high-pitched voice. No, she was a legit actor. They didn’t get a ditzy blonde to play the part. That’s why that part is so dynamic and so wonderful.”
Hagen preferred dramatic roles over comic ones and she grew weary of the typecasting. Her final films at MGM were the Lana Turner musical Latin Lovers (1953) and a Red Skelton comedy, Half A Hero (1953). Hagen:
“Every time Mr. Mayer would get mad at me, he’d punish me by putting me in a damn Lana Turner movie.”
In 1953, Hagen joined the cast of the new Desilu Studio’s family sitcom Make Room For Daddy (not to be confused with my one man show with the same title). As the very funny wife of star Danny Thomas, Hagen received three Emmy Award nominations. She had trouble getting along with Thomas who objected to her wearing jeans and shirts on rehearsal days, at one point admonishing her saying: “For God’s sake, put on high heels, put on a little lipstick!”. After the first three seasons she grew dissatisfied with the role and her treatment and she left the series. Thomas didn’t appreciate Hagen’s leaving and he had her character bite the big one rather than be recast. This may be the very first television character to be killed off in a sitcom. Lovely and nimble Marjorie Lord was cast a year later as Thomas’ second wife and she worked well with Thomas and the show lasted several more seasons.
Although Hagen made frequent guest appearances in various television series for the rest of her career, she was unable to successfully revive her once promising film career, only finding work playing smallish supporting roles: the secretary to FDR in Sunrise At Campobello (1960), and the pal of Bette Davis in the smart film noir Dead Ringer (1964).
In the late 1960s, Hagen was diagnosed with throat cancer and she spent the rest of her life in some kind of treatment for it, either hospitalized or under an oncologist’s care. A tough situation for an actor noted for her voice.
She had a comeback of sorts playing character roles in episodes of 1970s television series like Starsky & Hutch and The Streets Of San Francisco. Sadly, gorgeous, talented Hagen made her final film appearance in the nutty male-hooker television film Alexander: The Other Side Of Dawn (1977).
That damn cancer finally grabbed Hagen in summer 1977 while she was living at the Motion Picture Country Home, gone way too early at just 54 years old. Her last appearance was released posthumously, a reprise of her 1959 role opposite Fred MacMurray in The Shaggy Dog for The Wonderful World Of Disney television series in 1978. Hagen has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1502 Vine Street.
On her birthday, let’s take a moment to remember her very special achievement in the greatest film musical of all time. Hagen was a marvel, a special kind of genius, a beautiful clown.