Although I’m traveling this weekend, I couldn’t pass up the chance to write a special post in honor of today’s birthday girl, June Allyson. Born Eleanor Geisman on October 7, 1917 in the Bronx, Junie willed herself into stardom. She became the quintessential wholesome girl next door. While I’ve heard that she’s unpopular among classic film fans (most people just don’t understand her appeal or how she even became a major star), I am in love with her. For her birthday last year, TCM aired a handful of films and I found myself swept away by her raspy voice and charm.
She began by singing and dancing her way through lightweight musicals. Her first straight dramatic role was in The Secret Heart. Even if you’re not blinded by stars in your eyes like I am, this film provides ample evidence of her strengths as a performer.
June, for much of her MGM years, plays a character much younger than she actually was. In this film, she’s a teenager. In reality, she was approaching 30. MGM did subtract years from her age to keep her playing ingenues, but in my view, it doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief. I love to see her as a teenager because of her pigtails. She was just too adorable.
Lee Addams (Claudette Colbert) is a widow with two stepchildren. Her husband Larry committed suicide years earlier when the children were small. Penny (June) has never been told the truth of her father’s death, which devastated her. Penny’s brother Chase returns home to learn that Penny has dropped out of school. Lee meets with Penny’s psychiatrist, played by Lionel Barrymore, who tells her that in order to help Penny receive closure, they must return to their old farm, which they closed up when they moved away. Penny also has a fixation with her father and often plays his old music on the piano.
Claudette Colbert always had a warm presence onscreen. In this film, she’s a weary woman struggling with her stepdaughter, but she’s also motivated by great love and care. In flashbacks, we learn that Penny was cold towards Lee. She was devoted to her father but didn’t hold her stepmother in any special regard. This is even more pronounced when you notice how swimmingly Lee and Chase have always gotten along. Lee is also motivated by a desire to clean up Larry’s bad business deals. That’s what goaded him into ending his life, and why Lee has been working so hard for so many years. But Colbert is never showy as the long suffering woman. Lee displays a very different kind of endurance, all while remaining kind and warm.
An old friend of Lee’s, Chris Matthews (Walter Pidgeon), also reappears in her life. They were both in love but she married Larry instead. The two haven’t seen each other since Larry’s death, mostly to avoid scandal. Chase goes to work in Chris’ shipyard and is accompanied by his friend Brandon, who is immediately taken with Penny. She however, begins to develop feelings for Chris who is still in love with Lee after all those years.
Although she shares the screen with veterans like Colbert and Pidgeon, The Secret Heart is really June Allyson’s film. She has to portray a troubled girl who is petulant, sometimes nasty, but ultimately innocent. You see a range of emotions, from happiness to outrage. It’s not enough to say she was a convincing teenager. I think June is underestimated because she played such peppy characters a lot of the time. But I feel as if she was able to marry some sinister aspects to her sunny image. Everyone calls Penny beautiful and her smile just gleams. But when she feels wronged, her face darkens and the sweet girl is gone.
June and Margaret O’Brien were known as the town criers at MGM because they could summon the waterworks at the drop of a hat. She gets to do that here, and breaks my heart as usual. Like most 1940s melodramas about psychology and mental disorders, The Secret Heart is a strange but lovely film. Director Robert Z. Leonard seems fascinated by the subject. Sometimes it’s a taut and suspenseful film not lessened any by the melodrama.
A sympathetic view towards Penny emerges, and thankfully she finds her mind restored and a happy ending.
June Allyson was remarkably self effacing. She claimed she couldn’t dance or sing. While not a great beauty like some of her contemporaries, she nevertheless had that enigmatic star quality that lights up the screen, makes someone unforgettable. And she had the most infectious grin.
Here’s June at home with husband Dick Powell. I just needed to post this photo because there’s a portrait of her in pigtails in an ornate picture frame hanging on the wall. I need it.
Happy birthday, June bug!