A Centenary Celebration of Ella Raines: Radiant film star’s daughter Christina Olds reflects on her mother’s career
Guest post by Christina Lane
One of the unexpected joys of researching my book, Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock, was getting reacquainted with the actress Ella Raines. Self-possessed and luminous, the green-eyed brunette made her mark in suspense films, westerns, and war dramas produced at Universal in the 1940s. Raines’s big break came when Harrison cast her in the 1944 noir Phantom Lady, Harrison’s first solo producing venture after making her break from Alfred Hitchcock to stake her claim as the “Mistress of Suspense.”
Raines was molded by director Howard Hawks, actor (turned producer) Charles Boyer, and super-agent Charles Feldman. Forming the independent B-H (Boyer-Hawks) Productions, the men contracted her for three hundred dollars a week and — following a three-month grooming period — ‘sold’ the new star to Universal at an impressive markup: $1,000,000.
Raines proved to be more than a pretty product in Phantom Lady, directed by Robert Siodmak. As a secretary-turned-detective, she walked a fine line between sassy and sympathetic. She would go on to collaborate with both Siodmak and Harrison a number of times, showcasing her great range across cinematic genres as well as stage and television. (She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honoring her for film and television.)
In 1947, Raines wed Robin Olds, an ace fighter pilot during World War II. While negotiating life as an Air Force wife, she continued her career, before retiring in 1957. When Raines died of throat cancer in 1988 at the age of sixty-eight, the New York Times obituary described her rather generically as a “star of drama and westerns.”
This August 6, Ella Raines would have turned 100. Her centenary affords the opportunity for an appreciation of her nuanced performances, notably Cry ‘Havoc’, The Suspect, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Web, and Brute Force. It also provides an occasion to discuss her life and career with her daughter, Christina Olds.
Your mother is best known for her glamorous movie roles in the 1940s. Did she enjoy being a star?
Oh yes, she loved her status as a Hollywood movie star more than anything!
How important was it to her to also be seen as a serious actress?
We never actually discussed her desire to be seen as a serious actress. I know she wanted a great variety of parts and would have preferred some true comedies. I think she had significant comedic timing because she was very playful and teasing.
What were her career ambitions? What motivated her professionally?
By the time Ella stopped acting (in 1957–58) I was only 5–6 years old and we never had those sorts of conversations in my childhood. By the time she moved back to Los Angeles in 1976 and appeared in small roles in a couple of TV shows, she was too old to be cast by Hollywood standards. I think she wanted to do more theater plays.
What were her favorite films that she starred in?
She spoke about Brute Force and The Senator Was Indiscreet and, of course, Phantom Lady. She really wanted to work with Hitchcock.
Your mother was really wonderful in Phantom Lady (1944), which is the film that made her a star. Did that film hold some special significance for her?
I’m not sure if it held special significance, but she was certainly aware that, next to Tall in the Saddle, it was her most well-known film.
In Phantom Lady, she played Carol “Kansas” Richmond, a secretary who turns detective to clear her boss of a murder rap, an unusual storyline for the film noir genre. Did your mother have any traits that would have suggested her for this role?
Traits? Well, she certainly had a quick mind and was insatiably curious.
When the studio was first building out the promotion for “Ella Raines, movie star,” publicists emphasized her down-to-earth origins as a tomboy from the small town of Snoqualmie, Washington. How accurate was this portrayal?
Extremely accurate. She was raised learning how to ski, fly-fish and shoot and spent childhood summers jumping off of bridges into the river. She taught my dad how to ski during their honeymoon at Sugar Bowl, California, and insisted on winter vacations in Sun Valley, Idaho. She was very athletic and adventurous.
Do you have a sense of your mother’s early life? Her interests?
It seems to me that her early interests were quite centered around sports and playing in the wilderness. She didn’t become interested in acting until she attended the University of Washington and joined the drama department.
I really enjoyed your father’s memoir, Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds. Your parents were clearly in love when they first met. Do you have a sense of what drew your mother to your father, and vice-versa?
In those days right after WWII, the “flyboys” were the cream of the crop and thought of as the true heroes. They were dashing, handsome, brave, playful, and self-assured. My dad knew he wanted to meet her after seeing her in movies sent over to England for the troops and he courted her deliberately.
There are few women who could resist his charisma. It was still at work in his eighties! [Robin Olds died in 2007, at the age of 84.] Military pilots were “real” men, compared to actors who merely played the roles, so I’m sure she was overwhelmed by this tall, handsome, romantic fighter pilot!
How would you describe their relationship as time went on?
Their relationship was really good for the first seven to eight years but, unfortunately, my mother fell into a depression when she lost a role to Vivien Leigh in [the late 1950s] and started drinking at that point. She never acted again, despite my father encouraging and supporting her to continue as an actress as much as she could.
Sadly, many people blame his Air Force career for stopping her acting career. It’s not true. She had true choice in continuing or not.
Do you recall when you developed a sense of being the child of two very prominent individuals — one a Hollywood movie star, the other a renowned World War II flying ace?
I had a great sense of my mother’s notoriety as a movie star from the time I was six because people paid her a lot of attention wherever we went and we often had notable stars visiting our house.
My dad’s fame didn’t start until Vietnam in 1967 [when he led a squadron that shot down seven enemy MIGs in a single encounter] and, up to that point, I certainly knew he was in the Air Force and was a commander, but there was no public fuss made over him until his year in Vietnam. I was fifteen and quickly became involved in his fame. It has only grown (rightfully) since then. His leadership and renegade style have left a lasting impression.
What was their social life like? Did they have many acquaintances in Hollywood?
Yes, they had many acquaintances in Hollywood including Jimmy Stewart, Lucille Ball, John Forsythe, and John Wayne. But I was only aware of their social life when they had parties at our home in Washington, D.C. My father worked very hard in his full-time job and most of our social life as a family centered on sailing, skiing, and riding.
Who were your mother’s closest friends?
Her closest friend and confidante was her stand-in, Valerie Hall, and my godparents in Santa Barbara, Thorny and Berry Howell, plus our very close family friends, Laurance and Mary Rockefeller. We spent weeks every summer through my entire childhood staying at their ranch in Wyoming. I was aware of many peripheral acquaintances, but not aware of other people close to her.
Your mother eventually went on to produce and star in the TV series Janet Dean, Registered Nurse, which ran for one season in 1954–55. Was this primarily a business decision, or did she see some creative potential in early television?
I’m really not sure what her decision was about doing Janet Dean, but I know it was important to be part of those early TV years, plus living in New York City during the filming allowed her to live near my dad, who was stationed at an Air Force base near Pittsburgh. He flew home on weekends. She was also happy to be in Manhattan because my sister and I were toddlers cared for by a governess who lived with us there. This would not have been possible in my dad’s simple quarters in Pittsburgh.
Given their careers, did your parents travel extensively?
Yes, many moves over the years! And lots of exploring Europe when my father was stationed in England, Germany, and Libya. She maintained a house in London, where she was acting.
Did your mother enjoy traveling and living abroad?
She loved London and Paris!
What was this like for you and your sister growing up?
We were happy nomads. To this day I love traveling and living in different places. It just seemed like a normal childhood to me.
What are some of your fondest memories of your mother?
Riding horses in Wyoming. Our Sunday night traditional dinners of meatloaf and macaroni in front of the TV to watch Lassie, Bonanza, and The Ed Sullivan Show.
I remember when she took us to Universal Studios and we were allowed to play on the set of The Munsters. Later, in her declining years in Sherman Oaks, California, it was lovely to spend time at her house and in her pool with my sister.
What would you like people who only know your mother through her movies to know about her as a person?
Ella Raines was complex and focused on her career. She wanted, more than anything, to be part of the elegant world. It was a struggle for her to live in simple houses on Air Force bases and relate to the normal wives of officers, and she became very unhappy trying to maintain her life with my father.
She was not a natural mother and stayed quite aloof from us throughout our childhood, but she was fastidious in wanting us to be well-behaved, well-educated and well-rounded both as young ladies and as sportswomen. Unfortunately, she was in the grips of alcoholism from my earliest childhood all the way through my adult life. The story of her decline from her movie star years and eventual divorce from my dad after 30 years of marriage is very sad.
As we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of your mother’s birth, what do you think is her most enduring legacy?
That she was stunningly beautiful, quirky, and flashed briefly during the golden Hollywood years. She was both memorable and mysterious, like a shooting star vanishing quickly from view.
Christina Lane defines herself as a film fatale, teacher, and writer. Publishes in English on women filmmakers, history, and cultural representation. Find more of her work at authorchristinalane.com and her blog https://www.authorchristinalane.com/blog/.
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