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Hardworking Actress Virginia Grey Dies at 87

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2004; Page B06

Virginia Grey, 87, who died of a heart ailment July 31 in Woodland Hills, Calif., was an actress whose sleek, blond beauty brought her dozens of roles in film and on television as icy society women and wisecracking assistants.

She appeared in about 100 movies. Her abilities were perhaps best highlighted in the 1939 film "The Women," based on Clare Boothe Luce's all-female play about catty one-upwomanship.

"You have everything but luck," studio head Louis B. Mayer once told actress Virginia Grey.

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In the film, Ms. Grey was cast with some of the biggest stars of the day, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell -- all notorious scene stealers. But in her brief role as a snide perfume-counter clerk, she delivered several choice lines to her social-climbing, husband-stealing co-worker, played by Crawford.

"I'm having him dine at my place," Crawford's character says. "It's about time he found out I was a home girl."

"A home girl? Get her," Ms. Grey replies. "Why don't you borrow the quintuplets for the evening?"

From the late 1930s to the late 1950s, Ms. Grey was one of the hardest-working women in Hollywood but had little success becoming a top-level star. She executed her roles admirably in second-feature films -- a good example was as private eye Van Heflin's game spouse in the mystery "Grand Central Murder" (1942) -- but she found career-making parts elusive.

As studio head Louis B. Mayer once told her, "You have everything but luck."

The youngest of three sisters, Ms. Grey was born in Edendale, Calif. She lived near Mack Sennett Studios, the maker of the popular Keystone Kops comedies. Her father, a film actor turned director, often asked one of the young Sennett starlets, Gloria Swanson, to baby-sit Virginia.

After Ms. Grey's father died in 1925, her mother went to work as a film editor at Universal. She was waiting for her mother one day on the Universal lot when she heard a voice say: "You, you skinny blonde, what are you doing here? . . . You're just the type I've been looking for."

The voice, she once told The Washington Post, belonged to the casting director for the big-budget production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1927). He had been unable to find the proper Little Eva despite interviewing hundreds of tots.

According to a 2002 profile in Classic Images magazine, she largely continued working as a child actress because the family needed the income. She put aside an ambition to pursue nursing because film studio pay was so much better during the Depression.

With her dancing skill and stunning looks, she was placed under contract by Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios. She was a chorine in the musical biography "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936); had leading parts in minor western and action films; and was featured in several music shorts with titles such as "Snow Gets in Your Eyes" (1938).

Despite her winning turn in "The Women," MGM never gave her the full star treatment. She seemed to linger in perpetual secondary status in lesser films, including the Andy Hardy film "The Hardys Ride High" (1939) with the improbable character name of Consuela MacNish.

Let go from MGM in 1942, she worked as a freelance actress.

Her roles were less than sublime. In "Jungle Jim" (1948), she was a doctor searching for a polio cure with the aid of Johnny Weissmuller. She was a bullfighter named Montana in "Mexican Hayride" (1948), an Abbott and Costello yarn.

One of her better parts was in Tennessee Williams's "The Rose Tattoo" (1955) as the woman who cuckolded Anna Magnani. "See for yourself," she tells Magnani about the rose her lover had tattooed on her chest.

Ms. Grey acted regularly in films produced by her friend, producer Ross Hunter. Her composed demeanor and witty delivery made her an ideal actress for his soapy melodramas, including "All This and Heaven Too" (1955), "Portrait in Black" (1960), "Madame X" (1966) and "Airport" (1970), her final film.

"I consider myself a professional who acts -- not to express my soul or elevate the cinema -- but to entertain and get paid for it," she once told an interviewer.

She was romantically linked with Clark Gable for much of the 1940s, after the actor's wife, Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash.

Ms. Grey, who never married, is survived by a sister.

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