Janet Leigh is one of those classic film actresses who has always intrigued me from afar. During my discovery of vintage cinema, I’ve had the pleasure of watching some of her most influential pictures like Psycho (1960), Touch of Evil (1958), and most recently Holiday Affair (1949), which has become a recent holiday classic on TCM. However, even after becoming familiar with films like these, I still don’t feel as familiar with Janet Leigh as I’d like to be. Her beauty, style, and versatility as a star have always fascinated me, and through my very vague discovery of Janet I’ve learned that the bulk of her pictures, like her romantic adventure films and heartfelt dramas, appear to be right up my alley. Despite this, I regret that I still haven’t taken the time to really discover for myself what the allure of Janet Leigh is all about. When I found out that Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood was hosting The Janet Leigh Blogathon, dedicated to the talented actress in honor of what would have been her 92nd birthday on July 6th, I was over the moon! I couldn’t imagine a better occasion to honor a star that I’ve been so curious about for so long. I knew that I simply had to participate and start Janet’s heavenly birthday off right, and I knew just what film of Leigh’s to uncover.
Due to my inexperience with Janet Leigh’s filmography, one might think that the wide array of choices might have led to a difficult decision about which film I would review, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. To me, there was no better way to officially kick off my love affair with this stunning starlet than by turning back time, venturing all the way back to the start of her career and reviewing her very first film, The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947). In Leigh’s debut she portrays Lissy Anne, daughter of the MacBean family, which includes her little brother Andrew (Dean Stockwell), her mother Sairy (Selena Royle), her father Gill (Thomas Mitchell), and her older brother Ben, who has been missing since he left home to fight in the Civil War two years prior. It’s clear that tensions are high in their hometown of Rosy Ridge, Missouri, with neighbor turning against neighbor since the end of the war. Gill in particular is extremely cautious and narrow-minded, caring only about which side of the war a person was on before even asking their name.
The MacBean family is still aching for Ben and maintaining hope that he’ll come home when stranger Henry Carson (Van Johnson), a happy-go-lucky former schoolteacher, arrives on their land in need of a place to stay. From the first moment they meet, Gill is wildly suspicious of Henry, but when the young man offers to assist with the upcoming harvest and perform laborious jobs around the house in exchange for a place to sleep, Gill can’t say no. Over the following months, Henry works his way into the hearts of the MacBeans, becoming such a vital part of their family that for a time, Gill forgets about his prejudices and is no longer concerned about where his allegiance lies. Henry becomes especially fond of Lissy Anne, and the two secretly make plans to claim an abandoned neighboring farm and start a life together. Things begin to look up as Rosy Ridge attempts to bridge the gap between those who sided with the union and those who sided with the confederacy, but the newfound peace doesn’t last for long. When a few troublemakers begin torching the barns of their enemies, Henry must reveal once and for all which side he is on, and what his real reasons were for seeking out the MacBean family.
Janet Leigh, who was born under the name of Jeanette Morrison, was first discovered in the winter of 1945 by none other than Norma Shearer, the former queen of MGM. While she was vacationing at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in northern California, she noticed Jeanette’s photograph in the resort lobby where her father worked. The photo was taken by the resort’s photographer over the Christmas holiday, and the actress was so amazed by Morrison’s features that she asked to borrow it. After returning to Hollywood, Shearer forwarded the photograph of the cheerful, eighteen-year-old Jeanette to legendary MGM agent Lew Wasserman and arranged for a screen test for the young lady, who had never acted before. As Shearer would later recall, “That smile made it the most fascinating face I had seen in years. I felt I had to show that face to somebody at the studio.” Within three weeks of arriving to Hollywood, Jeanette snagged her first film role in The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947), a large-budget production for the time. Her innocent and wide-eyed appearance was perfect for the part, and she earned $50 a week to start out as the ingenue opposite Van Johnson, one of MGM’s most luminous leading men. In fact, it was Van Johnson himself who invented his costar’s stage name, suggesting that Jeanette shorten her first name to Janet while offering the last name of Lee due to their performance in The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947), a Civil War drama. Johnson also proposed that she use the spelling of Leigh instead, but Jeanette was concerned that moviegoers would confuse her with Vivien Leigh. In response, Van Johnson reminded her of fellow actor Van Heflin and replied, “There’s two Vans, and it hasn’t hurt either of us”.
The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947) is truly a charming film. Regrettably, Janet Leigh takes a backseat in favor of her male costars for much of it, but it’s so easy to see why she showed such promise so soon after her beginning in pictures. Much of her performance takes advantage of her beauty and hides the fact that she was learning how to act by leaping into this role rather than working with an acting coach. Still, her portrayal of Lissy Anne is so endearing and magnetic, and luckily this kind of part in this kind of movie doesn’t require anything from her that she can’t provide. As much as I want to shower all of my attention onto Janet Leigh in her film debut, I have to admit that Van Johnson and Thomas Mitchell run away with this picture. Actors like James Stewart and Gregory Peck were also up for the role of Henry Carson, but I really mean it when I claim that no one could have pulled this part off better than Van. He’s utterly adorable, yet complex, with an innocence about him that makes the audience believe that he could live in a Confederate home for months without anyone thinking wrongly of him. As for Thomas Mitchell, I’m incredibly biased. Not only do I believe that he was among the finest supporting actors of Hollywood’s golden age, but I’m personally close to him and his family as my quest to arrange a proper resting place for the star inspired my involvement in doing the same thing for other entertainers from his era. Any opportunity to watch him shine in a new-to-me feature is one that I’m grateful for, and Gill is a role that he was born to excel at. Overall, The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947) absolutely increased my curiosity about Janet Leigh and her magnificent filmography. I was so delighted to discover this uplifting and tense tale on the 92nd anniversary of her birth, and rest assured that I’ll be watching more of her pictures at my nearest opportunity!