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Milwaukee Women in Hollywood

Nancy Olson, Pamela Britton, Judy Tyler all made it in movies

Dec. 23, 2009
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One of the most famous lines in film history—"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up"—was spoken in 1950 by has-been diva Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.In that same year, the film noir classic D.O.A. cleverly reminded us to keep an eye on our cocktail, lest we should get poisoned.And Elvis taught us some scandalous moves in 1957 when he gyrated in Jailhouse Rock.If you look even closer, beneath the layer of smoke and bourbon in this Hollywoodland, you'll notice three elegant actresses in those three films with one common denominator: Nancy Olson, Pamela Britton and Judy Tyler, beyond delivering color to fictitious black-and-white worlds, all hailed from Milwaukee.

Nancy Olson, born in 1928, grew up in Milwaukee and attended Wauwatosa East High School. She was educated at UW-Milwaukee and discovered in Hollywood after transferring to California's UCLA. Often called "Wholesome Olson" for her irresistible good nature, she was pleasant, pretty and professional. She got the role of a lifetime in Sunset Boulevard, snagging an Oscar nomination as Paramount script girl Betty Schaefer, while holding her ground opposite William Holden and Gloria Swanson. A racy movie at the time, the film depicted the nitty-gritty of Hollywood glamour, where desperation and corruption ruled. While the others romanced their egos and illusions, Olson's character represented a shred of dignity. Although not as notorious as Norma Desmond’s line, Olson makes a commanding statement of her own, one that exemplifies her character’s integrity: "I just think that pictures should say a little something."

Though Olson was paired with Holden in several films afterward, they could never contend with their original success. Olson put acting on hold to have a family, returning to movies after her divorce in 1957. But with the girl-next-door pushing 30, she was met with the ageism of the film industry. Disney came to her aid in the ’60s with The Absent-Minded Professor and Pollyanna, and she dabbled in Broadway and television until her retirement in the mid-’80s.

Pamela Britton, born in 1923, was also raised in Milwaukee, and took the lead in school plays at State Normal School and Holy Angels Academy. Britton began making the rounds in Hollywood when she was 15, eventually mastering the sweet, ditzy blond persona and turning it to her advantage. Perhaps best known as the meddlesome landlady Mrs. Lorelei Brown in the TV show “My Favorite Martian”in the ’60s, her first big part was in Anchors Aweighas Frank Sinatra’s girlfriend.

Britton’s most significant role came as Paula Gibson, Edmond O’Brien's secretary and fiancée, in the slinky crime-drama D.O.A. This stylish film depicts a protagonist hunting his own murderer after being poisoned and having barely a week to live. Despite their rocky relationship, with Britton saying lines like, "You're just like any other man, only more so," he realizes his love for her in the end. In 1974, while performing on tour with Don Knotts in The Mind With the Dirty Man, Britton began to have headaches. She died within two weeks of being diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 51.

Judy Tyler, born in 1932 to a show-business family, left Milwaukee early on to become a chorus girl in New York. She received a Tony Award nomination for Pipe Dream,landing the cover of LIFE magazine as a rising Broadway talent. Tyler also appeared on "Howdy Doody" before heading off to Hollywood and winning a starring role opposite Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock.

As the witty, talented Peggy Van Alden, Tyler represented the classic case of a woman loving a rebel no matter what, and hoping she can change him. She decides to help Elvis’ character succeed in the music industry despite his anger-management issues. After smashing his guitar on a spectator's table during their first encounter, Judy comments smoothly, "I like the way you swing a guitar." This starring role was said to be her big break, but she died tragically at age 23 in a car accident with her husband—just three days after she finished filming Jailhouse Rock. Although they were never romantically involved, it’s said that Elvis was so saddened by Tyler’s death that he was never able to watch the film.

Although these three timeless films featuring Milwaukee actresses portray very different stories, there is a common thread: Not only were Olson, Britton and Tyler the love interests of their eccentric men, they were their rocks. Whether involved in a dysfunctional quest for fame, an unfathomable murder or a wandering lust for money, there is a quiet magnificence within all of them—and it is worth not only mentioning, but remembering.


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