There have been many entertainers in Hollywood’s long history who, for one reason or another, and despite their talents, weren’t quite able to achieve or maintain the kind of first-tier stardom that our most famous show business legends have enjoyed, even decades after their heyday. It could be said that Virginia O’Brien was one of those entertainers, and who could have been an even bigger star than she was in her prime.
She possessed one of the most distinctive–and funniest–singing styles of all popular singers throughout the 1940s and beyond, and carved a unique niche for herself as a comic performer, known for maintaining a deadpan, unblinking expression as she sang, regardless of a song’s lyrics or tempo. It earned her nicknames such as “The Diva of Deadpan” and “Miss Frozen Face” early in her career.
Born in 1919 in Los Angeles, she first made a name for herself while appearing in an L.A. production of the musical Meet The People. As legend has it, her opening night jitters grew into full-fledged stage fright, to the point where she could do little more onstage than sing with a completely blank, frozen expression on her face. It was a hit with the audience, who assumed she was doing it as a gag.
Soon afterward, she got her big break when MGM signed her as a contract player in 1940. Just before beginning her stay at studio, she appeared on Broadway in the Jimmy Durante review Keep Off the Grass. Variety described her as “a deadpan singer who convulses the audience by removing the ecstasy from high pressure music.”
However, MGM either didn’t know quite what to do with Virginia, or simply chose to use her in a severely limited capacity. Her sole requirement, more often than not, was to sing a novelty song or two in her trademark style, and perhaps toss a few pithy one-liners, without having much involvement in the plot. But she never failed to shine with the limited screen time she was given, and succeeded in making a name for herself among movie-goers with the opportunities she had.
She appeared in 17 MGM films between 1940-48, averaging two or three per year, with a high of four in 1946 alone. She played alongside the likes of Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, and Lucille Ball. One of her earliest appearances came in the 1941 Marx Brothers film The Big Store. The brothers’ film career was on the downward slide at the time, but O’Brien, young and strikingly beautiful, shined in her brief role as a department store salesgirl. As part of an overblown production number,
“Sing While You Sell,” she gives one of her funniest “frozen face” singing performances of her career, performing a swing version of “Rock-a-bye Baby” (while rather forcefully rocking a small cradle at her side). At the end of the number, Virginia and Groucho enter an elevator, and as the door closes it’s clear that she can’t restrain herself, and lets out a smile. When asked years later what Groucho said to her, she thought for a moment and said, “Probably something dirty.”
The following year, she appeared in the first of five films throughout the ’40s that served as vehicles for Red Skelton, in which Virginia wisely moved beyond her “frozen face” routine. Some of her more memorable singing performances from the Skelton films include “Did I Get Stinkin’ at the Club
Savoy” (from 1942’s Ship Ahoy), and “Salome,” (from Du Barry Was A Lady, the following year), a number in which she gracefully glides her svelte figure across a nightclub dance floor while singing with considerable (and amusing) expression–confirming that her talents weren’t limited to her deadpan schtick.
In 1942, she married Kirk Alyn, who would become best known for being Hollywood’s first actor to play Superman on film, beginning with a 15-part serial in 1948. They had two daughters and a son together, but divorced in 1955 (Virginia had two more marriages since, and had another daughter).
The 1944 film version of Meet The People features Virginia performing “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again,” a song with some of the most bizarre and gruesome set of lyrics ever written. In it, she serenades her absent lover (by singing to an empty chair at the kitchen table), and lightheartedly speaks of his rather vicious homicidal tendencies toward her. Virginia manages to make it delightfully comical despite the cringe-worthy lyrics.
When given the chance, she displayed her comic acting skills well. Merton of the Movies, a 1947 Skelton picture set in the silent film era, gives Virginia considerable screen time as Phyllis Montague, an actress who takes bumpkin actor Merton (Skelton) under her wing, as the film studio struggles to make him a silent picture star. As his chaperone of sorts, Phyllis teaches Merton the ropes of moviemaking–and, in the process, also teaches him how to kiss.
The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was less than impressed with the film overall, but conceded that Skelton “does manage to massage one’s funnybone in the kissing lesson sequence with Virginia O’Brien…Miss O’Brien, by the way, provides competent support as the sympathetic actress who takes the gullible Merton in tow in Hollywood.” Variety went several steps further: “Virginia O’Brien proves herself a capable leading lady without recourse to deadpan vocaling [sic]. The erstwhile canary doesn’t have a number to chirp throughout and sells herself strictly on talent merits in the romantic lead opposite Skelton. The manner in which she delivers should further her career.”
MGM decided in not to renew Virginia’s contract in 1948, after which she continued performing live, and ventured into television. On December 8, 1949, she made her TV debut on The Ed Wynn Show (the first TV stop for many top entertainers of the time). After engaging in a bit of banter with Wynn, she launched into “Bird in a Guilded Cage.” Her friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were reportedly in the studio audience, watching from their balcony seats (they would also be Wynn’s guests just two weeks later).
Virginia appeared in only two more films, nearly 20 years apart: Francis in the Navy (1955), and Gus (1976), while continuing to perform in nightclubs, nostalgic revues with others from an earlier era, and in an occasional musical.
Entertainment historian and author Bill Cassara, member of the Laurel & Hardy fan organization Sons of the Desert and founder of its “tent” in Monterey, California, recalls a time when Virginia was a guest at one of the tent’s anniversary banquets.
“This was in the mid-80s, and every year we’d try to get celebrities—someone meaningful to Laurel & Hardy or the old-time movies. In 1988, we were able to get Virginia O’Brien up, along with the producer of her latest LP collection of her hits. He drove her up with her husband. The night before the banquet, we received them and the other special guests at my house in Monterey. At some point in the evening, we put on her newly-pressed album. Everyone was in a good mood, and she started belting out simultaneously with her recorded vocals—it was a special moment.”
Virginia passed away at age 81 in January of 2001, leaving behind an often overlooked but fun-filled legacy of music and laughter. Not many stars of any era have been able to do produce both, and at the same time.
Until next week…