LOS ANGELES – She was one of the most beautiful women of her time, yet it was perhaps Virginia Mayo (search)'s beauty that kept her talents from being fully appreciated by film critics and audiences, say some who knew the actress well.
Mayo died Monday at a nursing home in suburban Thousand Oaks following a year of declining health. She was 84.
Rising from chorus girl to feature film star almost overnight, Mayo went on to appear opposite many of the most popular actors of her time, including James Cagney (search), Bob Hope, Gregory Peck (search), George Raft, Danny Kaye, Ronald Reagan (search), Rex Harrison, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.
Although many of her films were light escapist fare, she landed two solid dramatic roles — in 1946's "The Best Years of Our Lives" and 1949's "White Heat" — and made the most of both of them.
"I still think she should have won an Academy Award, or at least a nomination, for 'The Best Years of Our Lives,'" casting director and longtime family friend Marvin Paige said of the film that cast Mayo as the two-timing wife of Dana Andrews' returning World War II soldier.
"She was a wonderful musical and comedy performer and also a wonderful dramatic actress," Paige said Monday, adding not as many people knew of her latter talents.
Her honey blonde hair and creamy, flawless face had made her ideal for the Technicolor musicals, westerns and adventures so popular in the 1940s and '50s.
She appeared in five movies in 1949 alone: "The Girl From Jones Beach" with Reagan, "Colorado Territory" with Peck, "Always Leave Them Laughing" with Milton Berle, "Red Light" with Raft and "White Heat" with Cagney.
The latter, in which she played the neglected wife of Cagney's psychopathic killer, was one of her favorites, said her daughter, Mary Johnston. Another was the lighthearted 1952 musical "She's Working Her Way Through College" with Reagan.
"People always want to hear who was her favorite kisser and stories like that, but those aren't the most important memories to me," said her daughter. "The memories that mean the most to me are that it seems like wherever you were, whoever you were, she always made everything fun for you."
Her mother would acknowledge, however, that it was Peck who delivered the best screen kiss, Johnston added with a chuckle.
Raoul Walsh directed three of Mayo's best films, "White Heat," "Colorado Territory" and "Captain Horatio Hornblower," and the legendary director's widow, Mary Walsh, remembered the actress warmly.
"She was beautiful in pictures, but she was even more beautiful in person," Walsh said Monday. "I guess maybe it was because she was so good inside."
Born Virginia Clara Jones in St. Louis on Nov. 30, 1920, Mayo had gotten her start as a child when she was booked to appear in local plays and other events by an aunt who ran a talent studio.
"I really wanted to be a dancer, but I ended up as an actress, and I got to perform next to some of the greatest actors of our time," she recalled in 2001.
After appearing at schools, churches, benefits and with her hometown's Municipal Opera Company, Mayo eventually linked up with vaudeville's "Pansy the Horse."
The equine was actually two guys in a horse suit led through comical gyrations by a pretty girl. When the previous ring mistress quit, the act's boss, Andy Mayo, hired young Virginia as a substitute and she took his last name as her own.
She broke through to movies in the early 1940s, and after a few small roles she appeared opposite Hope in 1944's "The Princess and the Pirate." That same year she made the first of five films with Kaye: "Up in Arms," "Wonder Man," "The Kid from Brooklyn," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "A Song Is Born."
Other notable films included "Back Fire" with Gordon MacRae, "The Flame and the Arrow" with Lancaster, "Along the Great Divide" with Douglas, "South Sea Woman" with Lancaster and Paul Newman's first film, "The Silver Chalice."
As her roles began to diminish in the late 1950s, Mayo began to work less and less frequently. Her last film was 1997's "The Man Next Door."
Her first credited role in Hollywood had been a small part in 1943's "Jack London," a biography of the author starring Michael O'Shea, a former vaudevillian and stage actor who appeared in mostly B films. In 1956 she recalled how they met on the movie set: "He just sat there watching me, and then he walked right up and kissed me." They married in 1947.
Mayo, who never remarried after O'Shea died of a heart attack in 1973, is survived by her daughter and three grandchildren.