Ah, to think back about that fabulous era when women had figures that looked like Coke bottles… of course I’m talking about how feminine beauty was perceived in the fifties. An individual that is an archetype of this representation is Mamie Van Doren, so often compared as a cheap Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield imitation. But guess what? Mamie is still around, pursuing her 50-year mission as an ageless sex-symbol!
She was born Joan Olander on February 6, 1933 (or is it 1931?) in Rowena, South Dakota. She lived for some years with her grandparents, to the moment when her dad found suitable employment in Sioux City. Young Joan was impressed by the big city, as she was then more accustomed to pass the time on the farm, running around the chickens.
She soon became a movie fanatic, worshiping Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow in particular. The youngster decided then to became herself a star. Fate was on her side in 1942, as her parents then moved to Hollywood, nothing less. How could one pass on this opportunity? Joan made her debut in one of the first American television show, Little Joanie the Flower Girl, in 1946. As a teenager, Joan became a platinum blonde and won the Miss Palm Springs pageant, which resulted in an offer from RKO studios. She appeared first on the big screen in 1951, Footlights Variety, for a brief non-speaking part. Eccentric RKO boss Howard Hughes soon made Joan discover the joys of the infamous Hollywood casting couch… but she refused to play along, resulting in a string of mostly short and useless roles. Oddly, she accepted an occasion to pose nude for famous painter Alberto Vargas.
Joan decided then to try her luck with 20th Century Fox, the latter becoming more or less interested, having just signed another blonde sensation, Marilyn Monroe. Depressed, Joan began a long string of dubious liaisons with men, including being wed to a sporting clothes manufacturer. Nevertheless, she made her Broadway debut in a musical which soon turned out to be a flop. Back in California, Joan found an agent willing to pay her dramatic lessons. She almost signed with Paramount, to finally become an Universal ingenue in 1953. She took part in a musical number in a Tony Curtis picture, Forbidden, looking sensational in a white satin dress. Universal proposed a 7-year contract, with a name change the only condition. So, Joan Olander became Mamie Van Doren, sounding vaguely Dutch and exotic. Ah, those wacky studio moguls…!
Mamie enjoyed her first big role in The All-American, sporting a brand new look (with hairstyle courtesy of Jean Harlow’s former hairdresser), again in Tony Curtis’ company and his then-wife, Janet Leigh. Soon after, Mamie became a fan favorite, receiving hundreds of letters. In 1954, she took part in a pirate movie, Yankee Pasha (wearing for the first time a bullet bra), and was in Francis Joins the WACs, an episode in a film series about a talking mule, this one a paradise for any fan of 1950s starlets, reuniting Julie Adams, Allison Hayes and Mara Corday! To your TV sets, you who enjoy tight sweaters and high heels!
Mamie developped a preference for musicals; 1955 was then a good year with Ain’t Misbehavin’ and The Second Greatest Sex, even if she played dumb blondes. Her next project, Running Wild, was more in line for her soon-to be popular image, in a picture which pretended to shed some light on the tumultuous life of juvenile delinquents of the era. Mamie played the role of the nympho girlfriend of a young car thief. To give more authenticity to this production, rockers Bill Haley & The Comets could be heard on the soundtrack. In all this, Mamie found herself pregnant by band leader Ray Anthony. She wedded him and gave him a son, Perry. To thank her, Universal dropped her contract, judging that a family life doesn’t fit with the “bad girl” image they wanted for her. Be it as it may, Mamie shot the thriller The Girl in Black Stockings in 1957, a sexy role. Some publicity around the film hinted that her character was an “open” girl… and this is where fiction and reality merged, as the main intent was to make the public aware that Mamie herself was “open”.
Mamie was then seen in a women’s prison musical (!) titled Untamed Youth, “starring the girl built like a platinum powerhouse!”. This was a big box-office hit and the first with Mamie as the main star. She even sang two rock’n’roll songs in a convincing manner, one them “Oo Ba La Baby”, making her the first female rock singer to hit the big screen. A suggestive dance was even cut out of the film and religious groups were going nuts, seeing this sexy woman associating herself with a then-misunderstood musical style. Mamie decided to take a few months off.
At that point, Ray Anthony didn’t sell any records anymore (can we blame rock’n’roll again?) and Mamie decided to work in Las Vegas in a 30-minutes show each night, for $10,000 a week. Believe it or not (and why wouldn’t you?), she began an affair with Elvis Presley, King of… ah, you know what I mean. In 1958, Mamie found herself in a rodeo movie, Born Reckless, and next shared the screen with Clark Gable and Doris Day, for Teacher’s Pet. In the latter, she again sang two rock numbers, one being the excellent “The Girl Who Invented Rock’n’Roll”, which I will never forget. Teacher’s Pet was another big hit and everyone was impressed with Mamie. Oddly, it became the last picture she made for a professional studio. This boycott can be explained for all sorts of reasons. We believe that Mamie’s tumultuous social life can be the cause, as she was a regular victim of gossip columns. Her choice of men was not exactly impressive, truth to tell. But times were changing, and Europeans stars like Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren brought a new erotic edge to world cinema. Consequently, American sex-symbols were losing ground.
After divorcing Ray Anthony and with a career stopped short, Mamie found herself cast in an obscure Italian movie, The Beautiful Legs of Sabrina. Back in the the States, Mamie found work in low-budget features. In Girls, Guns and Gangsters, she shared the screen with Lee Van Cleef, in a (surprise!) gangster movie. She began new romances with George Hamilton, Cary Grant and none other than good old Warren Beatty. Happily, an immortal role was next on her list, that of “Aunt Gwen” in High School Confidential!, a masterpiece of the juvenile delinquent genre of the ’50s, produced by Albert Zugsmith.
High School Confidential! offers an oddball cast, including Jerry Lee Lewis (who married his 13-year old cousin), John Drew Barrymore (Drew Barrymore’s recently deceased dad, as you know), Mamie’s ex-hubby Ray Anthony, Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Michael Landon, still miles away from The Little House on the Prairie. Russ Tamblyn is our hero, an agent infiltrating a high school (where all students look over 30) in the hope of exposing a drug ring. Mamie plays his “aunt”, a charming pussycat wearing the tightest pull-overs in the history of films… gaaah! What a sight! This picture became an instant cult classic, for its campy qualities. Furthermore, it also turned out to be a box-office winner, despite a controversial subject for the times.
In 1959, Mamie was game to play in Vice Raid, as a call-girl. Next, she joined forces for three consecutive Zugsmith productions, beginning with The Beat Generation, about beatniks, an hot topic for the era. Also in the cast was Vampira as a poetess. Was this picture an inspiration for Italian gialli movies, as it displayed a rapist wearing black gloves dubbed the “Aspirin Kid”? Who knows? The Big Operator starred Mickey Rooney in a story about workers’ unions, with a character similar to Jimmy Hoffa. Then came Girls’ Town, which infuriated the censors as we could see Mamie’s naked back, as she sang in the shower of a correctional facility for delinquent girls where she’s serving time.
Mamie’s next project didn’t endear her more to the Catholic Church, as she was cast in The Private Lives of Adam and Eve. As Eve, a scene finds Mamie wearing nothing more than strategically placed leafs… Again in 1960, Mamie was in Sex Kittens Go to College, an incomprehensible story about a stripper with an high I.Q. who’s selected by a robot to become a science teacher. John Carradine, Vampira and Brigitte’s sister, Mijanou Bardot, were present. And let’s not forget Abraham Q. Voltaire, chimp. College Confidential would follow.
After filming nine pictures in two years, Mamie made a comeback to the club circuit in 1962. Her show was well received everywhere in the country, as in Mexico and Buenos Aires (where she played in a movie with Jean-Pierre Aumont that never made it to North American shores). She remarried again, this time with average baseball player Bo Belinsky, another disastrous relationship. At some point, Belinsky alerted the authorities that Mamie wanted to committed suicide, as Marilyn Monroe just did, without any truth to it. In 1964, Mamie was back before the camera for The Candidate, a political movie without much interest. She then found herself cast in a pathetic comedy, Three Nuts in Search of a Bolt. Some shots of Mamie in a bathtub were published in a Playboy issue, which would become a best steller to the gratitude of the immortal Mister Hugh Hefner.
Mamie continued to lead a party life in L.A.’s nightclubs and soon found herself broke. She agreed to a part in a no-budget sci-fi feature, The Navy vs the Night Monsters, enjoyably ridiculous for its vegetable monsters (in the Antarctic!). Soon followed Las Vegas Hillbillies, country musical with Jayne Mansfield, an horrendous experience to sit through. Mamie was then seen in Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, dubious hodgepodge where she played the leader of an alien female tribe, wearing shells for clothing.
A romance with then popular football star Joe Namath ensued. He left her when finding out she was pregnant. Mamie then wedded a 19-year old baseball player, Lee Meyers. They divorced shortly after and she got an abortion. Then, she decided to pursue another mission, this time entertaining U.S. troops in Vietnam. She stills took pride in having visited places Bob Hope didn’t dare go. In 1971, she went to England in the hopes of finding work, which didn’t materialize. She worked in a Spanish-Filipino co-production, The Arizona Kid, starring the electrifying Chiquito. The next few years would be more difficult, as she began singing in nightclubs and strip joints. She remarried, this time with Ross McClintock, an union which lasted exactly four months. In 1974, she married Thomas Dixon, writer and comedian.
In the mid-eighties, Mamie would enjoy a comeback, as she became the hostess of a series of nostalgic films on video, Teenage Theatre. Canadian rock band Rough Trade mentionned her in their hit song High School Confidential. She worked in Free Ride in 1986, played herself in L.A. Law and published her autobiography, Playing the Field, in 1987, where she didn’t shy away in sharing her numerous and disastrous relationships with men. She wrote articles on her own plastic surgeries. Even if we agree or not with these controversial surgical procedures, we must admit that in Mamie’s case it turns the old stereotype of the typical grannie upside down, as can be seen on a couple of Justice Howard’s photographs on this very page. More than 70 years old, you say? And, amongst many honors, Mamie got her star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 1994.
Now with her own elaborate website (worth a look), Mamie struck a friendship with Julie Strain, she who was proclaimed Bettie Page’s successor by Bettie herself. My, what pleasant company… This is a Siren that can be seen as the ultimate survivor, still active after 50 years.
1951 Footlight Varieties; His Kind of Woman; Two Tickets to Broadway 1953 Forbidden; Hawaiian Nights; The All-American 1954 Yankee Pasha; Francis Joins the WACs; 1955 Ain’t Misbehavin'; The Second Greatest Sex; Running Wild 1956 Star in the Dust 1957 Jet Pilot; Untamed Youth; The Girl in Black Stockings; 1958 Teacher’s Pet; High School Confidential!; Born Reckless; The Beautiful Legs of Sabrina 1959 The Big Operator; Girls’ Town; Guns, Girls and Gangsters; Naked Youth; Vice Raid; The Beat Generation 1960 Sex Kittens Go to College; College Confidential 1961 The Private Lives of Adam and Eve; The Blonde from Buenos Aires 1964 The Sheriff Was a Lady; The Candidate; 3 Nuts In Search of a Bolt 1966 The Navy vs the Night Monsters; Las Vegas Hillbillys 1967 You’ve Got to be Smart 1968 Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women 1971 The Arizona Kid 1975 That Girl from Boston 1986 Free Ride 1993 King B 1999 Vegas Connection 2000 The Best and the Brightest 2002 Slackers