by Colin Briggs
When Universal International's Bright Victory was released in 1951, it drew raves from critics and audiences alike. Starring the always excellent and reliable, Arthur Kennedy it would win him a best actor Academy Award nomination. Portraying a blind war veteran Kennedy delivered a poignant, totally believable performance, probably his best in a series of outstanding screen characterizations. Matching him every step of the way was a relative newcomer to the screen, the luminous, charismatic, Peggy Dow. She also received rave reviews for her role as a hospital worker at Valley Forge. Her work was cited as "riveting, with conviction and containing great personal charm".
Peggy Dow was born Margaret Varnadow on March 18, 1928. Her parents were Mr and Mrs L.A. Varnadow, originally from Columbia, Missouri where Peggy was born. They moved to Louisiana, and later to Athens, Tennessee where her father was in business. She was educated at Covindon Louisiana Grammar and High School, and Gulf Park College where she studied drama and at Louisiana State and Northwestern University (B.S.C.). Her parents encouraged her when acting opportunities in radio came her way. She'd gone to Los Angeles after finishing her education and obtained work with a radio station there. Here she gained valuable experience with modeling, secretarial and telephone duties in addition to experience as a radio actress.
A talent agent spotted the gray eyed blonde beauty and she was subsequently cast in a television show Your Show Time in February 1949. The segment was titled The Mummy's Foot and her performance attracted the notice of a Universal talent scout. As Peggy described it: "Gray hair and wrinkles launched me on a motion picture career. I was playing an old lady in The Mummy's Foot, chalking it up to experience. My surprise can be imagined when next day I received a call wanting me to make a screen test. At first I thought it was a joke, but it turned out to be very much on the level. I went to Universal and had an interview with the casting director, Mr Bob Palmer. A test was arranged. I'd never had any definite plans for crashing the movies though in looking back I'm sure my parents had some idea that I might have a chance in films." Under a seven-year deal with options, she made her film debut in Woman in Hiding (1950). Starring Ida Lupino in the title role, it was a well sustained thriller with a nail biting conclusion. Director Michael Gordon got exceptional performances from his cast, including Peggy Dow, who played the mistress of Lupino's murderous husband, Stephen McNally. Her work in the movie was singled out for praise in all the reviews and the studio immediately set out to make her a star. Of this time she said, "The unexpected test I made at Universal came out far better that I dared hope. The work I had done in college plays and my experience in radio must have helped me. Everyone seemed pleased. Before I had time to realize what it all meant, I was before the cameras in Woman in Hiding. I must admit I showed my inexperience, but no one could have been more helpful than Ida. She lived up to the reputation she had for taking an interest in newcomers. She gave me useful pointers on what and what not to do and put me very much at ease."
Before the release of Woman in Hiding she was flown to Chicago to play the heroine in Undertow. Again a thriller it also starred Scott Brady, Dorothy Hart and John Russell. As a vacationing school teacher caught up in a murder case, she is both fresh and very appealing and gives the role immense vitality. Peggy chose her character's name, McKnight, after a teacher who had been supportive of her abilities in college. Released in 1949 it did not create any great waves at the box office but once again, Peggy Dow got fine notices.
Returning to Hollywood she found a place to live at The Studio Club. This club, run on YWCA lines, was founded by Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille and a group of women, especially for girls seeking a film career. The regulations were strict, but for Peggy, raised a Roman Catholic, it was a safe haven away from home, and the security it provided gave her parents peace of mind.
On location next in New York City, she made The Sleeping City (1950). Starring Richard Conte, as an undercover cop, with Coleen Gray as a nurse on the wrong side of the law it had an interesting setting in Bellevue Hospital. The documentary style was effective at first but later it developed into melodrama and some hammy acting from the obvious villain. Peggy Dow has one key scene, played most effectively, as the girlfriend of a male nurse who has mysteriously died. Of this film she said, "It was my first trip to New York. After we arrived some revisions were made in the script. My part was cut down. After the first disappointment of seeing what had been a good part vanishing into almost nothing, I decided to make the best of it and see the city. Then something very exciting happened. I was invited to the opening night of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and to a party given by the cast after the show. I met Anita Loos, Ethel Merman and other Broadway stars. At this party I also met Walter Helmerich, who would later become by husband. I was sure I knew him before and said, "I know you're going to think I'm very bold, but I'm sure I know you". As he did not seem to remember me I felt more than a little embarrassed. We talked on and during my trying to recall where I had met him I mentioned my college days at Gulf Park. "Why, you're Jo (my college name) Varnadow" he recalled and then I felt much more comfortable. We danced and talked and that night started a friendship that became a real romance and altered all my plans".
Back in Hollywood, she made Shakedown (1950) with Howard Duff, Lawrence Tierney and Anne Vernon. It was novel at the time and its anti hero and hard hitting story line packed a punch. Peggy Dow as one of the few sympathetic characters in the newspaper/gangster scenario, was totally credible and natural. Joseph Pevney directed and he also got superior portrayals from Brian Donlevy as a gangster who is killed and Anne Vernon as his vengeful widow.
Universal then handed her an "A" list project - Harvey starring James Stewart. Here she played a nurse who supplies the romantic interest with sanitarium doctor Charles Drake. It is to her credit that with a cast full of wonderful character players including the Academy Award winning Josephine Hull, Victoria Horne, Jesse White, Cecil Kellaway and Ida Moore, she still managed to stand out. Henry Koster directed and the film is still popular. Peggy recalled, "At the premiere I wore my first glamorous low cut strapless gown. I thoroughly enjoyed all the bright lights, the fans and party afterwards at Chasens."
The aforementioned Bright Victory (1951) came next for Peggy Dow for which she would receive her most accolades as an actress. "I was very interested in my career, had taken an apartment and was even giving interviews on how a bachelor girl should live etc. But then, Walter began showing up in Hollywood every once in a while, just to see me".
Her next two projects offered by Universal were lightweight comedies, Reunion in Reno and You Never Can Tell (1951). The first starred her with Mark Stevens but the central figure was child star, Gigi Perreau. As Stevens's girlfriend, she was charming as ever but the role was decidedly a backward step after her bravura work in Bright Victory. You Never Can Tell was a fantasy comedy starring her with Dick Powell. Again she was completely believable, but the role had no chance of boosting her career.
Her final film I Want You was released in 1952 after her 1951 marriage to Walter Helmerich III. A Samuel Goldwyn drama of the impact of the Korean War on some typical Americans, the film was released by RKO. Critics saw it as a sequel to Goldwyn's post-WWII masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives, making it all but impossible for I Want You to live up to the expectations created by that earlier blockbuster. Yet the film still has its moments. Dorothy McGuire was excellent as Farley Granger's sister-in-law, and Mildred Dunnock sparked the dramatics as his mother. Peggy played his sweetheart and eventual wife and she delivered her best work since Bright Victory. Her inventive portrayal gave interesting and unusual facets to her character. In addition to her dewy eyed loveliness with Granger, she showed tremendous depth in scenes with that always fine actor Ray Collins, who played her father. Of this she said, "At Universal they wanted us to use as many of our own clothes and accessories as we could. The other studios, like RKO, made or purchased everything for us".
After I Want You was completed she reflected on the state of her personal life, "By this time my romance was really coming to a point of seriousness. All the plans I had so bravely made regarding my career were being reconsidered. I was now busy planning how to combine a career and the happiness of marriage. We were married in Athens, Tennessee with both our parents and families around us. Walter then had a very responsible position with an oil drilling concern and had to fly all over the country. Walter's home is in Tulsa, Oklahoma and after a honeymoon in the Hawaiian Islands we settled in Tulsa. I will maintain an apartment in Hollywood for a time. So we can face our future with a sophisticated approach which this modem way of life demands".
Peggy Dow would never make another film again. There were many offers including So Big at Warners in which she would have played the role eventually undertaken by Nancy Olson. Alfred Hitchcock also checked out her work when he was looking for a leading lady for one of his late 1950s films. Peggy also mentioned, "There was one with Bill Holden about a pilot," which was later filmed with Grace Kelly as The Bridges at Toko-Ri.
The reason she turned down these offers was motherhood. The Helmerich's have five children, all boys - Rik, Zak, Mat, Hans and Jon. With a very happy married life and a family to raise, the offers usually were made at inopportune times. Today Peggy Helmerich is a grandmother of twelve and she is also involved with charitable organizations including libraries, hospitals and the arts.
A handsome, vital woman still, Peggy's having a wonderful life. For the sake of marriage and personal happiness, she abandoned what would undoubtedly have been a lustrous career, but her brightest victory occurred off the screen, and it has outshined anything a career could have offered.