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June Lang

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Posted: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 12:00 am

Meet the Girl

By Gordon Hunter

With interview notes from the files of Colin Briggs

Born Winifred June Vlasek in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 5, 1917, June started dancing at age five, appearing in school recitals, and in amateur shows at the local Elks Club. The family finally settled in Hollywood, and in the late 1930s June became one of 20th Century Fox’s most publicized young players. In her starlet days at Fox, their publicity machine went to work with a view to creating the impression that she was older, claiming that her birth year was 1915, much to her chagrin in later years.

Author Colin Briggs and I first met June in 1986. Despite the fact that we lived in Australia, we spent a good deal of time with June over a number of years during our annual visits to the United States. We found that she possessed a tremendous aura of elegance, style, and sophistication, but despite all that, she was simply a load of fun. We grew to love her wonderful sense of humor and glowing personality.

June loved that perennial favorite lunching spot for movie and TV folk, the Sportsman’s Lodge in the San Fernando Valley. It was there we got to know her, often accompanying her to the Lodge as her dinner guests. We also got to see her beautiful home, which she shared with her lovely daughter, Patricia, in North Hollywood, located not far from the Sportman’s Lodge.

We eventually introduced June to our good friend, actress Catherine McLeod, and they became good buddies who often got together over a game of gin rummy. On one particular occasion while we were Catherine’s house guests, she decided to throw a birthday party for June. June was delighted but a little bemused on arriving as she confided, “I don’t know these people.” All the invitees were friends of OURS and included actresses Ann Rutherford, Kathleen Hughes, Paula Corday and Vanessa Brown among others. Lee Graham was also a guest since he and June were great friends, and he often escorted her to various film industry functions and tributes. We all had a wonderful time, and Catherine proved to be a gracious hostess.

June always retained her youthful outlook, and being with her always made me think of springtime. It was almost as if time had stood still for this stunning woman. She was always on the guest list for parties and special functions and dressed appropriately for each occasion, whether it be a glamorous costume party or Halloween. For Halloween she would be completely deglamourised as a witch, complete with blackened teeth. This irrepressible lady reminded me of Carole Lombard, with her lack of pretension. Her comedic appeal also reminded me of Lombard, but Hollywood never managed to see it, and June rarely got to demonstrate her comedy skills on screen.

Meet the Girls (1938) did provide a chance but this proved to be her final film under contract when an incident in England derailed her mainstream career. In a 1992 exclusive interview with Colin Briggs, June talked about this and cleared up other misinformation about her Hollywood days which bothered her later in life.

June’s career began on a promising note. After being seen performing at a local Elks Club in Minnesota, June and her family moved to Hollywood in 1923 where she joined “The Fountain of Youth Revue” and later became one of the Meglin Kiddies. She also danced in Leonard Stilman’s first show Eleven Fifteen, featuring Eve Arden, and choreography by Hermes Pan. While attending Hollywood Professional School, June was also working as a chorus girl at the Orpheum Theatre at the age of 13. Leroy Prinz, the dance director, was successfully convinced that she was 18, and he cast her in Temptations of 1930.

Having found extra work at RKO and Universal, she got to sing in the church choir of the Barbara Stanwyck starrer Miracle Woman (Col., 1931) directed by Frank Capra. (Interestingly, the film was banned in England where it was considered by censors to be an irreverent take on religion.) While still in makeup for a stage show at the Mayan Theatre, June took the “Red Car” (an electric train car operated by the Pacific Electric Railway) over to Fox for an interview and wound up as one of 20 girls (uncredited) for a swimming pool sequence in She Wanted a Millionaire (1932) which starred Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett. The Director, John Blystone, was impressed with her inventiveness when, in a close shot, June said she improvised by saluting the waiter featured in her scene. Blystone recommended June to Production Head Winfield Sheehan, who thought she had potential, and he became her mentor after placing her under contract. She continued schooling with Lillian Barkley, who in addition to being her teacher, became a very good friend.

Titles of early Fox pictures she appeared in are Daddy Long Legs, and Young Sinners (uncredited, 1931). In 1932 she got to speak her first line on film in Chandu the Magician (as June Vlasek), with leads Edmund Lowe and Bela Lugosi. June said she had little memory of this film except that it marked her horse riding debut as well. The cameraman was James Wong Howe. The sound of her “little girl” voice amazed her when she saw the film.

She then made the 1933 releases, The Man Who Dared (as June Vlasek) and I Loved You Wednesday (as June Vlasek playing a ballet dancer). Still billed June Vlasek she also made First Year, She Learned About Sailors (1934) which starred Lew Ayres and Alice Faye, Love Time (1934), and Now I’ll Tell (uncredited) (1934) which starred Spencer Tracy along with Alice Faye and Shirley Temple.

Of the lavishly produced Music in the Air (1934), which gave her a lead, June said the company was mostly European and it was difficult at times understanding the director, Joe May, and the producer, Erich Pommer, though they were charming and part of a fun group on this shoot. Billy Wilder was the screenwriter. Gloria Swanson was very aloof when with June, possibly because June’s role ended up the larger of the two. Dubbing the Jerome Kern songs was very hard and took great concentration. Mr Sheehan changed June’s name to Lang for this film as he felt Vlasek too hard to pronounce. (His second choice for a name was Gale, which ironically was the name of the actress who would replace her for the sequel to Meet the Girls.)

June really enjoyed making Bonnie Scotland (1935) though she had no scenes with Laurel and Hardy. At the time she did her interview with Colin Briggs, June was still receiving a lot of fan mail about her role in the film and she was still hearing from William Janey, who played her beau. In November, 1989 June wrote Colin proclaiming, “My writing is worse than ever as I just autographed 39 stills of me with Oliver Hardy for the Laurel and Hardy Club.” The film was made at the Hal Roach studios.

June told Colin, “There was a big shakeup when Mr Sheehan resigned. Darryl F. Zanuck inherited his job and my option wasn’t renewed in 1935. However, within six months Lew Schreiber, a casting director at Twentieth, who saw me on the dance floor at the Trocadero, convinced Zanuck to sign me again. Shortly afterwards I was tested and was chosen by director Howard Hawks for The Road to Glory (1936) beating out Ann Sheridan and Joan Fontaine, among others. At 19 it was exciting having established stars like Fredric March and Warner Baxter for leading men, but it was a hard time for me, personally as well. Those two fellows had a grand sense of humor and I was treated kindly by both of them. It was a very happy atmosphere, which came as a welcome relief from the tense war scenes we had to play.” Although the role of Monique in this film was one her favorite roles, June said she felt herself to be a little too young for Mr March and Mr Baxter.

Every Saturday Night (1936) was another credit for June that year. The two films which always had for her the fondest of memories were the Shirley Temple starrer Wee Willie Winkie (1937) with Michael Whalen which was directed by John Ford, and Music in the Air.

In 1934 June had played a very minor role in the Charles Boyer film Caravan and said that she was thrilled that he remembered this for he personally asked that she be used again in another of his films Flesh and Fantasy (Universal) in 1943. June said the small size of her part did not lessen the pleasure of appearing in another film with Mr Boyer whom she admired greatly both as a gentleman and a wonderful actor.

In 1936 she and Warner Baxter paired again in White Hunter. In a May 1989 letter to Colin, June enclosed a shot of herself on the set of this film nursing two lion cubs. June reported “the cubs were born on the sound stage which was readied for the scene where I found one and put it in bed with me. The mother lioness tracked it to my tent. It was a night shoot and lighted in such a way you could clearly see her pacing back and forth on the other side of the thin canvas, knowing her cub was in the tent. Very scary. Only the trainer, cameraman and director were allowed on the sound stage in case the mother turned wild to get back her cub.” All survived and June concluded by saying, “Can’t remember if the scene was used for the final cut.”

June’s memories of working with Shirley Temple were happy ones. She played the child star’s schoolteacher in Captain January (1936), and her mother in Wee Willie Winkie. With regard to the latter, June said, “Shirley was usually kept busy, even between scenes, but occasionally there would be time to play before the next setup. She would also make me be her partner in the pranks played. Her favorite was to hide, and when they’d start calling for her she would not be around.”

June was always worried that she would be held responsible, but Shirley would say, “Don’t you make a sound, this is fun.” June summed up her impression of the Fox’s biggest star asset by saying, “Shirley was adorable.” Their director, John Ford, was very understanding, and June commented that she also liked Shirley’s mother, who along with Mr. Temple, was a guest at June’s first wedding, to Vic Orsatti on 29 June, 1937. Unfortunately, the union proved to be a brief one, as they divorced the following year.

June said she enjoyed working on The Country Doctor (1936), with the Dionne Quintuplets, and starring Jean Hersholt. She found Gypsy Rose Lee totally charming when they made Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937) with Eddie Cantor and Tony Martin.

Of Michael Whalen, June said he was both handsome and sweet, but that all of their well publicized dates were studio arranged. She thought Tony Martin “terribly debonair” and made special mention of the fact that Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and she all shared the same birth date. June then went on to say she had her biggest crush on Warner Baxter. She found the Oscar winner to be a true gentleman, and a joy to work with.

Another film released in 1937 was Nancy Steele Is Missing with Victor McLaglen and Peter Lorre. She then made International Settlement (1938) with Dolores Del Rio and George Sanders.

She thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working with Lynn Bari in Meet the Girls (1938). She loved comedy and the good notices the film garnered were instrumental in the planning of a projected film series to be known as “The Big Town Girls.”

Warm and effervescent, June was a good comedy partner for Lynn Bari whose sly and knowing look made her a natural for playing the clever schemer. Together, they gave Meet the Girls the energy that could have carried the proposed series into a long run in theaters. Viewers just naturally had to root for these struggling and resourceful girls who survived on their wits against the odds.

Unfortunately, the odds were decidedly against June. Meet the Girls, which should have been the beginning of her Hollywood heyday, turned out to be her last film under contract. The unraveling of her career began in 1938 when Fox production boss Darryl Zanuck sent her to England to make So This Is London. With the threat of war hanging over Europe, Americans were fleeing England, and Zanuck said she should leave the Dorchester Hotel and move to the country where it would be safer. Having completed wardrobe, makeup and hair tests at Pinewood Studio, filming was on track, but the war scare absolutely terrified June and she wanted to get out. Fox’s British office informed her that if she left England her contract would be immediately terminated. However, her fear was so great, June, together with her mother, decided to return to the U.S. with their friend, William Waldorf Astor. It was Astor who helped them book the last available cabin on the luxury liner, Queen Mary.

Her contract was now finis, and June recalled that the next Big Town Girls film was recast with June Gale in her role. Pardon Our Nerve proved to be the second and final installment of the Big Town Girls series. If June had stayed in, the series could have made her career, but with June out, and her Fox contract gone, her career hit the skids.

In 1939 she appeared as herself in the musical short Rhumba Rhythm at the Hollywood La Conga. On April Fool’s Day of 1939 she married Johnny Roselli. Mafia historians claim Roselli was the Chicago mob’s man in Las Vegas. Roselli also was a friend of producer Bryan Foy, and aspired to be a film producer himself. “The experts” on Hollywood stars in the past have often declared that the reason for the termination of June’s contract with Fox was because of her marriage to Roselli. Actually, her contract was “torn up” the year before the marriage took place, when she quit England and the set of So This Is London. June applauded Colin Briggs when he wrote the truth on this matter back in 1992. She wrote, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, my dear Colin, for setting the record straight at last.”

The marriage to Roselli did not last and they were divorced in 1943. (Editor’s Note: In 1976, Roselli’s body was found in a metal barrel, floating in a bay off the Florida coast.)

After breaking with Fox, June freelanced, but failed to obtain any assignments with the major studios, perhaps because of her union with Roselli. She appeared in One Wild Night (1938) and Inside Information (Universal 1939) with Dick Foran and said, “I went to Hal Roach for Zenobia [Elephants Never Forget, United Artists, 1939, working title It’s Spring Again] which was great fun. With wonderful comics Oliver Hardy, Harry Langdon and the kind, generous Alice Brady whose daughter I played. It was most enjoyable though my part wasn’t too great. Alice would invite me to her dressing room for lunch which was always the same—caviar and champagne. She died of cancer soon after completing the film. I never really got to know Jean Parker on this shoot. I did not easily make friends during my career years, and Jean seemed the same, so we never socialized. During filming Jean was having a bronze bust done of herself and when not needed on the set she dashed to her dressing room for sittings. At Roach Studios I also made the popular Captain Fury [with a background of the colonization of Australia, but filmed in California and released by United Artists, 1939] opposite Brian Aherne, who did not have much to say off camera. He was about to marry Joan Fontaine. The successful stage actress, Audra Lindley, was my stand-in.”

Other offerings that year were For Love or Money (Tomorrow at Midnight, Univ., 1939) and Forged Passport (Republic, 1939). June said that most of her fan mail mentioned the large number of “B” films she made during the period from the late 1930s into the early ‘40s. Of these her special favorites were Isle of Destiny (RKO, 1940) with William Gargan and Too Many Women (PRC, 1942) with Neil Hamilton. June also appeared in the Rochelle Hudson, Glenn Ford starrer Convicted Woman (Columbia, 1940) The Deadly Game (Monogram, 1941) with Charles Farrell, Redhead (Monogram, 1941) with Johnny Downs and City of Silent Men (PRC, 1942).

It was in 1942 that Zanuck brought June back to Fox, possibly because the director, Gregory Ratoff, was an old friend and asked for her. June played a gold digging chorus girl in Footlight Serenade (1942) along with Betty Grable and Jane Wyman. With her usual candor June wrote Colin in March 1988 and said, “If you saw this film, I bet you missed seeing me. I don’t understand why they used my name or hired me as I did not have a speaking part.”

During this period June was working as a hostess at the Hollywood Canteen, and Louella Parsons invited her to go on war bond tours. At this time she appeared as herself in the film Stage Door Canteen (1943) for Sol Lesser.

June wed Lt. William Morgan, the father of her only child Patricia, in 1944. (Some sources say 1946). She had previously suffered a miscarriage, “a little boy, and so Patricia was especially welcome.” June then decided to accept an offer to be a Goldwyn Girl in Up in Arms (1944) with Danny Kaye. In an interesting letter to Colin in 1989, June said she really would like to say something about Danny Kaye but decided against it as his wife, Sylvia Fine, was “still with us.” The salary was good and June said, “I had my own parking space on the lot plus a dressing room shared with Renee Godfrey whom I’d first met in London when she was part of Danny Kaye’s club act.” Other Goldwyn Girls appearing in this film were Dorothy Patrick, Linda Christian, Virginia Mayo, and Audrey Young who later married Billy Wilder.

Another film in which June appeared that year was Three of a Kind (Monogram, 1944) which starred comedian Billy Gilbert. Her final film was Lighthouse (PRC, 1947) which June described as “a C grader.” With feelings of both disenchantment and disappointment, she quit her film career for good.

Eventually there were a few TV appearances including: Fireside Theatre - Man Without a Country (1950); City Detective - Have a Cigar (1953). In the 1960s Darryl Zanuck personally asked her to do the Peyton Place series. She also did The Detectives starring Robert Taylor - Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1961). For Lux Radio Theatre June did Cheating Cheaters with George Raft; Jergens Hollywood Playhouse - Ceiling Zero with Tyrone Power; and Louella Parsons Hollywood Hotel - Nancy Steele Is Missing in which she reprised her role with co-star Victor McLaglen. Once for a period of two weeks, she was the “telephone girl” for the L.A. Talk Show of Tom Duggan. In an earlier interview June said, “I always wanted to be creative, I even wrote the outline for a TV series that a studio—yes Fox—seriously considered, but unfortunately, it did not sell.”

In 1954 (some sources say 1952), her third and final marriage, to Lt. Morgan, came to a bitter end.

June confirmed that while under contract to Fox she promoted Lux soap among other beauty products. She did commercials for Soft Set and Faultless Starch and modeled for photographer Tom Kelley, appearing in numerous endorsements for his clients. However, apart from Lux soap, which June received for 15 years, she got no products nor did she receive any payment for commercials or radio appearances, as the studio always kept the fees. June also confirmed that she did not have an agent during the period she was under contract and indeed during her latter career as well, so it is little wonder that offers ultimately ground to a halt with absolutely nobody there to bat for her.

June wrote Colin in 1988 to say, “My only exciting ‘do’ to report was my invitation to be a guest at the American Cinema Awards function at the Beverly Hilton Hotel honoring Gene Kelly and Shirley Temple. It was fun and all of we ‘old timers’ had to stand up and be introduced when our name was called.” She went on to say, “My life is very nothing, but I like it that way, but then I never have anything unusual to write about.” However, there were other evenings similar to the Kelly and Temple tribute including one honoring George Murphy.

In her letter to Colin in May of 1993 June was quite adamant in declaring, “I am disassociating myself from anything pertaining to the world of Motion Pictures. I’m enjoying the company of my many real friends.” She then wrote in May of 1994 to say, “I have been trying to give up all ties to the world of Motion Pictures. For starters, no answering so called ‘fan mail’ or attending their functions. I agree with Garbo, ‘I want to be alone.’”

It seems a bit sad to consider the career of June Lang. Without a doubt, June was a great beauty whose charm and vitality lit up the screen, but she saw her career fade quickly. As the years passed, she did not even want to have much to do with Hollywood, and didn’t even seem to regret her estrangement from the industry. A true survivor, she picked herself up, dusted herself off, and got on with life. More importantly, she didn’t let her failure in Hollywood keep her from enjoying life to the full.

June passed away in Valley Village, California on May 16, 2005. It was both a tremendous pleasure and privilege to be part of her wide circle of friends. Those who knew her, remember her fondly still, but Meet the Girls is a forgotten film, and the name June Lang means nothing to the average person today. Only a true film buff can understand how much we lost when Fox dropped her, and this promising series faded into an obscure footnote of Hollywood history along with so many other might-have-beens.