The Woman Who Would Be Marilyn: 20 Amazing Kodachrome Photos of Sheree North in the 1950s

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Born Dawn Shirley Crang in Los Angeles on January 17, 1932, North made her film début as an uncredited extra in Excuse My Dust (1951). She was then spotted by a choreographer performing at the Macayo Club in Santa Monica, and was cast as a chorus girl in the film Here Come the Girls (1953), starring Bob Hope. Around that time, she adopted the stage name Sheree North. She made her Broadway début in the musical Hazel Flagg, for which she won a Theatre World Award. She reprised her role in the film version, Living It Up (1954), starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. In early 1954, at age 22, she appeared in a live TV version of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes on The Colgate Comedy Hour, with Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra and Bert Lahr.

In 1954, North signed a four-year contract with 20th Century-Fox. The studio had big plans for her, hoping to groom her as a replacement for the studio’s leading, and increasingly uncontrollable, female star, Marilyn Monroe. Fox tested North for leading roles in two of their upcoming productions, The Girl in Pink Tights and There’s No Business Like Show Business—two films that had been offered to Monroe—while North was wearing Monroe’s own studio wardrobe. However, after her screen tests, North was not cast in either film. In March 1954, North had a brush with scandal when it was revealed that she had earlier danced in a bikini in an 8 mm erotic film. Fox capitalized on the publicity as the studio previously had with Monroe’s nude calendar posing in 1952.

In 1955, she was assigned the lead role opposite Betty Grable in How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955), a role that Marilyn Monroe had refused to accept. Media attention surrounding Monroe’s suspension and North’s hiring resulted in North appearing on the cover of LIFE magazine with the cover line “Sheree North Takes Over From Marilyn Monroe”. How to Be Very, Very Popular would eventually not live up to the hype Fox had generated, even though North had appeared on What’s My Line? to publicize the film and had been asked point-blank by one of the panelists if she has been associated with Monroe. The movie received mixed reviews from critics and was a moderate box office success. Despite this, film historians, then and now, cite North’s electrically-charged dancing to “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, as the film’s most memorable scene.

In an attempt to promote North, Fox studio executives lobbied to cast her in films surrounded with popular stars. The studio had campaigned to cast her in a film with comedian Tom Ewell, hoping to repeat the success he had with Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Soon thereafter, the studio assigned North and Ewell to appear together in the romantic comedy The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, plotting the story of an army lieutenant whose husband tries to get her discharged. To promote the film, North posed for several publicity shots showing her legs. When the majority of the shots were released, only her legs appeared with the tagline, “Believe it or not, these legs belong to an army lieutenant”. The film premiered with much fanfare in January 1956, and became a box office success, grossing over $4 million in the United States.

In 1956, Fox signed another blonde bombshell, Broadway actress Jayne Mansfield to a contract, and began promoting her instead of North. Although Fox slowly lost interest in North, the studio continued to offer her a string of films. She was offered the leading role in a film called The Girl Upstairs, in which she would have parodied Monroe’s on-screen persona.

After North’s contract with Fox ended in 1958, her career stalled. She never became the star that 20th Century-Fox hoped for – for almost a decade, from the late 1950s through the mid-’60s she had no film work – but she nevertheless ended up enjoying a longer and fuller career than most actors and actresses can dream of.

A working actress across five decades; not too shabby for a woman who, at the start of her movie career, was (according to LIFE) “kept on ice merely as a decoy to scare Marilyn Monroe.”

Sheree North was married four times and was the mother to two daughters. She died in Los Angeles in November 2005. She was 73 years old.

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