Following her signing with Warner Bros. in late 1937, Susan Hayward was enrolled in the studio’s drama school. Warner’s head coach, Frank Beckwith, was instantly impressed by Susan.

She was certainly the most beautiful of his trainees and the most intelligent. Along with other promising WB contract players like Carole Landis, Penny Singleton and Jane Wyman, Susan Hayward was taught to sing, dance, walk and speak dialogue. Beckwith soon identified her as a determined young lady with a will of iron and just a touch of irascibility that he personally found attractive. He had no doubt that Miss Hayward knew what she wanted and intended to get it. She was going to be a star.

But the way to the top was not an easy one, for she would have to claw her way step by step to attain her place in movie history. Unlike Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr, who were made superstars almost overnight, Hayward’s natural talent was totally ignored by the studio moguls. For most of her Warner contract she paid her dues by appearing in “blink and you’ll miss her” bit parts in movies and posing for studio publicity photographs. Her impatience for a lead acting role gained her a reputation for being difficult, strong willed and calculating. She was accused of being “cold as a polar bear’s foot”, selfish and temperamental. As a consequence, Warner Bros. did not renew her contract.

Susan Hayward Studio Photo

At Warner Bros. Susan Hayward posed for hundreds of studio photo shots. A furious Hayward would state, “I didn’t come to Hollywood just to damn model.”

However, soon after, Paramount Pictures picked up her option and offered her a $250.00 a week contract and a part in the Gary Cooper action film Beau Geste (1939). It was only a marginal role and Susan had only a few scenes in the opening and closing sequences. But the ferocity she put into her lines of dialogue prompted the director, William Wellman, to state: “Good God, they’ve sprung a redheaded Bette Davis on me.”

Susan Hayward’s first starring role in the 1946 noir classic Deadline at Dawn

Paramount’s handling of Hayward’s career turned out exactly as Warner’s had, for her next half dozen films were all minor parts in B-movies. Starring roles were promised but somehow never materialised, and she was dropped from any number of the studio’s major dramatic productions. Studio scuttlebutt was that most of Paramount’s established leading ladies saw Susan’s scene-stealing beauty as a threat, and consequently vetoed her from starring alongside them. This also attributed to her gaining a reputation of being difficult on set, aloof and unfriendly to her fellow actors. She also refused to cut her mane of red hair for any film role, which did not endear her to the studio bosses and led to numerous suspensions.

Her best role during her Paramount years was when she appeared seventh in the cast list of Reap the Wild Wind (1942), Cecil B. De Mille’s seagoing answer to Gone with the Wind. She was also loaned out to Republic Pictures for the rousing war movie The Fighting Seabees (1944), in which she performed well alongside the star of the movie, John Wayne. As WWII ended, so too did Susan Hayward’s Paramount contract. She was not sorry to leave, especially as she had been promised a starring role in a movie for RKO studios.

Many Americans believed that the end of the war would be the beginning of a time of prosperity and peace. Instead, the first chill of the Cold War began to set in. The change in the political environment also affected Hollywood’s movie output. Wartime positives gave way to film noir-like ambiguity. The RKO noir movie Deadline at Dawn (1946) gave Susan her first top-billed role in a quality production, and one in which she delivered a stunning performance.

“Studio scuttlebutt was that most of Paramount’s established leading ladies saw Susan’s scene-stealing beauty as a threat, and consequently vetoed her from starring alongside them”

This film brought her to the attention of her old nemesis, film producer David O. Selznick, who not only had turned her down as Scarlett O’Hara but had also tried to run her out of town. He now wanted to see her with the offer of a multi-picture contract. Susan arrived at his office, and as is usual with all of the Hollywood moguls, was made to wait for over an hour. Finally, when she was admitted, Selznick passed her a contract to sign. Susan glanced at it and then said, “You can take this paper and stick it up your ass.” She smiled and then said, “I intend signing a personal contract with producer Walter Wanger. You, Mr. Selznick, lost your chance eight years ago. Goodbye.”

Under Walter Wanger’s tutelage, Susan flourished as a serious film actress. Her second movie for Wanger, Smash Up – The Story of a Woman (1947), was a turning point in her career. In the film she plays Angie Evans, a tormented alcoholic singer who sacrifices her career for her crooner husband – a performance for which she received her first Academy Award nomination. Although she lost the Oscar to Loretta Young, for Hayward it was enough to have been nominated – for now.

By the fall of 1947, Wanger had run into serious financial difficulties and the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, offered the beleaguered Wanger a way out. The offer was to sell Zanuck the remainder of Susan’s contract. The careers of Fox’s stable of glamorous leading ladies had suddenly begun to falter. The post-war movies of Gene Tierney, Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Betty Grable were now no longer successful at the box office. Zanuck believed that Susan Hayward would fill the gap, stating: “Hayward has two qualities most desired in any actress: she is beautiful, and she can damn well act”. Wanger reluctantly agreed to sell her contract, provided that Susan received a salary commensurate with her box office potential.

Hayward’s third Oscar nomination was for her portrayal of singer Jane Froman in With a Song in My Heart – seen here in a scene with a young Robert Wagner.

Susan’s first project for Fox was House of Strangers (1948), a story about a vendetta among the members of an Italian family. The film proved so popular that Hollywood remade it in 1954 as Broken Lance, and again in 1961 as The Big Show.

For her next film she was loaned out to Sam Goldwyn-RKO. The romantic tear-jerker My Foolish Heart (1949) landed Susan her second Oscar nomination, only to lose out on the night to Olivia de Havilland. Her third Academy Award nomination came three years later in 1952 for With a Song in My Heart – a biopic of singer Jane Froman, whose career was almost destroyed when her right leg was nearly severed in a devastating 1943 plane crash. Her performance won her a Golden Globe Award, but a month later Susan lost the Oscar yet again – this time to Shirley Booth. She now convinced herself that the Academy and Hollywood establishment really did resent her.

In early 1954, RKO Pictures owner Howard Hughes offered 20th Century Fox what was described as “an ungodly sum” for the services of Miss Hayward. She would star alongside John Wayne in a six-million dollar “epic”. But unbeknownst to the cast and crew, the Utah location for the film would have devastating effects for many of them.

To be concluded.


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