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Tuesday 23 October 2018

Femme fatale shot to cult fame after a stormy start

Peggy Cummins was a Dublin actress and Hollywood failure who still made it as a film star, writes Liam Collins

Sweetly sexy: Peggy Cummins in a 1940s’ publicity shot for ‘Green Grass of Wyoming’
Sweetly sexy: Peggy Cummins in a 1940s’ publicity shot for ‘Green Grass of Wyoming’
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

She was the most famous Irish actress most people never heard of.

With smouldering good looks and cascading blonde hair, she looked to have it made in post-war Tinsel Town when she was picked from a galaxy of beauties to play the lead in the 1946 Hollywood big budget production Forever Amber - only to break down on set like a character from an F Scott Fitzgerald short story and be quietly replaced by another actress.

"Say it was my lack of experience, say it was the colour of my eyes, say it was a lot of little things - but please don't say I wasn't sexy enough," she said many years later.

"If it was that, I thought it was unkind, because I was sexy enough in Gun Crazy a few years later."

Peggy Cummins with Dana Andrews in 1957's Night of the Demon
Peggy Cummins with Dana Andrews in 1957's Night of the Demon

It was as the femme fatale in this black and white "film noir", shot on a low budget in 1949, with a storyline very similar to that of Bonnie & Clyde (which wouldn't hit the screens, with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, until nearly half a century later), that really made her name - and made her famous among film buffs until her death on December 29, at the age of 92.

Born to Irish parents stranded by a storm in Wales on the December 18, 1925, Augusta Margaret Diane Fuller was better known by her stage name Peggy Cummins, which she said she took in homage to her mother, also an actress, Margaret Cummins (1889-1973).

Peggy Cummins would give talks at film conventions in England - where she lived for most of her post-Hollywood life - and the United States until late in life. But mostly she was asked about the disaster of Forever Amber or the making of Gun Crazy (now regarded as a cult masterpiece).

Peggy rarely talked about her early upbringing in Dublin, which is almost as fascinating. Her great-grandfather was James Franklin Fuller, a celebrated but secretive Church of Ireland architect who came from "minor landed gentry in Kerry" and worked out of an office in Great Brunswick Street, Dublin, for most of his life.

Sassy: Cummins in ‘Gun Crazy’ (1949)
Sassy: Cummins in ‘Gun Crazy’ (1949)

On his father's side he came from Glashnacree, Co Kerry, while his mother was a Bland from Derryquin Castle, a stately pile near Sneem, burned down by the IRA in 1922.

The subject of an exhibition in Dublin some years ago by the Irish Architectural Archive, James Franklin Fuller worked on creating the medieval look which St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin has today. In between building for the Church of Ireland, he designed the stunning Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, which was completed in 1884 and became the Irish seat of the Ninth Duke of Manchester.

He seems to have had a penchant for turning relatively straightforward Irish ruins into grand castellated castles, as he did with George Ashlin at Ashford Castle near Cong, Co Mayo, on a commission from the First and only Lord Ardilaun, a member of the Guinness brewing family.

His more restrained work can be found in St Stephen's Green, where he designed the Steward's house, at Farmleigh, which he also built for the Guinness family, the Parknasilla hotel and many other buildings in his native Kerry.

Grand Gothic: Kylemore Abbey is just one of Ireland’s historic
buildings designed by Peggy’s architect great-grandfather
Grand Gothic: Kylemore Abbey is just one of Ireland’s historic buildings designed by Peggy’s architect great-grandfather

James Franklin Fuller died in 1924 at his house on Eglinton Road, in Dublin, leaving an estate valued at over £32,000, a considerable sum at the time.

His grandson, Franklin Bland Fuller, married the Dublin actress Margaret Cummins and it was their daughter, born in a snowstorm, who would eventually go to Hollywood - but would find Los Angeles a city of broken dreams until many years later, when she found a kind of stardom long after it had ceased to make much difference.

She appears to have attended Alexandra College in Dublin and was an enthusiastic student at the Abbey School of Ballet, run by Muriel Kelly.

The legend has it that she was discovered at a bus stop in Dublin by the actor Patrick Brock, who remained a friend all her life, and was given a part at the Gate Theatre, which had been taken over by Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards.

She later said this was nonsense; that she had probably been encouraged by tutors at the Abbey School of Ballet to go for her first role, in the 1937 production of The Duchess of Malfi, in which she played a boy - as she did in several subsequent productions at the Gate Theatre.

She also recalled, in later life, playing on the stage at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, in a production of the WB Yeats-written play On Baile's Strand with a young Cyril Cusack.

In an interview she gave for Great Britons of Stage and Screen, she said she had two brothers: Harry, a banker, and William, who joined the RAF, and that her father was a financial adviser - though in obituaries published following her death, he was described as a Dublin journalist and newspaper editor.

In 1938 at the age of 13, she left Dublin for London, where she seems to have worked continually on stage and screen until being brought to Hollywood by producer Darryl F Zanuck in 1945 to play the taxing lead role in Forever Amber, a risque costume drama based on a book by Kathleen Windsor.

In the tough parlance of the time, it was said she "didn't measure up" to the part, collapsed on stage and cost Fox $500,000 before being quietly fired. Director Otto Preminger was brought in to reshoot the film with a new actress, Linda Darnell.

Peggy Cummins remained in Hollywood, playing in a number of films including as Ronald Coleman's daughter in Escape (1948) and was said to have hung out at the Mocambo nightclub, dating businessman Huntington Hartford and actor Cary Grant.

She was escorted to the premiere of Brigadoon by her co-star in Gun Crazy, John Dall.

This film was to be her enduring legacy as an actress. Made on a small budget by United Artists, then a small studio, and directed by Joe Lewis, it was denigrated by critics when it came out in 1949 because its subject was a boy and girl obsessed with guns, who go on a rampage in much the same way as in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) - a scenario that wasn't morally acceptable at the time.

"It was a great part in a brilliant story from a brilliant writer. I think John Dall and myself were quite well-suited in the parts we had," she said at a screening of the film, 60 years after it was made.

The film, though not recognised as a classic until years later, was the high point of her Hollywood career.

After that she went on a tour of Italy before settling in London in 1950, where she married old flame Derek Dunnett, a London seed merchant.

Back in England, Peggy settled for a career in the burgeoning post-war British film industry, making a series of films at the new Alexander Korda studios outside London.

She made My Daughter Joy with co-star Edward G Robinson, Who Goes there, Street Corner, Meet Mr Lucifer and Always the Bride.

Rarely out of work, she played in The Love Lottery with David Niven (1954), To Dorothy a Son with Shelley Winters and Carry on Admiral, and was critically acclaimed for her part in the psycho- horror movie, Night of the Demon.

She also had some success in the title role in a stage production of Peter Pan and played in a number of early television productions.

Peggy had a son and daughter and kept a flat in Mayfair and an estate in the country. Visitors saw little evidence in her home of her tempestuous tilt at Hollywood stardom, or indeed her subsequent work in film and on stage. However, she was a regular at award ceremonies and into her late 80s was still attending film conferences to talk about her acting career - and her brush with stardom in the heyday of the Hollywood studios.

Sunday Independent

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