Mamie Van Doren: A Biography in Pictures
When 20th Century Fox scored a hit with Marilyn Monroe, every movie producer wanted to cash in with their own platinum blonde. Diana Dors… Jayne Mansfield… and Mamie Van Doren come to mind. The latter of whom posed twice for Playboy in 1963 to promote her movie, 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt (1964), though she was never officially a Playmate. Mamie Van Doren, a talented actress who proved she had more sex appeal than her competition, even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Looking back on an era of beatniks, rock ‘n’ roll and Beatles haircuts, Mamie Van Doren set the standard for pop icons of the 20th Century.
Some credit the actress for helping bring the rock ‘n’ roll-style of music alive in the B-musical Untamed Youth (1957), now available commercially through Warner Archive DVD. But few can deny her sex appeal. After all, when a film like The Beat Generation (1959) or High School Confidential (1958) is screened on Turner Classic Movies, film buffs do not refer to those flicks as “a dated property” or a “juvenile delinquent picture”… they often refer to such gems as “a Mamie Van Doren” movie. That’s star credit that ranks next to the great Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Maryl Streep.
Mamie Van Doren was born Joan Lucille Olander in Rowena, South Dakota, three-quarters Swedish ancestry; the remainder is mixed English and German. Her mother named her after Joan Crawford. In 1939, the family moved to Sioux City, Iowa and during May 1942 they then moved to Los Angeles.
In early 1946, Van Doren began working as an usher at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The following year, she had a bit part on an early television show. She also sang with Ted Fio Rito’s band and entered beauty contests. In the summer of 1949, at age 18, she won the titles “Miss Eight Ball” and “Miss Palm Springs.” Discovered by producer Howard Hughes on the night she was crowned Miss Palm Springs, the pair dated for several years. Hughes launched her career by placing her in several RKO films: including a bit part in Jet Pilot, which was her film debut. Her line of dialogue consisted of one word, “Look!” and she appears uncredited in the film. (Though production of the movie was from 1949 to 1953 (delays by Hughes), it was not released until 1957)
The following year, 1951, she posed for famous pin-up girl artist Alberto Vargas, the painter of the glamorous “Vargas Girls.” His painting of Van Doren was on the July cover of Esquire. Van Doren did a few more bit parts in movies at RKO, including His Kind of Woman (1951) starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell and Vincent Price. About her appearance in that one, Van Doren has said, “If you blinked you would miss me. I look barely old enough to drive.”
Van Doren then began working on the stage. She was a showgirl in New York in Monte Proser’s nightclub version of Billion Dollar Baby. Songwriter Jimmy McHugh discovered her for his musicals, then decided she was too good for the chorus line and should have dramatic training. She studied with Ben Bard and Bliss-Hayden. While appearing in the role of Marie in a showcase production of Come Back, Little Sheba, Van Doren was seen by Phil Benjamin, a casting director at Universal International.
On January 20, 1953, Van Doren signed a contract with Universal Studios. They had big plans for her, hoping she would bring the same kind of success that 20th Century Fox had with Marilyn Monroe. Van Doren, whose signing day coincided with the inauguration of President Eisenhower, was given the first name Mamie for Ike’s wife, Mamie Eisenhower.
Universal first cast the beauty in a minor role as a singer in Forbidden, starring Tony Curtis. Interested in Van Doren’s allure, Universal then cast her in The All American (1953), also starring Tony Curtis, playing her first major role as Susie Ward, a wayward girl who is the man-trap at a campus beer joint. In Yankee Pasha (1954), starring Jeff Chandler and Rhonda Fleming, she played a slave girl, Lilith, in a supporting role. In 1955, she had a supporting role in the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ and starred in the crime-drama, Running Wild. Soon thereafter, Van Doren turned down a Broadway role in the play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and was replaced by newcomer Jayne Mansfield.
In 1956, Van Doren appeared opposite a young and unknown (at the time) Clint Eastwood in the western, Star in the Dust. Though Van Doren garnered prominent billing alongside John Agar and Richard Boone, she appears rather briefly, as the daughter of a ranch owner. By this time, Van Doren had grown tired of Universal, which was only casting her in non-breakthrough roles. Therefore, Van Doren began accepting bigger and better roles in better movies, from other studios.
Van Doren went to star in several bad girl movies that later became cult films. It was these movies that launched her name on theater marquees. She also appeared in some of the first movies to feature rock ‘n’ roll music and became identified with this rebellious style, and made some rock records. One of her rock ‘n’ roll films, Untamed Youth, is now considered an essential classic for anyone wanting to enjoy such drive-in-style motion pictures of the 1950s.
Some of Van Doren’s more noteworthy movies include Teacher’s Pet (1958) at Paramount Pictures, Born Reckless (1958) at Warner Brothers, High School Confidential (1958), and The Beat Generation (1959), the latter two at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. But she was just as well known for her provocative roles. She was in prison for Girls Town (1959), which provoked censors with a shower scene where audiences could see Van Doren’s naked back. As Eve in The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960) she wore only fig leaves, and in other films, like The Beautiful Legs of Sabrina (1959), Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) and Vice Raid (1960) audiences were clued in as to the nature of the films from the titles. More amusing was the catch-phrase on the movie poster for Sex Kittens Go to College: “You’ve never seen a student body like this!”
Many of Van Doren’s film roles showcased her ample curves, and her onscreen wardrobe usually consisted of tight sweaters, low-cut blouses, form-fitting dresses, and daring (for the era) swimsuits, but she and such other blonde bombshell contemporaries as Jayne Mansfield, Cleo Moore, Sheree North, Anita Ekberg, Barbara Lang, Joi Lansing, Greta Thyssen, and Barbara Nichols did not attain the same level of superstar status as Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn, Mamie, and Mansfield were known as “The Three M’s.” But by comparison, where Monroe succeeded in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Mansfield had big success replacing Van Doren in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Universal stuck Van Doren with Francis the Talking Mule in Francis Joins the WACS, in 1954. Leave it to Universal during the fifties to ruin a potentially good boost for a franchise that was starting to fade.
After Universal Studios chose not to renew her contract in 1959 Van Doren was now a free agent. She began appearing in independent pictures. The first of these later films was Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), which co-starred Tuesday Weld. In 1964, Tommy Noonan convinced Van Doren to appear in 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt. Van Doren had turned down Noonan’s previous offer to star in, Promises! Promises!, a film in which she would have to do nude scenes. Thereupon, she was replaced by Jayne Mansfield. In 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt, Mamie did a beer-bath scene, but is not seen nude on camera. It was here that she posed for Playboy to help promote the film. Van Doren next appeared in The Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966) released by the Woolner Brothers. This film co-starred Jayne Mansfield (a rival of Mamie’s) and when a sequel was planned titled Hillbillys in a Haunted House, Van Doren turned this role down; she was replaced by Joi Lansing. She then appeared in The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966), a science-fiction film that fans today rave and talk about. In 1967, she appeared in You’ve Got to Be Smart, and starred in another sci-fi film Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), the following year, that was directed by Peter Bogdanovich. This film featured a completely unknown cast other than Van Doren. Just as well since she was the main reason we went to the trouble of seeking out the movie to watch.
In 1964, Van Doren was a guest at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood when The Beatles were at the club visiting with Jayne Mansfield, and an inebriated George Harrison accidentally threw his drink on her when trying to throw it on some bothersome journalists. During the Vietnam War, she did tours for U.S. troops in Vietnam for three months in 1968, and again in 1970.In addition to USO shows, she visited hospitals, including the wards of amputees and burn victims.
She made numerous guest appearances on television programs including Jukebox Jury, What’s My Line, The Bob Cummings Show, The Jack Benny Show, Fantasy Island, Burke’s Law, Vega$, and L.A. Law.
Van Doren also developed a nightclub act and did live theater. She performed in stage productions of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dames at Sea at the Drury Lane Theater, Chicago, and appeared in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Tender Trap at the Arlington Park Theater and in the 1970s, Van Doren performed a nightclub act in Las Vegas as well.
In 1987, she released her autobiography, Playing the Field, which brought much new attention and proved to be her biggest media splash in over 25 years. Since the book’s publication, she has often been interviewed and profiled and has occasionally returned to acting. The actress has consistently denied in interviews ever having breast implants. In 2006, Mamie Van Doren posed for photographs for Vanity Fair with Pamela Anderson as part of its annual Hollywood issue.
In 2005, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to her.
“I came to Hollywood determined to follow in Jean Harlow’s footsteps, but I was determined not to die young. My hope was to endure. And endure I have.”
– Mamie Van Doren