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Paying Tribute to the Classic ‘Sweater Girl’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even when Cheryl Crane was just a toddler, she knew there were certain rules she had to observe regarding her mother’s profession--no touching Mom’s face or hair while she was working, for instance. Crane’s mother was one of MGM’s biggest, most glamorous stars of the ‘40s and ‘50s--Lana Turner

“I was on the set of ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,”’ recalls Crane, Turner’s only child. “I knew then not to tug on her hair as babies do or mess her up. It became so ingrained that it was just a natural act for me not to do. It sounds bizarre but if you are on a set and spent hours in makeup and hair ....”

This month, cable’s Turner Classic Movies pays tribute to Turner with a 32-movie salute and a new 90-minute documentary “Lana Turner ... a Daughter’s Memoir,” premiering tonight.

Narrated by Turner family friend Robert Wagner, the documentary features interviews with Crane; Juanita Moore, who appeared with Turner in 1959’s “Imitation of Life”; her drama coach, Lillian Burns Sidney; makeup artist Del Armstrong; and friends Robert Stack and Evie Wynn Johnson.

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“What we were trying to do was to take a look at the human being, the person she was and also the actress,” says Crane, 58, who works in the real estate business in Palm Springs. “People really didn’t take notice of her acting ability.”

Every Monday throughout the month, Crane will join TCM host Robert Osborne for screenings of such Turner films as “Postman,” in which she and John Garfield burn up the screen as illicit lovers; “Ziegfeld Girl,” one of Crane’s personal favorites; “Honky Tonk,” a western comedy which marked the first of four films she made with Clark Gable; “The Bad and the Beautiful,” Vincente Minnelli’s classic tale of Hollywood, in which she plays a troubled actress; and “The Three Musketeers,” her first film in Technicolor and a rare villain role for the actress.

TCM is also airing 1937’s “They Won’t Forget,” which marked her film debut. Turner, then a student at Hollywood High School, was discovered at age 15 by W.R. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, at the Top Hat Cafe near the high school. Wilkerson introduced her to a talent agent and she was soon cast in “They Won’t Forget.” The film’s director, Mervyn LeRoy, changed her to name to Lana. Turner caught the attention of critics and audiences alike in the small role and was dubbed the “Sweater Girl,” due to the form-fitting sweater she wore in the film. When LeRoy left Warner Bros. Studio for MGM, he took Turner with him and she soon became one of that studio’s brightest lights.

Everyone wanted to work with her mother, says Crane. “It is not exaggerating to say the grips and the camera guys and the set guys used to fight to get in her films because they had so much fun,” she says. “She loved to laugh.”

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The tag line for the documentary--"On screen she was all glamour. But her real life was a film noir"--aptly describes Turner’s life. Though she had the adulation of moviegoers worldwide, her personal life was often in shambles. By the time she was 25, she had been married and divorced three times, including twice to Crane’s father, Steve Crane. In 1958, the then-14-year-old Cheryl Crane went to trial for the much-publicized murder of Turner’s abusive gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato. The incident was ultimately ruled a justifiable homicide.

In a segment of the documentary, Crane discusses the abuse she says she endured from Turner’s fifth husband, Lex Barker, best known for his role in “Tarzan” movies of the late ‘40s and ‘50s. It was early into the 31/2-year marriage that Crane says Barker began to molest her. She was afraid to tell her mother because Barker had threatened her, she says. “Kids believe what an adult is telling them, unfortunately,” she says. “I had to grow up a little bit before I started to question the things he was telling me. I was 121/2 when I told her.”

Though Turner threw Barker out of the house immediately, the event was never talked about again."We didn’t talk it about it at all after the fact until I was an adult,” Crane says. “That is just the way people lived in those days.”

In the documentary, Crane notes that her grandmother, Mildred, and her nanny basically raised her. But that was the case with most of the children of Hollywood stars, she adds.

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“I didn’t know there was anything different about my life until I started school and going to friends’ homes,” says Crane. “All of my contemporaries when I was growing up before school, we would have birthday parties and socialize with that group of kids. They all had the same type of life I did. They had nannies and governesses. Their parents worked.”

Still, she knew her mother, who died of cancer in 1995, loved her. “I missed her terribly, as I think any child would. She was my mother. I was very lucky I had my grandmother. But she also made sure that in my heart my mother came first.”

And she was very close to her father, who ran the popular Luau restaurant on Rodeo Drive and for whom Crane worked when she became an adult. “My father left Los Angeles when I was 3 and moved to Paris and didn’t come back until I was 7. Then I saw him almost every week the rest of the time he was on this Earth.”

Not all of Turner’s choices for husbands and beaus were horrible. “She picked some good men,” says Crane. “They just didn’t work out as husbands. Fred May, whom I adored, they remained great friends after they divorced. He was wonderful but he couldn’t put up with being a husband to a movie star. I think she was very nave in some ways. She wanted to believe so much that each new romance was going to be the one.”

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Though Crane’s relationship with Turner went through rocky times, especially during her teenage years, they became very close. “I became an adult and she no longer had take on the duty of telling me what to do and what not to do. It gave us a chance to get to know each other as friends, and we found out that we could have a really good time together.”

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“Lana Turner ... a Daughter’s Memoir” can be seen tonight at 5 and 8:30 on TCM. Also airing tonight are “The Postman Always Rings Twice” at 6:30, “They Won’t Forget” at 10 and “Ziegfeld Girl” at 11:45.


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