Here is perhaps the least known actress on my list and arguably the most underrated.
But Jennifer Jones was popular with both fans and critics during the 1940s. If you can get past a few weak films, her body of work during this decade is surprisingly strong.
Perhaps my fondness for the actress began when I saw photos of my mother as a teenager who grew up during the 1940s, in which she bore a resemblance to the actress. When I asked my mom about this, she admitted that one of her favored uncles always made that connection. After this, I began seeking out more of Jones' films and came to appreciate her appeal.
It ws during the early years of the decade that the former Phyllis Isley came to the attention of famed producer David Selznick, who took a liking to this model and B-movie actress then married to actor Robert Walker. Changing her name to Jennifer Jones, Selznick carefully groomed her and prepared her to be a leading lady.
When 20th Century Fox was casting for its religious biopic "The Song of Bernadette," Jones auditioned for the role and was reportedly the only actress who convincingly looked a piece of wood and registered the wonder and awe of seeing the Virgin Mary. That film, which was Fox's prestige release in 1943, made Jones an instant star. Her lovely performance (at right) earned the newcomer an Oscar as best actress. People sometimes overlook this solid religious drama and the difficulty that Jennifer faced in playing this part. It cannot be easy to create a simple, believing young woman without veering toward the sugar-coated. The central plot point, in which people take sides as to whether Bernadette is telling the truth about her visions, hinges on the audience's own judgment of Bernadette. This all depends solely on Jones' performance; she cannot make a false move or let the audience see the actress behind the character. It's delicate work, and it's beautiful to watch.
She quickly followed this with popular roles in "Since You Went Away," the Selznick-produced WWII homefront drama (and a favorite of mine); "Love Letters," a somewhat ridiculous amnesia/love story/murder mystery; and "Duel in the Sun," nicknamed by critics and fans as "Lust in the Dust," in which Jones plays against type as a sexy half-breed. All three of these roles earned her Oscar nominations.
But it's three other 1940s films that often get overlooked but allowed her to shine. She plays the title character in Ernst Lubitsch's "Cluny Brown," a delightful tale in which Jones goes to live with her uncle in the English countryside, taking care of the house. While there she meets two men, including charming refugee Charles Boyer. Fans of Lubitsch shouldn't overlook this gem or Jones in it.
Even better is Vincente Minnelli's "Madame Bovary," in which Jones plays the title character in this terrific adaptation of Flaubert's novel. With able support from James Mason, Van Heflin and Louis Jordan, Jones more than carries her own.
Best of all is the overlooked "Portrait of Jennie" (above), her otherworldly romance co-starring Joseph Cotten (who also appeared with her in "Love Letters" and "Since You Went Away"). This unusual film has Cotten playing a struggling artist who finds inspiration in a mysterious young woman named Jennie. Jones positively glows in this film, and she has a wonderful rapport with Cotten.
Jones was hardly your typical star, never the sexy or glamorous one. There were better actresses during this time, but what I like about Jones is her instant connection with an audience and a loveliness that shines on film.
By the end of the 1940s, she was married to Selznick, and they stayed together until his death in the 1960s. She snagged one more Oscar nomination for the popular "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" in 1955, and she desperately wanted to play the role of Aurora Greenway in "Terms of Endearment," which went to Shirley MacLaine.
Jennifer Jones is still with us, at 90 years of age, although I don't know how she is doing. I hope she would be flattered to know she still has fans who remember her, because she should not be overlooked as one of the most appealing actresses of the 1940s.
Additional note, Dec. 17, 2009: I found out that Jennifer Jones died today at age 90. I'm very sad to see her go ... there are so few stars from that era left. I'm really glad that I included her on this list, as I hope others who are unfamiliar with her work will discover how terrific she was.