Lana Turner Was TNT

She once said, “Sex is not important to me.”

Another time the lady said, “I expected to have one husband and seven babies.” Instead she did the opposite and married seven times, to produce one child. 

She, the lady, was no less than Lana Turner. If any is needed, here is more proof that Lana Turner, herself, is more interesting than any of the films she made. The story goes that in 1936 Billy Wilkerson of The Hollywood Reporter saw 15 year-old Judy Turner sipping soda at a drugstore fountain — the old Schwab’s on Sunset Boulevard at Crescent Heights.

Evidently that was not exactly true. It was actually Currie’s Ice Cream Parlor across from Hollywood High School on Sunset at Highland. 

Once Wilkerson got his hands on this minor, he brought her almost immediately to a Warner Bros. casting director, just as he promised. The casting director introduced young Judy Turner to producer-director Mervyn LeRoy. What a lucky coincidence for all concerned. It just so happened he needed “a girl who is sexy and innocent at the same time.” Doesn’t everyone. 

Wasting no time, LeRoy gave Turner a new first name, and her first break in films, with a bit part in Warners’ They Won’t Forget (1937). No one who saw it, ever did. She bounced down the street wearing a sweater in one well remembered scene which gave rise, and how, to the then new term, “Sweater Girl.” 

When he left Warners, LeRoy arranged to take Turner with him, up over the hill to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At the outset, she was under personal contract to him, not Metro. By 1941 Lana Turner was soaring and seen as the studio’s new Joan Crawford. Playing opposite Clark Gable in M-G-M’s Honky Tonk that year, their torrid love scenes provoked anger from Carole Lombard who wished to inform Miss Turner that she was Mrs. Gable. 

At this point Mervyn LeRoy suggested teaming Lana Turner with Robert Taylor so the studio could mount a campaign for a film they would call Johnny Eager. In other words, they conceived the following campaign angle before the story department had a story and a film to go with it: 

is M-G-M’s Honky Tonk of 1942!
Dynamite business everywhere!
They’re dynamite TNT!

Who needed a story? Well, they really did need one. It wasn’t enough that Taylor play “Johnny” and Turner look eager. Though that was a good start. Lana Turner was then 21 and really beautiful. And it didn’t hurt that the cameraman knew how to light a beautiful actress — Hal Rosson had been married to Jean Harlow.

Mervyn LeRoy served as director.  

Robert Taylor’s wife at the time was Barbara Stanwyck. She heard what was going on, and visited the set one day to angrily warn Lana Turner to tread carefully — or else!

Johnny Eager was tradeshown in Los Angeles two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (later, Mervyn LeRoy answered for Americans when he made Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo). VARIETY remarked, “The Taylor-Turner starring duo is sufficient marquee voltage to carry through the regular runs for profitable business.”  

Was it? TNT was right. Johnny Eager pulled a $2.6 million gross, huge for that time. 

At some point in the exhibition cycle, producer Norman Lear saw Taylor ‘n’ Turner, because when he was asked to name the sexiest woman in the world, he answered, “Lane Turner, as she was held in the arms of Robert Taylor in the terrace scene in Johnny Eager.”

Turner’s beautiful daughter, Cheryl, has since said, “Mother and Robert Taylor’s chemistry in Johnny Eager is electric, and these two beautiful people got carried away during the filming of their passionate onscreen kisses. This was a rare time when Mother indulged in the occupational hazard of falling for her co-star. As is often the case in romances between co-stars in films, it lasted only as long as filming. It was as though the actors fell in love with the character they were in love within the movie and once they weren’t supposed to be in love with that person anymore, it ended.”