Janis Paige obituary

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Janis Paige, who has died aged 101, shone in films and numerous television shows, but her greatest triumph came in the Richard Adler/Jerry Ross Tony award-winning Broadway musical The Pajama Game in 1954.

Paige created the role of “Babe” Williams, the spirited leader of the union grievance committee at the Sleep Tite pajama factory, vigorously belting out the numbers I’m Not at All in Love, Small Talk and There Once Was a Man. This resulted in further stage leads for Paige as strong-willed women, to which her singing voice and vibrant personality were perfectly suited. She replaced Angela Lansbury on Broadway in Mame in 1968, and toured in shows including Gypsy, Applause, Annie Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls.

It is likely that her fame would have widened even more had she reprised the role of Babe in the 1957 film version of the Pajama Game. Initially, Warner Bros wanted to transfer the entire stage company to the screen, with the proviso that one of the two leads had to be a well-known movie star.

Janis Paige and David Niven in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, 1960.View image in fullscreen

Unfortunately for Paige, the studio offered her role to Doris Day when Frank Sinatra turned down the male lead, which was taken by the relatively unknown John Raitt.

Paige’s film career up to then had been as a contractee at Warner Bros, who cast her mainly as the heroine’s best friend or as the flirtatious “other woman”, often linked with the humorous character actor Jack Carson.

Among the films for the duo were Romance on the High Seas (1948), Day’s debut feature, in which Paige played Elvira Kent, and a few lighthearted musical comedies teaming Carson and the tenor Dennis Morgan (Warners’ answer to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby), namely Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946), The Time, The Place and the Girl (1946) and One Sunday Afternoon (1948). In a change of tone were two westerns, Cheyenne (1947), starring Morgan and Jane Wyman, in which Paige was a saloon girl, and The Younger Brothers (1949), as the nasty ring leader of a gang of outlaws.

Janis Paige and Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings, 1957.View image in fullscreen

However, she was dissatisfied with the quality of her roles and the pictures, and this prompted her to leave Warner Bros, seven years after the studio had given her a start in movies with a walk-on part in Hollywood Canteen (1944).

Paige was born Donna Mae Tjaden in Tacoma, Washington state. Her parents, George and Hazel, separated when she was four, a year before she started singing in public in local amateur shows. After graduating from high school, Donna and her mother moved to Los Angeles, where she was soon spotted by a Warner Bros talent scout and given a contract, adopting Janis Paige as her stage name. Among her first parts was the innocent Sally Athelny, contrasted with the worldly waitress Mildred Rogers (Eleanor Parker) in Of Human Bondage (1946), the second film version of the Somerset Maugham novel. However, Paige’s initial screen persona was soon to change.

As compensation for losing out to Day on The Pajama Game movie, Paige was third-billed (under Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse) in Rouben Mamoulian’s film version of the Cole Porter hit Broadway musical Silk Stockings, released in 1957.

Janis Paige and Dennis Morgan in Cheyenne, 1947.View image in fullscreen

In it, Paige, as a seductive Hollywood film star, genially takes off Esther Williams, MGM’s swimming sensation, periodically hitting the side of her head as if to get water out of her ears. Paige delivers three self-mocking show-stopping numbers, in one of which, Stereophonic Sound, she dances with Astaire. The other numbers are Josephine, a song from a putative vulgar musical based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Satin and Silk, which eulogises the importance of the right underwear.

After Silk Stockings, Paige made rare visits to the big screen. The few exceptions were Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), in which she wittily portrayed a Broadway star who makes a play for an acerbic theatre critic (David Niven), much to the chagrin of his wife (Day); and The Caretakers (1963), set in a psychiatric hospital run by an over-the-top Joan Crawford.

By then, Paige’s long television career was well under way. She had her own sitcom, It’s Always Jan (1955-56), and became a very familiar face for a further six decades, appearing in almost any series one cares to name.

In 2017, encouraged by the #MeToo movement, Paige decided to speak out about an assault by Alfred Bloomingdale, the heir to the department store fortune. “It was at the very beginning of my film career. I was 22 and still a virgin. Even at 95, I remember everything. Closure is never complete … I simply want to add my name and say ‘Me, too.’”

She was married three times and divorced twice. Her third husband, the lyricist Ray Gilbert, died in 1976.

Janis Paige (Donna Mae Tjaden), actor and singer, born 16 September 1922; died 2 June 2024

Source: theguardian.com

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