Classic Hollywood: Spotlight on Iris Adrian

Shake Hands with Murder Star Iris Adrian

Iris Adrian never became an “A” list star, but she was certainly an A list character actress who brought laughs to every role, no matter how small. Her signature was that of a brassy blond who chewed gum, whether she was a waitress, a gun moll, or a taxi driver, and who could machine-gun her wise-cracking dialogue with a hilarious twist.

Iris Adrian Hostetter was born May 29, 1912 in Los Angeles. By the age of 13 she had won a beauty contest by having the most beautiful back in 1926, and took the title Miss Lake Arrowhead in 1929. She left Miss Page’s School for Girls at age 16.

She studied dance with MGM dancing star Marge Champion’s choreographer father, Ernest Belcher. She got a part as a chorus girl in a Hollywood revue show, and later she rose to doing solo bits. She also toured with the famous radio star Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians. This led her to New York where she worked as a very young chorus girl. She billed herself as Jimmie Joy. The casting guys at the new edition of Ziegfeld Follies in 1931 saw her and signed her. This Broadway exposure led to getting work in other musical revues and nightclubs in the USA and in London and Paris. When she returned to New York, she had a chance to dance with movie great George Raft.

Being from the LA area, she had been kicking around Hollywood her whole life. Although film tough guy George Raft is credited with giving Iris her first full-length film role in Rumba (1934), she had actually appeared in four films in 1930 as an extra or a chorus girl and had made her debut in 1928’s Chasing Husbands. She made several shorts in the New York area. Paramount Studios liked Iris in the two-reelers she had made at MGM and the Vanity Comedies shot for Educational Film Corporation and signed her to a long-term contract in 1934.

She flourished in pictures and made more than 80 films during the 1930s and 1940s. Among her most notable were Stage Struck (1936) that starred Warner Bros singing idol Dick Powell, matinee idol Warren William, and Joan Blondell, an MGM film called Mister Cinderella (1936) with Arthur Treacher and Betty Furness, Gold Diggers of 1937 starring Dick Powell and Joan Blondell and for which choreographer Busby Berkeley won an Academy Award® nomination, and One Third of a Nation with Sylvia Sydney rounded out the Thirties.

Always in high demand to play her signature floozies, cigarette girls, frowzy chorus girls, and gun molls, Adrian was kept busy throughout the 1940s with more of the same. She was always funny, no matter what she was playing. She just had the right look, the bleached blond hair, and the gum-chewing wisecracks that audiences loved. She stole every scene she was in, and she wiped the floor with the major stars when walking into camera range.

She started 1940 with a bang by appearing with the zany Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico) and suave John Carroll in the madcap comedy Go West at MGM. After a few more pictures, she landed in one of the biggest Paramount films of the War years. It was the first of the Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour ‘Road’ pictures called Road to Zanzibar (1941).

She made the popular Orchestra Wives in 1942 with Ann Rutherford, Lynn Bari, Cesar Romero, and Glenn Miller and his Orchestra over at 20th Century Fox. She followed that with a turn in Roxie Hart with dancing star Ginger Rogers. Sixty years later the story was turned into the smash Broadway and Hollywood musical film Chicago. Renee Zellweger and Catharine Zeta-Jones (Oscar® winner) starred in the remake. Betty Hutton was the star of The Stork Club (1945) and Adrian went along for the ride as a cheap brassy blond.

The 1940s were a very prolific time for Ms. Adrian as she appeared in at least 42 films. Some of her hits were The Paleface (1948) with Bob Hope and buxom Jane Russell, Flamingo Road (1949) with the formidable Joan Crawford, the splashy Technicolor Doris Day musical My Dream Is Yours (1949), and the backstage comedy vehicle Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) with TV comic Milton Berle and The Wizard of Oz’s lion Bert Lahr.

Iris Adrian kept busy in the 1950s, although there weren’t as many roles for her as before. Some of the significant 21 films she appeared in were My Favorite Spy (1951) with Bob Hope and Hedy Lamarr, The Helen Morgan Story (1957) with Ann Blyth and Paul Newman, the musical Blue Hawaii (1961) with Elvis Presley, Angela Lansbury and Joan Blackman, and The Errand Boy (1961) with Jerry Lewis.

As television made inroads into the film business, Adrian found fewer roles available. She dabbled in television and made a few commercials. To hedge inflation, she and her third husband, football star Ray “Fido” Murphy, invested in real estate and became very wealthy property owners.

As Adrian’s film career waned, Walt Disney came to her rescue and cast her in several of the big comedies coming out of that studio. She brightened That Darn Cat! (1965) with Hayley Mills, The Love Bug (1968) with Dean Jones and Buddy Hackett, Scandalous John (1971) with Brian Keith, The Apple Dumpling Gang (1974) with Don Knotts, Tim Conway and Marie Windsor, The Shaggy D.A. (1976) with Suzanne Pleshette and Jo Ann Worley, and Freaky Friday (1976) with Jody Foster and Patsy Kelly.

With film roles scarce, she guest-starred on The Ted Knight Show, Petticoat Junction, The Love Boat, The Lucy Show, Beverly Hillbillies, The Jack Benny Show, Green Acres, and Get Smart.

She made her final film, Herbie Goes Bananas, in 1980 with Cloris Leachman at the Disney Studio.

When the great Northridge earthquake struck in 1994, Adrian broke her hip and never recovered. She died at age 82 on September 17, 1994 from her injuries.