Eleanor Prentiss is one of those actresses who came to Hollywood owning to her looks, with absolutely no acting experience, and then fell in love not with the glitz and glamour of Tinsel town, but with the gentle art of acting itself. Eleanor thus became an serious theater actress and went into self imposed movie exile, without achieving any Hollywood success and frankly not even caring about it. Let’s learn more!
Eleanor Josephine Johnson was born on October 7, 1911, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Edward H. Johnson and Ruth Stockman. She was the oldest of three children – her younger siblings were twins Wallace and Olive, born in 1913. Her father was an attorney.
She attended public schools in Fort Dodge, and then went to Iowa State College. While at university she majored in physical education. After graduation, she went to live and work in Chicago. In 1933, wearing the colors of the Lake Shore Athletic club, won the fifty yard dash in the Central A. A. U. swimming championships for women. Due to her exquisite blonde visage, Eleanor was selected by a group of prominent artists to represent a large soap company at the Chicago Fair.
Upon completing this assignment she decided to try her hand at acting and went to Hollywood. Her first contract was with a company producing Western pictures and she was starred in two of these films. Unfortunately I could not find any information about these movies, as she made them under a different name.
Her all ’round athletic prowess stood her in good stead. An excellent horsewoman, it was predicted that she would be the greatest female Western star, but fate intervened again and she was chosen in a Los Angeles newspaper contest as the girl with the most beautiful face in California. This led to another motion-picture contract and here we go!
Eleanore’s first known movie on IMDB is Thin Ice, the oh-happy -happy-happy Sonja Henie musical. You probably know by now, if you read this blog, that I am not a big Henie fan and find her movies brainless and only mildly entertaining. Thin ice is probably better than most, but still not good enough. Luckily, Eleanore’s next movie is a better type of musical (IMHO) – Something to Sing About, starring none other than the incomparable James Cagney! Cagney always nails it as a dancer, and the same is true here – his wild kinetic energy just slips of him in doves when he does anything physical, especially dance! The plot is simple enough (a New York hoofer becomes a Hollywood star), and the solid music, good dancing and a decent cast make this a minor hit.
Her next movie, In Old Chicago, wasn’t too shabby either 😛 . A typical old school movie of quality, it boasts a very effective love triangle in the form of Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Don Ameche, and an intriguing story based of the great San Francisco fire of 1871. Pair that with good production values and sturdy film making, and we have a winner!
Eleanor’s last movie, made in 1943, was Let’s Face It, a funny and breezy Bob Hope/Betty Hutton vehicle. Originally a very risqué comedy with plenty of sexual subtext, (the plot says it all: if jealous wives pretending to have their own love nest to get revenge on their philandering husbands. Involved in their schemes are soldier Bob Hope and fat farm proprietor Betty Hutton, creating marital discord and getting hope in hot water with the army.). Sadly, it was watered down to a benign and not especially smart comedy, but Bob Hope make sit work.
And that was it from Eleanor!
Eleanor married her first husband, Earl Cooke, in Champagne, Illinois, in 1934. The marriage broke up by early 1936, and in 1937, so frequently seen with Nat Pendleton that people started to think the two were pretty serious. Pendelton aside, Eleanor filed suit for divorce charging her husband with punching her on the chin without provocation. She won her divorce in May 1937, claiming her husband threw her down the stairs on their first wedding anniversary. It seems that Eleanor managed to escape an abusive man, and good for her!
After her movie career ended, Eleanor carved a theatrical career for herself in New York. Here is a short excerpt:
Most ordinary people would have been contented with this rather meteoric rise in their affairs, but not Eleanor. She wanted to become an actress and be known for her acting ability rather than her athletic qualities. In respect to this she says, “I put the cart before the horse and now I have to try and reverse it.” Suiting the action to the desire she got a release from her contract to come to New York to study dramatic art and in addition to her modeling she attends classes at the Moscow Art Theater three days a week. She has made a great deal of progress and now has a contract with a summer stock company for this season. At the present time she feels that her great love. is the theater and until she has become a success on Broadway she says she will not return to the movies, no matter how attractive the offer may be.
Eleanor also continued to do modeling assignments:
Eleanor came to our office with the same determination to be a success in this business that she has to be a success on the stage. She says that next to the stage she prefers modeling, because she finds that it gives her a real chance to display her dramatic ability. Artists like her particularly because she is a great help to them in improvising interesting poses. She is one of the few girls whom we didn’t have to tell how to make up. She is natural in her appearance and knows the value of it. She has excellent posture and she thinks that these two things are more than half the battle. “Walk with chin up and shoulders back and people will notice you. Be slovenly and you are one of the mob.” That is her advice to all women.
Eleanor settled into the summer stock/theater life and seemed very happy with it. Unfortunately, her marriage with Herschel disintegrated in 1948, and they divorced in 1949. Herschel remarried in 1952 to Isabella Hunnewell Lee Livingston and died on August 15, 1991.
Eleanor acted in her last Broadway play in 1948, and from then on she did some regional theater until her retirement.
Eleanor continued living in New York after her retirement. As far as I can tell, she didn’t remarry and had no children.
Eleanor Johnson Prentiss died on August 14, 1979. She was buried in Fort Dodge, Iowa.