Stunning cover girl who almost nagged a spot in the B western roster, Betty Jane Graham took the family route and retired before reaching any true milestones.
Betty Jane Graham was born on December 24, 1917, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Henry Duncan Graham and his wife, Edna “Mae” Kelley. Her older sister was Muriel Graham, born in Wisconsin in 1913. (IMDB lists her DOB as 1920, and she doubtlessly tried to make herself look younger when she hit Hollywood, but the 1930 census lists her at 12 years old, so that sounds about right).
Her father was a Wisconsin native who wed her mother, an Illinois native in the early 1910s. The family moved around a lot, first living in Wisconsin, then living in Minnesota where Betty was born, moving to Indianapolis, Indiana, then Kansas City, Missouri and in the end settling in Emory, DeKalb, Georgia. Her father, who was college educated, was a film industry sales manager, including his longest and last employment with Universal as southern district manager. The family, while not rich, was well off.
Betty changed schools a lot as a child, and developed a special interest in the performing arts. She decided to become an actress, and went on to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. To make extra pocket money, she started modeling and was soon a sought after model. In 1943, she was summoned to Hollywood to act in Cover girl, a Rita Hayworth movie.
Betty originally came to Hollywood to appear in Cover girl. I repeat the story again:
Her first credit is Cover Girl, a now classic Rita Hayworth/Gene Kelly Technicolor musical. While today remembered primarily a springboard for the two stars (Gene Kelly, loaned out from MGM; finally got the treatment he deserved at his home studio after this movie, and Rita crawled out of the B movies and supporting role sin A movies and got her due with Gilda and other great movies), it’s a fun, sweet movie nonetheless. Rita is simply enchanting, and Gene, while his character is somewhat of a jerk, redeems himself with his superb, athletic dancing. A great and breezy way to pass an hour and a half!
Betty was one of 14 cover girls who appeared in it. The others were Betty Jane Hess, Eileen McClory, Dusty Anderson, Jinx Falkenburg, Helen Mueller, Anita Colby, Francine Counihan and so on.
Unlike many of her fellow cover girls, Betty stayed in Hollywood for a longer run. Her second (uncredited appearance) is in Louisiana Hayride, quite a predictable and ultimately unfunny comedy with Judy Canova in the lead. When Judy’s the lead, it’s clear what kind of a movie it is – featuring hillbillies and showing their (mis)adventures around the US. While Judy is as good as ever, the movie lacks everything else – a good story, common sense and originality. The supporting actors are also only so-so.
Like fellow model Eileen McClory, she appeared in They Live in Fear, a WW2 propaganda movie about a German intellectual who escapes Nazi Germany after seeing his professor being killer in the Dachau concentration camp. His life in America is soon threatened by a careless mistake of a colleague. Like many of the propaganda movies, it’s zero art and all “giving a message” film, but that’s what is to be expect of it. Plus, it gives Otto Kureger, a superb actor, a chance to play the lead (he was mostly a support in A class movies). The movie is little seen today and can be tagged as sadly mediocre.
Betty reached the pinnacle of her career with Rough Ridin’ Justice, a B western where she played the lead. From an uncredited extra to the lead in just one step, whoa, and to add a bonus, it’s a decent, well made B western. The story is interesting enough, and the movie flows seamlessly from beginning to the end. Betty got kudos from the critics for her performance, and should have stayed in B western movies if she wanted to continue her career.
Yet she did not, opting to retire to raise a family, and thus it was bye bye Hollywood.
Betty did not have a tumultuous love life, nor did she make any shocking newspaper headlines.
Betty Jane married her first and only husband, Robert Defiel, on July 23, 1944, in Los Angeles. Robert Matthew Defiel was born on July 15, 1916, in Minnesota to Matthew J. Haller, a prominent civil engineer, and Caroline E. Linder. An insurance broker by trade, he was married once before to Ani Kaster in October 1942, but they were divorced in 1943. His brother, George, was to become the president of Colorado and Southern Railway and Fort Worth and Denver Railway.
Betty Jane gave birth to her only child, daughter Kellin Graham Defiel, on August 21, 1947. Both Betty and Robert were actively involved in running their business, which specialized in construction bonding. Defiel became a distinguished citizen of Claremont, and was active in the local politics – he endorsed his friend Fred Warner Neal for Congress in 1968. Robert was a golfer who played golf at Red Hills in Rancho Cucamonga, and Betty Jane preferred tennis and swimming. Both were sailors. The family moved around, living in Laguna, then Oregon and Palm Springs.
Her daughter married Kenneth Scudder in 1995.
Betty Jane Defiel died on July 1, 1998, in Palm Springs, California.
Her husband remained in Palm Springs, where he died on December 24, 2007.