I admit it. I am a Troy Donahue fan.
There I said it. Not surprising since I love and have been writing about
Sixties starlets for over ten years. If there ever was a male version of a
starlet, it was Troy. I purchased the DVD box set Warner Bros. Romance Classics
Collection featuring four of his early Sixties movies and recently viewed My Blood Runs Cold (1964) from Warner
Bros Archive as a DVD-on-Demand. The pairing of Troy Donahue as a loon and Joey
Heatherton as the blonde he desires in this suspense film didn’t burn up the
silver screens across the country and left most critics cold, but the coupling
of America’s favorite bland blonde boy with the Ann-Margret wannabe made for
bad cinema you just got to love.
By 1964 Troy Donahue had reached super
stardom and was one of the most popular young actors at the time, but he was
extremely unhappy with the roles being offered him. He could be lackluster at
times and was by no means a great actor, but with his looks Troy didn’t have to
be, as his boy-next-door charisma made teenage girls (and some men) swoon. His
film career began in 1957 with small roles in a number of films including Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), Summer Love (19580, Live Fast, Die Young (1958), and Monster on the Campus (1958) before he was cast opposite Sandra Dee
as tortured naïve young lovers in A
Summer Place (1959) for Warner Bros. The film, beautifully filmed off the
coast of Carmel, California doubling for Maine and featuring a lush score by
Max Steiner, was a huge hit especially with the teenage set. The studio wisely
then signed Donahue (who shared the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer –
Male for his performance) to a contract. He then co-starred on the lightweight
TV detective series Surfside 6
(1960-62) in between essaying the romantic leading man in a series of glossy
romances (most directed by Delmer Daves) opposite some of the prettiest
starlets of the day.
In Parrish (1961) he is a tobacco farmer and was described as being “more than a boy. He was not yet a man—dangerously in-between…and between three girls!” They were Connie Stevens as an easy farm gal, Diane McBain as a bitchy gold digger, and Sharon Hugueny as a sweet rich girl. In Susan Slade (1961) he is a struggling writer in love with Connie Stevens who harbors a dreadful secret (her little brother is actually her illegitimate son!) and doesn’t think she deserves happiness. Donahue won the Photoplay Gold Medal Award for Most Popular Male Actor of 1961 and continued his streak of glossy romantic dramas with the lush travelogue Rome Adventure (1962) as a grad student who falls for librarian Suzanne Pleshette (whom he was married to for a short time) though he is involved with worldly older woman Angie Dickinson. He played yet another college student in Palm Springs Weekend (1963) who on Spring Break has a fling with local gal Stefanie Powers. Then there was a change of pace role as a cavalry officer in the Raoul Walsh directed westernA Distant Trumpet (1964), but to keep his teenage girls fans happy he is torn between widow Suzanne Pleshette and snooty Easterner Diane McBain.
Balking at any more romantic hero roles, Warner Bros. put Troy Donahue on suspension. Donahue defended himself and commented, “There comes a time in every performer’s life when he wants to branch out and play a real, dimensional character.” After five months without work, producer/director William Conrad cast him as Ben Gunther in My Blood Runs Cold (1965). Conrad opined, “The kid’s an actor, and a good one.” On the surface Ben looks like the typical Donahue role a romantic who sweeps a spoiled socialite off her feet claiming that they are reincarnated lovers. But in fact he is a murderous psycho who has escaped from the loony bin.
With much fanfare, Carol Lynley was announced as Donahue’s love interest (she was one of the few baby doll blondes who hadn’t worked with him before) and Jeffrey Hunter was cast as her almost fiancée. However, when filming began in late September 1964, Lynley and Hunter were replaced by Joey Heatherton and busy TV actor Nicolas Coster.
Sultry blue-eyed blonde Joey Heatherton was a late comer to the baby doll brigade of nymphets of the late Fifties/early Sixties. The daughter of song-and-dance man Ray Heatherton known to TV audiences as the “Merry Mailman,” she began ballet training at an early age and came under the tutelage of George Balanchine. Her interests quickly turned to acting and singing. She made her Broadway debut in her mid-teens as part of the ensemble in the hit musical The Sound of Music in 1959 and a year later co-starred with Jane Fonda and Dean Jones in the play There Was a Little Girl. She headed to Hollywood soon after and had to turn down Lolita because of her disapproving daddy. Her film debut was as the cheatin’ whorin’ wife of dumb air force veteran Nick Adams who is falsely accused of killing one of her lovers in Twilight of Honor (1963), which snagged her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer – Female. She then beat out a number of starlets when cast as Susan Hayward’s daughter, a red-haired nymphet, who carves up her mother’s lover in the trashy high gloss soap Where Love Has Gone (1964) before being mesmerized by Troy Donahue’s ramblings of reincarnation in My Blood Runs Cold.
Troy Donahue was very excited about the movie (even with his new co-stars) and exclaimed to Louella Parsons, “I love this picture! I’ve never done a chiller before. In fact, until now I seldom did anything other than smoke cigarettes and drive off in a car.”
My Blood Runs Cold is beautifully filmed in black-and-white on location on the Monterey Peninsula in Northern California, where shots of crashing waves on the rocky shoreline and homes high on the bluffs gives it a nice gothic affect. The movie starts off like any other Donahue romance. His motorcycle-riding drifter Ben Gunther flirts with beautiful blonde socialite Julie Merriday (pouting Heatherton channeling Connie Stevens right down to the wispy speaking voice) who has just run him off the road in her snazzy sports car. He asks to see her again despite the presence of stoic Coster as her sophisticated boyfriend Harry (shades of rivals Hampton Fancher in Parrish or Bert Convy in Susan Slade). The only difference is that, in this movie, Ben insists he and Julie are reincarnated lovers from a past life. Julie at first pooh-poohs that idea. At dinner, upstanding Ben impresses Julie’s controlling tycoon father Julian (Barry Sullivan) and charms her flamboyant Aunt Sarah (Jeannette Nolan whose wardrobe and hair styles are even more outrageous than Joey’s).
Chic Julie wisely still doesn’t buy Ben’s reincarnation ramblings until he gifts her with a locket of her great-great grandmother (who she is a dead ringer for) found in a hidden underwater cave, which they swim to and Aunt Sarah confirms Ben’s stories of the Merriday clan.
Tender Ben quietly reels in Julie (“When he gets near me, I fall into a thousand pieces.”), who partly goes to him in rebellion against her disapproving daddy who now thinks Ben is a gold digging grifter while Julie calls him “the most fascinating man I ever met.” The girl doesn’t get out much obviously. Once he has Julie, Ben begins to unravel flinging his body around the room while flailing his arms as if he is having a seizure or about to turn into a werewolf, which may have helped the picture. After the caretaker of Julie’s home turns up dead, number one suspect Ben convinces Julie to run away with him and they sneak off into the night on his boat as a huge storm hits. After they reach calm waters, Ben has another of his thrashing seizures topside while Julie accidentally discovers Ben Gunther’s diary below. Realizing that Ben is an imposter who made up the reincarnation tales, Julie confronts him just as a rescue helicopter flies over head. Knowing that the authorities are after him, Ben pilots his boat back to shore and then drags Julie around with the police in hot pursuit. He winds up on the top of the Del Monte Sand Plant and after trying to strangle Harry, suffers another seizure and falls to his death.
My Blood Runs Cold was much too talky and not scary or suspenseful enough to attract thriller fans (all murders are off-screen and not a drop of blood flows). Donahue’s unstable character most likely turned off his fan base as well who were used to him playing the good guy. Reviews didn’t help either and most critics felt Donahue didn’t make the character believable. In his defense, he most likely was hampered from showing Ben’s insanity from the get go as the director wanted the audience to keep guessing if he really was the reincarnated lover of Heatherton’s ancestor so Donahue plays Ben sympathetically. Instead they should have gone for high camp and had Donahue go for broke playing the obvious loon from the start. The “mystery” drags on way too long and by the time of the revelation the audience is asleep. It is fun trying to guess what hair style will Joey sport or what will she wear (her outfits range from a baby doll negligee to tight blue jeans to a form-fitting evening dress) in her next scene.
Performance-wise Heatherton is surprisingly quite effective, and though the chemistry is lacking between her and Troy, makes for an interesting, and well-coiffure, heroine. She performs with conviction and when at the beginning when she tells Ben to stay away from her, you believe it.
While doing press interviews for the movie, Donahue defended his risk taking role and remarked, “In this business if you stand still, the parade eventually passes you. I figured it was time to try to and annex the more adult segment of the audience. Sure, I want to hold on to the teen-agers. With my fingers crossed and some luck I think I can manage to do both.” Unfortunately, Troy was proven wrong and lost both. Warner Bros. did not renew his option and (as with his female counterpart Sandra Dee when she went freelance), the roles in A-productions dried up for him. He finished out the Sixties in such mediocre fare as Come Spy with Me(1967), Those Fantastic Flying Fools (1967), and The Lonely Profession (1969).
Movie-wise, Joey Heatherton fared even worse. Despite her determination not to be typed as a sexpot (“I want to be a good all-around actress, not a sex symbol….which would attract attention for awhile. But to repeat the old vaudeville joke—what are you going to do for an encore?”) she was due to her myriad appearances on all the top variety programs of the day (Hullabaloo, The Dean Martin Show, The Hollywood Palace,The Andy Williams Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, This Is Tom Jones, Dean Martin Presents The Golddiggers, etc.). This is where Heatherton’s sizzling personality shown through best singing, dancing, and shimmying sexily clad in costumes highlighting her curvaceous figure in front of a live audience. In between, she found time to entertain the troops in Vietnam as part of Bob Hope’s USO tours also appearing on his variety specials and did land one dramatic role that as Curley’s wife in the acclaimed Of Mice and Men (1967) for television. She even released a few singles during this period including “My Blood Runs Cold” but none of them charted. Despite her amazing popularity especially among men, the tantalizing sex symbol unjustly didn’t appear on the big screen until seven years after My Blood Runs Cold in the awful Bluebeard (1972) starring Richard Burton.
Amusingly, cult director John Waters paid tribute to Troy Donahue and Joey Heatherton when he cast them as parents of some of his teenage characters in his musical comedy send-up on Fifties juvenile delinquent movies Cry-Baby (1990) starring Johnny Depp. Unfortunately, they do not share a scene together as Troy is paired with Mink Stole and Joey with Joe Dallesandro.
Tom Lisanti is the author of seven books on Sixties Hollywood including his latest, Dueling Harlows: Race to the Silver Screen. Visit his web site www.sixtiescinema.com