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Debra Paget


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Debra Paget (born August 19, 1933) is an American actress and entertainer who made a name for herself in the 1950s and early-1960s in a variety of feature films including Cecil B. DeMille's epic The Ten Commandments and Love Me Tender, the film debut of Elvis Presley.

Early life and career

Debra Paget was born in Denver, Colorado to show-business parents. Her birth name was Debralee Griffin; she later took the stage name of Paget from two of her ancestors, Lord and Lady Paget of England. The family moved from Denver to Los Angeles in the 1930s to be close to the developing film industry. Her mother, actress Margaret Griffin, was determined that Debra and her siblings would also make their careers in show business. This ambition was realized: Paget's sisters Judith ("Teala Loring") and Lezlie ("Lisa Gaye"), and her brother Frank ("Ruell Shayne") all entered the business as either cast or crew.

Paget had her first professional job at age 8, and acquired some stage experience at 13 when she acted in a 1946 production of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. In the period 1950-1956 she also took part in six original radio plays for Family Theater. During those same years, she read parts in four episodes of Lux Radio Theater, sharing the microphone with such actors as Burt Lancaster, Tyrone Power, Cesar Romero, Ronald Colman, and Robert Stack. The latter set included dramatizations of two of her feature films.

Paget's first notable film role was as "Tina Riconti" in Cry of the City, a 1948 crime drama directed by Robert Siodmak. Fresh out of high school in 1949, she acted in three other films before being signed by 20th Century-Fox.

Her first vehicle under Fox was 1950's Broken Arrow, a film that James Stewart credits with reviving his acting career after World War II. (Stewart had served in the Air Force reserve, rising to the rank of Major General.) Paget played an Indian maiden who gives up her life to save Stewart's character. A box office success, the film was good for her career too. She went on to starring roles in a variety of films, appearing along with such durable actors as James Stewart, Richard Basehart, Michael Rennie, Cornel Wilde, Raymond Massey, Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anthony Quinn, Edward G. Robinson, Elvis Presley, Joseph Cotten, Robert Wagner.

Selected film roles

Belles on their Toes

Released in 1950, Cheaper by the Dozen is based on the real-life story of efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth and his large family. Belles on Their Toes is the 1952 sequel starring Jeanne Crain, Myrna Loy, Jeffrey Hunter, and Edward Arnold. Paget replaced Patti Bailey as "Martha Gilbreth", the third oldest daughter, in the well-regarded comedy.

House of Strangers

In this film from early in her career, Paget plays "Maria Domenico", a largely decorative role. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the 1948 film noir classic stars Edward G. Robinson, Susan Hayward, and Richard Conte as the chief members of the turbulent Monetti family. (The film is also known as East Side Story.)

Princess of the Nile

Set in A.D. 1249, this 1954 film stars Paget in dual roles as Shalimar, an Egyptian princess striving to rid her country of its Bedouin conquerors, and as Taura the dancing girl. Via a secret underground canal, the regal princess swims to the seedy establishment in town where, as the fiery Taura, she plies her terpsichorean wares—and is a cunning spy against the forces of evil, as personified by Michael Rennie, who plays the Bedouin bad guy. The Technicolor production also features Jeffrey Hunter, Dona Drake, and Michael Ansara. It is typical action-adventure fare, notable chiefly for Taura's energetic dance numbers, which the Hays Office, following its prohibition of suggestive dancing, reportedly trimmed.

White Feather

A sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans distinguishes this 1955 film from most others of its period. It shares that quality with Paget's earlier Broken Arrow. It tells the story of the peace mission from the US cavalry to the Cheyenne Indians in Wyoming during the 1870s. Here she plays "Appearing Day", the daughter of a chief. Like Paget's character in Broken Arrow, Appearing Day falls in love with a white cavalry officer, played by Robert Wagner; unlike in the earlier film, she does not die, but weds her paramour. Jeffrey Hunter and Hugh O'Brian play Indian braves.

Seven Angry Men

This 1955 historical drama stars Raymond Massey reprising his role in Santa Fe Trail as the abolitionist John Brown. Jeffrey Hunter portrays Owen, Brown's eldest son. Paget is "Elizabeth Clark", Owen's love interest. Although the performances of all three actors are generally praised, reviews of the film are mixed.

The Haunted Palace

Vincent Price stars in this 1963 horror film, which was Debra Paget's last feature film. Lon Chaney, Jr. also makes one of his last screen appearances. Roger Corman directs. Though it is billed as based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and was filmed in the middle of Corman's "Poe cycle", the film actually owes much more to the writing of H. P. Lovecraft. Paget is "Ann Ward", one of the residents of the New England village menaced by Price when his spirit returns to possess the body of a visiting descendant and seek revenge on the descendants of those who burned him at the stake.

Leaving the studio system

The Hollywood studio system dominated American feature film production in the first half of the 20th century. Under it, an actor would sign an exclusive contract to make films for a major studio, such as Fox. An actor would be slated for a specific number of films and could count on appearing with some of the top stars of the day in films produced with at least reasonable competence. Thus, actors just starting out could be sure of getting experience and exposure.

It was a system that worked well, at first, for Paget; she had beauty and talent, and her early Fox films did well, so the studio bolstered her film career. However, by the mid-1950s it was clear to Fox executives that she could not carry a film on her own. Also, in 1955 she broke the exclusivity clause of her contract: White Feather was not a Fox film. The studio dropped her contract; 1957's The River's Edge was the last film she made for Fox.

After that, Paget's career began to decline. She was typically cast in "exotic" roles such as South Sea Island maidens or middle-eastern harem girls. She travelled to Germany in 1959 to join the cast of Fritz Lang's two-film adventure saga (called in America Journey to the Lost City) in a role that recalled her Shalimar/Taura of Princess of the Nile. Like the Egyptian epic, "Lost City" is remembered chiefly for her energetic dance scenes. She acted in a pair of films shot in Italy. Her final feature film was The Haunted Palace, a 1963 horror film directed by Roger Corman for American International Pictures.

Paget had done television work, both comedy and drama, throughout her career. Her last performance in this medium was in a December 1965 episode of Burke's Law. She retired from entertainment in 1965, after marrying a wealthy Chinese-American oil executive.

Paget turned to Christianity. She hosted her own show, An Interlude with Debra Paget on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), a Christian network, in the early 90s, and also was involved in Praise the Lord. She comes out of retirement occasionally to appear on TBN as a guest. Currently, she lives in Houston, Texas, where her sisters Meg and Lezlie Gae (stage name: Lisa Gaye) also reside.

Marriages and other relationships

In 1958, Paget was married for four months to actor and singer David Street; the marriage was annulled. She married Budd Boetticher, a prominent director, in 1960. They separated after 22 days, and their divorce became official in 1961. (In his later years, Boetticher ascribed the failure of his marriage to Paget to the daunting difficulties he encountered when he went to Mexico to make a film about the life of his friend, legendary bullfighter Carlos Arruza.) Paget left the entertainment field in 1964 after marrying Louis C. Kung, a Chinese-American nephew of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek who was successful in the oil industry. This third marriage produced a son, Greg. Kung and Paget were divorced in 1980.


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