from our forthcoming March 2018 issue
Irish stage and screen star Peggy Cummins, who died on 29 December 2017, having just turned 92, was petite and demure-looking but had a strength of personality and no-nonsense approach that ensured she remained firmly grounded. Her tiny frame also concealed a powerful voice with a hint of huskiness that gave it a sensual quality, although she was usually cast as the wholesome rather than sultry type.
West End theatre was where Cummins first found fame, her breakthrough role coming in 1943 when she starred in Junior Miss, playing a 12-year-old at the age of 17. By then, she already had five years’ stage experience, having begun at 12 in her home town of Dublin (she was born in Prestatyn, North Wales, but purely by accident). She made her first film just as World War II broke out and her screen career saw her playing perky younger sisters and other fluffy roles that barely did justice to her talent and versatility but did demonstrate her incredible screen presence.
In 1945 she headed to Hollywood to play the lead in Forever Amber, 20th Century Fox’s lavish Technicolor adaptation of the best-selling historical novel. Filming was under way when Darryl Zanuck replaced Cummins with the more buxom but less spirited Linda Darnell, perhaps a blessing in disguise since the film was an expensive flop. Cummins went on to make several run-of-the-mill features for Fox, the best of which was Escape co-starring Rex Harrison, one of two films she made for Joseph Mankiewicz.
Cummins’ final US project was to provide her most satisfying and enduring screen role. In Gun Crazy, scripted by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, she plays Annie Laurie Starr, a sideshow sharp-shooter who hooks up with an ex-soldier (John Dall) and persuades him to join her on a bank-robbing spree destined to end in tragedy. It was one of the most effective post-war films dealing with the frustration of the military returning to the monotony of civilian life and her powerful performance as the glamorous but ruthless manipulator gave Cummins the chance to explore a darker side to her character.
Despite the lack of meaty roles in Hollywood, Cummins recalled with pleasure mingling with the stars. Mention of her rumoured affairs with Cary Grant and Howard Hughes would be met with feigned incredulity and she would neither confirm nor deny such speculations. But she resisted the charms of celebrities and returned to England at the end of 1950 to wed Derek Dunnett, heir to Carters’ Tested Seeds. The marriage lasted until his death in 2000 and produced a son and daughter. Family became her priority, but she continued to act on stage and screen and never regretted her departure from America.
British cinema didn’t offer anything to rival Gun Crazy, although she played a shoplifting young mother in the effective female police drama Street Corner and made her one foray into the horror genre as gutsy Joanna Harrington in Jacques Tourneur’s atmospheric Night of the Demon. Both this film and trucking drama Hell Drivers (in which she shared some steamy scenes with Stanley Baker and proved she could be one of the boys) were recently restored by the BFI and Cummins made personal appearances at the premieres, winning over a new generation of fans to her work.
By 1961, when Cummins made her last film, the movie scene was changing and the type of gentle comedy that had been the staple of her career was no longer in vogue. While she was a versatile, talented and professional film actor, it’s tempting to imagine that the stage was where Peggy Cummins really shone – the energy and sincerity of her performances must have made her theatrical work a joy to watch.
In recent years, she received well-deserved attention at festivals and screenings, although she was not one to analyse her craft and didn’t look back on her career with regret or nostalgia, preferring to live in the present and take pleasure in her family, travels and meeting people. She received compliments and correspondence from admirers all over the world and was always polite and gracious, if a little bemused by their attention. However, watching her screen work, above all her electric performance as the gun-toting Annie Laurie Starr, it is clear that she had a talent that cinema never really explored to its fullest.