Frances Gifford

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Mary Frances Gifford (December 7, 1920 – January 16, 1994) was an American actress who played leads and supporting roles in many 1930s and '40s


Career

Gifford was born and raised in Long Beach, California and at the age of 16 had applied to UCLA School of Law with no intention of pursuing an acting career. With a friend, she visited the studios of Samuel Goldwyn to watch a film being made and while there was spotted by a talent scout who brought her to the attention of Goldwyn, who signed her for an acting contract. After only receiving minor roles, she moved to RKO where she was cast in several uncredited supporting roles in films of the late 1930s directed by Frank Capra, including Stage Door (1937) starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.

In 1938 at the age of 18, she married character actor James Dunn and in 1939 landed her first leading role, in the low-budget Mercy Plane, opposite her husband. A planned retirement was interrupted briefly when she played another uncredited role in James Stewart's break-out film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). She played several more minor roles before she was, in 1941, loaned to Republic Pictures and cast in the role which would arguably produce her most enduring fame: as the semi-clad, Nyoka the Jungle Girl, a 15-chapter movie serial, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The role was the first time since Pearl White in the silent era that a female actor had played the lead in the movie serial genre. The following year, Republic made a sequel Perils of Nyoka but Gifford was no longer available and the heroine's part was played by Kay Aldridge. With Gifford's film career gaining momentum and Dunn's on the decline partly due to his battle with alcoholism, the marriage had failed by 1942. She left RKO for Paramount Pictures where she acted in several films including The Glass Key (1942). In 1943 she made another Tarzan type movie with Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan Triumphs at RKO. That year she also left Paramount and moved to the prestigious Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio with the sponsorship of an MGM executive.

At MGM there was more success playing leading roles in such films as Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) and She Went to the Races (1945) and the more notable The Arnelo Affair (1947). She also played in supporting roles including Thrill of a Romance (1945), with Esther Williams) and Luxury Liner (1948) with Jane Powell.


Later years

In 1948 Gifford was almost killed in a car accident, receiving severe head injuries, an event which sidelined her career and her health. She attempted a comeback in two early 1950s films, Sky Commando (1953) and Riding High (1950). However, during the 1950s her mental and physical health declined to the point where she was placed into Camarillo State Mental Hospital in 1958. She would spend almost the entire next 25 years in and out of various institutions.

In 1983 a journalist found her working in the Pasadena, California city library having apparently recovered. Gifford spent her final years in quiet obscurity and died of emphysema in a convalescent center in Pasadena on January 16, 1994 at the age of 73. Despite reports that she is the sister of football star Frank Gifford (also from southern California), the latter clearly indicates in his autobiography that his 'clan' consisted of a brother Waine and a sister Winona. Frances, evidently, was no relation.

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