Who’s that girl?: Diana Lynn

A fresh-faced young beauty sporting a killer sense of comedic timing from an early age, Diana Lynn was a fixture in some of the funniest comedies of the 1940s and 50s. Lynn was born Dolores “Dolly” Loehr, but like so many of her contemporaries, the actress’ name was changed when she became a contract player for Paramount. She began her career in music, playing the piano with the Los Angeles Junior Symphony Orchestra, which precipitated her appearance in 1939’s They Shall Have Music with Joel McCrea. She appeared in an uncredited part as one of the child musicians in the movie, and again appeared as a musician in the similarly-themed 1941 picture There’s Magic in Music.

Lynn’s first acting role was in 1942 in The Major and the Minor, playing Lucy Hill, the precocious sister of Rita Johnson’s bitchy blonde. Lynn couldn’t have asked for a better acting debut–her costars were Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, and the film was the first to be directed by famed screenwriter Billy Wilder. The young actress certainly makes her mark–the smart-assed, wise-beyond-her-years budding scientist is one of the highlights of this utterly delightful comedy. As the only one who sees through Rogers’ charade (making her instantly smarter and more perceptive than every adult in the room), Lynn deftly portrays Lucy’s youthful cynicism with an irresistible sparkle.

In 1944, Lynn appeared in a film for another great writer/director, Preston Sturges. In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Lynn plays Emmy Kockenlocker, the wiseacre younger sister of Betty Hutton’s Trudy. When Trudy wakes up after a night of partying with a bevy of soldiers, she finds herself married and pregnant–though she cannot remember her husband’s name. The rather racy subject matter somehow slipped through the Production Code, and the movie was the most popular film of the year. Another notable supporting role came in 1948, when Lynn costarred with the soon-to-be-married Cary Grant and Betsy Drake in Every Girl Should Be Married (which marked Drake’s film debut). Lynn plays Julie, best friend to Drake’s Annabel, and helps her determined pal snag Dr. Grant for herself–whether he wants her or not.

Lynn may be best remembered for the three films she made with the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. In My Friend Irma (1949) and My Friend Irma Goes West (1950), Lynn plays the ditzy Irma’s (Marie Wilson) exasperated roommate, Jane, who winds up falling in love with Martin’s character, Steve. The films are based on the popular radio show (which also starred Wilson), and though Martin and Lewis play supporting roles in the first film, their popularity ended up convincing the folks at Paramount to exponentially increase their roles in the sequel. Five years later, Lynn reunited with the now-influential comedy duo for You’re Never Too Young. This movie marked a kind of “full circle” moment for Lynn–it was based on the film that introduced her to audiences, The Major and the Minor. In this version, Lewis takes on the Ginger Rogers role, with Lynn as the Ray Milland-type figure who believes Lewis to be a young boy in need of help (Martin again plays Lynn’s love interest in the film).

You’re Never Too Young was one of Lynn’s last big-screen performances. She made one more film in 1955–The Kentuckian, with Burt Lancaster–and, at the age of 30, retired from films. She moved to television at that point and guest-starred on several notable series and anthology shows, even starring as Tracy Lord in a 1959 television version of The Philadelphia Story (alongside Mary Astor, Gig Young, and Christopher Plummer). In 1965, she left Hollywood altogether, but reappeared onscreen in a small role in 1970’s Company of Killers with Van Johnson and–once again–Ray Milland. A year later, Lynn was offered the role of Helene, the wife of closeted homosexual B.Z. (Anthony Perkins) in Play It As It Lays (1972), but she sadly passed away in December 1971 after suffering a stroke. She was only 45 years old.

Diana Lynn’s film career was relatively short–only lasting fifteen years and 30 movies–but with her wit, charm, and ever-exuding warmth, the actress was certainly a welcome screen presence in each and every film she undertook.

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12 thoughts on “Who’s that girl?: Diana Lynn

  1. I remember Lynn well from the Irma movies and The Kentuckian. I’m sure I saw some of her other performances but my memory is playing fast and loose with my brain right now! She was such a little thing, delicate kind of beauty. Very nice tribute to her!

  2. Brandie, a most enjoyable profile of a young actress of the 1940s who made a big impression on me when I first started watching classic movies on television as a youngster. I think you put your finger on the source of her appeal–her intelligence and sparkle. Her pixie-faced looks and distinctive speaking voice helped too. I especially liked her in “The Major and the Minor” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” but also in “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” and its sequel, “Our Hearts Were Growing Up.”

  3. I often wondered what happened to Diana Lynn, and surprisingly I just read about her in Joan Didion’s new book, “Blue Nights.” Diana Lynn was friends with Joan Didion, and it was through Lynn’s connections that Didion and her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, were put in touch with the agencies that facilitated the adoption of their daughter. Lynn was supposed to restart her film career after devoting time to her marriage and four children. As you mentioned, she was cast in the film version of Didion’s book, “Play It As It Lays,” which I believe was produced by Didion, Dunne and John’s brother, producer and writer Dominick Dunne, but sadly she died from a stroke before the filming began. Her part in the film was played by Tammy Grimes. Thank you for writing about Diana Lynn, and other stars as well, I really enjoy your website.

  4. I think I’ve only seen her in The Major and the Minor, but she’s easily my favorite part of that film, and I say that as a huge Ginger Rogers fan. Diana steals every scene she’s in, just fantastic. No, wait, I’ve also seen Miracle on Morgan’s Creek. I should revisit that one. In any case, I definitely have some more Diana Lynn films to see!

  5. I am Diana Lynn, one of 6 girls born on October 1st 1947 named after the actress Diana Lynn. A nurse talked 6 new mothers of girls that day into naming each of us Diana Lynn. We are now 65 years old. I wish I could meet the other Diana Lynn’s born on that day.

  6. I was born on May 10th 1962 and my Dad said he named me after this stunning actress. I just saw her in the film “The Kentuckian”. Not sure if she was the school teacher or the other female in the film though.

  7. born feb. 21st, 1958, my mom named me after her also. curiosity led me here to see who i was named after. to have so many people name their daughters after her, she must have been quite an inspiration!!

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