In 1944, a young woman born and raised in North Dakota appeared to be on the fast-track to movie stardom.
In her first motion picture, Carol Thurston was given an important role in the Cecil B. DeMille movie “The Story of Dr. Wassell.” DeMille, the director of 65 previous movies, had nothing but praise for Thurston’s performance. He told a reporter that “she has the power of Lenore Ulric and the gentleness of Maude Adams,” two great theater actresses.
DeMille ranked Thurston along with Barbara Stanwyck and Gloria Swanson as the three actresses who best responded to directing.
Betty Lou Thurston was born Sept. 27, 1920, in Valley City, the only child to Harvey E. and Marie (O’Laughlin) Thurston. In 1930, the Thurstons moved to Forsyth, on the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana. While in Forsyth, Harvey sold cars and formed an acting repertory company in which his daughter participated.
In the late 1930s, the family relocated to Billings, 100 miles upstream on the river, where Betty Thurston attended high school. After the start of World War II, Harvey Thurston was hired by Lockheed, a large airplane manufacturing plant in Los Angeles. This gave Betty Thurstonan opportunity to pursue her acting ambition, and she enrolled at Bliss Hayden, a respected acting school (now the Beverly Hills Playhouse). While there, she changed her first name to Joan.
Meanwhile, DeMille was casting for his next movie about Dr. Corydon Wassell, a country physician who joined the Navy at the start of World War II and was sent to Java. Gary Cooper was selected to play Dr. Wassell, and one of the important roles DeMille needed to fill was that of the native nurse that the soldiers called “Three Martini.”
The director was tipped off that the perfect person to play that role was a student at Bliss Hayden. After meeting Thurston, DeMille was convinced he had found Three Martini. His only concern was if she could be made-up to look like a Pacific Islander.
After only a make-up test she was put under contract.
Among the cast members of “The Story of Dr. Wassell” were Lane Chandler, who was born near Park River, and Oliver Thorndike. Thorndike and Thurston became good friends, and columnist Louella Parsons reported that their relationship was “getting more and more serious.”
Fresh off the success of her first film, Thurston was hired by director Jean Negulesco to play the second female lead behind Hedy Lamarr in his film “The Conspirators. ” Thurston was given the role of Rosa, a Portuguese fisherwoman who helped Europeans flee the continent with the advancement of the Nazis. Unfortunately, most of her part in the film was cut.
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In 1945, Thurston made her third World War II movie, “China Sky.” The film was based on a Pearl S. Buck novel, and Thurston played the major role of Siu-Mei, a young Chinese hospital intern.
With her third straight ethnic role, Thurston was now hot property at the major studios whenever these roles occurred. Gossip columnists followed her every move. Some linked her with star Lew Ayers, others with Thorndike, and still others with former child star Freddie Bartholomew.
Hedda Hopper and Harrison Carroll both linked Thurston with war hero Col. David S. Thayer. The latter two columnists were correct when it was discovered that the two lovers eloped in November 1945.
Wanting to be a good wife, Thurston decided to leave films and concentrate on being Mrs. Thayer. Soon, she discovered that she missed making movies. However, major studios no longer called.
Over the next two years, Thurston made three low-budget films, one which was a Gene Autry western. In 1948, Universal-International offered her another ethnic role as Li-Ho-Kay in the movie “Rogue's Regiment.” In March 1949, Thurston and Thayer divorced.
Working only twice in minor movies in 1949, Thurston discovered a new medium where she could put her acting talent to use — television. Westerns were at their height during the 1950s, and she found herself in demand, appearing in “The Lone Ranger,” “Kit Carson,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Rawhide,” and many others. During that decade, Thurston continued to appear in B-movies.
Her only co-starring role was in 1953 in the Jungle Jim serial, “Killer Ape.” This marked her second appearance in a Johnny Weissmuller movie. The first was “Swamp Fire” in 1946.
Starting in 1957, Thurston was able to find some stability in her acting career. For the next five years, she received the recurring role of Emma Clanton in the television western “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.”
One interesting film in which Thurston appeared was the cult classic “The Hypnotic Eye.” This 1960 movie was about a mysterious hypnotist who put on a show and soon women began to disfigure themselves. One of these women was Thurston and another was played by actress Marcia Henderson, who later lived in West Fargo as Mrs. Bob Ivers. Bob Ivers was the television news director at KTHI (now KVLY) in Fargo.
On Feb. 7, 1962, Thurston married Robert Creighton Williams, a writer of numerous western novels and television scripts. On New Year’s Eve 1969, Thurston died suddenly. For the past 44 years, the prevailing rumor has been that she committed suicide, but her daughter Amanda Thayer, who was with her at the time, claims that she died in a Los Angeles hospital of heart failure.
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at firstname.lastname@example.org.)