A Face in the Crowd: Horse of a Different Color
By Chuck Stephens
Forties near-star Wanda Hendrix spoke in tongues and rode a painted pony
“I hate an apple,” insists 19-year-old Wanda Hendrix, determined to keep the encroaching Irish out of her Mexican accent in actor-director Robert Montgomery’s exemplary ultranoir Ride the Pink Horse (47). She’s remarking on the contents of her lunch. That “h,” as in Hendrix—born Dixie Wanda Hendrix in Jacksonville, Florida in 1928—is silent: “I ate an apple.” Montgomery listens to her with his loveliest bullet- headed sneer and then calls her by a pet name, “Sitting Bull.” Ride the Pink Horse is pure pulp perfection, and Hendrix is a heroine with a jalapeño difference. Five foot two, 85 pounds, and painted south-of-the-border brown, Hendrix’s Pila shows up in an inordinately spangled dress with a shawl draped over her head and immediately steals the film with an Oscar-vaunted, authentically awkward performance for the ages. The more dolled up Pila gets (spit-curl bangs and an entire lily pad stuck in her hair), the more comically she resembles a big-eyed cartoon mouse caught red-pawed in a Michoacán kitchen, mole dripping from every whisker.
A wisp of a green-eyed girl on the local stage, Hendrix found herself talent-agented away to Hollywood and a Warner Bros. contract when she was barely old enough to drive. She was one of mid-century Hollywood’s most interesting would-be stars, her publicly traded marital woes and slow descent into nothing in particular one of its minor tragedies. She’d started on screen by displaying her (always stagy) “versatility” with accents, and by going for parts that stood out even when they were small. She made her debut as Else, the char-girl with the thickened brogue who develops an ill-fated allegiance with Charles Boyer in Confidential Agent (45), then reemerged in 1947 as flatly accented all-American ingénues in the Warners meller Nora Prentiss and in a piece of Bing Crosby’s lint called Welcome Stranger. Next came Ride the Pink Horse and Hendrix’s ne plus ultra as the Mexican waif from some rural backwater that, judging by the occasional drifts in her accent, might be geographically adjacent to Transylvania.
Prince of Foxes
In 1946 Hendrix appeared as a Coronet magazine cover girl; Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, spotted her there and looked her up. The romance percolated for two years, and the couple finally married in 1949. It was a disaster. There’s a haunting image from Life magazine of Hendrix and Murphy sitting together on their living room rug, looking over the combat soldier’s many medals and military decorations; Wanda looks apprehensive, Audie about ready to explode. Their marriage ended a year later, amid tales of Murphy’s post-traumatic psychosis and harrowing suggestions that husband had more than once held wife at gunpoint, screaming in terror at the memory of the Battle of Anzio. The couple had no children but together produced one film, Alfred E. Green’s Sierra (50), an oater in which Hendrix finds herself high up in a preposterous California man-chasm, surrounded by Dean Jagger, Burl Ives (on a mule), and a wild-eyed Murphy, who saves her life by shooting the venom out of her rattlesnake bite. (You read that right.) She reinvented her Pink Horse persona for the Mickey Rooney Western My Outlaw Brother (51), her brogue bumping up against her burr throughout the film. Nobody noticed. She sizzled and showed off her hips in the Roger Corman–produced Highway Dragnet (54), then married millionaire James Stack and briefly retired. By 1958 they’d divorced (with charges of “mental cruelty” on both sides) and Hendrix was working again, on TV mostly. She was just 30 years old.
The Sixties weren’t especially kind, aside from a tiny but savory bit in the Henry Silva “Rat Pack” thriller Johnny Cool (63) but Hendrix appeared regularly on TV, even working with Robert Montgomery’s daughter Elizabeth in an episode of Bewitched. Her final roles for the big screen, in The Oval Portrait (72) and One Minute to Death (72), never got there: the pair of inadvertently arty, Canadian-made Poe “adaptations” went theatrically unreleased with Hendrix’s voice redubbed by someone else. When she died of pneumonia in 1981 at the age of 51, the obsessives then still known as “movie buffs” were the only ones who remembered her. Those of us who’ve always adored that absurd super-burrito of hairstyles she wears throughout Ride the Pink Horse never forgot.