Betta St. John, who portrayed the lovely island girl Lita in the original Broadway production of South Pacific and starred as a princess alongside Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the MGM romantic comedy Dream Wife, has died. She was 93.
St. John died June 23 of natural causes at an assisted living facility in Brighton, England, her son, TV producer Roger Grant, told The Hollywood Reporter.
The California native played one of the survivors of an airline crash, who is chased by a crocodile in Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957) — the first Tarzan film in 15 years and the first one in color — and then returned for Tarzan the Magnificent (1960). Both films starred Gordon Scott as the King of the Jungle.
St. John also starred with Stewart Granger, Ann Blyth and Robert Taylor in All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953); with Victor Mature, Piper Laurie and Vincent Price in the 3-D adventure Dangerous Mission (1954); and with Arthur Kennedy in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn (1955).
At age 10, she sang and made her onscreen debut in Destry Rides Again (1939), starring Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart.
St. John had what she called “her first grown-up movie part” when she portrayed Tarji, a Middle Eastern princess who becomes engaged to businessman Clemson Reade (Grant) after he foolishly splits with his fiancé (Kerr), in Dream Wife (1953), directed and co-written by Sidney Sheldon.
The actress, who was married to late English actor-singer Peter Grant, lived in London over the years and made several movies in the U.K., including the Christopher Lee-starring horror films Corridors of Blood (1958), also featuring Boris Karloff, and Horror Hotel (1960).
“My last film, Horror Hotel, was sort of an embarrassment because I didn’t like horror movies,” she said in a 2008 interview. “But I’m glad I did it because, apparently, it’s a cult film and very good in its way.”
Betty Jean Striegler was born on Nov. 26, 1929, in Hawthorne, California. Her father, George, was an electrician; her mother, May, put her in theatrical school on Saturdays starting at age 7. She learned “dancing, singing and all the bits you do at an early age,” she recalled. “If the studios needed children, they contacted the theatrical schools.”
She landed her first job in Destry Rides Again, where she sat in the back of a moving wagon and sang “Little Joe, the Wrangler,” which Dietrich had performed earlier in the classic Western. She was hired to play Dietrich’s Frenchy as a child, but most of her lines were cut.
St. John passed on a minor part in The Wizard of Oz (1939) because her family was going on vacation, but she did make an Our Gang short in 1940, then showed up in Merle Oberon’s Lydia (1941) and Jane Eyre (1943), starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.
Discovered by scouts for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, St. John — still a sophomore in high school — and her mom boarded a train and headed to New York. On her 16th birthday, she took the stage in Carousel — it was only Rodgers & Hammerstein’s second musical, after Oklahoma! — as the daughter Louise. She then continued with the show’s touring company.
In 1949, she originated the role of the innocent Liat alongside Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza in the wildly anticipated South Pacific, performing “Happy Talk” with hand gestures as Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall) sang the memorable show tune. (France Nuyen portrayed Lita in the 1958 movie adaptation at Fox.)
After New York, she went with South Pacific in 1951 to the West End, where Englishman Peter Grant played her leading man in the role of Lieutenant Joe Cable (Martin and her son, Larry Hagman, were in the production, too).
She and Grant married in November 1952 and were together until his death from cancer in 1992 at age 69.
In the trailer for Dream Wife, St. John is nicely billed as “the Screen’s New Dream Girl … the ‘Happy Talk’ Girl of the Stage Hit South Pacific.”
She appeared as a disabled woman in the CinemaScope epic The Robe in 1953, then made four films that reached theaters the next year: Dangerous Mission, the musical The Student Prince (as another foreign princess), The Law vs. Billy the Kid and The Saracen Blade, the last two directed by William Castle.
Her big-screen résumé also included Alias John Preston (1955), High Tide at Noon (1957) and The Snorkel (1958).
St. John quit acting in the early ’60s. “I thought my career was long enough, and I didn’t feel I was giving up very much at that point,” she said. “But I gave it up mainly because I wanted to stay home and raise the children, and my family was much more important to me.
“Very few actors, even if they’re extremely successful, can keep a family and marriage together, with a good career going, too. By that time, I had come to terms that I didn’t have the kind of acting ability that would keep on going forever.”
She was inducted into the Hawthorne Hall of Fame in 2019 and spent the past four years living full-time in England.
In addition to her son, survivors include her daughters, Karen and Deanna, and her grandchildren, Kristen, Matt, Drew and Michael.