While Virginia Leith only made a handful of films as a leading lady in the ‘50s, she has quite a few winners to her credit, and one cult item. There are actresses who appeared on the screen for decades with less to show for it than Leith did. With Leith’s interesting face that includes noticeable cheek bones and big, sultry eyes, it’s no surprise that she began as a model. Leith’s first film was also the directorial debut of Stanley Kubrick, Fear and Desire (1953), so she already has a steppingstone in film history for that tidbit. Though Fear and Desire isn’t Kubrick’s best-known work, or his best regarded, the fact that Leith was able to debut as the lead role in the first film of a future major-league director says a lot for the talent she possessed.
Fear and Desire wasn’t the film that motioned Kubrick or Leith’s career forward the way they had probably hoped, but 20th Century Fox was willing to take a chance on Leith and signed her to their studio. It was, however, the end of the studio era and a time when a studio contract didn’t have the weight it once did, but it did guarantee her better movies. She appeared in Fox’s Black Widow (1954) but had to compete for screen time with an all-star cast headlined by one of the best scene-stealers in the business, Van Heflin. Despite its promise, it was another film that wasn’t a high point for her esteemed director (this time Nunnally Johnson). Leith also had to try to stand out in White Feather (1955), another film that had its fair share of names in the credits who had most of the juicy scenes. Not to mention that the more interesting ingenue part went to Debra Paget.
Leith, however, managed to make three goodies around the time. The first one was crackerjack noir (in color), Violent Saturday (1955). Again, Leith had to work with another cast of many esteemed names, including a few future stars, but her part was more developed and interesting this time around as she was the leading lady. She played a part that would normally be dubbed a film noir “bad girl”, but the film was above using such stereotypes. Just because Leith’s character falls in love with a married man (Richard Egan) in the picture doesn’t mean that the film makes her out to be evil, which was remarkably fresh. The second one on the list was another color noir, A Kiss Before Dying (1956) where Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward walked away with the movie, but Leith’s presence was still felt as she had to balance her attraction for Wagner’s killer character and common sense. It also led to a memorable climax involving her. The third big one was Toward the Unknown (1956) where Leith’s leading man was none other than the great William Holden. Once again, Leith played a modern woman who was intelligent and ambitious, offering a realistic relationship between her character and Holden’s. The film is surprisingly underrated for something so down-to-earth, and like the other two, is ripe for rediscovery.
Leith’s other films at the time include one of the better sci-fis of the period, On the Threshold of Space (1956), but it was the men in the film who got to deal with all the interesting special effects while Leith got the home front scenes with Guy Madison. Movie fans probably know it today as John Hodiak’s last film. Leith also appeared uncredited in Sing Boy Sing (1958), which is strange since she also made TV appearances at the time, as she would into the ‘70s. Leith’s best-known film would have to be The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962) since it was lampooned by Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and is one of their most famous episodes). Not surprisingly, Leith gives the film a much better performance that the silliness deserves, but her head floating in a tray of water is what everyone remembers from that film, so that image alone has remained in the minds of moviegoers better than the rest of the film (and most films in the MST3k canon). While I’m sure the idea of being in a film that later gained cult status must have been funny, the fact is that there’s much better films than that with Leith that were more worth her time. At least, though, she wasn’t wasted that time and she completely stole the show. Did it just have to be in that movie? Either way, for us, we’ll always have those ‘50s thrillers that stand the test of time much, much better.