Dutch postcard by Van Leer's Fotodrukindustrie N.V., Amsterdam. Photo: Paramount Pictures. Olga San Juan in Blue Skies (Stuart Heisler, 1946).
Dutch postcard, no. 3517. Photo: Paramount.
The first dyed-blonde Latin movie spitfire
Olga San Juan was born in Brooklyn, New York to Puerto Rican parents in 1927. When she was 3 years old, her family moved back to Puerto Rico, then moved back to the United States again a few years later. This time, they settled in 'Spanish Harlem'.
While still a toddler, Olga was enrolled in both ballet and flamenco dancing classes and was encouraged to pursue a performing arts career by her stage mother. When she was eleven years old, she and five other school girls performed the Latin dance the Fandango for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
She went on to perform at such Latin clubs as the Copacabana in New York City. She worked as a dancer with famed jazz and mambo musician, Tito Puente, who by then had earned the title of 'The King of Latin Music'
After talent scouts found her performing her popular nightclub act, Olga San Juan and Her Rumba Band, on radio, she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1943. She appeared in a musical short film called Caribbean Romance (Lester Fuller, 1943) with Eric Blore.
She possessed the same tiny frame and fervid temperament as Brazilian Carmen Miranda. Her film debut was followed by another short film called Bombalera (Noel Madison, 1945), which was nominated for an Oscar. She decided to become the first dyed-blonde Latin movie spitfire. In this, Olga was billed, appropriately enough, as 'The Cuban Cyclone'.
She was front and center in her third short, The Little Witch (George Templeton, 1945), a musical romance in which she virtually played herself as a nightclub singer. Her first role in a feature film was in the musical comedy Rainbow Island (Ralph Murphy, 1944), starring Dorothy Lamour and Eddie Bracken.
Dutch postcard, no. 3395. Photo: Paramount, 1946.
Paired up, engagingly, with another comedy scene-stealer
Olga San Juan's breakthrough came after the war with the Technicolor musical Blue Skies (Stuart Heisler, 1946) with Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Joan Caulfield. San Juan performed several musical numbers (including 'Heat Wave') in the film, based on a story by Irving Berlin and showcasing his songs. Olga was paired up, engagingly, with another comedy scene-stealer, Billy De Wolfe.
Next, she got a big part in the B-musical Variety Girl (George Marshall, 1947), also starring Mary Hatcher. Numerous Paramount Pictures contract players made cameos or performed songs in it, including Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
She next co-starred with Donald O'Connor in Are You With It? (Jack Hively, 1948), a musical comedy film about a young insurance man who quits his job to join a traveling carnival.
Next, she had a supporting part in One Touch of Venus (William A. Seiter, 1948), starring Robert Walker, Ava Gardner, and Dick Haymes. This divine musical comedy was based on the Broadway musical of the same name, a book written by S. J. Perelman and Ogden Nash, with music composed by Kurt Weill.
She often played the cute and spunky antagonist to other leading ladies. That same year, she won an Oscar nomination for The Countess of Monte Cristo (Fred de Cordova, 1948) which featured Sonja Henie in her final Hollywood ice extravaganza.
The following year, San Juan could be seen in the romantic comedy The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (Preston Sturges, 1949) starring Betty Grable. The film, Sturges' first Technicolor production, was not well received at the time it was released, and was generally conceded to be a disaster – even Betty Grable bad-mouthed it – but its reputation has improved somewhat over time.
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. W 671. Photo: Universal International.
A flavorful, scene-stealing personality who delightfully mangled the English language
Olga San Juan, unfortunately, did not receive many leading lady opportunities in Hollywood, as she carried with her a heavy Latin accent despite growing up almost exclusively in America.
In 1951, she starred on Broadway in the Lerner and Loewe musical, 'Paint Your Wagon'. She won the Donaldson Award for her work in 'Paint Your Wagon'. However, the show was a flop, running just eight months. Olga had left the cast before the run ended, after becoming pregnant with her second child.
Years before she had met actor Edmond O'Brien at a publicity luncheon for Fox studios, and they were married in 1948. A devout Catholic, San Juan retired to raise their three children: the actors Brendan O'Brien, Maria O'Brien, and television producer Bridget O'Brien, who is married to Barry Adelman, executive producer of the Golden Globe Awards.
In 1954, she returned to the screen with a bit part in the successful drama The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954), starring Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O'Brien. For his performance, O'Brien won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and the corresponding Golden Globe. She also played a small part in O'Brien's film The 3rd Voice (Hubert Cornfield, 1960).
O'Brien and San Juan were married 28 years, until their divorce in 1976. San Juan's health began to fail after a stroke in the 1970s, but she lived to enjoy her family for decades to come. At age 81, Olga San Juan died in 2009, of kidney failure stemming from a long-term illness at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, in Burbank, California. She was buried at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, Los Angeles, California.
She was honoured with the Screen Actors Guild Latino Legacy Award for her work. Gary Brumburgh at IMDb: "for most her career, Puerto Rican singer/dancer Olga San Juan was a welcome distraction by American audiences. A flavorful, scene-stealing personality who delightfully mangled the English language, she decorated a number of war-era and post-war musicals and comedy escapism with her special brand of comedy."
Dutch postcard, no. 3499. Photo: Paramount. Olga San Juan in Blue Skies (Stuart Heisler, 1946).
Sources: Tamara Warta (Love to know), Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Wikipedia, and IMDb.