''Partridge'' Mom has starred in ''Oklahoma!,'' ''Carousel,'' ''The Music Man,'' and more

By David Everitt
Updated August 23, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

For aficionados of ’70s TV she’s the mod mother hen of The Partridge Family — but long before that pop-culture landmark, Shirley Jones had established herself as a versatile, Oscar-winning movie star. Clips from two of her best-loved musicals can be seen in the new-to-video documentary Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies . Here, Jones reminisces about her oeuvre, which ran the gamut from ingenues to prostitutes to The Music Man‘s Marian the librarian.

Oklahoma! (1955) I was very young — 18 — and very naive. Fortunately I had Fred Zinnemann as my first director. He was very nurturing and like a Svengali for me. He didn’t treat the film as a musical; he made it a real American love story. I was thrilled to be playing Laurey, and I was Laurey. I was a little corn-fed girl from a small Pennsylvania town, so the acting came naturally to me.

Carousel (1956) This is the best of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. Unfortunately, it was not as good a motion picture as it was a play. That saddened me, because I felt that audiences should have flocked to this movie. Henry King was a wonderful director, but I don’t think he was up to what the movie should have had.

Elmer Gantry (1960) I was sick of the musical format, and I wanted to show I could do something else. I said to [writer-director] Richard Brooks: ”I’ll do the role [of the prostitute Lulu Bains] for nothing. I want this part.” People said, ”Your audience won’t accept you in that kind of thing” — and some didn’t. But it gave my career its longevity.

The Music Man (1962) The studio wanted Frank Sinatra to do the film, but Meredith Wilson [the source play’s author] told them, ”You cannot do this show unless Robert Preston does the part.” And thank God that Wilson stood up for Bob, because nobody could do the role like him. He had a combination of Mr. Nice Guy and enough edge to play that role brilliantly.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) I was a big fan of Glenn Ford’s. He was so natural; the camera swooped him up. The story [of a kid’s search for a wife for his dad] was so wonderful, and it hadn’t been told before. Every divorced man or widower in the world could relate to it.

Bedtime Story (1964) They remade this with Steve Martin and Michael Caine as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which wasn’t nearly the picture that Bedtime Story was, because the original had Brando and Niven — talk about opposites! Brando was very disappointed that the movie didn’t do well; now it’s a cult film. The public, I think, wasn’t interested in seeing Brando play comedy.

The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) A wonderful film — Henry Fonda and James Stewart were brilliant together. If I had an acting class of young people, I would have them watch those two work. For the most part, they deviated from the script and just talked to each other. And I loved playing the madam [of the whorehouse that Stewart’s character inherits]. There again, I had a little bit of something to play.