Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Virginia Engels -- Beauty Kills the Beast


Photo:  J. Willis Sayre
Voted "Miss Streamline," out of a field of 250 Pacific Coast lovelies at San Francisco's Golden Gate International Exposition in April 1940, the striking blonde's other beauty titles included "Miss Los Angeles, 1940" and "The Orchid Queen."  As official hostess for the San Francisco Fair, Engels caught the eye of movie producer Joe Pasternak who cast her in a microscopic uncredited role in Universal's 1940 Deanna Durbin vehicle, It's a Date.  In fact, Engels was destined to become nothing more than uncredited "eye candy" in most of her 26 other feature appearances for studios like Universal, RKO and MGM in films like Arabian Nights (1942) as a "harem girl," From This Day Forward (1946) as "girl in the window," and her final role, "woman on trial" in MGM's 1952 Just This Once starring Janet Leigh.  Ironically, she had just appeared as an uncredited "inmate" in the 1950 Warner Bros. prison drama Caged when she was booked into a Hollywood police station on August 16, 1950 on suspicion of drunk driving.

Engels was effectively "out of the business" when she was arrested for the knife murder of her 47-year-old husband, Charles H. Brown, on June 8, 1954.  According to the 37-year-old former actress, her marriage to Brown, a parking lot attendant, was "hell."  Once married to radio store operator James Robert Dennis in 1946, she divorced him the next year.  Introduced to Brown by friends, Engels married him in 1950, but soon had cause for regret.  According to the one-time beauty queen, Brown "had a lot of meanness in him" that violently manifested itself in once a month beatings of his unhappy wife.  Engels walked out five times, but always came back after he tearfully promised to change.  The beatings continued and in November 1953 she was admitted to a Hollywood hospital with a broken shoulder after Brown knocked her down and stomped her.  One month before his death, the parking lot attendant slugged his wife in the mouth with a bottle.

At 12:45 A.M. on June 8, 1954, Brown returned home to their apartment at 6027 Barton Avenue in Hollywood after a night of heavy drinking.  The couple argued, Brown punched her in the mouth, then went after Engels' father who had been living with them for a week while looking for another place to stay.  According to Engels, she picked up a 5" paring knife from a table to frighten Brown away when her drunken husband rushed her like a "madman."  She lashed out, Brown grabbed his chest, reeled into the bathroom, then moments later stumbled back out into the living room and, asking his wife to call a doctor, collapsed.  Engels called an ambulance, but Brown died around 1:00 A.M. at Hollywood Receiving Hospital without making a statement.  Following a coroner's inquet that ruled the actress was "probably criminally responsible" for Brown's death, Engels was formally charged with murder and bail set at $5,000.  At the time of his death, Brown's blood alcohol content was .15 percent, well above the legal level of intoxication.  A first trial ended on November 6, 1954 after a jury deadlocked 8-4 for acquittal.  Engels was acquitted in January 1955 after the jury in the second trial needed less than an hour to rule that she had acted in self-defense.  In what has since become almost a Hollywood cliche for beauty queens turned failed actresses, Engels lived alone and forgotten until making the news one last time.  Concerned that she had not seen her tenant for a couple of days, Engels' landlady let herself into the flat at 5200 Marathon Street on December 6, 1956, to find the former actress lying on the floor beside her bed.  "Miss Los Angeles, 1940" had died of meningitis hours earlier.

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