GI entertainer Frances Langford dies

The Florida native sang for homesick soldiers from World War II to Vietnam. She toured with Bob Hope.

By Times Staff
Published July 12, 2005

JENSEN BEACH - Frances Langford, a Florida native and Bob Hope sidekick in World War II USO shows whose sexy rendition of I'm in the Mood for Love squeezed the hearts of thousands of homesick GIs, died Monday of congestive heart failure.

Ms. Langford, whose wartime entertaining spanned three wars including Korea and Vietnam, was 92. She died at her home here.

Ms. Langford first performed I'm in the Mood for Love in Every Night at Eight , a 1935 musical comedy film also starring Alice Faye. It was the story of three singers seeking fame with a bandleader (George Raft). The Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh song, which Ms. Langford later reprised in the 1936 film Palm Springs , became her signature song.

It might have been otherwise.

Ms. Langford's voice during her early years has been described as operatic. But it became throaty after she underwent a tonsil operation in her teens. Ms. Langford thought her career was over, but her mother believed her new voice was even more appealing.

While Ms. Langford was raised in Lakeland, her birthplace remains somewhat of a mystery. A book written by historian Hampton Dunn, Lakeland: A Pictoral History , said Ms. Langford was born in the town of Hernando in Citrus County. However, her family and close friends say she was born in Lakeland.

"I have no certain knowledge, but that is what we have always heard and what we assumed to be true," her attorney, Evans Crary Jr., said in an interview Monday. "That is what her family believes."

Ms. Langford began in vaudeville. By her late teens, she was on the radio in Tampa, where Rudy Vallee heard her and gave her a guest spot on his show.

"The minute she opened her mouth, I knew she was a natural-born singer, full-blown and ready for stardom," Vallee told Dunn.

Ms. Langford appeared in a number of movies, including Born to Dance , Hollywood Hotel , Yankee Doodle Dandy and This Is the Army . Her last film role was in 1954 when she appeared as herself in The Glenn Miller Story .

Ms. Langford's career also encompassed years of radio, including several seasons during the late 1940s and early '50s in the role of loudmouth battle-ax Blanche Bickerson opposite Don Ameche on the comedy show The Bickersons , about a relentlessly squabbling couple.

Other radio appearances in the late 1930s and 1940s included American Cruise with Dick Powell, Bob Hope's radio show and the Chase & Sanborn Show with Spike Jones.

Yet it was her role as an entertainer for GIs abroad, as well as for those who returned home injured, that earned her a reputation as a star whose patriotism and compassion exceeded her desire to burnish her own image.

She regarded her wartime experiences as "the greatest thing in my life."

"I'd sing a song, and I could just see the guys getting this faraway expression," she told the Palm Beach Post in 2000. "I knew they were going home in their minds."

And it never failed that when she sang I'm in the Mood for Love , some GI would stand up and say, "You've come to the right place, sister!"

"She knows just how much sex to pour and still be dignified," Hope once said of her.

During World War II, Ms. Langford and Hope shared many adventures in their travels with their troupe of performers. One night, she told a Florida newspaper in 2003, the two of them had to jump out of Jeep to avoid fire from a German fighter plane. Both of them landed, Hope first, in a culvert.

She said Hope screamed, "Oh, my God, I'm hit!" But it was just Ms. Langford landing on top of him.

Another time she, Hope and others spent the night in the basement of a hotel in Algiers as bombs burst overhead and Hope cracked jokes.

In all, she visited bases in England, Africa, Sicily, the Caribbean and the Pacific, earning the nickname "sweetheart of the fighting fronts."

She continued her commitment to servicemen when she returned to the United States. In 1944-45, she wrote a diary for the New York Journal-American about her experiences visiting servicemen who had been wounded in World War II. Her "Purple Heart Diary" included passages like this, written after a visit to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, Calif.:

"As I sang, I felt a surging response from these men like I've never before received from an audience. I could hardly hit the high notes, there was such a lump in my throat. Their emotions fairly rolled and broke across the ward. ...

"I suddenly thought what a terrible thing it would have been if I hadn't shown up. I ran to the little washroom the nurses use. There I had myself a good cry."

A favorite song of the wounded soldiers was Embraceable You .

"I shall always feel a kindly Providence led me to its choice," she wrote. Once, singing it to a GI who was "practically dead," the soldier "began smiling." It was the favorite song of his sweetheart back home.

In 1952, Ms. Langford and her then-husband, matinee idol Jon Hall, and a troupe of entertainers spent six weeks in Korea performing for GIs there. In 1966, she also joined others who entertained troops in Vietnam for several weeks.

She dropped out of Hollywood in the mid 1950s but kept performing for many years at the Outrigger, a restaurant she had owned for many years in Jensen Beach.

Ms. Langford married actor Hall in 1938; they divorced in 1953 but remained friends until his death in 1979. In 1955, she married Ralph Evinrude, of the outboard-motor Evinrudes. He died in 1986.

In 1994, Ms. Langford married Harold Stuart, an assistant secretary of the Air Force under President Harry Truman. Stuart survives her. She had no children.

--Information from the Lakeland Ledger was used in this report.