Mary Frances Gifford was born December 7, 1920 in Long Beach, California. At the age of sixteen Gifford had applied to UCLA School of Law with no intention of pursuing an acting career. With a friend, she visited the studios of Samuel Goldwyn to watch a film being made and while there was spotted by a talent scout who brought her to the attention of Goldwyn, who signed her for an acting contract. With Goldwynn she only received minor roles and then she moved to RKO where she was cast in several uncredited supporting roles in films of the late 1930s, including “Stage Door” (1937) starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. In 1938 at the age of 18, Gifford married character actor James Dunn and in 1939 landed her first leading role, in the low-budget “Mercy Plane”, opposite her husband. Gifford then played another uncredited role in James Stewart’s break-out film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). In 1941 she was loaned to Republic Pictures and cast in the role which would arguably produce her most enduring fame as the semi-clad Nyoka in “Jungle Girl”, a 15-chapter movie serial, based very loosely on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The role was the first time since Pearl White in the silent era that an actress had played the lead in the movie serial genre.
With Gifford’s film career finally gaining momentum and her husband James Dunn’s on the decline, partly due to his battle with alcoholism, the marriage failed and they divorced in 1942. She then left RKO for Paramount Pictures where she acted in several films including “The Glass Key” (1942). In 1943 Gifford starred in another jungle movie, co-starring with Johnny Weissmuller in “Tarzan Triumphs”. In late 1943 Gifford changed studios again, leaving Paramount and moving to the prestigious Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio with the sponsorship of an MGM executive. At MGM she had more success playing leading roles in such films as “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” (1945), “She Went to the Races” (1945) and the more notable “The Arnelo Affair” (1947). She also had successful supporting roles in “Thrill of a Romance” (1945) with Esther Williams, and “Luxury Liner” (1948) with Jane Powell.
In 1948 Gifford was almost killed in a car accident, receiving severe head injuries, an event which sidelined her career and caused a decline in her health. She attempted a comeback in two early 1950s films, “Sky Commando” (1953) and “Riding High” (1950). However, during the 1950s her mental and physical health declined to the point where she was placed into Camarillo State Mental Hospital in 1958. She would spend almost the entire next twenty-five years in and out of various institutions.
Frances Gifford spent her final years in quiet obscurity and died of emphysema in a convalescent center in Pasadena, California on January 16, 1994 at the age of 73.