In Hollywood’s Golden Age, there were many comediennes who avoided the perils of typecasting. This was mainly due to their diverse array of talents. Claudette Colbert could just as easily have won an Academy Award for the iconic comedy It Happened One Night (1934) while playing a stalwart mother in the tearjerker Since You Went Away (1944). Irene Dunne’s soprano voice garnered her praise in Showboat (1936). This was before she was a comedic revelation alongside Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937).
Ann Sothern also was one such star. She delighted audiences for seven decades with her beautiful voice and her zest for comedy. Many would agree that she belongs in that elite group of comediennes, alongside Lucille Ball, Carole Lombard, and Rosalind Russell, among others.
Ann Sothern was born Harriette Lake in Valley City, North Dakota on January 22, 1909. She no doubt received her passion for show business from her mother who was a touring concert singer and a diction coach. She sadly experienced the abandonment of her father at the age of five, when he left the family. Despite that family struggle, she would eventually begin to take notice of her gifts in acting and singing.
While in high school, she earned distinction as a composer. This led to her being selected to participate in a national contest. By the time high school ended, her mother had started working as a singing teacher in Hollywood. It was these connections and circumstances which led to her being cast in bit parts in various films. This began with Broadway Nights, released in 1927. Unfortunately, many of these parts were uncredited and did not give her the exposure she needed.
As most struggling actresses did during the early years of the Great Depression, Sothern also tried her hand on Broadway. She missed a grand opportunity out of jealousy when Florenz Ziegfeld offered her a part in Smiles (1930). However, she lost the part when the star Marilyn Miller had her removed out of fear of competition. Despite this setback, she was able to work in the musical Of Thee I Sing (1931), which toured for seven months. When the show hit Broadway, she replaced Lois Moran and Columbia Pictures took notice.
Before the success of It Happened One Night, Columbia Pictures was one of the “poverty row” studios. They were always looking for new talent on the cheap. Sothern was signed by the studio and immediately began working in lightweight comedies and musicals. She appeared in four films with Eddie Cantor. Starting with Let’s Fall in Love (1933), Sothern also worked in a film with Maurice Chevalier in Folies-Bergere (1935). Despite getting positive notices, she soon grew tired of these marginal roles and wanted more. By 1936, she was married to fellow actor Roger Pryor, and as she once stated:
“I was just so sick of those pictures, I decided I wasn’t going to do them anymore.”
Dropped by Columbia Pictures in 1936, Ann Sothern went to RKO Radio Pictures. However, the roles she received there were similar to what she had done for Columbia. Her career soon stagnated. From 1936-37, she appeared in four romantic comedies with actor Gene Raymond, beginning with Walking on Air (1936) and ending with She’s Got Everything (1937). By this time, Gene Raymond was also on the downside of his career. Further, Sothern was still being offered roles only in “B” pictures. It was evident that RKO was not working to advance her career. However, Sothern’s fortunes changed in 1938.
Breakthrough and Further Success
The opening that Sothern desperately needed to revitalize her career ironically came in a supporting role in an “A” picture featuring Fredric March, Trade Winds (1938). In this film, she plays March’s secretary, who is on a murder case that leads to his pursuit of the suspect, played beautifully by Joan Bennett. New York Times critic Frank Nugent wrote:
“Ann Sothern is surprisingly successful as the leech on the bloodhound”
Despite the great cast which also included Thomas Mitchell and Ralph Bellamy, the film only barely made a profit. Her performance earned her another opportunity this time with the most prestigious studio of them all, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.
In 1939, Sothern scored the lead role in a film that was originally purchased for Jean Harlow prior to her death in 1937. The script was about a wisecracking, down-on-her-luck woman named Maisie. It was intended to be a “B” picture but became a surprise hit for the studio. The film featured her second pairing with Robert Young, who several years later would work again with Sothern in a much bigger film, Lady Be Good (1942).
Maisie (1939) was such a success for the studio, that it led to nine more Maisie films featuring Sothern, concluding with Undercover Maisie (1947). Despite her success, Sothern still had not received the plum roles that she yearned for. MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer would not yield to her pleas for better roles. Sothern recalled that Mayer would always respond to her pleas by responding:
“No. Your movies pay for our mistakes”
Mayer’s sentiments were reasonable considering that MGM had experienced great success with movie serials such as the Andy Hardy movies with Mickey Rooney, and the Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy.
In between the Maisie films, Sothern did have the opportunity to work with other elite actors in other distinguished films. For instance, she once again showed her flair for comedy alongside heavyweights Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart, in Brother Orchid (1940). The film was a hit for Warner Brothers, and Sothern received glowing reviews. Sothern then teamed up once again with Robert Young in the musical comedy Lady Be Good (1941).
This film embodied Sothern’s talents as a comedienne and singer more than any of her preceding roles. In this film, she plays the wife of Young while also being his songwriter. Their marriage includes professional success and insecurity from Young which threatens to tear the marriage apart. In between their struggles, Sothern saves the day with her creativity and beautiful singing.
Sothern’s rendition of the song The Last Time I saw Paris won the Oscar for best song in 1942. The film was such a hit due in part to the ongoing Second World War. Owing to the film’s popularity, the U.S. Air Force named one of their planes, the “Lady Be Good” which eventually met its demise over the Libyan desert in 1943.
1943 proved to be a significant year for Sothern professionally and personally. She remarried, this time to actor Robert Sterling who worked with her in Ringside Maisie (1941). This second marriage produced Sothern’s only child Patricia, who herself would eventually be an actress. Sothern also did a noteworthy picture that featured an all-female cast, called Cry Havoc (1943). The film showcased Sothern’s versatility in a dramatic role as one member of a group of army nurses stationed in the pacific.
The stellar cast included Margaret Sullavan, Joan Blondell, Ella Raines, and Fay Bainter. The film proved successful for MGM and Sothern in particular. Sothern ended the 1940s with her finest role, in A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Sothern is one of a group of three married friends, who receives a letter informing them that one of their husbands has left them for a mutual friend. The film is considered a masterpiece by legendary director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and includes the plot unfolding via flashbacks from the three friends.
Sothern conveys the depth and warmth of character that she had always desired from her film career. The great cast including Linda Darnell, Jeanne Crain, Kirk, and Paul Douglas, made this into a classic which earned Mankiewicz two Oscars for best screenplay and best director. If Sothern had received roles like this earlier in her career, it’s reasonable to conclude that she would have achieved the stature in prominence that fellow comediennes Irene Dunne and Claudette Colbert achieved.
Transition to Television
After the success of A Letter to Three Wives, Sothern did receive a few meatier roles than what she was accustomed to. In Shadow on the Wall (1950), Sothern played the role of a woman who murders her sister after finding out she had an affair with her fiance. The New York Times commented that:
“Sothern, turns in a polished portrayal, but seems out of character as the worried villainess of the piece”
Southern played a supporting role to Anne Baxter in The Blue Gardenia (1953), directed by Fritz Lang. The film received mediocre reviews, but Variety magazine singled out Ann Sothern for praise. Variety stated that:
“…Sothern breathes life into a stock character and quips…”
While turning in solid performances in these dramatic roles, Ann Sothern’s film career was winding down. However, her television career began to thrive because of her comedic talents, just like her close friend Lucille Ball had done.
Beginning In 1953, Sothern starred in the comedy series Private Secretary, which enjoyed a successful five-year run. Sothern plays the title character Susie McNamara, who was the secretary to talent agent Peter Sands, played capably by Don Porter. Sothern’s comedic skills were on full display during the sitcom’s five-year run, as she was nominated three times for an Emmy. Owing to the allure of Sothern and the creative writing, the show was used by NBC as a summer replacement for the show, Your Hit Parade.
Private Secretary was renewed for a sixth season but was canceled after Sothern discovered that the producer had sold the rights to the show without her consent and sued him. The shocking circumstances that led to Private Secretaryending motivated Sothern to collaborate with close friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. On the first episode of The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, Sothern reprised her role as “Susie McNamara” to wide acclaim.
Motivated by the success that Ball and Arnaz had with their production company, Sothern decided to work with their writers to develop a new show for her. This collaboration facilitated the creation of the appropriately titled The Ann Sothern Show. Sothern plays the character of Katy O’Connor, who manages an upscale hotel set in New York City. The show ran for three seasons from 1958-1961 and featured numerous guest stars including Lucille Ball, Constance Bennett, and Van Johnson, and Gladys Cooper.
Ann was again nominated for an Emmy in 1959, and though she did not win, the show won a Golden Globe for best television series that same year. Despite the accolades, the show was not renewed after the third season because a new time slot caused the ratings to decline.
During the 1960s, Sothern made guest appearances in other shows and sitcoms including The Lucy Showwith Lucille Ball, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Dupont Show with June Allyson. She also remained in the spotlight providing the voice of the title character in the sitcom My Mother the Car. Sothern did not close the door to her Hollywood career yet either, as she played supporting roles to Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson in the political drama The Best Man (1964).
That same year, Sothern worked with Olivia de Havilland in the camp thriller Lady in a Cage (1964). In 1974, Sothern suffered a severe back injury while doing stock work in Jacksonville, Florida. The injuries she suffered altered her career, as she went through frequent hospitalizations and as a result experienced substantial weight gain. Despite this, Sothern still had one more milestone to achieve.
1987 was the year Ann Sothern’s career came full circle. She earned her very first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Whales of August(1987), portraying the neighbor to elderly sisters played by legends Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. After production on the film was completed, Ann Sothern retired to her home in Idaho. It was a fitting end to a splendid career that encompassed Broadway, Television, and Hollywood
On March 17, 2001, Ann Sothern passed away from heart failure at her home in Idaho. While most young movie fans don’t know her today, she deserves to be remembered among the greats for her versatility as an actress, comedienne, and singer. Whether it was in musicals or dramas on film or Broadway, she exuded the wit and charm that captivated audiences for decades.
During Hollywood’s studio system of the 1930s and 40s, many actresses were unable to achieve their potential because of the abundance of quality actresses and A-list stars. In a way, Sothern was the victim of circumstances that precluded her from the choice of prestigious movie roles that normally went to stars like Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Claudette Colbert. Yet despite these inhibitions, she showed an indomitable spirit in excelling in whatever role she could get.
Whether it was her father’s abandonment at a young age, or coping with illness in her later years, she still conveyed old Hollywood grace and glamour. In the two decades since she has passed, Ann Sothern’s work still remains as timeless and fresh to a new generation of classic movie enthusiasts who are discovering her work.
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