Oscar Profile #136: Gladys George

Gladys GeorgeBorn September 13, 1900 to a show business family, Gladys George was touring with her parents by the age of 3. A Broadway star by 1916, she made her film debut as the female lead in 1919’s Red Hot Dollars. She made six more films in the next two years before returning to the stage.

George returned to the screen in a major role opposite Franchot Tone in 1934’s Straight Is the Way and had a major hit toward the end of that year in Broadway’s Personal Appearance which was filmed in 1936 as Go West, Young Man written for the screen and starring Mae West in George’s role. Paramount gave George the starring role in the same year’s Valiant Is the Word for Carrie in compensation. They also gave her a big build-up which failed to make her a major star, but did earn her an Oscar nomination for her wonderful performance.

George had two more starring roles, both for MGM the following year. She is the nurse in love with Spencer Tracy, but who marries Franchot Tone in the World War I melodrama, They Gave Him a Gun and the outcast wife and mother in the remake of Madame X. Ruth Chatterton received an Oscar nomination for the 1929 version, but George’s performance is generally regarded as not only better than Chatterton’s, but far superior to those of Lana Turner and Tuesday Weld in the 1966 and 1981 remakes, the latter for TV.

From then on it was strictly supporting roles for George, but she managed to stand out in most of them. She was Madame DuBarry to Norma Shearer’s Marie Antoinette in 1938; the speakeasy hostess based on Texas Guinan in 1939’s The Roaring Twenties; the widow of Humphrey Bogart’s partner in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon; the aging star on a downward spiral in 1943’s The Hard Way; Dana Andrews’ stepmother in 1946’s Oscar winning The Best Years of Our Lives; Joan Crawford’s roadhouse boss in 1949’s Flamingo Road; Doris Day’s Broadway has-been mother in 1951’s Lullaby of Broadway and John Garfield’s mother in the same year’s He Ran All the Way.

Her last film was 1953’s It Happens Every Thursday which was also Loretta Young’s last film. They both went into television, Young as a major star, George in minor roles.

George had been married and divorced four times between 1922 and 1950. She never had any children.

Plagued by many ailments including throat cancer, heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver, Gladys George died of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 8, 1954 at 54.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE (1936), directed by Wesley Ruggles

When Paramount bought the rights to Broadway’s Personal Appearance for Mae West, who filmed it as Go West, Young Man, they simultaneously made Valiant Is the Word for Carrie with the star of the play, Gladys George. It was intended to make her a major film star. That didn’t quite pan out, but George’s heartfelt portrayal of a fallen woman redeemed by the love of two children was strong enough to earn her the first and only Oscar nomination of her interesting screen career.

The film has elements of both the old chestnut Madame X and the ten years away To Each His Own and George’s nuanced performance keeps you rooting for her all the way.

MADAME X (1937), directed by Sam Wood

When MGM decided to remake the 1929 film that earned Oscar nominations for star Ruth Chatterton and director Lionel Barrymore, they didn’t have to look far. George’s canny performance in Valiant Is the Word for Carrie made her the obvious choice. More cinematic than the early talkie had been, George obliterates all memories of Chatterton and makes it all but impossible for actresses in subsequent versions to come close to her magnificent performance. She is on fire throughout as the mother who is forced by an unforgiving husband to give up her young son and not see him again. She is especially poignant in the heart-wrenching final scenes in which the now aged, homeless woman is defended on a murder charge by the forthright young attorney who doesn’t know she’s his mother.

THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), directed by Raoul Walsh

The real life Texas Guinan was the inspiration for George’s portrayal of the speakeasy hostess in in this classic gangster film which was one of the great ones in the genre.

James Cagney, Priscilla Lane and Humphrey Bogart were billed over her, and they’re all good, but George is the icing on the cake. The film has a great score of standards of the era, but George unfortunately only gets to sing one of them. However, the one song assigned to her is a doozy, “In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town”.

It’s George’s character who introduces Cagney to bootlegging and bootleggers. Her feisty moll with the sad eyes is one of her bestloved characterizations.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), directed by William Wyler

George has a minor role in the homecoming classic, but gives a standout performance all the same..

As Hortense, Dana Andrews’ stepmother, she only has a few scenes but makes them count with a look here, a gesture there as she looks after her alcoholic husband, Roman Bohnen, and tells Andrews matter-of-factly that his wife only stayed with them for a year while he was off fighting in World War II. It’s not much of a part, but to no one’s surprise she is terrific in it..

LULLABY OF BROADWAY (1951), Directed by David Butler

George had her most substantial role in years as Doris Day’s has-been actress mother that Day thinks is still a major Broadway star living in a mansion.

The plot is highly reminiscent of Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day which starred May Robson and Warren William, both of whom George worked with in other films – Robson in Straight Is the Way and William in Madame X.

Day gets to sing most of the film’s classic songs, but George gets to belt out two, a reprise of “In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town” from The Roaring Twenties and the prophetic “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” from the life-long actress who in real life would be dead within three years at the age of 54.

GLADYS GEORGE AND OSCAR

  • Valiant Is the Word for Carrie (1936) – Nominated Best Actress

2 Comments

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  1. Good catch. It was a starring role, but it was a 68-minute Grade B that played as a second feature to a “more important” when film when it played neighborhood theatres. The N.Y. Times doesn’t have a review of it in their database.

  2. SHe had one other starring role that you left out. Love is a Headache 1938

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