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Oscar Profile #86: Ann Sothern

Born Harriet Lake on January 22, 1909 in Valley City, North Dakota and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Ann Sothern was the daughter of a singer and vocal coach. Her younger sister was the composer Bonnie Lake. Her paternal grandfather, Simon Lake, was the inventor of the modern submarine.

With her good looks and outgoing personality she had no trouble breaking into movies right after high school. She was an extra in 1927’s Broadway Nights and a chorus girl in several early musicals including 1930’s Whoopee! and 1933’s Footlight Parade. At the same time, she appeared in small parts on Broadway in shows including the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Of Thee I Sing.

Signed by Columbia, by 1934 she was starring opposite Whoopee! star Eddie Cantor in Kid Millions. She made eleven mostly forgettable films for Columbia in 1934 and 1935, after which she went to RKO where the material was better, but only marginally. Now married to actor Richard Pryor, a dramatic role in independent producer Walter Wanger’s 1938 film, Trade Winds, led to an RKO contract where her first film was Maisie from the play by Wilson Collinson, whose Red Dust had been a hit for Jean Harlow. MGM had purchased the property for Harlow, but the property was put on hold after her death in 1936. The 1939 film was such a success that MGM turned it into a profitable series that spawned eight sequels.

Sothern introduced the Oscar winning song “The Last Time I Saw Paris” in 1941’s Lady Be Good. The song, which quickly became a standard, was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.

One of her co-stars in another 1941 film, Ringside Maisie, was Robert Sterling who would become her second husband in 1943. Actress Tisha Sterling, born in 1944, is their daughter.

Finally given a dramatic role she could sink her teeth into, Sothern received some of the best notices of her career for 1943’s Cry Havoc as a tough talking waitress turned volunteer nurse during World War II.

Sothern’s screen career slowed down once the Maisie franchise dried up, but she rebounded with three strong back-to-back roles after her 1949 divorce from Sterling, in 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives and The Judge Steps Out and 1950’s Nancy Goes to Rio, the latter as Jane Powell’s mother.

One of the first movie stars to embrace television, she had two highly successful series, Private Secretary, which ran from 1953 to 1957, and The Ann Sothern Show, which ran from 1958 to 1961. She earned two Emmy nominations each for her performances in those shows, but, sadly, never won.

She returned to the big screen in 1964’s The Best Man, earning a Golden Globe nomination for her short, but hilarious performance. She later played a rare villainous role in the same year’s Lady in a Cage.

Back on TV in The Lucy Show and as the voice of Jerry Van Dyke’s late mother in My Mother the Car, she alternated stage work with occasional films and in guest appearances on various TV series through the 1970s. Playing Connie Gilchrist’s role in the 1985 TV remake of A Lettter to Three Wives led to her being cast in The Whales of August, for which she finally received an Oscar nomination at the age of 78.

Ann Sothern then retired to Ketchum, Idaho where she lived out the remainder of her life, dying March 15, 2001 at the age of 92.

MAISIE (1939), directed by Edwin L. Marin

The screen adaptation of a play by Red Dust author Wilson Collinson was intended as a vehicle for Red Dust star Jean Harlow, but her unexpected death in 1936 at the age of 26 put plans for the film on hiatus.

Could the wholesome sexiness of 32 year-old Ann Sothern substitute for the blatant sensuality of the late superstar? Would audiences even pay attention to the film in a year that is generally described as the greatest in film history? The answer is not only could they, but Sothern’s portrayal of the brassy Brooklyn born showgirl was so dynamic that audiences demanded more of her and MGM gave it them with eight sequels that lasted through 1946.

The plots of these films were basically the same. Maisie loses a gig in some out of the way locale and enters into a mutual dislike with a guy she later falls in love with. In the first film it was Robert Young with whom she had worked at RKO. Ruth Hussey as two-timing wife and Ian Hunter as her cuckolded rich husband were co-starred. It all ended happily with Sothern and Young headed for life happily ever after.

Young’s character was never mentioned again as in each new film she was in another location falling in love with somebody new. Audiences ate it up and are still doing so as Warner Archive’s recent release of five of the films in the series attest.

CRY HAVOC (1943), directed by Richard Thorpe

Based on a flop Broadway play called Proof Through the Night, MGM’s Cry Havoc suffers both from its obvious stage-bound origin and its comparison to Paramount’s more cinematic So Proudly We Hail released just two months earlier.

Both films are about nurses in the Phillipines shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In this one, Margaret Sullavan, in her next-to-last screen role seven years later, plays a career nurse slowly dying from the lingering effects of malaria. She is given a ragtag group of nurses to train on the job including Ann Sothern as tough talking former waitress and Joan Blondell as a former stripper.
The entire cast, including Fay Bainter, Marsha Hunt, Heather Angel and Robert Mitchum as a dying soldier do well enough, but Sothern and Blondell own it. Sullavan and Sothern did not get along, adding to the fireworks their characters set off over an unseen Army lieutenant who just happens to be Sullavan’s husband.

A LETTER TO THRE WIVES (1949), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

This film is justly celebrated as the one that won Mankiewicz the first two of his back-to-back four Oscars for writing and directing. The other was, of course, 1950’s All About Eve.

Although basically a drama, the film is regarded by many as a comedy because of the comic moments supplied by three of its stars – Connie Gilchrist, Thelma Ritter and Ann Sothern.

Sothern is one of three women who is given a letter by a fourth (voiced by Celeste Holm) advising them that she has run away with one of their husbands. Jeanne Crain is the newlywed wife of Jeffrey Lynn; Linda Darnell the wrong-side-of-the- tracks wife of businessman Paul Douglas and Sothern the radio-writer wife of professor Kirk Douglas. Gilchrist is Darnells’s mother and Ritter her card playing friend, who is also a maid in Sothern and Kirk Douglas’ home.

Much of the comedy revolves around the sparring of Sothern and Kirk Douglas and his constant correction of her “radio” English. It’s one of her best performances.

THE BEST MAN (1964), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Gore Vidal’s play about rival candidates for their party’s Presidential nomination was a hit for Melvyn Douglas, Frank Lovejoy and Lee Tracy on Broadway, where Douglas won a Tony as the liberal candidate and Tracy was nominated for his portrayal of the cantankerous former President. Character actress Ruth McDevitt had a funny bit as a Perle Mesta type of Washington hostess.

For the film version, Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson were given the roles created by Douglas and Loveljoy, while Tracy repeated his stage role. Ann Sothern was given the part McDevitt created on stage.

While the entire cast received good notices, most of the kudos went to Tracy and Sothern. They were both nominated for Golden Globes, but only Tracy went on to an Oscar nomination.

History has repeated itself in 2012 with Angela Lansbury receiving a Drama Desk nomination for her performance in Sothern’s role, while James Earl Jones in Tracy’s old role became the only cast member to receive a Tony nomination.

THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987), directed by Lindsay Anderson

This film version of a little-known genteel play was celebrated as a pairing of two great, but distinctly different actresses, 93 year-old Lillian Gish and 79 year-old Bette Davis, as sisters. Davis is the bitter, blind sister, always complaining and yelling at kindly, patient Gish. Most critics agreed Gish gave the better performance.

76 year-old Vincent Price as a ne’er-do-well Russian born Count and 78 year-old Ann Sothern as a still active real estate agent also excelled as contemporaries of the sisters. Gish shared the Best Actress award of the National Board of Review with Holly Hunter in Broadcast News and she, Price and Sothern were all nominated for Independent Spirit awards. Sothern was the only one to go on to an Oscar nomination.

Sothern has a wistful scene with Gish in which the two look out on the ocean and Sothern bemoans the loss of whales that have been replaced in the waters by submarines. This was a bit of an inside joke. In real life, Sothern’s paternal grandfather, Simon Lake, was the inventor of the modern submarine and the unacknowledged cause of her consternation.

With a long overdue Oscar nomination under her belt, it was time for Sothern to retire to Ketchum, Idaho, where the actress who earned and lost millions, lived out the remainder of her life with her daughter, Tisha Sterling, who played her character as a younger woman in the film, living close by.

ANN SOTHERN AND OSCAR

  • The Whales of August (1987) - nominated Best Supporting Actress
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