ANN SOTHERN’S LEGACY: Part 4

Contract at Columbia and name change

Ann’s part in BROADWAY THROUGH A KEYHOLE caught the eye of mogul Harry Cohn. He had been searching for a Scandinavian-looking actress and felt he might have one with Ann. She was promptly given a screen test, performing a scene from the Broadway play Eight Bells, which Cohn had acquired and planned to adapt as a motion picture. Ann’s screen test was successful, and Cohn hired her for one picture. If it did well with audiences, she would be offered a long-term contract.

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The first picture Ann made at Columbia in the fall of 1933 was LET’S FALL IN LOVE with Edmund Lowe. Audiences enjoyed the musical romance, and because it did well at the box office, Cohn put Ann under contract. A series of economically produced films, mostly comedies with musical elements, would be scheduled for the actress.

Being under contract was good news for Ann, and for her mother. Mrs. Lake’s relentless determination to turn one of her daughters into a movie star was now beginning to pay off. But when Ann signed on the dotted line with Columbia PIctures, they learned there would have to be a name change.

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Harry Cohn felt there were too many stars with the last name Lake in Hollywood, such as Arthur Lake and Alice Lake. So a list of possibilities was brainstormed. Ultimately, ‘Ann’ was selected as a tribute to Mrs. Lake whose first name was Annette; and ‘Sothern’ was chosen because it was in honor of a highly respected Shakespearean stage actor named E.H. Sothern. That’s how the stage name Ann Sothern was created, and it would eventually become her legal name as well.

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Years later, the name would be spoofed in an MGM film noir produced while Ann was under contract at the studio. In TENSION– when Richard Basehart’s character is on the lam and needs to change his identity– he sees a magazine with Ann Sothern’s picture on the cover, and he starts to call himself Paul Sothern.

As the newly contracted Ann Sothern settled in at Columbia, she learned her boss had plans to keep her busy and earn the salary he was paying her. During the next three years, she made 15 films. All of her Columbia pictures, ten of them, were B films. But she was also being loaned out to other producers and studios for more prestigious A pictures, playing second leads meant to capitalize on her looks and talent.

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As with any star getting the studio build-up, Ann was required to pose for many publicity shots. In the 1930s and 1940s, the more glamorous the pose, the better. Years later, Ann would tell an interviewer how in these days they were not expected to know how to act as much as they were expected to be stars and work with the publicity departments to promote their names in countless advertisements and magazine articles. But as Ann continued her apprenticeship at Cohn’s studio, she decided she could also set her mind to be a darned good actress, too.

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ANN SOTHERN’S LEGACY: Part 3

Fateful encounters

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While Ann was on the road touring in the revival of the Gershwin musical, she stopped in Chicago. It had been several years since she had been in the midwest. During her in-town engagement, Ann went to see a band play downtown whose orchestra leader went by the name Roger Pryor.

He and Ann quickly discovered they had much in common. Not only did they share a love for big band music, but they both had grown up in show biz families. Ann’s mother Annette Ydes Lake was once a professional singer on the concert circuit; whereas his father was the renowned composer Arthur Pryor.

Before Ann’s company left Chicago, she and Roger Pryor made a pact to stay in touch. Ann knew their relationship, if she continued to pursue it, would not be easy. He was stuck in a loveless marriage to a woman who was not yet willing to give him a divorce. But as soon as he could, Roger had plans to get away. And maybe he would meet up with Ann again.

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In the summer of 1933, Ann had finally made her way back to the west coast. To her mother’s great pleasure, she was ready to try her luck in the movies again. Once more she had an unbilled part as a Goldwyn girl, this time in BROADWAY THRU A KEYHOLE. During one of the production numbers, she would get acquainted with another Goldwyn girl, Lucille Ball. Lucy would become a lifelong friend and occasional costar.

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In fact, Ann and Lucy would keep crossing professional paths for the next thirty years. They would both work at RKO and MGM together, and they would both find success in television sitcoms around the same time. But in 1933, they were relative nobodies in the movie business. That would soon change for Ann.

ANN SOTHERN’S LEGACY: Part 2

Success on Broadway

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In 1930, Ann did an act in MGM’s DOUGHBOY, and she was signed to a six-month contract with the studio. She also appeared as a Goldwyn Girl in the second-highest grossing film that year: WHOOPIE! starring Eddie Cantor. WHOOPIE! was based on a Florenz Ziegfeld stage hit, and Ziegfeld came out to California for the premiere. At a party, Ann performed in front of the theatrical impresario, and he decided he could use her in New York.

When her six-month contract with MGM was not renewed, she took Ziegfeld up on his offer and moved to the east coast. Soon she was cast in one of his new productions, called Smiles, starring Marilyn Miller. It also featured Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. During previews in Boston, Ann had the crowd eating out of the palm of her hand as she sang a spectacular musical number. Apparently, Miller felt the young actress was upstaging her and promptly had Ann fired. It was a crushing blow, but Ann refused to be defeated.

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After Ziegfeld removed Ann from the cast of Smiles, her mother helped secure a new job for her with Rodgers & Hart. A month later, she was playing the musical lead in their production of America’s Sweetheart, which spoofed Hollywood stardom. Virginia Bruce was one of Ann’s costars, and Monty Woolley was the director during the show’s run of 135 performances. It was 1931, and Ann’s career had at last begun to hit its stride.

Later that year she was cast in another Broadway production called Everybody’s Welcome. It was a musical based on the earlier play Up Pops the Devil, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Brackett. It was another hit for Ann, running until February of 1932, with a total of 139 performances.

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After Everybody’s Welcome closed, Ann went out on the road and toured in a revival of George Gershwin’s musical Of Thee I Sing. This lasted until June 1933, at which time she was ready to take a break from the stage. And it would be a lengthy break. Since Ann’s movie career was about to take off, she wouldn’t get the chance to work on Broadway again until 1951. Then it was a comedy called Faithfully Yours, costarring Robert Cummings and directed by Richard Whorf.

ANN SOTHERN’S LEGACY: Part 1

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Mama’s Girls

Ann Sothern was born in North Dakota on January 22, 1909. Her given name was Harriette Lake (sometimes spelled Harriet), and she was the oldest child of Annette Yde and Walter Lake. After Ann were two more girls, her sisters Marion and Bonnie. They grew up very close, but all were under the thumb of Mrs. Lake who in addition to her own performing arts career, was also somewhat the typical stage mother.

Originally, while her husband worked in the meat industry, Mrs. Lake earned a living singing. She traveled quite often on a concert circuit across the Midwest. She not only took the girls with her, but she put them on stage whenever they were not in school. Ann was already performing at the age of three or four, and when she was in school, she started writing music compositions and winning contests.

As Ann later recalled, she and her sisters would enter show business by osmosis, not because they set out to be performers—but because their mother basically insisted they follow in her professional footsteps. Plus, children raised in an environment centered on the performing arts would just naturally find themselves attuned to such things.

Mrs. Lake continued to encourage her daughters to play for audiences, especially Ann who showed much promise. In fact, Ann was doing so well with audiences that she had already started to develop a fan base as a teenager. During these years, the Lake family had lived in North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan. They finally wound up in California when Ann was 18.

At this point, Mrs. Lake had divorced the girls’ father. She retired from the concert circuit in 1927 and was now working in Hollywood as a voice coach. Her skills were very much in demand as the motion picture industry began to adapt to the use of microphone sound in the movies. While employed at Warner Brothers, the studio that helped usher in talking pictures, Mrs. Lake looked for opportunities for her daughters.

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Soon, with Mrs. Lake’s wrangling, Ann had her first unbilled part on screen. It occurred in a silent film called BROADWAY NIGHTS where she could be glimpsed as a fan dancer in a brief number. Considered a lost film today, the picture is notable for being not just Ann’s first film, but Barbara Stanwyck’s first film, too (who also had an unbilled part).  Of course, Ann was still being called Harriet during this time.

Two years later, Ann (still known as Harriet Lake) appeared in her first sound picture. She did a specialty act in Warner Brothers’ all-star musical revue THE SHOW OF SHOWS. She was in two numbers, one that featured Loretta Young at the start of her Hollywood career.

But Ann’s heart was not in the movies like the other hopefuls. As she later told an interviewer: “Listen, I never asked to be in show business. It was my mother’s idea.” So she left Hollywood and ventured to Seattle, where her father now lived. She attended the University of Washington and studied opera and music composition. But when she returned to California a year later, she discovered her mother had lined up more jobs for her in the movies.

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Music in movies

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I am not a musical expert. Once, as a student in a college course, I learned an appreciation of classical music composers. For my final paper, I had a choice to write about Hungarian composer Franz Liszt or Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky. I chose Tchaikovsky, specifically a critique of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique. It was an appropriately named composition, since my appreciation of music was quite pathetic at the time. Since those days, I’ve developed a greater appreciation of music as well as a greater appreciation of film. Or so I like to think!

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And when the occasion arises, I am able to combine the two. I like to look at how music makes film better, especially when the plot involves musicians or dancers. Consider David Selznick’s remake of INTERMEZZO, where Leslie Howard is a skilled violinist who falls in love with his daughter’s piano teacher. Or THE GLENN MILLER STORY where Miller (played by James Stewart) is struggling and his goal in those early scenes is for the public to hear his new sound.

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Later movies tend to use music a bit differently. Take, for instance, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER or DIRTY DANCING, where the main characters are involved in dance contests. In both cases, the music we hear in the background and on top of the action is just as important as what we are seeing.

But it doesn’t have to be as obvious or commercial as this. In some films, the soundtrack is quite sparse. Yet it comes in at just the right time, to emphasize a key dramatic moment. It may be so smoothly blended into the film that we do not even notice how effective it is.

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Two films I am recommending related to today’s topic have music as a central element in the telling of the story. Check out CARNEGIE HALL (1947) a low-budget art film directed by Edgar Ulmer; and SONG WITHOUT END (1960), a big-budget extravaganza in Technicolor, starring Dirk Bogarde as Hungarian composer Franz Liszt– the guy I didn’t write about in college.

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Written by Rosalind Russell

Rosalind Russell’s given name was Catherine Rosalind Russell. So it may very well be the name Catherine provided the letter ‘C’ in a pseudonym the actress used when she worked as a writer. Her pen name was C.A. McKnight.

Using this nome de plume, she wrote a story for a motion picture she intended to star in at Universal in the 1940s. It was called ‘The Unguarded Hour,’ and depicted the struggles of a sexually frustrated teacher who becomes the target of an obsessed student. Because Russell was busy with other projects at Columbia and RKO, the film did not get made in the forties. And by the time the script was revised and was ready to go before the cameras in the mid-50s, Russell was deemed too old. Plus, she had recently played a sexually frustrated teacher in Columbia’s hit adaptation of PICNIC.

So former MGM contract player Esther Williams, who was now freelancing, signed on to play the part. In a way, Williams does resemble a younger Roz Russell. The obsessive student was played by John Saxon and the role of the cop who helps the troubled teacher was assigned to Universal star George Nader.

Fifteen years later Russell crafted another story for the big screen. This time she decided to adapt Dorothy Gilman’s story about an elderly woman who gets recruited by the CIA during the cold war. In 1971, United Artists released MRS. POLLIFAX — SPY, and it would be Russell’s last major motion picture, though a year later she would make her one and only TV movie.

Roz Russell died in November 1976, but she continued writing during the last years of her life. And her autobiography, cowritten with Chris Chase, was published in the fall of 1977.

Classic western villains

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When we think of bad guys in westerns, we tend to think of very dangerous men who kill as often as they take a sip of whiskey. And for some reason, although they usually chew up the scenery, when the movie ends we still want more of these villains. So follow-up westerns are made, like RKO’S RETURN OF THE BAD MEN, which increases the percentage of law breakers on the frontier exponentially.

In fact RETURN OF THE BAD MEN brings together what is perhaps the greatest assortment of outlaws ever. The likes of them include the Younger brothers, the Dalton brothers, and Billy the Kid as well as bandit Wild Bill Doolin. Some make-believe baddies are even added to the mix, though there is never any doubt that federal marshal Randolph Scott won’t whip them into shape and restore law and order by the end of the day.

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The criminal elements in these films are highly fictionalized, of course. And with formula-driven villains, we tend to get cliches more than real flesh-and-blood human beings with serious social defects. The more dastardly and flashy they are, the better (or so it seems). And don’t you just love the black hats they wear to tell us there is nothing innocent or pure about them.

One actor who specializes in wearing the black hat is Dan Duryea. Duryea achieved great success in several genres, chief among them film noir and the western. One of his earliest western bad guy parts at home studio Universal was as the title character in BLACK BART.

He stars as an outlaw who arrives in California during the Gold Rush days and is soon stealing gold shipments from Wells Fargo. One robbery reunites him with a former partner in crime, who will compete with Black Bart for the affections of a dancer (Yvonne de Carlo). Of course, it becomes a matter of whether or not the gold is more important, or the girl.

Another actor who was great at donning black hats is Jack Palance. Palance, like Duryea, portrayed nefarious men in film noir as well as westerns. In fact, Palance became so identified with these types of shady characters that he wound up receiving an Oscar years later spoofing his on-screen persona in the light-hearted western romp CITY SLICKERS. But probably his most well-known role is that of evil gunslinger Jack Wilson in SHANE.

And before we wrap up this discussion, we could not fail to mention Henry Fonda, cast against type as a cold-blooded killer in Sergio Leone’s memorable spaghetti western ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Fonda plays an assassin gang leader who slaughters a woman’s new husband and family. At one point, he murders a young child. Fonda usually played good-guy roles, and it was shocking for audiences to see him with that black hat on, committing all those grisly, violent acts.