Tuesday, March 22

Ann Sheridan

Largely forgotten today, she wasn't nominated for an Oscar, there were no scandals, no children wrote a tell-all, and while she made a number of films, only three truly stand out to this day. Nonetheless, Ann Sheridan was a fine actress, equally capable in drama and comedy and she could sell a song when she needed to. Heavily counted on at Warner Bros. to deliver the goods, she always did... never a false note.  And she is perfect for this tribute to the 1940s because that's when the folks flocked to her films. 

Her persona was one of strength, decisive toughness with a smart mouth. She could stand up to the rowdy guys... Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, Flynn... but she was always a straight shooter.  Women in her films were usually her friends.  She was not often competitive with them.  Her characters were proud and I suspect the lady herself was as well. With arms akimbo and feet apart, she could lecture with that throaty voice or laugh gloriously, throwing her red mane around for effect.  She was a looker although I call her a handsome woman.   She could get all gussied up for a ballroom dance but she seemed more comfortable in outdoor roles. Obviously, she was perfect as a western heroine.

In the 40s she had big hair

Born in Denton, Texas, in 1915, by all accounts enjoying a happy childhood as a tomboy, the youngest of five kids.  Growing up on a ranch she was proud that she was good with horses, could bulldog a steer, capably handle a gun and fix just about anything. She spent her earliest years dreaming of being either an actress or a big band singer.  She loved performing in school plays. She was always proud of the fact that she was a Texas girl.  

When she was 18, unbeknownst to Ann, her sister sent in her photo to Paramount Pictures for their hyped-up Search for Beauty contest. Six months later she received notification that she was one of six young women selected.  Shortly thereafter, she and her entire family left for Hollywood.  All six of the aspirants were put into the film Search for Beauty which starred Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino. She was the only one awarded a contract with the studio, starting at $50 a week.  

One hears of those who became big stars with their first films (Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Leslie Caron, Julie Andrews come immediately to mind) but Annie (as she liked to be called) languished at Paramount in a couple dozen movies, just bit parts, often uncredited.  It's pretty clear the studio hadn't a clue what to do with her.  

As she was considering returning to Texas, perhaps to go for that job as a band singer, she opted instead to get a new agent.  He got her a part in a Warner Bros. film and the studio liked her so much they put her under contract. They no doubt spotted her tough dame demeanor and knew she'd be a good fit in that compound.  In her earliest days there she became good pals with Bogart.  They would costar in seven films (eight if one counts her walk-on in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and three of those films were in 1937 alone... Black Legion, The Great O'Malley and San Quentin, all popular with the public.

Her two best films with Bogart were Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), also costarring Cagney, about a priest trying to stop a thug from corrupting street kids, and They Drive by Night (1940), about two wildcat truckers.  Annie wouldn't be as unknown today had she worked with Bogart in the one film he wanted her to be in and one the studio touted her for, Casablanca (1942).  He was comfortable working with her, considered her a good friend and he didn't know Ingrid Bergman at all and never would know her very well.

A well-liked actress with never a hint of star temperament, Annie was popular with crews, the brass and costars alike.  On the one hand, WB thought she exuded an allure they wished to capitalize on and in that regard felt she needed an appellation so the public would remember her.  She was tagged The Oomph Girl, which she hated and said she never knew what it meant.  On the other hand, she and other WB actresses felt they got the roles they did only after the queen of the lot, Bette Davis, turned them down.  Sheridan was never bitter about it and in fact was about to costar with the famously temperamental Davis.

She was paired twice with another actor who became a good friend, John Garfield.  The first was They Made Me a Criminal (1939) and Castle on the Hudson (1940).  Both were crime dramas, a genre for which Garfield was ideally suited and he and Annie made a great team.  In 1939 she was personality-plus as a frontier saloon hostess in the Errol Flynn western, Dodge City.  In 1941 she made a delightful comedy, Honeymoon for Three, about a man torn between his secretary and a former college chum.  Cute as it was, it is most notable because Annie married her leading man, George Brent. The marriage, her second of three, all to actors, lasted only a year.  They all lasted about the same length.  Whatever successes she had in other areas of her life, it didn't seem to take in the marriage game.

With second husband, George Brent

The year 1942 was one of her best professionally.  She started off with one of her finest films, the acerbic comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner.  In the title role of an imperious critic who is holed up at an unknown couple's home because he injured his hip on their property, Monty Woolley is magnificent, the perfect marriage of actor and role.  Bette Davis is his put-upon secretary and Sheridan his friend, a famous actress. Annie told Davis at the outset that the two of them were not going to have any problems (Davis was infamous for chewing up her female costars and directors) and happily they didn't.

Also in 1942 was the film for which Ann Sheridan is most remembered, King's Row.  It was also her favorite role and she was always immensely pleased that she got it because there was stiff competition.  The story of how unbearable life could be for a small community at the turn of the 20th century, Sheridan was strong and captivating as the woman who loves a man whose leg has been amputated by a doctor solely because of a grudge.  Ronald Reagan, a man I'm not given to complimenting, had his best role.  The public took to the pair so much that they were immediately reunited for Juke Girl, about migrant farm workers. It didn't fare as well as its predecessor. 

Comic Jack Benny, who made very few movies, had his best role in George Washington Slept Here about a couple who buys a dilapidated house.  I loved Annie in comedies and this was one of her better ones and ended her 1942 films.

This is what became of that tomboy

Her next five films, made from 1944 to 1947, were some of my favorite Sheridan movies.  First up was the musical, Shine On Harvest Moon (1944), about early Broadway star Nora Bayes.  That same year was a wild comedy, The Doughgirls, concerning honeymooners trying to find a hotel room in wartime Washington D.C.   The romantic drama, One More Tomorrow (1946), was about a shiftless playboy who marries a snobby rich woman instead of the woman he really loves.  All three of these films costarred Annie's good buddy, Jack Carson while Dennis Morgan was her leading man in Harvest Moon and Tomorrow and pal Alexis Smith was in Doughgirls and Tomorrow. She always said working was like being with family.

Next up were two decent noirish films, Nora Prentiss and The Unfaithful, both 1947.  The first concerned a married doctor who fakes his own death in order to be with his mistress, a troubled nightclub singer.  The ending could have been more believable but it was otherwise a tight little noir that just pleased and pleased. One could understand how a man would go to extreme means to stay with sultry Annie.  In The Unfaithful a married Sheridan kills her lover, telling her husband and her attorney that he was an intruder in her home.  It was great fun watching her story unravel and it didn't hurt at all that Zachary Scott played the husband.

Annie was in her early 30s when her contract with WB expired and for whatever reason it was not renewed.  Hollywood was starting to change around that time.  The Red Scare was coming, so was television, so was a change in how studios did business and there were a lot of younger and equally talented actresses waiting to dethrone whomever they could.

Her last good film came just after leaving WB, I Was a Male War Bride (1949).  It is a screwball comedy, cute if a little overwrought, something at which costar Cary Grant was most adept. They were an interesting pairing.  Neither is the type I would pick for the other but they pulled off the military misadventure that is just too complicated to outline.  Just think of the title to get started.  

Out on her own

Out from WB and looking around for work for the first time, either she didn't make good choices in films, didn't have an agent making the calls or the good parts weren't offered to her.  In 1952 she made Steel Town and Just Across the Street, both horrid little things with bland leading man, John Lund.  The films disappeared almost as fast as they opened.

She scored far more suitable leading men for her next two films, masculine outdoorsmen who greatly complimented Sheridan as she saddled up for two westerns.  Of course I loved them both, although they were B efforts, of course.  The first was 1953s Take Me to Town with Sterling Hayden (one day I'm doing a piece on him... a most fascinating man).  She was back as a saloon hostess, wanted by the law, who decides to hang out in a widower's home as a surrogate mother to his children.  

She was then off the screen for three years, her longest period of inactivity.  She did, as a lot of the 40s stars did, some stints on television, nothing exciting, but she needed to make a living. Her life was off-putting for two reasons.  One was a lawsuit with Howard Hughes over a film that never got made.  The other was that a man she'd been dating for a number of years had died.  

As a pre-teen, I just loved Come Next Spring (1956).  Annie's costar, Steve Cochran, is one of the reasons why.  It had a child-in-peril theme along with a story about a woman allowing her long-gone husband to return to the family farm as an employee.  I picked up a bad copy of it a few years ago at a garage sale and while I'm glad to have a childhood favorite, it wasn't what I once thought it was.

From left, Allyson,, Collins, Gray, Annie, Miller, Blondell

She was a lovely addition to The Opposite Sex (1956) in a wiser-than-her-pals role.  It was a musical remake of The Women and mainly a showcase for June Allyson and Joan Collins (now there's an odd couple).  Sheridan was fourth-billed, another sign that her star had faded.

In 1965 she joined the cast of the television soap opera, Another World.  In 1966, in June, she married for the third time to a younger actor with whom she was working in regional theater.  In September a new TV western comedy she had been working on, Pistols and Petticoats, aired for the first time.  She was happy to have something that felt secure.  In November the unhappy news came... she had advanced cancer of the liver and esophagus.  She died on January 21, 1967, in Los Angeles, at 51 years of age.

The public always loved Ann Sheridan... Annie... and so did I.  She was a classy smartass, an early practitioner of tough love, good-looking with that red hair I've always been so fond of.  Expert in comedy and drama, she did her best.  It was good enough for me.

Next posting:
What Price Glory?

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