If someone asked me to name a truly tough film star, I’d never think of naming John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Humphrey Bogart, or any of those male performers whose toughness mostly consists of caressing assorted weaponry while posing for the camera.
With rare exceptions – Edward G. Robinson’s gangsters and James Cagney’s psychos come to mind – I’ve always felt that the toughness of the movie tough guys is merely a façade, a cover for grown men who aren’t honest or courageous enough to demonstrate their human vulnerabilities; their feelings of fear, loneliness, sadness, or tenderness. Those heroes can beat up and/or mow down a whole array of film extras dressed as Indians or Nazis, plus supporting players Lee Van Cleef and Richard Jaeckel, but they still come across as weaklings – prisoners unable to escape their own self-imposed stoicism. If those film toughies had to battle the emotional, physical, and social obstacles faced by movie women – problems that aren’t solved with big guns, big fists, and big bombs – they’d have run home crying for mama.
So, when I think of tough movie stars, whether past or present, I usually think of actresses; women who can, when given the chance, do everything the guys do – without (necessarily) resorting to fists, rifles, shotguns, or automatic weapons to achieve their goal. All the while, they are both honest and courageous enough to show their vulnerable side. Unlike their male counterparts, those women are no poseurs.
When I think of toughness in old movies, I think of Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur, Katharine Hepburn and Myrna Loy, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Jeanne Moreau and Anna Magnani, Joan Blondell and Ida Lupino, Aline MacMahon and Rosalind Russell, and, of course, Ann Sheridan.
Though hardly as well-remembered as Hepburn, Davis, or Crawford, the Texas-born Sheridan (née Clara Lou Sheridan, in Denton, on Feb. 21, 1915) was one of them no-nonsense tough dames that added salt, pepper, and hot mustard to dozens of movies made during the heyday of the Hollywood studios.
Following a long apprenticeship during the second half of the 1930s – mostly as an extra and bit player at Paramount, and then in supporting roles and B-movies at Warner Bros. – the versatile Sheridan finally came into her own as a star in a series of 1940s comedies, dramas, and musicals at Warners. Even then, she was never the top star at the studio where Bette Davis ruled supreme.
But despite the Davis handicap, Sheridan – labeled The Oomph Girl by some retarded studio publicist – did manage to showcase her considerable acting abilities in a series of productions. Among them were the dark drama They Drive by Night, with George Raft, Ida Lupino, and Humphrey Bogart; the comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, in which she played opposite a surprisingly subdued Davis; Honeymoon for Three, co-starring with future husband George Brent; Sam Wood’s popular, Academy Award-nominated melodrama Kings Row; the musical Shine On Harvest Moon, based on the life of Broadway star Nora Bayes; and The Unfaithful, co-starring with Lew Ayres and Zachary Scott in an updated version of Davis’ 1940 success, The Letter.
As a freelancer in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sheridan had trouble staying near the top. Things began well with Good Sam, a light comedy with Gary Cooper, which was followed by Howard Hawks’ considerably funnier I Was a Male War Bride – with Cary Grant as the bride in question. (“There have been three phases in my career,” she said at the time. “And the present one, playing comedy and to hell with the oomph, is by far the most satisfying.”)
Shortly thereafter, however, her films became mostly routine, though she gave a solid performance opposite Sterling Hayden in the pleasant Take Me to Town.
Sheridan was by then in her late 30s, and the studio system was in its last days. Contract players were being let go, old timers – especially women – were being replaced by young faces. Female filmgoers, who had all but million-handedly supported the stardom of most female screen stars from the silent era to the end of World War II were now staying home watching television.
Unsurprisingly, like so many other screen veterans Sheridan took the small-screen route. She appeared in a number of TV shows, mostly in anthology episodes but also – in the 1960s – in the long-running soap opera Another World and the comedy Western Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats. She also worked onstage, including a 1958 presentation (also televised in the United Kingdom) of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, opposite Franchot Tone and Dan Dailey.
Ann Sheridan died of cancer at the age of 51 in 1967.
Author Ray Hagen, who has contributed to film publications such as Films in Review and Screen Facts, has kindly consented to answer a few questions about Ann Sheridan for Alt Film Guide.
In Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames (McFarland, 2004), which Hagen co-wrote with Laura Wagner, he devotes one chapter to Sheridan, whom he befriended in the 1960s. (Sheridan is the Killer Tomato on the cover.) Additionally, Hagen and Wagner are currently working on an Ann Sheridan biographical project. Anyone with information, leads, or tips on Ann Sheridan, please contact Ray Hagen at hagenray at earthlink dot net or Laura Wagner at whitingfan at yahoo dot com.
For the record: The 15 Killer Tomatoes are Lucille Ball, Lynn Bari, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Gloria Grahame, Jean Hagen, Adele Jergens, Ida Lupino, Marilyn Maxwell, Mercedes McCambridge, Jane Russell (who wrote the book’s foreword), Ann Sheridan, Barbara Stanwyck, Claire Trevor, and Marie Windsor.
You’re currently working on a project about actress Ann Sheridan. Why Ann Sheridan?
Because she’s among the most neglected and unappreciated actresses of her time and I got tired of waiting for someone else to do it. Plus I adored her, on screen and off.
Ann Sheridan underwent a long apprenticeship in the 1930s and early 1940s, going from extra to bit player to minor supporting player to major supporting player to lead in B-movies to second lead in A-productions to leading lady to – finally – star. Why did it take her so long to become an established player in Hollywood films?
That was true of many stars back then. Rita Hayworth toiled in Bs and bits for 6 years, and Betty Grable for 10 years, before their star potential became evident. In Annie’s case it was a combination of reasons. Paramount and Warners did mishandle her, but it also took her awhile to hone her skills and develop her distinctive persona. (And, as she told me, “it takes years to develop a face on the screen.”)
She also correctly noted that “any executive or producer who didn’t know me, had never worked with me or seen me work with a good director, would say, ‘Oh my God, not a beauty contest winner! Oh, not the Oomph Girl!’ Between the two I think it certainly was a hindrance to my getting good parts, or better parts.” Warners mostly gave her junk, but when she got the rare good script she always rose to the occasion.
Ann Sheridan was a Warner Bros. star in the 1940s. What was it like for her to work at the studio where Bette Davis ruled supreme? Were there many roles that Sheridan wanted but that ended up being played by Davis or Ida Lupino?
Annie hugely admired Bette Davis and never resented her Queen of the Lot position, nor did she consider herself to be in Bette’s league. But she was well aware that there was a fierce amount of competition at Warners during her star years there, and it wasn’t just Davis. Consider that Sheridan, Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Lauren Bacall, Jane Wyman, Olivia de Havilland, Alexis Smith, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Eleanor Parker were all at Warners at [about] the same time. Competition there was a way of life. The pictures she really wanted to do were made at other studios, and Warners refused to loan her out.
Did Ann Sheridan have a favorite film and/or director and/or co-star? How did she get along with her WB co-stars James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, and Dennis Morgan? In addition to Bette Davis in “The Man Who Came to Dinner”?
Her favorite of all her films was definitely Kings Row [above, with Ronald Reagan].
Among her favorite directors she named Norman Taurog [for whom she appeared in bit parts in two 1934 productions, College Rhythm and Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch], Sam Wood [who directed her in Kings Row], Mitchell Leisen [for whom she appeared in bit parts in three 1934 productions, Behold My Wife, Bolero, and Murder at the Vanities], Henry Hathaway [for whom she appeared in a bit part in one more 1934 movie, Come on Marines], and Alfred Hitchcock [with whom she never worked].
In her words, regarding James Cagney and Pat O’Brien: “They raised me. I was a brat running around who they could pick on. I was certainly fond of them and they seemed pretty fond of me. All the people on the lot were pretty wonderful, we all got along.”
Regarding John Garfield: “John Garfield was a dear man. He was like the little guy who brought the apple for the teacher.”
[She] loved Humphrey Bogart, loved Errol Flynn.
Here’s what she had to say about Bette Davis: “I think she was conditioned at the time to remain angry at Miriam Hopkins and think that anybody on the set was going to fight with her. I wouldn’t fight with her at all. I agreed with her, with everything she said. Then she got very nice and today we’re very friendly. She was just – temperamental? Who isn’t temperamental? I’m as temperamental as all get-out if I feel I have to be. All of us had the greatest admiration for her. She was the queen, one of my greatest, greatest favorites. They always tried to start a feud between Bette and me, the Warner publicity boys. You never know who plants it.”
Ann Sheridan is outstanding in “I Was a Male War Bride,” directed by Howard Hawks, and co-starring Cary Grant. Why didn’t she make more comedies?
She did plenty of comedies, but none anywhere near as good as I Was a Male War Bride. When I asked her why she didn’t team with Grant again she told me, “We tried to. We were going to make sequels. We talked to Mr. Hawks about it quite often, but there was just nothing that could come up to Male War Bride. We just never found another good comedy, that’s all. It’s a sin and a shame too, because I think we should have done two or three.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
Why did Ann Sheridan’s film career peter out in the 1950s?
Because after Warners, when she was freelancing, she committed the one sin Hollywood could never forgive actresses for – she turned 40. And there was an entire generation of younger stars by then. All the stars who began in the 1930s had a rough time in the 50s. It’s still true today.
Ann Sheridan did quite a bit of TV work in the 1950s and 1960s. What was that like? Did she also appear onstage?
She enjoyed doing TV. Regarding the rushed TV rehearsal and shooting schedules (as opposed to the luxurious feature film schedules), her technique was, as she put it, “I just visualize the page in my head, and when they stop talking, I talk.” She did stage tours of Kind Sir in 1958 and Odd Man In (“an atrocity!”) in 1959, and appeared in The Time of Your Life at the Brussels World Fair in ’58. In all three she co-starred with future husband Scott McKay. [McKay was Ann Sheridan’s third husband (from 1966 to her death in Jan. 1967). Sheridan had previously been married to actors Edward Norris (1936-1939) and George Brent (1942-1943).]
On-screen, Ann Sheridan was humorous, warm, decisive, smart. What sort of person was the off-screen Ann Sheridan?
Humorous, warm, decisive, smart. Exactly as she seemed to be in the movies, a great laugher without a trace of star ego. When I first met her I was in my twenties and was totally awed. After the second or third time I addressed her as “Miss Sheridan,” she slowly smiled, leveled that riveting no-bullshit gaze on me and said, “Look, please, call me Annie, because I’m much too old to call you Mr. Hagen.”