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Ann Sothern: Cheerfully Brazen Blonde’s Unusual + Long-Lasting Career

13 minutes read

Ann SothernAnn Sothern: Throughout her unusual and unusually long Hollywood career – after a lengthy apprenticeship, she had two career peaks – Ann Sothern was billed above the title in various genres. At the end, she became one of the oldest Oscar nominees.
  • Perhaps chiefly associated with MGM’s low-budget Maisie comedy series, Ann Sothern enjoyed an unusually long and diverse film career that came to an end as she earned her one and only Oscar nomination.
  • TCM’s is presenting 14 Ann Sothern movies. These include five Maisie entries; writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s double Oscar winner A Letter to Three Wives; and Sothern’s swan song, Lindsay Anderson’s elegiac The Whales of August.

Gracefully brassy Ann Sothern enjoyed unconventional + long-lasting Hollywood career

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

No-nonsense, wisecracking blonde Ann Sothern, who possessed the unique talent of coming across as both brash and elegant, enjoyed an unusual and unusually long Hollywood career: In addition to her radio and television appearances, over the course of six decades she was featured in just about every type of film, from low-budget B fare to an Academy Award winner, from light comedies and fluffy musicals to crime dramas and horror thrillers.

Along the way, Sothern reached not one but two career peaks, the second of which after being in the business for more than two decades. Capping it all off, she earned her first (and only) Oscar nomination at age 79 for her work in Lindsay Anderson’s 1987 drama The Whales of August.

Those who want to become either acquainted or reacquainted with Ann Sothern’s wildly diverse oeuvre – surely a word Maisie Ravier would have appreciated (more on her further below) – have the chance to do so on Aug. 12, as Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” series is presenting 14 of her films, spanning from the mid-1930s to the late 1980s.

Musical beginnings

Born Harriette Arlene Lake on Jan. 22, 1909, in Valley City, North Dakota, and raised in Waterloo, Iowa, and in the Minneapolis area, Ann Sothern belonged to a musically inclined family: Her mother, Annette Yde, was a concert singer and piano teacher; one of her two sisters, Bonnie Lake, would become a singer-songwriter; her maternal grandfather is supposed to have been a Danish violinist;[1] and from a young age, Harriette herself studied singing and piano playing.

In the mid-1920s, Yde, by then separated from her husband for some years, moved to the Los Angeles area, where she became a vocal coach at Warner Bros., at the time gearing up for sound pictures. Harriette, then in her teens, had been attending college while living with her father in Seattle.

During a visit with her mother in 1929, the 20-year-old put her musical training to brief but memorable use after landing a couple of song-and-dance gigs in Warners’ all-star musical extravaganza Show of Shows (1929). Donning a black wig, kicking her legs, and shaking a tambourine while pretending to be the real-life sister of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. leading lady Marion Byron, Sothern had officially launched her show business career.[2]

From Broadway hit to Columbia & RKO Bs

A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract followed Harriette’s Show of Shows appearance. Actual movie parts, however, weren’t forthcoming.

Leaving Hollywood behind, she had better luck on Broadway, getting cast in key roles in a trio of musical comedies, notably the Monty Woolley-directed America’s Sweetheart (1931), featuring Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart compositions, and, after replacing former silent film actress Lois Moran, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s sizable hit Of Thee I Sing (1933), with music by Ira and George Gershwin.

A Columbia contract brought her back to Hollywood in late 1933. Studio boss Harry Cohn took the trouble of changing his new player’s name to Ann Sothern – reportedly a joint homage to her mother and Shakespearean actor E.H. Sothern – but didn’t bother providing her with quality projects.

Her two prestige productions during that period, both musical comedies, were made at independent outlets: The Eddie Cantor star vehicle Kid Millions (1934) at Samuel Goldwyn and, at Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century, the Maurice Chevalier vehicle Folies Bergère de Paris (1935), with Sothern as the brassy, blonde contrast to cool, raven-haired Merle Oberon.

A 1936 contract at RKO Pictures may have provided her with a steady paycheck, but movies and roles remained cheaply packaged and artistically unrewarding. Two of these – Joseph Santley’s Walking on Air (1936) and Ben Holmes’ The Front Page rip-off There Goes My Girl (1937) – can be seen on TCM. Both costar Gene Raymond, Sothern’s partner in five RKO releases.

Ann Sothern Maisie Robert Young Ruth HusseyAnn Sothern in Maisie, with Robert Young and Ruth Hussey. After a decade in show business, Ann Sothern became a star thanks to MGM’s 1939 comedy Maisie, which led to nine sequels featuring disparate storylines, characters, and romantic interests.[3]

Second stab at MGM stardom & Maisie franchise

Following her busy but undistinguished RKO tenure, Ann Sothern was given a second chance at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after producer J. Walter Ruben saw her as Fredric March’s sassy secretary in Tay Garnett’s United Artists-distributed comedy-adventure Trade Winds (1938).

This time around, Sothern would be assigned more substantial duties than posing for publicity photos and doing blink-and-you-miss-it walk-ons. Her first project was the Ruben-produced comedy Maisie (1939), initially intended as a star vehicle for Jean Harlow, who had died at age 26 in 1937, and now downgraded to the level of “programmer” (i.e., a higher-echelon B flick).

Based on Wilson Collison’s 1935 novel Dark Dame – “readable trash,” according to Kirkus ReviewsMaisie chronicles the misadventures of Brooklyn showgirl Maisie Ravier (née Mary Anastasia O’Connor), who, stranded penniless in exotic Wyoming, gets herself a job as the maid to adulterous rancher’s wife Ruth Hussey. When not dusting the furniture, the new house help spends her days romancing foreman (and top-billed costar) Robert Young.

Maisie turned out to be profitable enough to warrant nine sequels, from Congo Maisie (1940) to Undercover Maisie (1947), as well as a radio show also starring Ann Sothern, The Adventures of Maisie (1945–1947; syndicated into the early 1950s).[3]

Rare female-centered film series

At the time Ann Sothern made the move to the Culver City lot, MGM was the world’s most prestigious and successful studio; so much so that even its series – The Thin Man, Tarzan, Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildare – generally boasted higher production values and box office appeal than those of its competitors. Indeed, featuring costars like Lew Ayres, Maureen O’Sullivan, Red Skelton, John Carroll, and John Hodiak, most Maisie movies weren’t strictly B fare.

Furthermore, the Maisie series was unusual in that its lead character was a woman, whereas the vast majority of Hollywood-made series of the 1930s and 1940s centered on men – from Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, and Sherlock Holmes to Hopalong Cassidy, Boston Blackie, and the Bowery Boys. Even in the Thin Man and Road to… movies, Myrna Loy and Dorothy Lamour, despite their costar billing, played subordinate roles to their male counterparts.

MGM’s Maisie, Columbia’s Blondie (Penny Singleton), RKO’s Mexican Spitfire (Lupe Velez), and Warner Bros.’ Nancy Drew (Bonita Granville), Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell / Lola Lane / Jane Wyman), and – the more prestigious – Four Daughters (Lola, Rosemary, and Priscilla Lane, plus Gail Page) and its sequels were exceptions to the rule.

Maisie movies & real-life romance

The first five Maisie movies are being shown on TCM on Ann Sothern Day: Maisie (1939); the Red Dust rip-off Congo Maisie (1940), with Sothern in the old Jean Harlow role; Gold Rush Maisie (1940); Maisie Was a Lady (1941); and Ringside Maisie (1941).

The last title features Robert Sterling, who became Sothern’s second husband (1943–49). She had been previously married to Roger Pryor (1936–1943), the second male lead in one of her Columbia Bs, The Girl Friend (1935).

See below the trailer for Up Goes Maisie (1946), with Ann Sothern and George Murphy.

Ann Sothern (finally) reaches stardom

A full decade after her film debut, Ann Sothern had finally developed into enough of a box office draw to get star/costar billing in a number of A productions at MGM and elsewhere. These included:

  • On loan to Warner Bros., Lloyd Bacon’s underworld comedy Brother Orchid (1940), reportedly cast as slow-witted gun moll Flo Addams at the insistence of the film’s associate producer, Mark Hellinger. Variety found the casting fortuitous, opining that Flo’s faux-drunk phone chat with mobster-turned-monk Edward G. Robinson was “an excellent presentation of comic delivery and facial expression.”
  • Producer Arthur Freed’s Norman Z. McLeod-directed musical Lady Be Good (1941), opposite top-billed Eleanor Powell, plus Robert Young and Red Skelton. Now billed above her Maisie leading man, Sothern, looking like a glittering Madonna, gets to warble Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Academy Award-winning song “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
  • Another Arthur Freed-Norman Z. McLeod musical collaboration, Panama Hattie (1942), a troubled transfer of the 1940 Cole Porter-Ethel Merman Broadway show. Although McLeod received solo directorial credit, Warners veteran Roy Del Ruth worked on extensive retakes, while Vincente Minnelli handled the musical numbers. Surprisingly, Panama Hattie, which reunited Ann Sothern with Lady Be Good’s Red Skelton, evolved into a sizable box office hit ($474,000 in profits).
  • Richard Thorpe’s World War II drama Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943), with Sothern as one of a group of women – among them Margaret Sullavan, Joan Blondell, Fay Bainter, Marsha Hunt, and Ella Raines – stuck at a hospital in The Philippines during the Battle of Bataan. Cry ‘Havoc’ is one of TCM’s presentations.

Atypical Hollywood career trajectory

The fact that Ann Sothern acquired her bona fide movie star credentials after toiling away for ten years wasn’t that unique. Ann Sheridan, Betty Grable, Jane Wyman, Lucille Ball – to name four Hollywood actresses – also went through long apprenticeships before attaining full-fledged stardom in their late 20s or early 30s.

What’s particularly unconventional about Sothern’s Hollywood career trajectory is that, subsequent to a Maisie-filled lull in the mid-1940s, she reached a second big-screen peak – even if less financially successful than the previous one – when she was already around 40 and in the business for nearly two decades.

TCM is presenting four Ann Sothern movies from that second period: April Showers, Nancy Goes to Rio, Shadow on the Wall, and, the critical highlight of her career, A Letter to Three Wives.

Ann Sothern April Showers Jack CarsonAnn Sothern in April Showers with Jack Carson. Inspired by the early life of silent film comedian Buster Keaton, this 1948 musical was directed by the little-remembered James V. Kern, who would be reunited with his female star on The Ann Sothern Show.

April Showers & Nancy Goes to Rio: Lawsuit & Technicolor

With future TV director James V. Kern at the helm, Warner Bros.’ April Showers (1948) stars Ann Sothern and Warners regular Jack Carson as married vaudeville entertainers whose failing act is saved once their young son (Robert Ellis) unexpectedly emerges as a crowd-pleasing sensation.

A mid-level box office performer, April Showers infuriated both New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther and silent era comedian Buster Keaton, whose vaudeville years inspired the storyline. The former lambasted the movie (“Even with expert presentation, this would be an insufferable tale”); the latter sued the studio.

Nancy Goes to Rio (1950) is a Joe Pasternak-produced, Robert Z. Leonard-directed Technicolor remake of another Pasternak production, Universal’s 1940 Deanna Durbin star vehicle It’s a Date. The flimsy musical works as a moderately amusing showcase for Ann Sothern and MGM soprano Jane Powell, cast as mother (Kay Francis in the original) and daughter vying not only for the same stage role but also, as a result of a misunderstanding, for the same off-stage man (Barry Sullivan).

Ebullient Carmen Miranda is, as always, the scene-stealer-in-chief, but Powell has a charming screen presence while 41-year-old Sothern, looking fantastic in color, reminds viewers that:

  • She shouldn’t have turned down the 1943 Technicolor musical Du Barry Was a Lady[4].
  • She should have been more frequently used during the heyday of the MGM musical.
  • She could be just as persuasive as “refined” Broadway stars named Frances Elliott as she had been as molls, secretaries, scatterbrains, gal pals, and burlesque dames named Maisie, Hattie, Dixie, Dulcy, and Flo.

“Ann Sothern: Cheerfully Brazen Blonde’s Unusual + Long-Lasting Career” follow-up post:

Actress Ann Sothern Became 1 of Oldest Oscar Nominees.”

“Ann Sothern: Cheerfully Brazen Blonde” notes

Did Ann Sothern have a submarine-inventing grandfather?

[1] Stories claiming that Ann Sothern’s paternal grandfather was Simon Lake, official inventor of the submarine, are false.

Also worth noting, in 1961 Annette Yde would file a lawsuit against her movie/TV star daughter, demanding a monthly allowance.

Meet my fake sister + Broadway Nights debut?

[2] The Show of Shows number featuring Harriette Lake is called “Meet My Sister.”

However, unlike Loretta Young and Sally Blane, Dolores Costello and Helene Costello, Sally O’Neil and Molly O’Day, Marceline Day and Alice Day, Viola Dana and Shirley Mason, etc. – and even though she did have one sister named Marion – Harriette (introducing herself as Harriette Byron) and Marion Byron were not real-life siblings.

Also in Show of Shows, Harriette can be spotted in the “Bicycle Built for Two” segment.

Note: According to several sources, Ann Sothern made her film debut in an uncredited bit as a dancer – alongside Barbara Stanwyck and, purportedly, Sylvia Sidney – in the 1927 silent Broadway Nights. That seems unlikely, as the now-lost First National release was shot in New York City.

Maisie talent

[3] Including the original, eight Maisie movies were written/co-written by the Writers Guild of America’s first female president, Mary C. McCall Jr., while four were directed by (mostly) B moviemaker Edwin L. Marin.

Silent era veteran Harry Beaumont, whose The Broadway Melody (1929) was the first talkie to win the Best Picture Academy Award, directed the final three Maisie entries.

J. Walter Ruben produced the first six titles; George Haight the last four.

Janis Paige would revive the character in a 1960 television pilot, Maisie, that failed to evolve into a full-fledged series. Penned by Mary C. McCall Jr. and with Edward Ludwig in the director’s chair, the pilot featured a different storyline than the 1939 movie.

Du Barry Was a Lady: Letting go of a musical hit

[4] Around the time she was seen in Panama Hattie, Ann Sothern was announced as the star of Arthur Freed’s 1943 adaptation of another Cole Porter-Ethel Merman Broadway success, Du Barry Was a Lady.

Sothern, however, turned the role down, thus paving the way for Lucille Ball to add to her resumé one of the most notable hits of her big-screen career.

“Ann Sothern” endnotes

Ruth Hussey, Robert Young, Ann Sothern Maisie image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Jack Carson & Ann Sothern April Showers movie image: Warner Bros.

Ann Sothern publicity shot via Doctor Macro.

“Ann Sothern: Cheerfully Brazen Blonde’s Unusual + Long-Lasting Career” last updated in April 2022.

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