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Thursday, May 2, 2013

STAR OF THE MONTH: Ann Sheridan - Biography

The "Oomph" Girl: Ann Sheridan
Before Ann Sheridan was a movie star in Hollywood, she was living in Denton, TX as lil’ Clara Lou, the youngest of five children, who possessed a surprising blend of Scottish, Irish, and even Cherokee blood. Clara Lou was one of those fortunate children born with a special gleam in her eye. Where she looked, she saw opportunity and a world for the taking. She was not greedy by any means, just enthusiastic about what each new day would bring. With her solid Southern roots and strict family morals, Clara Lou mixed in her own optimistic and loving attitude to mature into a young woman of great spirit and responsibility. Childhood friends would remember her as a girl always ready to pick a mop, broom, or hammer and help out.

She preferred male company from the beginning, if only because the gents' had more freedom in their fun. She liked riding horses, shooting tin cans, and working on cars (a hobby that would follow her to California). "Lulu" spent most of her time daydreaming about being a big band singer! People took life too seriously, she believed. All these standards for decent behavior or expected ways of life were a bore. Naturally, Clara Lou’s wishes to be a stage performer were not appreciated by her family, who was very religious. Though she maintained that she was always close to her family, one picks up on the veiled references to some unforgotten tensions in her past. In addition to lacking her parents’ support in her wishes, Ann would later remark again and again on the hypocrisy of religion and hypocritical people in general. Though, out of respect to her kin, she never went into specifics, she made no secret of the fact that finding a way out of Denton was a desire that had been burning in her belly from an early age. Though she was going to school to become a teacher-- majoring in art-- she longed for escape, for freedom, and a life without guilt or judgment. She wanted to be herself.

Ann gives good cheesecake

While the folks may have voted “No” on singing, at least one member of her family was pro-Clara Lou. In 1932, her sister, Kitty, learned that a little Paramount contest was in the works, searching for new talent. They were using the upcoming film Search for Beauty as a flimsy excuse to drum up publicity and interest in their studio. Clara Lou had heard of the "Search for Beauty" contest—young beauts with good gams looking for a chance in the spotlight. She thought it was ridiculous! Imagine her surprise when she learned that she was a finalist, because Kitty had secretly entered her in the contest! Not only did Clara Lou earn a part in the film, she got herself a contract too-- which was not something many of the other finalists could boast. After Clara Lou's ride to Tinsel Town, she never looked back. She had found her new home. It wasn’t all gravy, however. After her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance on the screen, she worked hard to get somewhere in the business. While other winners of the contest faded into the back-drop, fell prey to Hollywood’s dangers, or packed it in and moved home, Clara Lou busted her tookus, taking any publicity photos asked of her, performing in whatever roles necessary, and building up her resume.

Despite her impressive, unlearned acting ability and out-of-this-world beauty, she couldn’t seem to get anywhere beyond silly supporting roles in B-pictures-- aside from her first leading role in Car 99. When she left Paramount in 1935, she was plucked by Warner Brothers. Nonetheless, after noticeable parts in The Great O'Malley with Pat O'Brien and San Quentin with O'Brien and Humphrey Bogart, her career still seemed to be going nowhere. "Ann"—who had officially changed her name at studio suggestion in 1934-- was mostly being used as a body double. She once cracked that she lined up to buy a ticket at the theater to see the back of her own head, her hands, or her legs on the big screen. Naturally, she started getting nostalgic, thinking that maybe Mom and Dad had had a little more sense than she had given them credit for. Maybe it was time to haul it in after all... Then, she got her big break!
Ann’s casting opposite James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces was a godsend! Not only was she working with the incredible Jim, a pro who took special care to teach her the ropes, but for the first time, her fast-talking wisecracks were on full display. Unlike other heroines—all sweet or all tough—Ann was a little of both. She was a woman, but she was a woman who could take care of herself. She didn’t need any guy for nuthin’, so if you want to make a move, Buster, you better have something better goin’ on than a nice suit of clothes. And she won’t take to lip, neither! Ann’s onscreen characters, who were reliable, sturdy girls were still not exactly "gal Fridays." She was there to lean on if she thought the cause was worthy, and only then would she give the hero her heart. She was a tough cookie, a quick thinker, and nobody’s fool—yet another strong female paving the way for pre-feminists. Despite this sudden burst in her career, she didn’t skyrocket the way she had hoped. BUT, she had made a great impression on the public, her co-stars, and everyone she had or would soon work with. Some directors initially thought that Ann didn’t give a damn about acting or the craft, because she was so easy-going, cracking up and playing pranks between takes. Then, they would see her at work and realize her incredible gift for simply being Ann unfiltered. Soon enough, she had several people fighting in her corner, and with her own right hook, she was about to take aim and knock the socks off Hollywood. In the case of Ann Sheridan, a little publicity gimmick went a long way.

George Hurrell became a great champion for Ann, using his
artistic eye to capture her beauty and personal texture
to put the "Ooooh" in her Oomph!

After Ann completed supporting roles as a naughty opportunist who blindsides John Garfield in They Made Me a Criminal and yet another naughty dance hall songstress in the Errol Flynn western Dodge City, notorious columnist Walter Winchell gave her an unexpected plug. While mentioning her underutilized talents, he chastised Warners for not giving her better roles with more "umph." That quip definitely got some eager corporate tails wagging, as they finally realized that they had a hot-cha-ching commodity on their hands! (It always amazes me when studio heads don't "know what to do" with pretty, talented actresses). Thus, publicity agent Bob Taplinger staged a rigged competition to decide who should bear the title of Hollywood's true "Oomph Girl"--which had a definite sexual connotation. To no one's surprise, Ann was crowned, though no one deserved it more. She, of course, took the label for what it was: a label indeed, one that would eventually become a stigma. After some advice from Paul Muni, an actor whom she respected, she took the joke in stride, determined to use the current media attention to improve her career, bargain for better roles, and hopefully show the world that she was more than just a "looker." In a nut shell, Ann took the biggest lemon of her life and made lemonade, but then that was just her style. What followed was a slew of some of the most beautiful studio portraits ever taken, magazine covers galore, and an incredible spike in her films' ticket sales as people lined up to see just what "Oomph" was.

Overcoming her "Oomph" was a hurdle, however. Ann seemed to be handed fairly ridiculous vehicles, which she was expected to sell based on her star power alone. It usually worked, but it was bad business to not give such a bankable star better writing and better scripts. Ann's laid-back demeanor didn't do her many favors either, as she initially didn't fight for the parts she should have had, (though she would show more gumption in business later). For the most part, she was handed hackneyed remakes of previous successes by Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, or Ann Harding. When she received the Harvard Lampoon Award for "the actress least likely to succeed," it fed her willful side but also put a chink in her confidence. She held her chin a little higher when Princeton claimed her as their own in retaliation, made her honorary editor of their own journal-- The Advocate-- and staged a picket outside the Lampoon! Great fans and solid, soulful performances in City for Conquest and King's Row earned her increasingly good reviews and critics became more and more impressed with her. Playing against type, she also showed her sharp, comic edge as a Hollywood diva opposite a surprisingly vanilla Bette in The Man Who Came to Dinner

With good pal Bogie in It All Came True.

With Ann's acting, it was all about timing. That was her gift, whether she was performing in a drama, screwball comedy, romance, or dark masterpiece. No one could spout off one-liners and comebacks like Ann, who gave sass with as much ease as she could shoot a pistol. She also knew when to let a moment land, playing with the emotions behind the words. Ann was never poetic about her art. She admired actresses of acclaim like Bette Davis (like everyone else), but she was both savvy and perhaps a bit too self-deprecating about her talent. She knew she wasn't a studied character thespian, and she knew she didn't have the exotic appeal of glamour goddesses like Garbo and Dietrich. She believed she was a capable lead who knew how to deliver her lines and did her best. This pure, unadulterated honesty of Ann's all-American appeal is exactly what singled her out from her contemporaries and made her a comfortable soul-mate for her fans. Additionally, she would consistently be on Hollywood's "best dressed" celebs lists. So, yet again, Ann played the star and enjoyed the act, but beneath it all, she was still the gap-toothed Clara Lou. She adhered to the rules, enjoyed the fame, but colored outside the lines by simply staying true to herself and never losing touch with what life was all about: happiness. 

Making beautiful, kooky music with Jack Benny in
George Washington Slept Here.

Meanwhile, Ann's un-teachable rhythm thrived when she was teamed with Jack Benny in George Washington Slept Here. As WWII raged on, Ann was very vocal in her support of the call to arms and very loyal to the men fighting the battles. She entertained troops overseas, danced with them at the Hollywood Canteen, and took part in the all-star war-morale film Thank Your Lucky Stars. Unlike other actresses, Ann wanted her roles to age as she did. Thus, in keeping with her own maturity, she continued turning heads with her dramatic performances in the films like the strange and fascinating noir, Nora Prentiss, or her "realistic and poignant interpretation," The Unfaithful. Still, there were many projects in which she was slated to appear that never took shape, mostly due her choice of daring material that made the censors sweat and were consequently scrapped. Though she finally won a long overdue pay bump with script approval, she was all but ignored by the studio and treated like an old, reliable mare who would loyally carry them to victory. She was not given the attention her career deserved. Finally, in 1949, Ann bought out the last remaining months of her Warners contract and began freelancing. And hallelujah, because she was teamed with Cary Grant in one of the funniest comedies of all time! I Was a Male War Bride turned out to be the perfect blend of chemistry and comic ping-pong. It was a slick casting decision, for what other woman could strong-arm the ever-dapper Cary into donning drag and get away with laughing at him at the same time!? It is unfortunate that the duo never made another film together. Unfortunately, it was while filming that Ann developed a chronic bronchial infection that would come back to haunt her.

With Cary Grant in the gender bender triumph, I Was a Male War Bride.

Now pushing 40, Ann began to work primarily in radio and television. She also spent much time in her beloved Mexico and nonchalantly took a three year hiatus from work as if she were just out for a brief walk. The world of acting is cruel to women. The age of 41 is the unspoken beginning of the fade-out for most film actresses. Ann understood this and took it in stride. One might suspect that in this period of her life, Ann might slow down and start building a family, but Ann's private life was as atypical as her BS-detector was spot on. She had a brief marriage to actor Edward Norris in the '30s, which ended primarily due to his own jealousy over her rising career as his own stalled. (Ann probably told him to cut the crap then packed her bags). Interestingly, they remained friends, and Norris would hint at his silly regrets later. In the '40s, Ann had a lengthy love affair with her complete opposite: the ever-serious and properly tuxed George Brent. They wed... and were divorced a year later.

Perhaps Ann's most lasting relationship was that with elder press agent Steve Hanagan. They never married, and while some suggest that this was due to his surprisingly invested mother's interference, it is also more than possible that Ann had decided by then that she just wasn't the marrying kind. They eventually split, and Steve passed away not much later, bequeathing Ann the bulk of his estate-- which turned out to include more debt than anything else. As ever, Ann paid for everything without complaint. Hints at the source of Ann's relationship troubles can be gleaned from her early upbringing. Her resultant need for independence and a life without rules certainly clashed with the standard ideals of "wivelihood" (new word).  In theory, the idea of eternal love was alluring; in reality, Ann perhaps found it too difficult to entirely give herself to anyone, nor could she tolerate being a trophy wife. She wanted to be loved-- no one as warm and giving  as she could not but hope for some of the same in return-- but whatever secret fears or mistrusts she carried within, seemed to hamper all of her liaisons.

With soon-to-be real life husband in Honeymoon for Three.

Her friendships on the other hand... those were things that Ann did well!!! As in her childhood, her best buddies were always men. She and Errol Flynn were thick as thieves when working together during Dodge City, Edge of Darkness, and her last Warners film, Silver City. Most particularly, she was good friends with Humphrey Bogart, who was not the easiest guy to charm. The rapport that she was able to build with these rapscallions is revelatory of her true self. Ann was a straight-shooting, salt-of-the-earth gal. She cared more about her poodles, which she eventually raised in droves, than she did about anything that highfalutin Hollywood seemed to be interested in. She was simple, direct, and honest. There was no feigned innocence or diva tantrums or skirt chasing when she was around. More likely, there were pranks and laughs and the old eye roll, particularly when she started filming yet another stinker: "Well boys, this is gonna be a train wreck, but we may as well enjoy it!"

She had female pals, of course, but very few. She is often mentioned in the same breath as other notorious party girls like Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, and one can imagine that they were one Hell of a trio. With Ava's sad and bold sensuality and Lana's rebellious Hellion in Prima Donna poise, Ann was the more rational and practical one. It has been said that she could "toss back a few," but just how many is unknown. Suffice it to say, she was not the type to sip wine. Whiskey was probably more her speed. Yet, despite whatever late night appearances she may have made with whatever rag-tag pals that came into the picture, Ann never believed in the version of life that she was presenting to the public. She would go have fun, take the glitz for what it was, then go home and de-oomph. Unlike Lana, for whom celebrity was an ongoing performance, Ann never really gave a hoot about it all and didn't allow people who were caught up with the glam come into her inner space.

As Ann got older, she took parts as they came: a supporting role in the musical version of The Women-- retitled The Opposite Sex-- and acclaimed performances in Woman on the run, Steel Town, and Just Across the Street. Continuing radio and television work, she also met a new paramour, Scott McKay, while taking a stab at stage work. A fan of Soaps, which were a personal guilty pleasure, Ann worked for a season on "Another World"-- during which she married Scott, probably under studio pressure-- as her tendency to live with lovers "in sin" was not kosher with the public. Then, she received the great honor of being offered a series of her own: "Pistols 'n' Petticoats." Unfortunately, it was during this period that Ann became gravely ill. She learned that she was suffering from terminal cancer of the liver and esophagus. Suddenly, that nagging cough that wouldn't go away, her difficulty swallowing, and her increasing weight loss, made sense. Her past bronchial infection and years of chain smoking certainly hadn't helped matters. Still, Ann pressed on, continuing her role in the series despite the great pain it caused her. Shooting had a taxing and tiring effect on her body, yet she filmed 25 episodes under these dire circumstances-- without complaint and always with a smile on her face. Unfortunately, she would not live to finish the first season. While lying peacefully in bed in San Fernando, Ann passed away on Jan. 21, 1967. It is said that in her last words, she looked at her husband Scott and said, "I'm going to be all right." However, this may have been more of a good-bye than her mere stubborn gumption. Finally, the ever-fighting Texan girl was totally and completely free.

Ann resembles Clara Bow a great deal in her younger photos.
While she possessed Clara's sense of fun and adventure,
she also has the dangerous edge that makes her
vulnerability in photos like this fascinating.

Ann is one of those performers who is too rarely discussed. She isn't on the short list of cinematic heroes, where the Tracy and Hepburns' and Garlands and Hayworths hold center stage. Yet, Ann was all right with that. She didn't need the entire world; she just needed her own small piece of it. She still possesses a certain corner in the field of film with the usual tough, Warner dames, but her particular, impenetrable space is very unique. She commendably kept up with the gangsters, the crooners, and the hams, side-stepping, singing (beautifully, btw), and mugging with her own equal cocktail of guts and glamour. Her sleepy, heavily-lidded eyes still peep at you when flipping through the old, classic picture books, where she doesn't entice so much as make her own statement: "Here I am, like it or not." Her assertive photographs seem as equally erotic as they are visible shrugs. She is half in and half out, but she is still the one directing the camera's gaze. Whatever she's holding back remains undetected to the naked eye. Yet, this somehow makes her photos even more potent. Watching her performances is like meeting up with an old friend, whose cozy voice always makes you feel better. Life seems easier when Ann's around, even if watching a taut thriller. With "Annie," you're safe. At the very least, you're enjoying yourself. As she herself said, "What's the use of living if you can't have fun?"


  1. I was about 14 years old when I watched "Thank Your Lucky Stars" for the first time. That's all it took! I thought omg, she's so beautiful . I had found out she had passed away a few years earlier I was sad. Thank you so much for showcasing Ann this month. She really held her own playing opposite powerful leading men. The Dead End Kids adored her. She will always be my Queen of the Warner's lot. All the ladies there wanted George Brent but he married her. I always liked Princeton better than Harvard! Thanks , Meredith

    1. Hahaha, yay! I was the same. It is pretty clear that she was awesome and that really came through onscreen. Go Princeton!