Today is the birthday of the great Ann Sothern (Harriet Arlene Lake, 1909-2001).
Sothern didn’t appear in vaudeville, which is why we haven’t done a post on her yet. But she had a movie career that was very vaudevillesque, which is why we post on her now. Sothern came on the scene just as vaudeville was winding down and was fortunate to get cast in bit roles and chorus parts in Hollywood musicals fresh out of high school. (Her mother was a vocal coach at Warner Brothers; Sothern had studied voice, piano and music composition, and had appeared in school productions. ) She appeared in two numbers in The Show of Shows (1929), had chorus parts in Buster Keaton’s Doughboys (1930) and Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee (1930), is in the “Shanghai Lil” number in Footlight Parade (1933), and sings in Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933).
Meanwhile, billed as Harriet Lake, she became a success on Broadway, starring in Smiles (1930), America’s Sweetheart (1931), Everybody’s Welcome (1931), and Of Thee I Sing (1933). This enhanced her status and she was able to now leverage a series of Hollywood contracts under the screen name Ann Sothern: Columbia (1934), RKO (1936) and MGM (1939). Eddie Cantor must have been a fan — the only two films I know from this stretch of her career are his Kid Millions (1934) and Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937).
Then came her big break. Jean Harlow, originally slated to play the part of a stranded Brooklyn chorus girl (the title character) in Maisie (an adaptation of a novel called Dark Dame), died in 1937. So the part went to Sothern. Sothern’s fetching, worldly-wise yet decent persona suited the part perfectly and the 1939 hit turned into a ten film series lasting until 1947, and a radio show that ran 1945-1953 (with a two year gap 1947-1949).
The success in the Maisie films got her cast in other high profile vehicles, often but not always musicals: an adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Dulcy (1940), the all-star Norman McLeod/ Busby Berkley extravaganza Lady Be Good (1941), the much altered Broadway hit Panama Hattie (1942), the World War 2 nurse drama Cry Havoc (1943), the backstage vaudeville story April Showers (1948), the Rodgers and Hart bio-pic Words and Music (1948), the melodrama A Letter to Three Wives (1949).
Health problems caused her to leave MGM in 1949, and from then on she worked mostly in television, although she did appear in such films as the Fritz Lang noir thriller The Blue Gardenia (1953), the Gore Vidal political drama The Best Man (1964), Jonathan Demme’s Crazy Mama (1975), the shlocky horror film The Manitou (1978), and of course her final role in The Whales of August (1987), where her midwestern accent was stretched to its farthest limit to accommodate a downeaster one. She guest starred on television constantly, but also had her own shows, Private Secretary (1953-57) and The Ann Sothern Show (1958-1961) and she was a regular (with her best friend Lucille Ball) on The Lucy Show (1965), and played the voice of the title character in My Mother, the Car (1965-1966) with Jerry Van Dyke.
But the great hub of it all was the Maisie series. Herewith your guide:
Maisie (1939): Sothern’s debut as wise cracking Brooklyn burlesque chorus girl with a heart of gold Mary Anastasia O’Connor a.k.a. Maisie Ravier. I was surprised upon my first viewing to discover that the film is not really a “comedy”, but more of a melodrama with the occasional lightly comical moment. In the original film she has to blow town (a gangster wants to kill her) and so she take a dancing job out west. When she arrives at her destination the job has fled, so she is stranded. She is forced to stay with straight arrow ranch foreman Robert Young and his sidekick Cliff Edwards. She takes a job as a maid to the couple who own the ranch. She tries to make a play for Young. who doesn’t like her very much at first, writing her off as one of “those” women. Meanwhile, the newlywed wife of the ranch owner is a cynical sophisticate and clearly a gold-digger. She has a lover on the side whom she installs in an old cabin on the property. Maisie earns Young’s respect when she rescues the boss in a car accident; the pair kiss and plan to marry. The story eventually gets pretty dark when the guy who owns the ranch commits suicide and Young is accused of killing him. Maisie actually inherits the ranch! Sothern would later be teamed with Robert Young in Lady Be Good.
Congo Maisie (1940): The first Maisie sequel was inspired by Red Dust (recall that Jean Harlow was originally intended to play Maisie). Now the burlesque dancer is trapped on a West African rubber plantation. She stows away on a river steamer to escape her hotel bills. She is on her way to a job at a night club in Lagos. The film is still not as funny as one would hope but it’s kind of becoming funnier in aggregate — the fact that every time she goes to a gig she gets stuck in some new backwater location. Maisie is kind of like Chaplin’s character. Transient, always on the move, always hand to mouth, always vulnerable. Here, she is again teamed with another humorless, reluctant love interest, this time a cut-rate Clark Gable (John Carroll). Adultery rears its head again, between the robber planter and the wife of a scientist.
Gold Rush Maisie (1940): Another western setting: Maisie’s car breaks down in the Arizona desert on the way to a date. She spends a scary night in a ghost town, in a house with a couple of mean crooks, then gets involved with a family in a phony latter day gold rush. Slim Summerville plays a grumpy old man.
Maisie was a Lady (1941) This one has surrounds Sothern with many more stars: Lew Ayres and Maureen O’Sullivan and C. Aubrey Smith and Joe Yule (Mickey Rooney’s dad). Many think this one is the best in the series. It is indeed much better, more entertaining, and moves along better (the other are by contrast rather dull and inert). Here Maisie gets fired from a carnival. Her job is to play a headless woman with a dancer’s body that wont quit, but a drunk (Lew Ayres) trips her and she tumbles over, revealing the dodge. I can’t help wondering, “What the hell-? The audience actually believed she was headless?” At any rate she is canned, but it’s okay, because Maisie has a lot of fight in her. When she explains her predicament to a local judge, he forces the drunk to hire her as a servant in his mansion! (A well known B movie punishment). Maisie brings some life into the stuffy old joint. Aubrey Smith is the butler. Maureen O’Sullivan the sister. The house is full of friends who are all snooty people, they think Maisie is a hilarious hoot, and have much fun at her expense. The servants are all appalled, and of course the tables are eventually turned.
Ringside Maisie (1941): Aside from the first few minutes of the first Maisie film, this is the first one in which we actually see Maisie in her theoretical milieu. We meet her in a dance hall, shaking her fanny as a taxi dancer. Her manager (Rags Ragsland, with whom she also appeared in Panama Hattie) hooks her up with a job. Later she is on her way to the gig and is thrown off a train for not having a ticket. She gets hooked up with a reluctant boxer (Robert Sterling) who’d rather run a grocery store, and his manager (George Murphy). First she works in a night club and then gets fired — and then gets a job pushing an old lady in a wheelchair. Virginia O’Brien (also in the Sothern vehicles Lady Be Good, Panama Hattie and Thousands Cheer) plays herself as a nightclub singer. Two years after this film, Sothern would marry co-star Robert Sterling. The pair remained hitched through 1949.
Maisie Gets Her Man (1942): This may be the best of the series – – at least I may have enjoyed this one the most. It contains the most entertaining elements. We get to see Maisie at work in a vaudeville type theatre. When it starts out she is a knife thrower’s target girl, in full showgirl get-up. Fritz Feld (the character actor best known for his mouth popping routine) plays the knife thrower. Red Skelton is Maisie’s love interest, a comedian with stage fright, and the cast also includes Leo Gorcey, Donald Meek, Walter Catlett, Rags Ragsland and Willie Best (a.k.a. Sleep ‘n’ Eat). Directed by Roy Del Ruth.
Swing Shift Maisie (1943): Though directed by the great Norman McLeod this one seems a distinct step down – no stars but Sothern, and a slavishly didactic war-time theme. Maisie works in an aircraft plant. Move over, Rosie the Riveter! There’s some show biz around the edges. She starts out in a dog act, and she later becomes chums with an actress, but it’s full of the usual soap opera stuff about people who may or may love another, suicide attempts etc. Her romantic interest in this one is a test pilot, which adds some apparent dash to offset the depressing fact that everyone works in a factory.
Maisie Goes to Reno (1944): This one has a sort of opposite arc to the other films. Here, she STARTS OUT working in a war-time factory, then develops a nervous tic (like Chaplin’s in Modern Times) and so she takes some time off to be a singer with a bandleader in Reno. There she gets involved with the romantic dramas of card dealers and such. One of the lovers is played by an early career Ava Gardner.
Up Goes Maisie (1946): The series has evolved somewhat by this stage. After two films of working in factories she is now an EX-showgirl, though still with same personality and taste in clothes and jewelry. She has graduated from secretarial school and (after several incidents with lecherous bosses) she goes undercover as a dowdy, ugly girl and and takes a job working for an inventor who is developing a new sort of helicopter (George Murphy). (This plot is sort of meta, by the way. Sothern’s grandfather had invented a submarine he tried to sell to the U.S. navy). There follows some mishigas about his invention and many romantic ups and downs. Ray Collins plays a backer for the invention
Undercover Maisie (1947): The last in the series. Not that the Maisie series was ever realistic but now we have jumped the shark completely. Ex-showgirl Maisie joins the police department and becomes an undercover cop. We are now approximately in Bowery Boys territory. It was a good thing that everyone moved on. Ann Sothern went on to many more triumphs after this, spanning a period of 40 additional years.