Almira Sessions: Movie Matron à la Mode

The great character actress Almira Sessions (Almyra De Camp Sessions, 1888-1974) was born on this day. For over three decades, Sessions was an indispensable, constant presence as a bit player in films and television, normally portraying spinsters, busybodies, biddies, landladies, mothers-in-law, nosy neighbors, fussy librarians, housemaids, grand dames and the like. Her sharp, angular features, bird-like profile and blazing eyes were made for expressing indignation. Her matronly, cultured manner came naturally, for she was born into society.

Sessions came from a prominent military and political family, and was raised in Washington, D.C. Her mother was Irene Hancock Russell a niece of Winfield Scott Hancock, a Civil War General and Democratic candidate for President in 1880. Her step father was U.S, Marine Colonel Benjamin Reeves Russell, who joined the family with much hoopla in 1902. Of the gentleman who bequeathed to her half her DNA and her surname, nothing is known. Given the public nature of the family’s doings (engagements, weddings, coming out parties, and even gossip about the fact that the daughters were dabbling in show business) the media blackout on Mr. Sessions’ existence strongly indicates that the marriage was a scandal or embarrassment of some kind. If I learn better, I’ll be certain to correct the record. He was definitely out of the picture by 1900, for the census for that year list Irene and her daughters as living with her father. I found some gathered info about Almira and her early life here.

Almira was a deb; her coming out party was in 1906. But shortly after that, she made a highly unconventional choice for someone of her background by going into show business. She was trained as a singer; her early years were spent in comic opera. Her professional debut was in a 1909 Washington production of The Sultan of Sulu, with book and lyrics by George Ade and music by Nathaniel D. Mann (best known for his theatrical collaborations with L. Frank Baum). Throughout the teens and twenties, Sessions toured in vaudeville, and with stock and musical comedies.

In the ’30s she lived and worked in New York, appearing in Broadway shows and film shorts shot in Astoria, Queens. The theatre included Chamberlain Brown’s Scrap Book, a revue that played one week in 1932; an adaptation of Ethan Frome in which she was only an extra (1936), White Horse Inn with Kitty Carlisle and William Gaxton (1936-37), the drama Curtain Call (1937), Paul Vincent Carroll’s Shadow and Substance with Sir Cedric Hardwicke (1938), and the legendary musical Yokel Boy with Buddy Ebsen and Judy Canova and her siblings (1939-1940). Of the film shorts she appeared in during this period, the most notable may be Two Boobs in a Balloon with Edgar Bergen (1935). Her one feature during this period was the now forgotten Pre-Code drama Wayward (1932).

In 1940 she moved to Hollywood to appear on Bob Hope’s radio program and this also launched her 30+ career in mainstream Hollywood features. There proved to be a use for her talents in most of the going genres: comedies, musicals, westerns, melodramas, crime thrillers. Of her scores of film and television credits we mention a mere few we think might be especially noteworthy for readers of this blog:  Norman Taurog’s 1940 screen adaptation of George M. Cohan’s Little Nellie Kelly with Judy Garland (1940); two “Blondie” movies with Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake: Blondie in Society (1941) and Blondie for Victory (1942); two Preston Sturges comedies: Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944); The Heat’s On with Mae West (1943); Maisie Goes to Reno with Ann Sothern (1944); two Red Skelton comedies: Bathing Beauty (1944) and Merton of the Movies (1947); the classic musicals State Fair (1945) and Summer Stock (1950); Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946); Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947); the Jimmy Stewart classic Harvey (1950); Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid (1951); Jack and the Beanstalk with Abbott and Costello (1952); Rebel without a Cause (1955); the all-star weirdie Paradise Alley (1962); Under the Yum-Yum Tree (1963); right up to the late career extravagance of The Boston Strangler (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968); Watermelon Man (1970); and Willard (1971)! Her last credit was a 1972 episode of Love, American Style. Man, what a career! That isn’t even the half of it!

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