Helen Hayes: First Lady of the American Theatre

Confession: I never understood what all the fuss was about Helen Hayes (1900-1993). But then again I only ever saw her on film and television, never in the theatre where her reputation for greatness truly lay. The Helen Hayes I’ve spent the most time watching looked like this:

This was the Helen Hayes of Airport (1970), The Snoop Sisters (1973-74), Herbie Rides Again (1975) and a couple of Miss Marple TV movies from the mid ’80s. A harmless pleasant old lady who popped up from time to time in light entertainment. Oh, and somehow the mother of the histrionically challenged James MacArthur, “Dann-o” of Hawaii 5-0, who seemed to have inherited his acting genes from his father, the writer Charles MacArthur. 

Of her earlier film work, ’til this day I have only seen Arrowsmith (1931) and A Farewell to Arms (1932). Hayes won a Best Actress Oscar for her first talkie The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1930), but she left Hollywood after 5 years to return to theatre, and looking at most of the stuff she was given to do, in light of her prestige and her abilities, it’s not hard to blame her. Her last movie for many years was the title character in Vanessa, Her Love Story (1935) opposite Robert Montgomery. 

Hayes was a second generation actress who grew up in Washington DC. Her mother was an actress, her father a government clerk. She was already a professional actress by age five. Her Broadway debut, age 10 was in the Victor Herbert musical Old Dutch, directed by Ned Wayburn and starring John Bunny. Around 50 Broadway appearances followed. Notable ones included What Every Woman Knows (1926). She also starred in the 1934 film version and in a 1955 stage revival. Also very notable: Coquette (1927-28). Mary Pickford was to play the part in the 1929 movie, her first talkie. In 1931 she starred in a stage version of The Good Fairy, which Preston Sturges adapted for the screen in 1935 (again, without Hayes). She played the title character in Victoria Regina (1935-36, 1936-37, 1938, three separate productions). She played Harriet Beecher Stowe in Harriet (1943-44). She also seemed fond of Restoration comedy, with credits including revivals of She Stoops to Conquer (1924), The Country Wife (1936) and School for Scandal (1966).

In the 1950s she began making frequent appearances on television, a medium that was then much closer to theatre than film at the time, as it was live. In 1955, Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre (West 45th Street) was named in her honor. She began to appear in films again. Hayes was a Republican, a fact worth mentioning I think in relation to the fact that her films of this time included the notorious anti-Communist film My Son John (1952) and the pro-Romanov Anastasia (1956). Her last Broadway roles were commercial revivals of The Show-Off (1968), The Front Page (1969) and Harvey (1970). At this point she seems to have said,”Meh, I might as well do Airport!” If ya can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

Hayes, btw, has the distinction of being one of only 15 people who have achieved an EGOT: an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar and a Tony.

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