Like most classic comedy fans I first became aware of Cora Witherspoon (1890-1957) from seeing her as W.C. Fields’ henpecking wife Agatha in The Bank Dick (1940). (“Don’t you strike that child! Imagine a man who takes money out of a child’s piggy bank and puts in I.O.U.s!”)
The 50 year old stage veteran was mid-way through her cinematic career at that point. She’d worked with classic comedians before, as Fields undoubtedly knew. She’d been in Peach O’Reno (1931) with Wheeler and Woolsey; A Peach of a Pair (1934) with Shemp Howard; On the Avenue (1937) with the Ritz Brothers; and Professor Beware (1938) with Harold Lloyd. Witherspoon’s withering visage distinguishes many another film classic as well, such as Libeled Lady (1936) with Jean Harlow; Marie Antoinette (1938) with Norma Shearer; Just Around the Corner (1938) with Shirley Temple; the all-star western Dodge City (1939); Dark Victory (1939) with Bette Davis; The Women (1939); and Follies Girl (1943). Her last credits, including some television work, were in 1954.
Witherspoon probably ought to have been in more film classics, for she was in the original Broadway productions of plays that were later made into Hollywood movies, but not in the movies: these include Daddy Long Legs (1915); The Awful Truth (1922); Waterloo Bridge (1930); Camille (1932) and Jezebel (1933). Ironically, it was her constant work in the theatre that often made her unavailable for films. As to her long theatrical career:
Witherspoon was from New Orleans, where she made her stage debut with a local stock company at age 15. Five years later she was appearing in David Belasco’s production of The Concert on Broadway. It was the first of nearly three dozens Broadway shows Witherspoon would feature in. Some other notable plays included the original productions of Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife (1926), and George Kelly’s Philip Goes Forth (1931), and a 1946 revival of Ben Hecht’s The Front Page, her last stage appearance.
Witherspoon seems to have been something of a Broadway character. In his 1975 autobiography Tennessee Williams wrote of being of working as an elevator operator at the San Jacinto Hotel circa 1941, where one of his jobs was to fetch morphine from a local pharmacy for Witherspoon and sit up all night with her while she was high. Yes, apparently the woman who played a nag who couldn’t stand W.C. Fields’ smoking and drinking was a junkie!
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