The Formidable Gail Patrick

It was the early part of Gail Patrick’s career that interested me initially. Patrick came to Hollywood to compete in that same “Panther” contest that Lona Andre had — the prize was getting to play the Panther Woman in the horror movie Island of Lost Souls (1932). Like Andre, Patrick was a finalist, didn’t win the part, but got a contract out of the deal. Murders in the Zoo (1933) wasn’t worlds away from her macabre quarry, at any rate! And she was in several classic comedy and musicals that are our usual sort of fodder on Travalanche: If I Had a Million (1932), Murder at the Vanities (1934), Mississippi (1935), Doubting Thomas (1935) with Will Rogers, The Big Broadcast of 1936, and Artists and Models (1937) with Jack Benny. I am also a fan of Death Takes a Holiday (1934). In 1936 she married Robert H. Cobb, owner of the fashionable Brown Derby restaurant and the Hollywood Stars baseball team, and this may have increased her cache somewhat.

Most people know Patrick best for her second Hollywood phase, during which she was often cast as snooty rivals and antagonists to leading ladies: My Man Godfrey (1936), Stage Door (1937), My Favorite Wife (1940), and Up in Mabel’s Room (1944). Later stuff included the 1945 version of Brewster’s Millions, and Twice Blessed (1945) with the Wilde Twins. She also did lots of radio throughout the ’30s and ’40s. Following the film Inner Sanctum (1948), in which her character is named merely “Murdered Wife”, she quietly withdrew from acting. But her career most assuredly has a second act.

Patrick (1911-1980), whose real name was Margaret LaVelle Fitzpatrick, and who hailed from Birmingham, Alabama, was a sharp operator. She’d completed two years of law school and dreamed of becoming the first female governor of her home state before Hollywood called. When Paramount signed her, she brazenly renegotiated her contract, requesting more than the usual entry level money, and striking out clauses that required her to do things she didn’t want to do. She was, you might say, a frustrated lawyer. For eight years she ran a children’s clothing boutique called the Enchanted Cottage. Meantime, in 1947 she had married high powered agent Thomas Cornwell Jackson, one of whose clients was Erie Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. With her husband and Gardner as partners, she sold Perry Mason to television and was executive producer of the popular legal drama for eight years (1957-1966). She was one of only a tiny handful of female TV producers of the time and said to be a hard headed woman to deal with. Perry Mason won multiple Emmy Awards and was for a time one of the five most popular shows on television.

Oh, the winner of that famous “Panther” contest? Was a woman named Kathleen Burke. She retired from films six years after Island of Lost Souls. Of the competitors it is plain who the true victor ultimately was. There are many ways of winning.