Hope Emerson: Strongwoman in Straight Roles

Classic film fans know Hope Emerson (1897-1960) well from her memorable appearances in films like Adam’s Rib (1949), Caged (1950), Westward the Women (1951), Casanova’s Big Night (1954), and Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958). At 6′ 2″ and 230 pounds, she was an imposing woman with a commanding voice. Emerson normally placed scary roles, often for comedy, but not always (she is the villainous prison matron in Caged, and it is the farthest thing from funny).

It is delightful to learn that in her early years the Iowa native began acting with her mother onstage from the age of three, and that later she worked in vaudeville and nightclubs as a strongwoman. But she wasn’t just big and strong, she had acting chops. In addition to 45 screen credits she appeared on Broadway 8 times, beginning with a 1930 production of Lysistrata, and including a critically acclaimed performance in a 1947 musical version of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene. At the time of her death in 1960 she had regular roles on two different TV series: Peter Gunn and The Dennis O’Keefe Show. 

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous