Helen Gahagan (Douglas): She Who Must Be Obeyed

Three things are normally brought out about Helen Gahagan Douglas (1900-1980): her one starring role in Hollywood; her celebrity husband (Melvyn Douglas); and her political significance. We’ll touch on all of these of course, but will first give details about her earlier stage career that put the rest in context.

Her father Walter Gahagan owned a large construction company that worked on large-scale railroad and shipyard projects. Helen was raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn and sent to posh girls schools. She dropped out of Barnard after two years to jump into acting, to the distress of her parents.

Her Broadway career began in 1922 with Manhattan, co-written by Henry Hull and also featuring Raymond Walburn. Then came Dreams for Sale (1922) with William A. Brady with Raymond Hackett; Fashions for Men (1922) with O.P. Heggie; Chains (1923) also by Brady, with William Morris; Leah Skleschna (1924) with Arnold Daly, William Faversham; and Lowell Sherman; Beyond (1925) with Walter Abel; The Sapphire Ring (1925); The Enchanted April (1925) with Alison Skipworth; Young Woodley (1925-26), co-directed by Basil Dean; Trelawney of the “Wells” (1927) with Heggie, John Drew, Pauline Lord, Wilton Lackaye, and Estelle Winwood; Sardou’s Diplomacy (1928) with Faversham, Tyrone Power Sr, and Cecilia Loftus; and Tonight or Never (1930-31) produced and directed by David Belasco and featuring Melvin Douglas, whom Gahagan married in 1931. In 1934, she returned to Broadway for two plays staged by her husband, Moor Born, featuring Glenn Anders; and Mother Lode, with Douglas, Beaulah Bondi and Tex Ritter.

I feel it is important to stress Douglas’s Broadway years because we have a tendency (at least I do) to think of her acting career in terms of her single movie, rather than regarding her (as we should) as someone more in line with Lunt and Fontanne or Helen Hayes — Broadway stage professionals who dabbled in films, which is what she really was.

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In 1935 came her one cinematic hurrah, and it was a doozy. Produced by King Kong‘s, Merian C. Cooper, She was based on a novel by H. Rider Haggard. Douglas plays She Who Must Be Obeyed, a despotic immortal who rules a forgotten subterranean civilization accessible only from a cave entrance in a remote Arctic location. (Her fabulous costume in the film was an inspiration for the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs two years later). She traps the expedition which has discovered this place, and whose members include Randolph Scott, Nigel Bruce, and Helen Mack. Douglas falls for Scott, who resembles her lover from 500 years ago, who happens to have been his ancestor. So she convinces him to remain with her, until he is disenchanted with her ruthlessness and willingness to kill whoever gets in her way. The film was later remade in 1965 by Hammer with Ursula Andress, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. 

Moviemaking appears not to have agreed with Douglas. After She (which was a box office disappointment on its first run), she returned to Broadway to appear in And Stars Remain (1936) with Clifton Webb. In 1938 she starred in Tosca at the Vienna State Opera.

Douglas’s time in Austria was a turning point for her. The Anschluss (the long anticipated merging of Germany and Austria under the Nazis) occurred that year, and what she saw of Nazi government she did not like. She became politically galvanized, returning to take part in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, and to accept appointments in various New Deal committees through the mid 1940s.

In 1944 Douglas was elected to Congress, a major turning point both for her and for the country. She was not just one of the first females to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, she was also possibly the earliest HOLLYWOOD person to hold a major elected Federal office, predating guys like George Murphy and Ronald Reagan by decades. Her place in history books was cemented by the unprecedentedly ugly campaign which Richard Nixon waged to defeat her in the 1950 Senate race. Gahagan had long been associated with left-wing causes, rights for workers, and her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Nixon and his cronies smeared her as a Communist sympathiser, calling her “Pink right down to her underwear”, a phrase which managed to be abhorrent on about five different levels. Gahagan lost the race and America found itself on the receiving end of a sad lesson we are still learning today: openly ruthless, unprincipled tactics get results. In fact, they can take you all the way to the White House. Douglas not only lost the race but she was effectively finished politically, unable to run for any any future office, or even to receive any major appointments.

Following her loss, Douglas returned to Broadway to appear in First Lady (1952) by George S. Kaufman and Katharine Dayton. She continued to speak out on political issues, and to stump for Democratic candidates. Mercifully, she didn’t live to see Ronald Reagan became President.

Actress Ileana Douglas (b. 1965) is Helen Gahagan Douglas’s granddaughter. In the late ’80s, I was Ileana’s scene partner many a time at a now-defunct off-Broadway theatre called the Manhattan Punchline!