The Exquisite Hauteur of Hillary Brooke

There are other photos I might have chosen to illustrate this post on Hillary Brooke (Beatrice Sofia Mathilda Peterson, 1914-1999), but this one nails that same quality of projected superiority that classic comedy fans adore her for.

I bring up classic comedy for that is probably the area of her screen career where Brooke got the greatest traction and recognition. She had that rare mixture of qualities which allowed her to be both a foil and an unrequited love interest, not unlike Christine McIntyre in the Three Stooges shorts. Brooke played a similar role for Abbott and Costello in their TV show, and in their movies Africa Screams (1949) and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952). You can also see her with Hope and Crosby in The Road to Utopia (1945), Bob Hope in Monsieur Beaucaire (1946), Red Skelton in The Fuller Brush Man (1948), Slapsie Maxie in Skipalong Rosenbloom (1951) and she was a rival with Gale Storm for her TV dad’s affections in My Little Margie (1952-55). She was also in a couple of the Maisie movies, and a memorable episode of I Love Lucy.

While her beauty was natural, Brooke’s class and poise were to a degree self-created. She was of Swedish immigrant stock and grew up in Astoria, Queens, where her dad was employed in a nearby Rolls-Royce plant. Her brother, Arthur Peterson (1912-1996) also became an actor. He worked mostly in radio and television and is best known for playing that crazy old major on Soap (1977-1981). Brooke attended (and graduated from) Columbia, helping to earn her way through school as a model. In order to stand out from her countless competitors, she decided to go the extra mile, and she spent a year in England studying voice and diction, which is how she acquired her posh and polished style.

Brooke’s first screen part was a showgirl in New Faces of 1937. For her first several years in the industry she was a bit player, taking on such roles as “Second Girl in Powder Room” in Two Girls on Broadway and “Main Line Society Woman” in The Philadelphia Story, both in 1940. In 1943 she was cast in the juicy role of Blanche Ingram, the grasping woman whom Mr. Rochester seems slated to marry in the magical 1943 version of Jane Eyre with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Thus was her screen character pretty much set in stone going forward: beautiful but unlikable ice women.

Brooke’s over 100 screen credits also include three of the Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone, and roles in Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book (1946), the ill-fated Howard HughesPreston Sturges collaboration Vendetta (1950), Lost Continent (1951), Never Wave at a WAC (1953), and Invaders from Mars (1953). One of her best known roles was also one of her last — she’s one of the irritating friends that keep Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day stuck in their hotel room when they want to rescue their son in Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Her last credit was on a 1960 episode of the TV show Michael Shayne. That year she married an MGM executive and retired from acting.

For more on classic comedy please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.