Thursday, August 12, 2010

There is Nothin' Like a Dame

One of the screen’s all-time imposing personas is our featured actress today, Dame Judith Anderson. Miss Anderson was born Frances Anderson in South Australia in 1897. Already treading the boards as a professional actress (using the name Francee Anderson) at the age of 17, she worked with other performers of differing national backgrounds. Julius Knight, a Scotsman, was an actor who had a profound impact on her approach to the craft. Some American players she worked with saw enough potential in her to encourage her to try for a career in the United States.

At about twenty years of age, she flew to California, attempting a career there, but was not met with success. Shortly thereafter she tried New York City and, again, found nothing. A very dry period of ill health and a dangerously low amount of ready cash nearly led to her early destruction. However, she finally landed work with a stock company in 1918. She began working with other similar companies, frequently on tour, before making her Broadway debut in 1922 in a show called On the Stairs (billed now as Frances Anderson.) She seems to have a bit of a Norma Shearer thing going here.

Changing her name to Judith Anderson, she enjoyed a rousing success on Broadway with Louis Calhern in Cobra. She was fortunate to be able to tour Australia with that play and two others in 1927. By the time the 30s rolled around, she was an established stage actress with a tremendous reputation. She worked steadily and played roles that would later be reenacted by other ladies when the shows were adapted for the cinema screen, such as As You Desire Me (Greta Garbo), Mourning Becomes Electra (Rosalind Russell) and The Old Maid (Bette Davis.) It’s a testament to her own versatility that the roles she did on stage could be inherited by other, such dissimilar, cinema actresses. She also played Gertrude to John Gielgud’s Hamlet in 1936.

1937 brought her to London in order to portray Lady Macbeth opposite Laurence Olivier. Four years later, she reprised the role with Maurice Evans as Macbeth. (She and Evans would later play these roles on television two separate times as well! The second time the play was made for TV, in 1960, the program was fashioned into a feature film that played in Europe in 1963. Also, she took home an Emmy both times she played Lady M. on TV!)

Anderson had worked on one film in 1933 and was uncharacteristically glamorous, dripping with jewelry in fact, in it. In Blood Money, she was a bordello madam who puts a hit out on a man. It was the type of part that would soon seem inconceivable to her fans and, more in particular, to the studio honchos in Hollywood.

Her major film break came in 1940 when she landed the part of the chilling, severe and intimidating Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s production of Rebecca. The popular book described a far older and crustier version of the creepy, insinuating housekeeper to Laurence Olivier and his new wife Joan Fontaine. No one was complaining because Anderson was searing in the part and really unforgettable! (And Judith's amazing and distinctive profile was put to good use here and many times later in her career.)

Opting to keep the character’s background as secretive and mysterious as possible, he deliberately filmed her in a way that suggested that she merely appeared rather than having walked to whichever location she was in. With her pitch-dark dress with a pale, terse face resting on top, finished off with a tightly knotted braid around her head, she cut a scary figure to Fontaine’s unsophisticated and shy character. She was the devoted servant to Olivier’s first wife, the deceased title character of the film, and provided, with Hitch’s help surely, an overriding subtext of conflicted lesbian devotion.

This callous, domineering role (which would become iconic and spoofed many times) of a woman who would rather die than allow her mistress’s things to be destroyed won Anderson a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Amazingly enough, it was the only time she would ever be nominated for the little gold man (she lost to Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath.)

A spate of film roles came her way, though her looks were always considered of a character sort, preventing her from playing heroines and most leads. She was able to shake off the spectre of Mrs. Danvers by immediately going into Forty Little Mothers, an Eddie Cantor comedy in which she was a girl’s school headmistress. In Free and Easy, the following year, she also played a lighter type of role, a flighty, wealthy woman being charmed by Bob Cummings.

Despite playing the title character in Lady Scarface, she was still very much a supporting performer. More screen time went to Dennis O’Keefe and his female sidekick Frances Neal, though Anderson gave the same caliber of commitment and toughness to her role that she had in her best-known part.

All Through the Night had her involved in the strange story of mobsters (such as Humphrey Bogart) attempting to thwart Nazis (such as Conrad Veidt, shown here with her.) Kings Row in 1942 was a sort of precursor to Peyton Place in that it dealt with the unsavory and secret goings on in a small town. She played the mother of one of Kings Rows’ troubled inhabitants.

The Errol Flynn actioner Edge of Darkness had her fighting the Nazis again and working with Walter Huston and Ruth Gordon. She had just done a heavily lauded Broadway production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters with Gordon and Katharine Cornell. The play was greeted with such enthusiasm that Time Magazine did a feature story on it and placed the three actresses on its cover. Anderson, while working regularly in films, had not turned her back on the (doubtlessly more satisfying) stage.

A pair of future classics came about in 1944 and ’45. First up was Laura, a nourish mystery about the death of a beautiful girl (played by Gene Tierney.) Anderson played her aunt, who is involved mostly with Vincent Price. Price looks remarkably handsome here, I must say. Then came And Then There Were None, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, in which she was the prim Emily Brent. This film version is still considered by many people to be the best one (the story has been remade many times since.) She was allowed to toss out the hilariously blase line, "Very stupid to kill the only servant in the house. Now we don't even know where to find the marmalade."

In Anderson’s next two films, she managed to expand her range to include a hysterically obsessive lady of the house in Diary of a Chambermaid and an exacting ballet instructor in Specter of the Rose. It’s not unusual to find her all but stealing the show in these films or at least walking away with the acting kudos. More opportunities in the cinema came her way when she was cast as Barbara Stanwyck’s wicked aunt in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and later when she portrayed the adoptive mother of Robert Mitchum in the dark, flashback-ridden western Pursued. In it, she must try to dissuade the embittered and one-armed Dean Jagger from killing her boy until he grows up to be Mitchum and can possibly defend himself.

She played Edward G Robinson’s spinster sister in The Red House and had a bland role in the colorful Tycoon as the unappreciated tutor to Larraine Day. The John Wayne film had him romancing Day with Anderson’s help, but at the risk of revenge from her disapproving father Cedric Hardwicke. Fans of the later The Ten Commandments may get a mild kick out of seeing Anderson and Hardwicke acting in such a different way in Tycoon than they did in the Egyptian epic. It’s not that she was terrible in “nice” roles like this. It just seems such a waste when she could be such a charismatic and steely villainess.

One of her greatest ever triumphs of this period would be on the Broadway stage. She played Medea in 1947, taking home a Tony award and thrilling audiences for years afterwards in touring productions. The legendary role of a woman who kills her own children seemed tailor-made for Anderson, who projected both passion and power. Famed Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini allegedly got so caught up in applause for her in this role that he nearly fell out of his box seat! Working in Medea kept Anderson off the screen for a couple of years. (She would also appear in a televised rendition of it in 1959.)

In 1950, she squared off with another tough chickie, Barbara Stanwyck, in The Furies. Stanwyck played the feisty and headstrong daughter of a wealthy rancher (Walter Huston) whose plans to inherit the spread are threatened by his relationship with Anderson, a widow. The ladies butt heads and it’s one time Anderson found herself taking on someone who wasn’t easily intimidated.

Anderson began working on the then-popular television anthologies (even playing Laura Hope Crews’ smothering mother role in an adaptation of The Silver Cord.) In 1953, Rita Hayworth produced a colorful Biblical epic for herself called Salome and Anderson was hired to play Herodias, her evil mother. Charles Laughton played Anderson’s husband Herod. (She's seen here with Arnold Moss.) The film garnered most of its attention for the elaborate and erotic (for 1953) dance that Hayworth performs, though the script ignored The Bible and had Salome dancing to save John the Baptist rather than have him beheaded as was written in the text! Some of the snarkier viewers wondered if Salome got her slam-bang looks from her (unseen) father...

Plenty of TV work continued until Cecil B. DeMille began his monumental epic The Ten Commandments. The mammoth, exceedingly colorful (and campy) 1956 film was packed with stars (including old costars such as Robinson, Hardwicke and Price) and Anderson took her rightful place among them in the advertising. Her role was small, but memorable. She portrayed Memnet, the servant to the Egyptian princess (Nina Foch) who finds and raises the infant Moses as her own.

Once Moses has grown up into Charlton Heston and is in love with Anne Baxter, for whom Anderson is now a servant as well, Anderson threatens to reveal the true origins of Heston’s birth. It was a decidedly unglamorous part and one who isn’t familiar with her could be forgiven for thinking that this is a photo of a man! Still, her craggy, sour presence adds a lot of fun to her few brief scenes.

In ’58, she played the fretful, forceful, fussy and frantic Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The great cast included Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives (as well as the divinely snotty Madeleine Sherwood!) It’s still causing genetic scientists fits as to exactly how the sperm of Burl Ives and the egg of Judith Anderson could possibly have resulted in the blisteringly beautiful Paul Newman! Jack Carson, as their other son, seems a more likely offspring.

Jerry Lewis used her as his wicked stepmother in the strained comic spoof Cinderfella, which had him as the put upon stepsibling (trapped in servitude) who wants to go to the ball to meet a princess while his stepbrothers Henry Silva and Robert Hutton are given all the attention from Anderson. He even had a fairy godfather played by Ed Wynn.

Next was a supporting role in the Richard Todd-Elke Sommer sex comedy Why Bother to Knock. (Some sources erroneously list her as being in Don’t Bother to Knock, which was an earlier black & white Marilyn Monroe film!) She’s seen here with actress June Thorburn who, six years later, was killed in a plane crash while five months pregnant. Prior to the film’s 1961 release, Anderson was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her work in the performing arts.

Anderson went into semiretirement soon after this with occasional TV or stage projects. In 1970, she joined Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse as a weathered American Indian woman with the incredibly delicate, feminine and flattering name of Buffalo Cow Head. The memorably violent film had Harris strung up by his chest with hooks in a ceremonial ritual. It was her first big screen credit using the moniker “Dame Judith Anderson.”
She then, at age 74, got to fulfill a lifelong dream. She, as many actresses before her had done in a longstanding theatrical conceit, played Hamlet in a touring production!

In 1975, Joan Bennett was set to star in an unusual Australian horror western called Inn of the Damned, but pulled out after a disagreement with the director over her character. Anderson stepped into the part and it can count as her horror-battle axe credit. She and her husband were proprietors of the title business who were out for revenge over the abduction of their two children years earlier.

Then in 1982, after more than twenty years away and after more than two-dozen productions to her credit there, Anderson returned to the Broadway stage. It was, again, in the play Medea, but this time she portrayed the role of the nurse. Receiving a Tony nomination, it was a fitting end to her stage career in The Big Apple. The play was filmed and presented on television the following year (with some publicity material centering more on her than on the star of the production!)

The attention she got from Medea quite possibly led to her being cast as the Vulcan High Priestess in the feature film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Duded out in the famous Vulcan pointy ears and swathed in layers of fabric, she lent just the right touch of vaguely menacing authority and stature to the brief role. Some of the cast photos from the film show her seated in the center while all the others are gathered around her in proper respect for her (and her character’s) position. It was a job that suggested she wasn’t afraid to try new things, though she was, by now, 87 years of age!
She had one final surprise in store and that was when she helped to launch the daytime soap opera Santa Barbara in 1984. Playing the matriarchal Minx Lockridge, her name and face appeared all over the press. (And I must say I adore her expression here as the perfectly named grande dame, Minx!) Unfortunately for her, she was not utilized nearly enough for her satisfaction during her stint on the show, though she did limp along for three years, making periodic appearances. She also took her honored place in the center of the cast shots. When she departed in 1987, the character was written out only to be restored three years later with the twenty-five years younger Janis Paige taking over the part!!
Anderson really did live in Santa Barbara and that is where she resided until her death at 94 from pneumonia. There were two reasonably brief (one two-year and one five-year) childless marriages in her life, both after she was forty and both over and done with by 1951. Many sources outright declare her lesbianism, though she lived most of her life in an era where such things would never be openly discussed in any case. A treasure of the stage and a memorable cinema actress as well, there really was nothin’ like Dame Judith Anderson!


Anonymous said...

Great tribute to a great actress! She is so chillingly perfect in Rebecca and so delightfully campy in Commandments. And there's Hermione Gingold's joke about her first trip to New York: "First there was the harbor, then there was the skyline, and then there was that lovely gigantic statue of Judith Anderson."

I will have to hunt down some more of her movies!

Poseidon3 said...

Oh my God, that's hilarious! Thanks for sharing!

FelixInHollywood said...


normadesmond said...

you are amazing! AND you just straightened me out regarding her role in the ten commandments. i always thought it was nina that was memnet. (i want to use that name for a dog!)

Poseidon3 said...

Oh Lord! The lovely Ms. Foch was still with us until not too long ago and was such an attractive, older supporting player in stuff like Sliver, Hush, How to Deal and others.

People are constantly threatening Memnet with hysterical lines like, "I'll have you torn into so many pieces, even the vultures won't find them." or insulting her with names like "puckered old persimmon" etc...

Rob said...

Delightful! I just watched her in Laura the other day, and of course, Dame Judith was marvelous in Rebecca as well!

Topaz said...

Another great post. Must confess I only really knew her from Rebecca, even though I had seen a number of her other pics, I had never put them together. I'm off to Netflix!

NotFelixUnger said...

I know I'm late to the party on this one but I gotta say, you are making me rethink my autograph collection. I'm now trolling through ebay trying to snap up autographed pictures of deceased stars I'm learning about from you!

One thing about Medea, the broadcast on PBS of the play with Zoe Caldwell positively changed my life! The nurse is a supporting role to be sure, but Judith Anderson's nurse was/is the perfect sounding board for such a complex [and at time ALMOST evil] character as Medea. I still watch it and it still gives me chills ~after all, she killed her father BEFORE she killed her own children. Eww....

Thank you!!!

Poseidon3 said...

Your auograph collection must already be staggering! I hope this renewed interest in stars who are no longer with us doesn't cost you too much money. It's all my fault! ;-) I have never seen this edition of Medea, so I will have to be on the lookout for it. (Did you ever notice that so many quality things are NEVER rerun while the garbage just churns and churns and churns on TV like a hideous clothes dryer full of cinematic flotsam?)

NotFelixUnger said...

This site actually works very well in attempting to do research when writing someone still living whom you have covered. That's how it started and now I'm hooked on the Underworld.

5 large 14x14 inch scrapbooks are almost full and I'm starting the 6th. I could fill one book alone with hunks I wanted to marry back in the 70s and 80s. Each book hold about 80 to 100 pages. Each side page is dedicated to an autograph received and then I do the scrapbook thing with clippings and other pictures.

Regarding Medea, it is available on Amazon though sadly VHS, and very expensive. I've set my TV to record it whenever it comes on. My old VHS is barely more than a blur. Zoe Caldwell's Medea makes your flesh crawl, your heart pump and you get butterflies in your stomach from the gut-wrenching drama which is amazingly performed. She becomes the part. If interested in reading her life story [ZC] I would suggest picking up her auto-biography, "I will be Cleopatra."

I don't watch junk on TV. That's why I stay away from reality TV though all my friends insist I'm out of touch for avoiding it. [I'll stay that way]