Today's featured actress isn't really particularly well-known, especially outside the realm of classic movie buffs, but she did appear in three Best Picture nominees, one of which won, as well as several other enduring motion pictures. To be honest, we may not have given her a second glance ourselves but for the fact that one of her last roles was so deliciously engaging. We refer to one Mary Anderson, a southern belle born on April 3rd, 1918 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Anderson's middle name was Bebe, a then-popular moniker and it was as Bebe Anderson that most friends and relatives knew her. A slim brunette with a broad, open face featuring apple cheeks and prominent lips, she attended Howard College, a long-standing establishment that later morphed into Samford University in Birmingham.
While there, at age twenty, she became swept up in the nation-wide hysteria that was the search for Scarlett O'Hara, heroine of the forthcoming filmization of the highly-popular novel Gone with the Wind. The film's assigned director George Cukor, roamed the country holding open cattle call auditions for the part. While on Anderson's campus, he saw her, liked what he saw and coerced her to Hollywood where he began to utilize her as an actress. While she was not Scarlett material, he figured she would be useful in a supporting role.
Thus, after working in a bit part for Cukor in The Women (1939) as well as appearing in a short film, she took on the role of Maybelle Merriwether in Gone with the Wind (1939.) Unfortunately for Cukor, he was removed from the mammoth project early on and replaced by Victor Fleming. Anderson, however, remained in place and took pleasure in her role of one of the privileged belles of the southern gentility (her mother portrayed by the highly-imposing Jane Darwell) whose life is turned upside-down by war. The legendary film, of course, was an Oscar-winning Best Picture.
Anderson worked at Warner Brothers as well as MGM in supporting parts and, as a result, brushed up against some colorful performers. Among several 1940 films she appeared in were Errol Flynn's The Sea Hawk and Bette Davis' lavishly-appointed romantic drama All This, And Heaven Too.
Other projects that busy year, usually in bit parts, included Til We Meet Again with Merle Oberon, Flight Angels with Virginia Bruce and Dennis Morgan, the short Failure at Fifty (a rare occasion in which she was billed as Bebe Anderson, seen at left), My Love Came Back with Olivia de Havilland and A Dispatch from Reuters with Edward G. Robinson. She married a man named Leonard Behrens in 1940 as well.
She was put to better use in 1941 with meatier roles in Cheers for Miss Bishop, in which she played a conniving cousin to Martha Scott and becomes impregnated by Scott's fiance (!), Under Age, in which she and Nan Grey are coerced into prostitution to avoid their extreme destitution and Henry Aldrich for President, first in a series of comic romps that starred Jimmy Lydon as the title character.
She also played Sterling Hayden's alleged invalid wife (who nonethe- less is cheating on him!) in Bahama Passage (1941.) The costars of that little-known film were no less than Madeleine Carroll, Leo G. Carroll, Flora Robson and Dorothy Dandridge, so at least she was keeping good company.
She was back with Jimmy Lydon for Harry and Dizzy (1942) as the object of Lydon's affection, for whom he undergoes a series of zany, problematic jobs and schemes. This was her only movie that year, but she also worked on Broadway in a drama called Guest in the House with Leon Ames.
1943 brought only one film her way, too, but it was another classic, The Song of Bernadette, which was nominated for Best Picture (but lost to Casablanca.) Now under contract to 20th Century Fox, she would enjoy the wave of publicity that came with such a position. Her face and figure graced any number of advertisements, cheesecake photos and magazine covers.
In 1944, she went to work for the famed director Alfred Hitchcock on one of his more experi- mental movies. While later, Hitch would experiment with things like lengthy camera takes on Rope (1948), this time he was bucking convention by keeping all the action confined to one cramped, intimate space, a Lifeboat.
Following the sinking of a passenger liner by torpedo, a group of stragglers (including the glamorous Tallulah Bankhead) find themselves clinging to their lives in the title vessel. Conflict arises when the survivors pull aboard a man floating in the water (Walter Slezak) only to find that he is a German sailor, one whose submarine has just sunk the ship they were on!
The rather grueling shoot, filmed in sequence with the cast in attend- ance every day, caused everything from seasickness to cracked ribs among the players. One classically hilarious story, though, involves Hitchcock and Anderson. (It's not THE most amusing tale, though, in which a panty-less Bankhead was complained about to Hitchcock and he replied that he wasn't sure if it was a job for “wardrobe or hairdressing!”) Anderson somehow summoned the courage to ask the bovine, yet impish, director, “Mr. Hitchcock, which would you say is my best side?” to which he replied, “My dear, you're sitting on it.”
Rounding out 1944 was her partici- pation in the pet project of studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, Wilson, which was a splendidly-appointed, lengthy bio-pic of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, that, despite ten Oscar nominations including Best Picture (which went to Going My Way) was a box office fizzle that left Zanuck mortified. Anderson played one of Wilson's three daughters and her real-life counterpart, Eleanor, was a consultant on the project. Wilson was photographed by Leon Shamroy, who won an Oscar for his work here and would later play a role in Anderson's life.
Anderson's only 1945 film was Behind These Walls, in which she played the daughter of Thomas Mitchell (also a star of Gone with the Wind.) He was a strict and stern judge who is tested when his own son runs afoul of the law. Anderson was paired romantically with Mark Stevens, who went on to a reasonably successful career of his own.
1946 brought Behind Green Lights, a murder mystery that starred Carole Landis (who would be dead within two years in a famous suicide over Rex Harrison.) Anderson was one of the suspects, a young lady seeking divorce. Better in many departments was To Each His Own in which she was second-billed to (Oscar-winning) Olivia de Havilland. In what might be described as a Miriam Hopkins-style role, she was a neurotic woman raising a young son who happened to have been born to de Havilland. Her colorful role might have been her shot at a Supporting Actress nomination, but it was not to be.
Whispering City (1947), in which she played a reporter who is targeted for murder for knowing too much about a prior killing, would be her last feature for a couple of years. Her contract at 20th Century Fox had not been renewed. She began to work in television for the first time, in a version of Stage Door, as the second Mrs. de Winter in a version of Rebecca for The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, and on a couple of 1949 episodes of The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre.
In 1950, Anderson and her husband Leonard divorced after a decade of marriage. She simul- taneously came back onto the big screen with a trio of movies. The Underworld Story had her bizarrely cast as a black woman (!), a maid being framed for a murder.
If that's not strange enough for you, try Hunt the Man Down (1950) in which she played the wife of a man who had been suspected of murder and ran away only to be brought to the headlines a dozen years later when he thwarted a robbery while in his new guise. That part isn't so weird. It's just that the man was played by James Anderson, Mary's real-life younger brother, now an actor in his own right! (He would later gain attention for his race-baiting role in To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962.)
Her third (and campiest) role of 1950 came with Last of the Buccaneers, in which she played a character called Swallow and was bedecked in pirate garb as one of Jean Lafitte's gang. Although Lafitte was played by Paul Henreid, this was far from a prestigious assignment and was nothing more than fluffy, if colorful, adventure filler.
By this point, Mary Anderson was far afield from the A-list, Oscar-bait pictures that she'd begun in and was firmly entrenched in B-movies and beginning to appear regularly on television. Yet, she was still turning in solid work and remaining quite busy. Chicago Calling, opposite Dan Duryea, in 1951 was a memorable nail-biter about a poor Los Angeles man trying to reconnect his phone so that he can find out about his young daughter, injured in a car crash in faraway Chicago.
Passage West (1951) starred John Payne and Dennis O'Keefe and concerned escaped convicts overtaking a wagon train headed west, of which Anderson was a member. In 1952, she worked alongside Evelyn Keyes, another veteran of GWTW, in One Big Affair. Anderson played Keyes' boy-crazy friend while on a bus tour of Mexico.
Her two 1953 films were Dangerous Crossing, in which she played a cruise ship chambermaid who seems to be in on a plot to gaslight newly-married Jeanne Crain and I, the Jury, which had her among a multitude of suspects that Mike Hammer (as played by Biff Elliot) has to sort through. This same year, Anderson married for a second time to cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who had photographed her years before in Wilson. Shamroy was lauded for his work on many 20th Century Fox films from Leave Her to Heaven (1943) to The King and I (1956) to Planet of theApes (1968.) In 1954. she returned to Broadway to costar in the successful farce Lunatics and Lovers.
Over the next few years, Anderson worked almost exclusively on TV on shows such as Lux Video Theatre, Matinee Theatre, Climax! and even Perry Mason. A cruel blow was dealt, though, in 1956 when she and Shamroy welcomed a son, Anderson Alexander Shamroy, only to have the infant die at two months of age. This would be Anderson's only natural child, though she was stepmother to her husband's other children.
In 1959, she appeared in what would for all intents and purposes be her final feature film role in a rip-off of The High and the Mighty (1954) called Jet Over the Atlantic. Guy Madison and Virginia Mayo headed a cast of faces a bit past their “sell by” dates including George Raft, Ilona Massey and Anna Lee. She practically had to fight for billing amongst the rest of the herd. From this point, Anderson dotted the TV landscape, including guest shots on My Three Sons and Lawman, until 1964.
In 1964, she landed the part of hers which is my own personal favorite, that of Catherine Harrington on the pioneering prime time soap opera Peyton Place. A reworking of the story already told in Peyton Place (1957) and Return to Peyton Place (1961), this series started with some familiar characters and then veered on its own course, introducing various new and popular faces along the way during its five-year run.
Anderson's role was a descendant of the town's founding Peyton lineage. Now with the married name Harrington, she was the matriarch of the town's wealthiest family and lived with her husband and two sons (one of whom was played by Ryan O'Neal, seen to the left of her here) in a white mansion.
Anderson, who had always had something of a mild speech imped- iment, by now would tangle her mouth in a delectably hilarious way (think Jennifer Jones on her worst day) as she let loose snide little remarks or coolly dropped insult bombs to those around her. Pretty much everything the woman says is amusing whether its due to the dialogue or her own delivery of it.
Pampered, coddled and tolerated by her often-confounded husband, she tended to lounge around her well-heeled bedroom, sipping coffee, writing letters or staring at herself in the mirror, wondering if she was still the beautiful young heiress of days gone by.
Sometimes, she'd pile her hair up, slip into a tailored suit and slither into town to do a little shopping or enjoy bit of catty bantering with this townsperson or that. (“You have good taste Constance. It's just different from mine...”)
Suspicious that her husband was having and affair with his secretary, she relentlessly hounded him about it and shot the secretary (played by an excellent Kasey Rogers, later Louise Tate on Bewitched) some deadly glances.
She's given even more to fret about when the secretary's daughter Barbara Parkins is foolishly impregnated by her own callow son O'Neal and the two wed to give the child a name, making her in-laws with the dreaded woman!
Still worse was to come, though. Her character suffered from a duodenal ulcer which was misdiag- nosed by her long-term family doctor (who frequently gave in to her pleas not to have her blood pressure checked or be bothered by anything actually medical!) She took to her bed and basically stayed there until things took a turn for the worst. Her feverish, agonizing illness was given a raw edge by the veteran actress.
Eventually, her condition worsened tremendously and she was advised by the town's new doctor (Ed Nelson) that surgery was imperative. She resisted and resisted, all the while suffering excruciating pain, until finally relenting whereupon she died on the operating table! Thus, Anderson only made fourteen appearances on Peyton Place in all. Thing was, her character remained a part of the storyline for years after. She was learned to have been the mother of two other children as well as a murderess!
It's a shame that Anderson and her delicious bitchery couldn't be kept around for a while longer, but what there was is fun. Her role of a rich, glamorous mother - adoring of her son, disdainful of his new wife and insanely jealous of her husband's true love – was something of a template for what came two decades later for Stephanie Beacham on The Colbys, so it's no surprise that I love her madly.
After this, Anderson filmed an episode of Daniel Boone in 1965 and then quietly retired. For viewers who missed that installment of the western series, she may as well have drifted away just the same way Catherine Harrington did! (There was also an unbilled bit part in, of all things, Cheech & Chong's Next Movie, 1980, as an old lady in a record store!) She and Shamroy had remained happily wed until his death of a heart attack in 1974 and Anderson was little-seen by the public from then on (and photos of her after that aren't easy to come by.)
However, you knew I wasn't going to just leave you with no images of the lady from 1964 on, right? In The Under- world, we delve and dig until we turn up what we want! In 1987, Anderson had a “blink and you'll miss it” interview clip in a documentary series called Our World (1986-1987), all about GWTW and we got to see the lady, still looking well at sixty-nine. She noted in the clip that 1939 audiences, still recovering from The Depression and with Europe in turmoil sought to enter another, past, world and escape from the current issues.
When it comes to Gone with the Wind, some members of the cast didn't live long afterwards at all. (Leslie Howard was gone in 1943 as a result of his efforts in WWII), but many of them lived remarkably long lives. Olivia de Havilland is justifiably heralded for still kicking at ninety-nine, but her on-screen sister-in-law Alicia Rhett (as India Wilkes) died only last January at age ninety-eight. Scarlett's sisters, Ann Rutherford and Evelyn Keyes, lived to be ninety-four and ninety-one, respectively. Even Anderson's on-screen mama, the venerable Jane Darwell, lived to be eighty-seven.
And Mary Anderson was still with us up until April of last year. She passed of natural causes just three days after her ninety-sixth birthday. (This leaves only de Havilland and her on-screen son Mickey Kuhn as the remaining credited players from GWTW.) Fascinating that this raft of onscreen southern belles lasted so long. We hope Anderson had a great life even as we wish we'd have gotten to see more of her through the years.