Ann Sothern, Lucille Ball's longtime personal friend and occasional co-star, died March 15, 2001, at her home in Ketchum, Idaho, of heart failure. She was 92. Sothern, like Ball, toiled for years in lesser motion picture roles, only to achieve international fame in the early 1950s as the star of a television "sitcom."
About her good friend, Lucy once remarked, "The best comedienne in this business, bar none, is Ann Sothern."
Ann and Lucy first became acquainted back in 1933, when both made brief appearances as bathing beauties in a Darryl Zanuck melodrama, "Broadway Thru a Keyhole." Lucy had just arrived in Hollywood to work as a Goldwyn Girl in Samuel Goldwyn's spashy new musical, "Roman Scandals," starring Eddie Cantor. When production was delayed for script rewrites, Goldwyn loaned many of his contract players to other producers. For Ann, this was her second try at Hollywood stardom -- she had already done one tour of duty a couple of years earlier, using her real name, Harriette Lake.
If Lucy had no real show-business background, Harriette was born into it. She arrived on January 22, 1909, in Valley City, North Dakota, the first of three daughters born to Annette Yde and Walter Lake. Sister Marion arrived 18 months later, and Bonnie, a year after that. (Photo, left, is of Harriette and Marion, circa 1914.) Walter, reported in some biographies as a "businessman," and in others as a "traveling thespian," all but deserted the family when Harriette was 6. She was raised by her mother, an opera singer and diction coach. (Harriet's maternal grandfather was Danish violinist Hans Nilson.)
Harriette was educated in public schools in Waterloo, Iowa, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her mother gave her a firm musical background, often letting young Harriette accompany her on concert tours. In 1927, Annette and Walter officially divorced, and Annette relocated to southern California, where she landed a job as a vocal coach at Warner Bros. Studios -- the company that was then experimenting with what they called "talking pictures."
Walter, meanwhile, moved to Seattle, and Harriette lived with him for a year while attending classes at the University of Washington. "I got good marks in everything but math," she later recalled. But show business beckoned, and while visiting her mother, Harriette landed a small part in a Warners feature, "Your Show of Shows." "Hearts in Exile" and "Hold Everything" soon followed, and MGM thought she showed promise and put her under contract. She appeared in a yet another small role in Metro's "Doughboys," but Harriette had already tired of such walk-on parts. She wanted to perform, and if she could not do it in Hollywood, she would try New York. She reportedly met producer Florenz Ziegfeld at a party -- he was in Hollywood working on the first Goldwyn/Cantor musical, "Whoopee" -- and he cast her in his new stage production of "Smiles." Friction developed, however, when the show's star, Marilyn Miller, noticed how well Boston-preview audiences responded to Harriette's performances. Miller wanted Harriette out of the show, and out she was. Within a few months, however, she made her Broadway debut in "America's Sweetheart," a musical with songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. In 1932 she was cast in the national touring company of "Of Thee I Sing." A year later, she decided to give Hollywood another try, and landed the part in "Broadway Thru a Keyhole."
Unbeknownst to Harriette, film mogul Harry Cohn had seen one of her stage performances, and had decided she would be perfect for a new picture he was preparing at Columbia Studios, "Let's Fall in Love." He insisted, however, that she change her name. "There are already too many Lakes in show business," he complained. For a new first name, she borrowed the first part of her mother's name, Annette, and became "Ann." For a last name, she chose "Sothern," for E. H. Sothern, a famous Shakespearean actor. The name clicked -- and so did her performance -- and Cohn signed her to a long-term contract.
Lucy arrived at Columbia at about the same time, having tired of being "categorized with the scenery" at Goldwyn. Both ladies, however, quickly bristled at the third-rate material they were assigned. Lucy spent most of her time making "shorts," 20-minute comedies, while Ann starred in features with titles like "The Hell Cat," "The Party's Over," and "Hell-Ship Morgan." "I didn't appear in B or C pictures," Ann later explained, "I was in Z pictures." Lucy's option was dropped after a few months, and she found employment at the studio down the street, RKO -- where Ann joined her in 1936.
Both ladies were desperately trying to find an image for herself during these years. Just as Lucy experimented with various make-up and hair styles, Ann went from having brunette to yellow-blonde hair, then redish-blonde and then almost dark again. She later confessed, "I finally realized the happy medium,'honey blonde' was the correct color and line for me."
Unfortunately, for both Ann and Lucy, RKO was not a fount of great material for up-and-coming young actresses. The studio purchased expensive properties for its big stars -- like Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers -- then put its contract players in bottom-of-the-pile "programmers." After a year of such treatment, Ann asked for a release from her contract, and took a year off, touring the country with her new husband, bandleader Roger Pryor.
Ann returned to pictures in 1938, when producer Walter Wanger cast her in a character role in "Trade Winds." It was a one-shot deal that she enjoyed -- but producer Walter Ruben liked her performance so much that he offered her the title role in a picture he was dusting off at MGM, a medium-budget comedy entitled "Maisie." The project had originally been develped as a vehicle for Jean Harlow, and had been shelved since her death in 1937. MGM was not crazy about Sothern taking such a stellar role -- but changed its mind when the film was released and grossed more than three times its original cost. Suddenly studio chief Louis B. Mayer took a personal interest in Ann, and signed her to a longterm contract. During the ensuing 13 years, Ann would make nine more "Maisie" films and star in two radio series based on the character.
Ann used MGM's enthusiasm for Maisie Revere -- a brassy Brooklyn showgirl who becomes involved in a series of adventures as she drifts from job to job -- as a bargaining chip in her own quest for class-A material. As she later explained, "Every 'Maisie' film cost under $500,000 and made two to three times that back. I'd tell Mr. Mayer to give me a musical and I'd do another 'Maisie.' We'd bargain in that way."
Among the Metro titles that came her way were "Lady Be Good" (with Eleanor Powell and Robert Young), "Panama Hattie" (with Red Skelton), and the dramatic "Cry Havoc" (with Margaret Sullivan and Joan Blondell). She was originally named as star of "DuBarry was a Lady," but the part went instead to old pal Lucille Ball -- who had just been signed to her own longterm MGM deal. "I got all the parts Ann Sothern turned down," Lucy quipped later. The two friends appeared together, however, in an all-star MGM spectacular, "Thousands Cheer" in 1943.
During these years, Ann divorced husband Roger Pryor, and later married fellow actor Robert Sterling. By then World War II had been declared, and Ann showed her patriotism by touring camps and hospitals, and by appearing at the Hollywood Canteen. She was so popular with the enlisted men that one air unit named its plane, "Sothern Comfort." Daughter Patricia Ann Sterling ("Tish") was born December 10, 1944.
After the war, Ann's career slowed and the Sterlings' marriage faultered. Ann and her husband suffered through four years of trial separations and noisy reconciliations, before finally agreeing to a divorce in March, 1949. Ann, meanwhile, had not renewed her contract at MGM, but had pursued a career as a freelance artist, making only those pictures that struck her fancy. Included was a film that would ultimately be her favorite of all her pictures, "A Letter to Three Wives" for Joseph Mankiewicz at 20th Century-Fox. The film paired her with young actor, Kirk Douglas, in a cast that also included Linda Darnell, Paul Douglas, Jeanne Crain, Jeffrey Lynn, and the wonderful Thelma Ritter. "Letter" won Academy Awards for Mankkiewicz's script and direction, and brought Ann the best notices of her career to date.
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