A weekly feature in which my five-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier. There are five categories on the Walk of Fame: motion pictures, television, radio, music and theater but Charlie tends to favor the movies.
Charlie chose vivacious movie and TV actress Ann Sothern this week. As a kid I remember Sothern not so much from her many fine movie roles but more from reruns of her TV series and guest appearances on The Lucy Show and other television staples of my childhood. Like her close friend Lucille Ball, with whom she often worked, Sothern was something of a pioneer in the fledgling medium. She starred in her own sitcom, Private Secretary, for five seasons beginning in 1953, and the show was nominated for a slew of Emmy Awards. After this series ended, Sothern’s Susie MacNamara became one of the first “crossover” characters on television when she was presented as Lucy Ricardo’s friend on the first episode of the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, the hour-long version of their popular I Love Lucy.
Sothern then starred in her second sitcom, The Ann Sothern Show, beginning in 1958. That series ran for three years and incorporated several of her co-stars from Private Secretary (including Don Porter) as well as a cavalcade of guest stars that ranged from Cesar Romero and Jackie Coogan to Stefanie Powers and Connie Stevens. Lucille Ball returned the crossover favor, bringing Lucy Ricardo to an episode of the new show as a friend of Sothern’s character, Katy O’Connor.
Sothern’s third series was one of the oddest in the history of television. My Mother the Car focused on an attorney (played by Jerry Van Dyke) whose recently deceased mother comes back in the form of an antique 1928 automobile. You heard me! Sothern played the titular character and was heard in every episode but never seen. Gulp. And yet I think I saw every episode (the show only lasted one season!).
Ann Sothern was born Harriet Arlene Lake on January 22, 1909 in Valley City, North Dakota. Her grandfather, Simon Lake, was a well-known engineer and naval architect who built some of the first submarines for the U.S. Navy. Raised in Minneapolis, Sothern started performing as a child as a pianist, singer, and actress. While in high school, she won the state-wide competition for young composers three years in a row. After her parents got divorced, Sothern’s mother moved to Los Angeles where she got a job as a vocal coach for Warner Bros. Studios at the advent of the talkies. Young Ann followed her there and nabbed a screen test at MGM. The studio gave her a six-month contract but she only managed to snag small bit parts. While in L.A., however, she met famed theatre impresario Florenz Ziegfeld who was so impressed by her he offered her a role in one of his productions. Dissatisfied with her experience in the movies, Sothern took Ziegfeld up on his offer and moved to New York where she had leading roles in the Rodgers & Hart musical America’s Sweetheart and Everybody’s Welcome, the first show to feature the song “As Time Goes By.”
With her newfound Broadway fame, Hollywood beckoned again. In 1934, Sothern, still acting under the name Harriet Lake, signed a contract with Columbia Pictures. It was studio head Harry Cohn who decided that her real name had to go and came up with Ann Sothern (Ann for her mother Annette and Sothern for actor E.H. Sothern). Unfortunately, the studio still couldn’t figure out what to do with her and cast her in a series of B-movies that went nowhere. Dropping her option after two years, Sothern next tried RKO and eventually found her way back to MGM. It was there that Ann finally found the success she had been hoping for in the movies. MGM had been planning a film for Jean Harlow about a brassy burlesque queen with a heart of gold, Mary Anastasia O’Connor, who went by the nickname Maisie. The studio shelved the project after Harlow’s sad death at the age of 26 but someone came up with the idea to cast Sothern in the role. Maisie (1939), co-starring Robert Young, was such a hit that MGM turned it into a popular series. Between 1939 and 1947, Ann Sothern starred in 10 Maisie films including Gold Rush Maisie with Lee Bowman and Virginia Weidler, Maisie Was a Lady with Lew Ayres and Maureen O’Sullivan, Ringside Maisie with George Murphy and Robert Sterling (whom she would later marry), and Maisie Gets Her Man with Red Skelton and Leo Gorcey. She also played the character on a successful radio show for many years.
Other Ann Sothern films of note during the 1940s include Lady Be Good (1941) with Eleanor Powell and Robert Young, Panama Hattie (1942) with Red Skelton and Virginia O’Brien, Cry “Havoc” (1943) with Margaret Sullavan and Joan Blondell, and Words and Music (1948) with Mickey Rooney, Tom Drake, and Betty Garrett. My favorite Ann Sothern film, though, is probably Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949) that also starred Kirk Douglas, Jeanne Crain, and Linda Darnell. That terrific film won Mankiewicz Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay.
Following her decades in television, Ann Sothern continued to make the occasional movie and she was always wonderful, such as when she played an aging prostitute in the terrifying Lady in a Cage (1964) starring Olivia de Havilland or a gangster grandma in Jonathan Demme’s comedy Crazy Mama (1975) with Cloris Leachman.
But one of her most moving performances was her final appearance on film. Sothern was 78 and not in great health when she appeared in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987) with screen veterans Bette Davis (79), Lillian Gish (94), and Vincent Price (76). Sothern had been plagued with health problems since she contracted hepatitis shortly after making A Letter to Three Wives. A freak accident in 1974 (a fake tree fell on her back during a stage performance) didn’t help. The mishap damaged the nerves in her legs and for the rest of her life, she had to walk with a cane. Ann Sothern was much loved by those who knew her in the industry. She married twice and had one daughter, actress Tisha Sterling, who appeared with her mother on her TV show when she was a child and played a younger version of her in The Whales of August. Ann Sothern died in her home in Ketchum, Idaho, on March 15, 2001. She was 92.