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Ann Sheridan got a free ride to Hollywood but spent the rest of her career hitching. Born Clara Lou Sheridan on February 21, 1915, the native of Denton, Texas was rounded up in 1933 as part of a national beauty contest sponsored by Paramount Pictures. Ostensibly a bid by the studio to find new talent for its upcoming production Search for Beauty (1934), the cattle call was actually a glorified publicity stunt engineered to generate buzz about the Erle C. Kenton comedy, which paired Buster Crabbe with a 20 year-old Ida Lupino in her American film debut. The previous year, Paramount's search for a fresh face to play "The Panther Woman" in Kenton's Island of Lost Souls (1932) had yielded a surprising crop of promising newcomers in Kathleen Burke (who got the part), Gail Patrick, Grace Bradley and Gertrude Michael all of whom had considerable, if not necessarily long-lived, careers. The 18 year-old Sheridan was the only star to rise above the thirty hopefuls trucked east in 1933. She lasted less than two years at Paramount, where her $50 a week contract had her doubling other actresses, before the studio cut her loose. Sheridan fared better at Warner Brothers, especially after Walter Winchell praised her "umphy quality" in a 1939 column. In the hands of Warners publicity head Bob Taplinger, that accolade turned Ann Sheridan into "The Oomph Girl," an association the studio promoted and from which Sheridan benefited immeasurably.
Better parts followed, in They Drive by Night (1940) with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) with Bette Davis and Monty Woolly and in Kings Row (1942) with Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan. Although Sheridan had worked hard to lose her syrupy North Texas accent, she retained her salty sense of humor, likening the word "oomph" to "a fat man bending down to tie his shoelaces."
Once she had some cachet with the studio, the actress developed a reputation for turning down parts, including lead roles in Raoul Walsh's The Strawberry Blonde (1941), which went to Rita Hayworth, and in Michael Curtiz' Mildred Pierce (1945), which netted an Academy Award for Joan Crawford. During World War II, Sheridan traveled to India to entertain US troops. (A B-26 bomber was christened "The Sheridan Express" and its fuselage bore her likeness.) The actress spent eighteen months on suspension at Warners, fighting for a pay raise, and eventually walked away with a six picture deal and script approval.
Sheridan would eventually buy herself out of her Warners contract but not before appearing in a handful of final films, among them the quasi-film noirs Nora Prentiss and The Unfaithful, both released in 1947 and both directed by Vincent Sherman as vehicles produced specifically as showcases for "the Oomph Girl."
Sherman had used his own money for the option on Paul Webster's unpublished story "The Man Who Died Twice"; at the behest of studio head Jack Warner, the story's female protagonist was made more prominent and the project renamed Nora Prentiss, with Sheridan in the title role. That film's success demanded a follow-up. Sherman and producer Jerry Wald had originally wanted to adapt James M. Cain's 1937 novel Serenade for Sheridan and Dennis O'Keefe but the book's homosexual subplot queered the deal. Sherman's counter offer to Warners was James Gunn's unfinished screenplay, The Unfaithful, an unofficial remake of William Wyler's The Letter (1940). Despite reservations from the front office about green-lighting an incomplete shooting script, Sherman pressed ahead with a start date two weeks off. Ann Sheridan was secured for the lead, Zachary Scott and Lew Ayres were cast as her costars and Eve Arden scored the second female lead. Sherman offered his cast a scene breakdown and twenty pages to start and all agreed to the unusual situation in a show of faith in their director. Upon viewing a rough cut of the film, Warner proclaimed to Sherman "Any sonofabitch who can make a picture like I saw last night, without a script, can stay here (at Warner Brothers) as long as he likes."
In her 1985 memoirs Three Faces of Eve, Eve Arden discussed her participation in the rushed and at times unpredictable production, which was the subject of much curiosity, gossip and anxiety on the Warners lot throughout principal photography:
"There was nothing for any of us to do but call on a sense of humor. This we did, to the point where one day we were unable to look each other in the eye without laughing. It became painful both to us and the director, but there was no help. If I gained enough control to read a line, Annie's lip would begin to quiver and her eyelashes would bat. Then Zach's voice would break and the director would yell "Cut!" As we struggled for composure, someone made the mistake of threatening to call Jack Warner down to the set. That did it. Tears of laughter ruined three make-ups and we took a break to recover and repair. Only the fact that we were three of the studio's most professional actors saved our combined necks."
Despite the fears of cast and crew, The Unfaithful proved to be another success (if not the Oscar® magnet that The Letter had been), allowing Vincent Sherman to broker a substantial pay hike for himself and an improved, five year contract. After leaving Warners, Ann Sheridan won a plumb leading lady assignment opposite Cary Grant in Howard Hawks' classic screwball comedy I Was a Male War Bride (1949), which was a career high point but also marked the beginning of the end of her arc as a Hollywood star.
Through the 1950s, Sheridan worked as often in television as in features, with guest spots on Playhouse 90, Pursuit, Wagon Train and the daytime drama Another World. A heavy smoker, Sheridan had been diagnosed with esophageal and liver cancer when she accepted a leading role on the CBS-TV sitcom Pistols 'n' Petticoats in 1966. She completed 21 out of 26 episodes before her death on January 21, 1967, at the age of 51. "I always felt that Ann was not driven to become a big movie star," Vincent Sherman wrote of Sheridan in his 1996 memoirs. "For a short while she enjoyed the advantages of being in the limelight... but I always felt that she would have preferred being a housewife with a loving husband and children. She was a grand girl, talented, and a joy to know and work with."
Producer: Jerry Wald
Director: Vincent Sherman
Screenplay: David Goodis, James Gunn; W. Somerset Maugham (novel, uncredited)
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Alan Crosland, Jr.
Cast: Ann Sheridan (Chris Hunter), Lew Ayres (Larry Hannaford), Zachary Scott (Bob Hunter), Eve Arden (Paula), Jerome Cowan (Prosecuting Attorney), Steven Geray (Martin Barrow), John Hoyt (Det. Lt. Reynolds), Peggy Knudsen (Claire), Marta Mitrovich (Mrs. Tanner), Douglas Kennedy (Roger), Claire Meade (Martha), Frances Morris (Agnes), Jane Harker (Joan).
by Richard Harland Smith
Ann Sheridan interview, People Will Talk by John Kobal (Knopf, 1986)
Ann Sheridan: A Bio-Bibliography by Margie Schultz (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997)
Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director by Vincent Sherman (University Press of Kentucky, 1996)
Three Faces of Eve by Eve Arden (St. Martin's Press, 1985)