One of the best things about watching classic film is discovering new favorite performers. Sure, there are the well-known legends of classic film: Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, etc. and I love many of them too and can completely see how and why these men and women have endured decades after their last film; but there are a whole crop of other actors in these films that deserve to be just as well known. Many of my favorite performers were steadily working actors and were even stars in their day, but over the years, they’ve been all but forgotten. Thankfully, through vehicles like TCM, the internet, the TCM/Fathom classic film events and other film revivals all over the country, these actors are once again getting their day in the sun. It is my hope that through TCM and the classic film events that these actors will once again be in the limelight. Often for me, it is the films with the big name that leads me to discovering these other performers, many of whom are just as good as the big name to whom they’re lending support, or even sharing a star billing with them!
One such performer who was a star in her day and whom deserves more recognition is Ann Blyth.
My first exposure to Ann Blyth was her star-making turn as the daughter-from-hell, Veda Pierce in the 1945 classic, Mildred Pierce. ‘Mildred,’ starred Joan Crawford as the title character, a recently divorced mother who is determined to give her spoiled teenage daughter, Veda, everything she wants. This film was a comeback vehicle for Crawford whose contract at MGM had been terminated two years prior, after eighteen years with the studio. In 1945, Crawford signed with Warner Brothers and immediately embarked upon a string of hit films, mostly in the melodrama genre, where her career thrived for the next decade or so. As an aside, frankly, I prefer this short period of Crawford’s career. I’ve never been a huge fan of Crawford, but I absolutely love Crawford during her Warner Brothers era–plus I really love melodramas. But I digress…
Back to Ann Blyth.
Prior to ‘Mildred,’ Blyth was under contract with Universal, mostly appearing in musicals that took advantage of her singing talent. She was paired often with Donald O’Connor as Universal hoped that they could replicate the success of MGM’s Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musicals that were popular a few years prior. The Blyth/O’Connor musicals were successful enough, but Blyth’s star skyrocketed after she was loaned out to Warner Brothers to appear in ‘Mildred.’ Blyth was cast after Shirley Temple, Virginia Weidler, Bonita Granville, and Martha Vickers were considered. Frankly, the idea of Shirley Temple slapping Joan Crawford sounds intriguing. I believe Granville could also have done a pretty good job as she played a horrible child in 1936’s These Three. But after seeing Blyth’s performance (and having seen it multiple times as Mildred Pierce is one of my favorite movies of all time), it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.
Blyth’s portrayal of Veda, I believe, is one of the all-time most “femme-fataly” of all femme fatales in noir. On the surface, she looks harmless. She’s got a sweet face and a very nice sounding voice. However, under the surface, there lies one of the most shallow, despicable characters in classic film. Veda is brazen and unapologetic about what she wants and what she’s willing to do to get what she wants. In some ways, I find that admirable, because she knows what she wants and she doesn’t care what she has to do to get it. On the other hand, the way she goes about it is questionable. Veda can show moments of kindness and sympathy, but one has to wonder how genuine it is when the next scene has her saying/doing something awful to Mildred. My favorite moment of the entire film is Blyth’s “f-you” speech to mother, Mildred, which culminates with Mildred ripping up Veda’s windfall (in form of a check that Veda received after some mild extortion), Veda slapping Mildred, and Mildred kicking Veda out of the house.
VEDA (to MILDRED): “With this money, I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men who wear overalls. You think just because you made a little money, you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t. Because you’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money, I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you!”
Damn. I’ll have to say that Veda deserves everything she gets in this film. Her monologue above pretty much sums up Veda’s entire character. There is nothing redeeming about Veda. Mildred does everything for her, even jumping into the incredibly difficult restaurant industry, and despite after much success, really has nothing to show for it at the conclusion of the film.
After ‘Mildred,’ Blyth appeared in a variety of different film genres. One such film was 1948’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid with William Powell. This fantasy film is a lot of fun. Powell portrays a middle-aged psychiatrist, Arthur Peabody, who is experiencing a bit of a midlife crisis when it occurs to him that his fiftieth birthday is quickly approaching (we’ll look past the fact that Powell already looks 50 and then some). While on vacation, Peabody hears some singing coming from a distant island. Taking his fishing boat, Peabody travels to the island and discovers the source of the singing. It’s a mermaid, Lenore, played by Blyth.
While Lenore is mute and does not speak, she does sing. Throughout the rest of the film, Peabody spends a lot of time with Lenore. Lenore is mischievous and charming which Peabody finds exciting as it is pulling him out of the rut he feels he is in. Lenore is also young and likes Peabody, which he also finds exciting as a man nearing fifty. Peabody even ends up teaching Lenore how to kiss. Much of the film involves Peabody trying to hide Lenore, first in the bathtub of his hotel room and later in the insanely large fish pond at the hotel. Other characters in the film, overhearing snippets of Peabody’s conversations with Lenore and seeing Lenore’s face (not her mermaid body obviously) immediately think he’s having an affair.
While Blyth has no lines in ‘Peabody,’ she is completely enchanting as the mermaid. Between her beautiful face and her gorgeous singing voice, it’s no wonder that Peabody is instantly smitten.
Blyth’s Hollywood career wasn’t incredibly long, though longer than some. Over the course of thirteen years (1944-1957), she appeared in about thirty or so films. While I believe Mildred Pierce represents the apex of her career, Blyth makes an impact in every films of hers that I’ve seen. In addition to the two films I mentioned above, I also recommend Blyth’s last film, The Helen Morgan Story. Despite her voice being inexplicably dubbed, Blyth’s performance as tragic torch singer, Helen Morgan, is excellent. She portrays a woman who was at the top of her career, only to lose it to alcohol addiction. While this may not be the best biopic, Blyth shines in a performance that was different than the many musicals that she made prior to this film.
Today Blyth lives near San Diego, California. At 89 years old, she still answers her fan mail and is known to journey up to Los Angeles occasionally to appear at film related festivals. In 2013, Blyth appeared at the TCM Film Festival to be interviewed by late TCM host, Robert Osborne. In this interview, she showed that she still had the charm and lovely demeanor that she showcased in all those films decades prior. Fortunately, the real Ann Blyth is nothing like her best known role, Veda Pierce.