Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mystery Revealed: A Woman of Hollywood


She appeared in more Best Picture winners - five - than any other performer, and if you have a favorite studio picture made between 1923 and 1964, there's a fairly good chance she's in it.  It's probably safe to say that in sheer number of titles - well more than 700 - she's the most prolific actress in films.

And yet is really wasn't fair to show you a still of this particular Mystery Lady and expect anyone to recognize her, especially as a lovely but not particularly distinctive young woman, one who, as various Gentle Readers noted, bore a passing resemblance to everyone from Helen Twelvetrees to Barbara Stanwyck.  She really didn't come into her own until she was a lady of a certain age, and even then, closeups were few and far between.

She is, as many I suspect will have guessed by now, not your ordinary Movie Star.  She really, in truth, wasn't a star at all (which is in itself remarkable for someone who appeared in more than 700 movies, don't you think?).  No, she's the woman fondly remembered as Queen of the Dress Extras, Miss Bess Flowers.

Who?  Well, she's the elegant lady who "is so happy for you, Eve," as Miss Harrington receives her Sarah Siddons award in All About Eve.  Decades earlier, she's a racy artist's model in A Woman of Paris and at the other end of her career a regular in the background of Perry Mason.  She arrives at premieres; she decorates nightclubs and your ritzier private parties; she shops, travels in style, and only occasionally slums it as a secretary or nurse.

She was tall, which helps in finding her in crowds, and by the 40s she sported a distinctive silver 'do that stands out beautifully in color.  Back in the days when Manhattan was spotted with theatres showing old movies, you would sometimes hear, out of the darkness, a particularly avid fan give a pleasantly startled "oh!" or even a pleased "Bess!" when she'd pass by, stop to greet the leading man, or even on rare, special occasions (as in Eve) deliver a gracious line.


Here she is, entertaining friends at a swank San Francisco restaurant; just beyond those flowers, Jimmy Stewart is catching his first sight of Kim Novak, in Vertigo.  Things happen in restaurants when Bess is around - she was there when Mildred Pierce decided to become a waitress, and when Mighty Joe Young decided to run amok.


She's looking - for Bess - a little more hard-boiled here, as a society matron at a fashion show, from the big "Girl Hunt" number in The Bandwagon.  Given that there are a bevy of identically clad ladies in this number, presumably this is one time that she wasn't called on to supply a costume from her extensive personal wardrobe.


This is an especially lovely little Bess moment, from the Doris Day picture Lucky Me (that's Doris, in blue).  Bess enters from the right in her dainty pale rose shopping outfit.  She pauses in front of the highly apropos "Flowers" sign, is surprised by some falling water on her neat parasol, and gives a marvelous moue of surprise and distaste as Doris moves off.  One has to think there might have been a fond directorial hand at work here, giving Miss Flowers a little special recognition.

Bess's filmography, beyond the plethora of familiar titles (and they do dazzle - It Happened One Night, Imitation of Life, Judgment at Nuremberg, Rear Window, Singin' in the Rain, Humoresque  - twelve Crawford pictures, actually, all told! - Gilda, The Lady EveA Day at the Races... you get the idea) is the sheer volume of product pumped out by Hollywood during the years that she worked.  For every well-known old friend, there are half-a-dozen or more utterly forgotten names -  You Can't Buy Luck? Black Sheep? Private Buckaroo? Hold That Blonde?  They sound more like parodies of old movie titles than anything, but Bess appeared in all of them and doubtless dressed them up in much the same way she did Call Me Madam, To Catch a Thief, and My Man Godfrey (as Carnival Guest, Nightclub Patron, and Mrs. Merriweather, respectively).

So, even though despite best efforts all around, no one guessed her name, now you have, if you like, a new little hobby.  When sitting down in front of TCM or your newest DVD from the Warners Archive, keep a sharp eye on things and you too can become a Bess Spotter.  She's always out there, alighting from her limousine, looking carefree at a ladies' luncheon, or looking on admiringly as the principals dance, flirt, or otherwise try to steal focus in the foreground.  Have fun...

12 comments:

  1. Why Max, you sly puss. Bravo, Darling!!! I shall forevermore be on the lookout.

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  2. Now, I could have told you the name of Linda Darnell's pet chicken, but this one was beyond me. Bess Flowers? Fiddlesticks!

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    1. All right, I'll bite: what is the name of Linda Darnell's pet chicken?

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    2. No - really? That's fab. What was she, a gift from Robert Mitchum or something?

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  3. "One of filmdom's best-dressed ladies"? "First Lady of Hollywood"? An extra?! Jx

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    1. Oh, but Jon, she's wasn't just an extra - she was a dress extra; her wardrobe was every bit as important to her work as it was to any of the great clotheshorses. As for her valued place in the, as they say, Hollywood Firmament, I really like the articles here and here.

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  4. It sounds like she had a wonderful life. Imagine the stories she could tell..

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  5. Exactly. This is the kind of acting career that fascinates me: steadily working, knowing everybody, just paying the bills by being in movies.

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  6. felix, you're a bit of the puss yourself with that answer!

    i'm too lazy to look it up now, but don't i know her from the three stooges?

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    1. yes, i knew miss flowers from a very early age.
      like vi-penta, the stooges were de rigueur in my world.

      it was broads like bess that taught me what class wuz.

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  7. Here's a link to see Bess at her elegant best (the film is, "I Walk Alone", from 1948 starring Lizabeth Scott, Burt Lancaster, and Kirk Douglas!)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8eE2BVoT5M

    Bess is on from 0:59 to 1:10, and again at 2:57 standing up to dance. For a non-speaking role, she certainly garnered some camera time.

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