Let's wish a happy birthday (her 104th, believe it or not, were she here to celebrate it) to Hollywood stalwart Ann Sothern.
Sothern's career is a bit of an anomaly; thanks to a combination of longevity (she worked steadily from the late '20s to the late '70s), versatility (she did musicals, comedies, and fraught romances with equal verve), and flexibility (she did lots of radio, segued comfortably to television, and moved serenely from leads into supporting parts), she had an A-list name based mostly on second-string properties. Of course, at the top of her career, a steady presence in the B-unit guaranteed a savvy player regular exposure to audiences and, frequently, greater job security than having to carry all the risks that big-budget A pictures entailed. Sothern took those advantages and ran with them.
We catch her here toward the end of the run of films that really solidified her name with moviegoers and accounting suits alike. Sothern made ten Maisie pictures between 1939 and 1947, and if by 1946 and Up Goes Maisie (the ninth outing) some of the seams were showing, all told the series paid a lot of bills for MGM. This one puts the saucy title character into a rather thin soup of industrial espionage (but don't you love the bit in which she's the Plain Secretary Revealed?), with the studio's reliable B-lead George Murphy as her love interest and icy sophisticate Hilary Brooke (herself a low-budget regular as Lou Costello's girlfriend) as an unscrupulous patent thief.
The Maisie pictures - too little seen today, really, like too many Bs - are frothy good fun, with reliable production values, the occasional "guest star" (Maureen O'Sullivan or C. Aubrey Smith and the like) on the way up or down, and lots of opportunities to admire Sothern's genial good nature, deft handling of warmhearted wisecracks, and always a little leg and a low-cut bodice. Maisie's trademark look - round cartwheel hat, plentiful ruffles and furbelows, and a plunging sweetheart neckline whenever possible - was set early on and at times makes Sothern look like a living incarnation of a wartime pinup. Which, I suppose, was rather the point.
The Sothern persona carried her well into the '60s, and if by the following decade she was mostly the best thing in some truly terrible pictures (supporting Tony Curtis in The Manitou, for instance, or playing Cloris Leachman's mother in Crazy Mama, a kind of Shelley Winters part gone wrong), she came out of retirement in 1987 and had one last chance to shine, ably supporting no less than Bette Davis and Lillian Gish in the charming (and I think under-rated) The Whales of August. I doubt she found it too taxing to be in the presence of those two titans, or to deal with the querulous and frequently temperamental Davis - she had, after all, put up with Lucille Ball for years, as both a DesiLu star and a sidekick on various Lucy projects. After that, even post-stroke BD in combination with St. Lillian must have been a cakewalk. As the patient, commonsensical neighbor (a variation, really, on the part she'd been playing since the dawn of talkies), she more than holds her own against the two warhorses, Maisie grown older and wiser, but still tremendously charming.
Sothern certainly had the looks and acting chops to be a Big Lady Star, and I suppose at times it must have rankled to report in for yet another programmer or to sit just a little back on an A assignment so that Jeanne Crain or Jane Powell could shine (in an early foray into mother parts, Sothern sings and dances rings around the latter, the titular star of Nancy Goes to Rio). That she is today remembered more fondly they - or than many of her coevals, for that matter - is a tribute to the work she did and to the warmth she effortlessly projected in even the least of her vehicles. In a remarkable interview in The New York Times, done while she was promoting Whales, she summed herself up: "Hollywood doesn't respond to a strong woman, not at all. I was too independent. How dare a woman be competitive or produce her own shows? My work was paramount. My training was to be on time and know my lines. There's never been anything scandalous about me, and to come out clean is pretty damn good." Pretty damn good; that, she most definitely was.