The 6'2" tall, 230-pound Hope Emerson, with her dark, curly hair, trademarked sidelong stares and grimly set mouth, may be primarily remembered for her unique and unforgettable physical presence. Most often cast in villainous roles in both comedy and drama, this giant and imposing figure could strike fear into any woman or man. Such memories, however, unjustly obscure the highly talented and surprisingly versatile actress inside.
Emerson began in vaudeville and on Broadway in the 1920s, and though some sources cite film credits from the 30s, the stage was her primary outlet through the Depression and WWII years. Given how starkly dramatic much of her screen work would be makes it all the more impressive that her specialty for this stage of her career was comedy. Emerson did not regularly work in films until the late 40s, first making her mark with a powerful performance as a crafty and murderous masseuse in Robert Siodmark's superb and unjustly overlooked film noir, "Cry of the City" (1948). After appearing in several other noteworthy noirs (e.g., "House of Strangers" and "Thieves' Highway", both 1949), she first really scored in film comedy as an hilarious circus strongwoman, tossing attorney Spencer Tracy about a courtroom in the fine battle-of-the-sexes romance, "Adam's Rib" (1949). Emerson reached another screen peak with her controlled, simmering yet terrifying performance as a sadistic prison matron in the cult classic, "Caged" (1950), which earned her an Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actress. As in "Cry of the City" and several other films, her roles did carry stereotypical lesbian connotations based on what was perceived as her "mannish" assertiveness and strength, but to her immense credit, Emerson neither avoided such suggestions nor did she indulge them to the point of caricature.
The 50s gradually represented a bit of a decline for Emerson in features, partly because of standardized casting in routine films ("Double Crossbones" 1951, as pirate Ann Bonney; "The Lady Wants Mink" 1953; "The Guns of Fort Petticoat" 1957) but also because of her considerable work in TV during that time. One remaining standout, though, was William Wellman's splendidly entertaining and remarkably pro-feminist Western, "Westward the Women" (1951), with Emerson excellent as one of a diverse group of women making an arduous cross-country journey to join their future husbands. She also seemed to be having a good time as an Italian duchess in a typical Bob Hope farce, "Casanova's Big Night" (1954).
On TV, Emerson appeared as one of the panelists on an early game show, "Quizzing the News" (ABC, 1948-49) and as Maw Shufflebottom, hillbilly host of the variety series, "Kobb's Corner" (CBS, 1948-49). One of her best remembered TV stints came as Minerva, fellow mischief maker and friendly neighbor to a scatterbrained Joan Davis in the first season of the hit sitcom, "I Married Joan" (NBC, 1952-53). Another sitcom Emerson tried at the same time, "Doc Corkle" (NBC, 1952), however, lasted less than a month. Guest appearances kept Emerson busy until she won an Emmy nomination for playing savvy night club owner 'Mother' for the first season of NBC's slick detective drama, "Peter Gunn" (1958-59). She left the series, though, and moved on to playing the hero's housekeeper, Sarge, on another sitcom "The Dennis O'Keefe Show" (CBS, 1959-60) just before her death.