Singer and comedienne Ann Sothern turned heads and amused audiences via her ability to deliver sharp dialogue with verve and comedic bite. After appearances in Broadway musicals, Sothern earned her keep in B-movies, but finally hit her stride as a contract player at MGM, where she toplined the company's popular series of "Maisie" pictures. Although Sothern eventually tired of playing the brassy Brooklyn showgirl, audiences loved her in the role, and the actress also impressed with her turn in the critically acclaimed "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949). Upon hitting her forties, Sothern found fewer motion pictures opportunities, but her popularity was reignited with the sitcoms "Private Secretary" (CBS, 1953-57) and "The Ann Sothern Show" (CBS, 1958-1961), which earned Sothern several Emmy nominations. Her movie and television work slowed down in the decade that followed and an unfortunate accident during the 1970s gave Sothern back issues that rendered her unable to act for an extended period. She did manage to step before the cameras again, but unlike many veteran performers who end their career on a depressing note, Sothern exited the business with Lindsay Anderson's widely praised "The Whales of August" (1987), which earned her a long overdue Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Widely respected by both audiences and her peers for the sharp comedic ability she displayed for years in film and on television, Sothern earned her place in both mediums and enjoyed a solid and loyal fan base right up to the end of her life.
Born Harriette Arlene Lake on Jan. 22, 1909 in Valley City, ND, Sothern's formative years were spent in Minneapolis, MN under the care of her opera singer mother, who was forced to raise three daughters largely on her own. Sothern attended Minneapolis Central High School and the University of Washington, and eventually made her way out to California, where she was employed by Warner Brothers as a vocal coach and had uncredited appearances in silent features like "Broadway Nights" (1927). A natural redhead, Sothern switched to blonde locks and stayed with that look throughout her career. After some inconsequential parts, Sothern decided to head east and made her Broadway bow in the musical "Smiles" (1930-31), which was followed by "America's Sweetheart" (1931), "Everybody's Welcome" (1931-32), and the George Gershwin effort "Of Thee I Sing" (1933). With her bubbly personality and good looks, Sothern's next few film roles were as chorus girls in comedies, with her first noteworthy assignment coming opposite Edmund Lowe in the musical romance "Let's Fall in Love" (1933). Now under contract to Columbia Pictures, she also appeared opposite Eddie Cantor and Ethel Merman in "Kid Millions" (1934), but quickly dipped into B-features like the memorably titled, but otherwise forgettable "Hell-Ship Morgan" (1936). That year, she wed her first husband, actor Roger Pryor, who played leads in mostly minor movies and was nicknamed "the poor man's Clark Gable."
Sothern appeared in similar, second-tier efforts for RKO, but in the wake of her strong performance in the drama "Trade Winds" (1938), MGM added the actress to their talent roster and assigned Sothern the motion picture role for which she would be best remembered: sassy, loveable Brooklyn chorus girl "Maisie" (1939). While the studio concentrated their big name talent and resources on prestige productions like "Gone with the Wind" (1939) and "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), they also made a great deal of money by creating a whole series of "Maisie" outings. Limited in both scope and ambition, the films were nonetheless enjoyable, thanks to Sothern's energy and comedic talent. In between these projects, the actress also graced Busby Berkeley's comic mystery "Fast and Furious" (1939), the offbeat gangster farce "Brother Orchid" (1940), and the army nurse drama "Cry 'Havoc'" (1943). Sothern and Pryor called it quits in 1943 and less than a week after the divorce was finalized, she walked down the aisle with fellow MGM player Robert Sterling. The couple had a daughter together during their marriage, which ended six years later.
The popularity of the "Maisie" series also launched a radio career for Sothern, and she took the character to that medium with the program "The Adventures of Maisie" (CBS, 1945-47). "Undercover Maisie" (1947) was the 10th and final feature, a relief to Sothern, though she continued on with the radio version (syndication/Mutual, 1949-1953) for a few more years. The critically lauded "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) cast Sothern, Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell as friends who must figure out which one of their husbands has been unfaithful and was a major hit with critics and fans. As a successful writer for radio soap operas, Sothern was nicely paired with rising star Kirk Douglas. While her performance in the dramatic film was praised, parts of similar quality were not immediately forthcoming, so Sothern accepted a return trip to the Great White Way in the cast of "Faithfully Yours" (1951). Unfortunately, the play closed after 68 performances.
Looking to expand her career possibilities, Sothern decided to headline her own television sitcom, "Private Secretary" (CBS, 1953-57). Following the example set by old friend and fellow RKO veteran Lucille Ball, Sothern co-produced the program herself and had it shot on 35mm, rather than broadcast live and preserved on sub-par kinescopes. The popular Emmy-nominated production ran four seasons, but came to a premature end when Sothern quarreled with her business partner. She rebounded with a new endeavor, "The Ann Sothern Show" (CBS, 1958-1961), once again having a financial stake in the project and also helping to compose the theme song. It won a Golden Globe for Best New Television Show and had a healthy three-year run. In between her TV duties, she also found time to headline a Las Vegas nightclub act.
Sothern received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 and returned to the big screen via a supporting part in the political comedy-drama "The Best Man" (1964), her first film in more than a decade, while the campy thriller "Lady in a Cage" (1964) provided one of her darkest characterizations. She also resumed series television with the infamous "My Mother the Car" (NBC, 1965-66) as the title character - a woman reincarnated as a 1928 Porter automobile. She provided the wisecracking vehicle's voice, while Jerry Van Dyke played her harried son who must keep mother away from evil antique car collector Captain Manzini (Avery Schreiber). If the premise sounded positively surreal, the results were simply stultifying. Critics had a royal time panning the show, which sputtered and died by the side of the road after one season. The program's reputation as an utter fiasco persisted for decades and in 2002, TV Guidebranded it the second worst television show in the history of the medium. On a much more positive note that same season, Sothern reunited with Ball by guesting in seven episodes of "The Lucy Show" (CBS, 1962-68) as Rosie Harrigan, the Countess Framboise.
Aside from some stage engagements, Sothern worked intermittently on television during the late 1960s and early '70s and appeared in a few more feature films. She had one of her more colorful latter day parts in "The Killing Kind" (1973) as the deranged, doting mother of a young and thoroughly unhinged ex-con (John Savage). Unfortunately, the effective, often perversely entertaining Curtis Harrington thriller received almost no distribution, while neither "Golden Needles" (1974) nor "Crazy Mama" (1975) gave Sothern much of interest to do. While performing in the play "Everybody Loves Opal," she was badly hurt when a large prop tree fell on her. Sothern insisted on finishing for the night, but the back injury left the actress in need of hospitalization and she spent the next few years in a back brace dealing with recurring pain. Even upon recovering, she required a cane to be ambulatory and tired easily. Already in her sixties and not in the best physical shape, Sothern gained even more weight during her extended convalescence.
Eager to resume her career, Sothern graced the amusingly absurd horror thriller "The Manitou" (1978) and played Ma Finney in a made-for-television remake of "A Letter to Three Wives" (NBC, 1985). She took her final bow in Lindsay Anderson's "The Whales of August" (1987) opposite fellow Golden Age veterans Bette Davis, Lillian Gish and Vincent Price. In an inspired bit of casting, Sothern's 42-year-old daughter, Tisha Sterling, an established actress with many TV credits to her name, played a younger version of her character in flashbacks. The film received many accolades, including a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for Sothern, who spent her final years out of the limelight in Ketchum, ID. She died from heart failure on March 15, 2001.
By John Charles