Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ann Sothern, Maisie And Me

Way, way back --1974 to be specific --when I was the young and thin TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator I happened to be in L.A. on the TV Critics Tour and with a day off phoned the great Ann Sothern for an exclusive interview.
The next day she appeared at the Century Plaza for lunch --she drove her own Rolls up to the entrance, a star turn if ever there was one.
But instead of appearing as one of TV's greatest stars there stood before me --a Baby Jane Hudson look alike!
"Relax, she whispered, I'm doing a photo shoot later today for my latest picture The Killing Kind and I'm in character."
We had a grand luncheon and the waitresses all recognized her under her fright wig and potato sack dress which somehow distressed her,
The interview duly appeared in The Spec and the entire Q and A later popped up in the film magazine Fiilmograph.
And now all these decades later I'm re-reading my notes for my latest assignment. An American editor wants me to review the new boxed sets of the Maisie movies starring Sothern togerher with such guests as Red Skelton, Robert Young and Maureen O'Sullivan.
I've just finished watching the complete Part One: the boxed set sports the first five (of 10 titles): Maisie (1939), Congo Maisie (1940) and Gold Rush Maisie (1940) and Ringside Maisie (1941) and Maisie Was A Lady (1941).
The second box will include the last five: Maisie Gets Her Man (1942), Swing Shift Maisie (1943), Maisie Goes To Reno (1944), Up Goes Maisie (1946) and Undercover Maisoe (1947).
When I mentioned that I'd seen most of the Maisie pictures Sothern stopped eating and started frowning.
"I positively hated making those low rent movies," she snapped.
"But they saved your career," I shot back.
"Well, bub, they still collectively stink."
The fact is that back in the movies' heyday every studio had movie series. Warners had Torch Blane movies starring Glenda Farrell.
Universal had Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman features.
At Fox Charlie Chan, Mr. Motto and Michael Shayne programmers were all the rage.
MGM was the leader with The Thin Man films (Bill Powell and Myrna Loy), Tarzan epics with Johnny Weissmuller, Andy Hardy comedies starring Mickey Rooney and Dr. Kildare programmers with Lew Ayres.
In 1939 MGM decided to add Maisie movies based on the book Dark Dame which the studio had bought for Jean Harlow.
When Harlow died and MGM needed a successor and it just happened Ann Sothern was available --she'd been in double bill films since 1934 at Columbia and RKO and was titled "Queen Of the B's".
"God, how I hated that title,"Sothern groaned.
She signed with MGM in a deal that would have her also starring in splashy big budgeted musicals.
Maisie (1939) is an amiable beginning for the series --the Maisie features were designed to run on a double bill and here Sothern was paired with Robert Young and Ruth Hussey.
She plays a Brooklyn showgirl stranded on a dude ranch and the whole thing ran a mere 75 minutes.
MGM quickly ordered a sequel Congo Maisie which was a remake of Red Dust (1932) and was later remade yet again as Mogambo (1953).
"We shot that one in the Tarzan jungle on the back lot," Sothern told me. "At one point I turn to one of the chimps and say 'Go back to the Tarzan pictures, will ya!"
Next up there was Gold Rush Maisie (1940) which Sothern told me she enjoyed making "because little Virginia Weidler was in it and we really got along just fine. "
Ringside Maisie was "a boxing story. Awful. Let's jump that one."
Sothern neglected to mention she met her second husband Robert Sterling on that one --he was years younger but before they split daughter Trish Sterling was born.
In Maisie was A Lady (1941) "the MGM powers thought it would be cute to borrow Lew Ayres from the Dr. Kildfare pictures and Maureen O'Sullivan from the Tarzan pictures. I was stranded as a maid in high society in that one."
In between her Maisie adventures Sothern told me "I did the great (1940) musical Lady Be Good  and in 1942 I made Panama Hattie from the Cole Porter Broadway hit. Why don't you ask me about those."
Sothern says she'd finally had it with Maisie and she went in to see president Louis B. Mayer to ask to be excused. "He took me to the window and showed me the construction of a new soundstage and said it was being paid for by profits from my Maisie pictures. He claimed Congo Maisie had made double the profits of Greta Garbo's Ninotchka."
After finishing with Maisie in 1947 Sothern left MGM and then had her biggest movie hit with A Letter To Three Wives (1949). In 1953 she jumped to CBS-TV as star of two huge sitcoms: Private Secretary (1953-57) and The Ann Sothern Show (1958-61) before settling into a new career as a respected character actress ending with her Oscar nomination for The Whales Of August (1989).
Wish I could give more than **1/2 stars for Box 1 of The Maisie Collection. But all Ann Sothern fans should be overjoyed. And Box 2 is already out in some markets.

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