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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,376


This is the grave of Ann Sothern,

Born in 1909 in Valley City, North Dakota, Harriette Lake grew up in Minneapolis. Her father was in the import/export business and her mother a concert singer. Her parents separated when she was young and she lived with her mother, who trained her in piano and voice. She took it to very quickly and was receiving accolades by the time she was 14. She got into acting as well and starred in lots of student plays and other productions in Minneapolis. When her mother moved to Los Angeles to work for Warner Brothers as a voice coach, Sothern decided to live with her father, now in Seattle, and attended the University of Washington. Probably realizing the Huskies are the most evil team in sports history and not wanting to associate herself with that trash, she dropped out after a year.

Sothern went down to LA, auditioned for a role in The Show of Shows. She got a small part and then a couple of other small parts, but it didn’t seem to lead to much. So she signed with Florenz Ziegfeld and went to New York to work in his Follies. She started to have some significant success on Broadway, but she really wanted to be in Hollywood and went back in 1934. This was when she changed her name, or more specifically Harry Cohn did. But she struggled. She just became one of those actors who are in tons of stuff that are mostly kind of B-level material. She did have success in 1939’s Maisie, though was only cast when Jean Harlow died. This became a series and she starred in ten films with this same character through 1947. I’ve never seen any of these films. There was also a radio show based on the character between 1945 and 1947 that Sothern did. She also starred in Panama Hattie in 1942, which was hated by critics but was popular with the audience. She was in lots of mostly forgotten films, particularly musicals. She certainly had the voice for it. But in 1949, MGM ended her contract. She was done as a movie star.

But this was the rise of TV. And B-level actors could find tons and tons of work on TV, even if the writing was terrible. Sothern became one of these actors. She was the lead in the show Private Secretary. I have never even heard of this show–no Nick at Night for these re-runs. But it was very popular and she was nominated for an Emmy four times. But she left in a terrible mess due to a fight over the money with the show’s producer, including lawsuits and all of that. She was back in TV with The Ann Sothern Show soon after. It struggled at first, but when the show was cast with her other co-stars from Private Secretary, it really took off. It did well until 1961, when CBS placed it opposite of The Untouchables to challenge that show. It lost and the show was cancelled.

Later, Sothern had some good supporting roles in movies, such as 1964’s The Best Man, with Henry Fonda. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe. She was then cast in the horrifically bad TV show My Mother the Car. She spent the next twenty years doing all sorts of supporting roles in TV and movies, ending with the quite excellent The Whales of August, the 1987 vehicle for aging female stars. She played the neighbor of Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. Vincent Price was in this film too. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. I really should watch that again, been a long time.

After this, Sothern decided it wasn’t going to get any better. She had a ranch in Sun Valley and so retired there. She had always embraced the conservative western thing anyway, more than a bit like Ronald Reagan. She also shared Reagan’s politics, so that wasn’t so great. She had married and divorced a couple of actors over the years, first Roger Pryor and then Robert Sterling. Her daughter Tisha Sterling went into the business as well but never had more than minor roles, including playing her mother as a younger character in The Whales of August. The politics got more conservative as she converted to Catholicism in 1952.

Some of the reason for her late life retirement and embrace of religion had to do with her health. Back in the 40s, she had a severe case of hepatitis and later said that being bedridden had made her open to religion. She was seriously injured in 1974 when she was on the road doing a stage production of a play in Jacksonville (now that’s falling from Hollywood heights!). The set wasn’t very safe and a prop tree fell on her, breaking her back. She was lucky to not be paralyzed but she could never move the same way again. She had to walk with a cane the rest of her life. She gained a ton of weight during this period too from the depression and lack of activity. So it was tough for her. One can see why she would want to relax in Idaho.

Sothern died of heart failure in 2001. She was 92 years old.

Ann Sothern is buried in Ketchum Cemetery, Ketchum, Idaho.

If you would like this series to visit some of actors Sothern worked with in The Whales of August, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Bette Davis is in Los Angeles and Lillian Gish in Manhattan. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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