Ann Sothern: An Actress Who Paid Her

Ann Sothern was born Harriette Arlene Lake, a natural redhead, in 1909 in North Dakota. An interesting note, her paternal grandfather, Simon Lake, invented the modern submarine and her sister Marion was secretary to Abigail Van Buren of Dear Abby fame. She and her two sisters were raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the age of five, she began taking piano lessons and studied at the McPhail School of Music where her mother was a piano teacher. By 11, she was an accomplished pianist, and she was singing solos in her church choir. At 14 she began taking voice lessons. During her time at the Minneapolis Central High School, she appeared in a variety of productions as actor or director.

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After her graduation, her mother moved to Los Angeles to become a vocal coach for Warner Brothers. Ann moved to Seattle with her father (her parents had divorced earlier) to attend the University of Washington, but she dropped out after her first year. Ann turned back to her singing talent and sang with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra.

While visiting with her mother, she did a screen test for MGM and was signed to a six-month contract. She had a variety of small bit parts but never received that break-out role. After meeting Florenz Ziegfeld at a party, he offered her a role in New York. When MGM chose not to pick up her option, she moved East to work for Ziegfeld. In 1930, she received her Broadway stage debut.

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In 1934, Columbia signed her to a contract. At this time, she changed her name to Ann Sothern and her hair color to blonde; “Ann” was for her mother and “Sothern” for Shakespearean actor E.H. Sothern. She was cast in a bunch of B movies, but, unfortunately, in 1936 her contract was not renewed.

A contract that was made that year was her marriage with Roger Pryor. They divorced in 1942. A week later, she married Robert Sterling with whom she had a daughter; they divorced in 1949.

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At that time, she signed with RKO and again could just not find that perfect role, so she made the full circle, returning to MGM. MGM cast her in her first big-screen feature in 1939 as Maisie Ravier, which led to a series of Maisie films. The film was based on the book Dark Dame by Wilson Collison published in 1935.The property had been bought for Jean Harlow, but she passed away in 1937. In all, there were ten Maisie films. The popularity of the series led to a radio program, “The Adventures of Maisie,” which starred Sothern from 1945-47.

In 1949, Sothern was diagnosed with hepatitis. She contracted it after getting in serum injection during an English stage production. When she became ill, MGM let her go. Sothern suffered with the disease for three years. She was receiving a few supporting roles such as in The Blue Gardenia, but her medical bills were mounting, so she turned to television.

Sothern was offered her own sitcom in 1953. Titled Private Secretary, the show would last five years on CBS before transitioning to The Ann Sothern Show in 1958.

Photo: wikipedia.com

In Private Secretary, she appeared as Susie MacNamara, a secretary working for Peter Sands (Don Porter), a New York City talent agent. The series alternated weeks with The Jack Benny Show. Private Secretary had great ratings, placing in the top ten consistently. Sothern was nominated for an Emmy four years. Sothern had a 42% interest in the show and after the fourth year, she and Jack Chertok, producer, had a major disagreement and she left the show.

Sothern with Jacques Scott–Photo: wikipedia.com

The next year she showed up in The Ann Sothern Show, a very similar sitcom. Now Ann was Katy O’Connor an assistant manager at the Bartley House Hotel. Originally her boss was played by Ernest Truex but after dismal ratings, Don Porter was brought back as James Devery, hotel owner. The show’s ratings picked up significantly and were good until CBS moved the show to Thursday nights against The Untouchables. The show was cancelled in 1961.

Sothern with friend Lucille Ball–Photo: pinterest.com

Sothern returned to film features and made several appearances on Lucille Ball’s the Lucy Show as Countess Framboise. Ball was one of her best friends and called Sothern “the best comedian in the business, bar none.”

Ann was a good business woman. She opened the Ann Sothern Sewing Center in Sun Valley, Idaho, selling fabrics, patterns, and sewing machines in the 1950s. She also bought a cattle ranch in Idaho, A Bar S Cattle Co. In addition, she owned the production companies that produced Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show.

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Ann also continued with her early musical abilities. In the mid-fifties, she starred in a nightclub act in Las Vegas and Chicago. In 1958, she released an album, “Sothern Exposure.”

Jerry Van Dyke and his “mother”–Photo: youtube.com

In 1965, Sothern made a bad career move by signing on to star in the sitcom My Mother the Car with Jerry Van Dyke. Van Dyke played a lawyer who restored a 1928 antique car only to learn that it spoke to him through the radio as his mother. The show somehow lasted one season and has been named one of the worst sitcoms ever.

For the next two decades, Ann worked in both film and television but never had an iconic role. One of the issues she had to deal with during this time was a back injury. During a stock production in Florida, a fake tree fell on her back. She was put in traction and had to wear a back brace. She also developed a case of depression. For the rest of her life, she would suffer from numbness in her feet and need a cane to walk.

In 1987, Sothern had her final role in the film The Whales of August starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. She earned an Oscar nomination for her role.

Retiring to Ketchum, Idaho, Ann enjoyed the rest of her life in retirement and passed away from heart failure in 2001.

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Her long career spanned six decades and like so many early stars, she found work on stage, on radio, in film, and on television. Ann definitely paid her dues, spending more than a decade in Hollywood. If her health had not thrown her a curve, she might have become one of the top stars. What impressed me most was that after more than sixty years in the entertainment industry, she was able to retire to a place she loved and enjoy almost twenty years as part of a community with her favorite activities such as embroidery and outdoor fun.