I developed a boyhood crush on Gale Sondergaard after seeing her one night on TV in an old film called Anthony Adverse.
Humor columnist Eric Nicol once wrote that there is nothing sadder than falling in love with a Late Movie queen. I can relate.
Ms. Sondergaard won an Academy Award in 1936 for Best Supporting Actress for Anthony Adverse. She was also an Oscar nominee in the same category ten years later for her role in Anna and the Queen of Siam. As far as I am concerned she should have nominated for The Letter as well. (Ms. Sondergaard is pictured below in a production still from the 1940 film.)
Recently I watched The Spider Woman, one of those old Sherlock Holmes flicks with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (that’s right, I got it at the library.)
In this 1944 low budget thriller, Sherlock matches wits with “a female Moriarty” whom he suspects of murdering several well-heeled Londoners.
During the Forties Ms. Sondergaard was the go-to gal when it came to casting female characters who were, to borrow a quote from her page on imdb.com , “sly, manipulative, dangerously cunning and sinister”.
She even manages to inject an air of subtle menace in a Bob Hope comedy like 1939’s The Cat and the Canary, as demonstrated in the promo pic below. (Ms. Sondergaard appears with Paulette Goddard, Hope’s co-star in the film. Apparently, during the photo session, Bob Hope mooned them … Okay, I’m joking.)
Unfortunately, during the 1950s, Ms. Sondergaard became a victim of a real-life menace more remorseless than any character she ever played onscreen. Her husband, Hollywood director Herbert Biberman, was accused of being a communist by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) as part of what is widely referred today as the McCarthy Witch Hunts, an infamous investigation into Soviet influences in the entertainment industry led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.
When Ms. Sondergaard refused to play house with HUAC she was blacklisted along with her husband and did not appear onscreen again for 20 years.
“I feel no bitterness,” she is quoted as saying. “If you allow yourself to grow bitter, you only hurt yourself … I am proud to have taken a stand.”
Unlike modern kick-axe film heroines of mine Ms. Sondergaard did not have to kick down doors or fire a pistol to get a man’s attention. All she needed was a flirtatious look and a whisper in the ear to lure him to his doom. And that smile! I’m convinced Gloria Swanson borrowed it to play Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. (Anyone who has seen the 1950 film classic knows Ms. Desmond was manipulative and cunning in her own right.)
Ms. Sondergaard eventually returned to the screen but, needless to say, her career was never the same. She passed away in 1985, two years after her last film appearance in a 1983 horror film called Echoes.
Decades later I am still drawn like a moth to a flame to any film with her name in the credits.
My lasting image is her final scene in The Spider Woman. Arm in arm with the bumbling Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) she is laughing gaily, fully confident in her feminine wiles and razor-sharp intelligence. This is a woman who knows she will not be in custody long.
(Sure enough, there is a 1946 feature in Ms. Sondergaard’s filmography called The Spider Woman Strikes Back.)