Harding, Ann (1902–1981)

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Harding, Ann (1902–1981)

American actress of stage and screen . Born Dorothy Walton Gatley on August 7, 1902, in Fort Sam Houston, Texas; died on September 1, 1981, in Westport, Connecticut (some sources cite place of death as Sherman Oaks, California); youngest of two daughters of Captain George G. (a career army officer) and Elizabeth (Crabbe) Gatley; attended school on Columbia Army Base in Cuba; attended public school in Montclair, New Jersey; graduated from the Baldwin School, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; attended Bryn Mawr College for one year; married Harry Bannister (an actor), on October 22, 1926 (divorced 1932); married Werner Janssen (a symphony conductor), on January 13, 1937 (divorced 1962); children: (first marriage) daughter Jane Bannister .

Selected theater:

New York debut as Madeline Morton in Inheritors (Provincetown Players, Greenwich Village, March 21, 1921); Broadway debut as Phyllis Weston in Like a King (39th Street Theatre, New York City, October 3, 1921); Letitia Tevis in Tarnish(Belmont Theatre, New York City, 1923); Marie Millais in Stolen Fruit (Eltinge Theatre, New York City, 1925); Anna Schweiger in Schweiger (Mansfield Theatre, New York City, 1926); Marie-Ange in A Woman Disputed (Forrest Theatre, New York City, 1926); Mary Dugan in The Trial of Mary Dugan (National Theatre, New York City, 1927); toured as Nina Leeds in Strange Interlude (1929); London debut in title role in Candida (Globe Theatre, 1937); toured as Ann Murray in Yes, My Darling Daughter (1949); succeeded Ruth Hussey as Agatha Reed in Goodbye My Fancy (Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, 1949); succeeded Hortense Alden in the double-bill Garden District, appearing as Grace Lancaster in Something Unspoken and as Mrs. Venable in Suddenly Last Summer (York Playhouse, New York City, 1958); toured as the Mother in September Tide (1958); Rena Seeger in General Seeger (Lyceum Theatre, New York City, 1962); toured as Miss Moffatt in The Corn Is Green (West Coast, 1963); Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (West Coast, 1963); Myra Holliday in Abraham Cochrane (Belasco Theatre, New York City, 1964).


Paris Bound (1929); Her Private Affair (1929); Condemned (1929); Holiday (1930); The Girl of the Golden West (1930); East Lynne (1931); Devotion (1931); Prestige (1932); Westward Passage (1932); The Conquerors (1932); The Animal Kingdom (1932); When Ladies Meet (1933); Double Harness (1933); The Right to Romance (1933); Gallant Lady (1934); The Life of Vergie Winters (1934); The Fountain (1934); Biography of a Bachelor Girl (1935); Enchanted April (1935); The Flame Within (1935); Peter Ibbetson (1935); The Lady Consents (1936); The Witness Chair (1936); Love From a Stranger (1937); Eyes in the Night (1942); Mission to Moscow (1943); The North Star (Armored Attack, 1943); Janie (1944); Nine Girls (1944); Those Endearing Young Charms (1945); Janie Gets Married (1946); It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947); Christmas Eve (1947); Two Weeks With Love (1950); The Magnificent Yankee (1951); The Unknown Man (1951); The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956); I've Lived Before (1956); Strange Intruder (1956).

Known for her blonde elegance and aristocratic manner, Ann Harding was a first-rate actress who made a substantial reputation on stage before beginning her film career. The daughter of a career army officer, she spent her childhood moving from one military base to another. While at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, she made her first stage appearance as Macduff in a school production of Macbeth, directed by Maud Durbin Skinner , wife of actor Otis Skinner, whose daughter Cornelia Otis Skinner was playing Lady Macbeth. After appearing in another school play, Harding set her sights on an acting career, a goal that did not sit well with her father. After high school, she attended Bryn Mawr College for one year, but left to move with her family to New York, where she worked as an insurance clerk and free-lanced as a script reader for the Famous-Players-Lasky Company.

Through friends, Harding made her way to the Provincetown Players (then located in Greenwich Village), where she auditioned and landed the role of Madeline Morton in Susan Glaspell 's play The Inheritors (1921). That year, she chose the stage name Ann Harding, an appellation she claims was picked out of the air, though the recent election of Warren G. Harding may have been influential. The play received such good reviews that it was extended beyond the usual two-week run. Harding made her Broadway debut later that year in an ill-fated play Like a King, after which her father, certain that his daughter was on the inevitable road to ruin, disowned her. Steadfast in her career choice, Harding refined her craft with several stock companies and on Broadway in Gilbert Emery's Tarnish (1923) and an unpleasant little drama called Schweiger (1926).

In 1926, she married actor Harry Bannister, an established leading man whom she met while with a stock company in Detroit. After a brief honeymoon, she opened in The Trial of Mary Dugan, which enjoyed a legendary run of 310 performances. In 1928, during a five-month summer vacation from the play, Harding gave birth to a daughter, Jane, then resumed her role. In 1929, the family moved to California where Bannister was appearing in Strange Interlude. That year, Harding signed her first movie contract with Pathé, which later merged with RKO. After her first three films, she was headed for stardom. For her leading role in Holiday (1930), playing a rich girl in love with a poor man, she received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. Her screen image—seemingly aloof, intelligent, and well-bred—mesmerized audiences and made her one of the top ten money-making stars of the early 1930s.

In 1932, Harding's popularity dipped somewhat when she divorced her husband and the studio canceled one of her projects. However, she was soon on track again, playing a vulnerable divorcée in Westward Passage (1932) opposite Laurence Olivier, who later commented, "It was unbelievable for a star of her reputation to be so nice." Co-starring with Richard Dix in The Conquerors (1932), an epic picture about a late 18th-century family, Harding won accolades from the critics. Picturegoer wrote: "Although she does not share the glare of the big lights to the same extent as Garbo, Dietrich and Tallulah, she is certainly their equal in acting talent." Harding's next two films were former stage hits: Philip Barry's The Animal Kingdom, which was one of the best movies of 1932, and the first film version of Rachel Crothers ' play When Ladies Meet (1933). Although Harding was now at the peak of her film career, there were constant disagreements with RKO over the quality of her roles and the constraints regarding stage work. She had to pass up a starring role in the Theatre Guild's production of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, which she considered the major tragedy in her career. Amid rumors that she might retire, Harding signed a new contract which took her through a series of soapy films, including The Right to Romance (1933), Gallant Lady (1934), The Life of Vergie Winters (1934), and The Fountain (1934). She was then miscast in MGM's Biography of a Bachelor Girl (1935) but fared better with Paramount in Peter Ibbetson (1935), which many believe contains her best screen performance, though it was a box-office dud. After the failure of The Witness Chair (1936), RKO did not renew Harding's contract.

Surviving a nasty court battle with her former husband over custody of their daughter (during which Bannister won additional visitation rights), Harding went to Britain and made Love From a Stranger (1937), in which she was deemed wonderful as the victim of sinister husband, Basil Rathbone. That year, she also made her London stage debut in the first West End production of Candida. George Bernard Shaw, who attended one of the rehearsals, called her the best Candida he had ever seen. She also surprised everyone with a second marriage to orchestra conductor Werner Janssen. (They went through a bitter divorce in 1962, after which Janssen returned to Germany.)

Harding returned to Hollywood intending to play Mrs. Miniver for Louis B. Mayer, but the role ultimately went to Greer Garson . She made some B movies before embarking on a series of "mother" roles in Janie (1944), Those Endearing Young Charms (1945), and Janie Gets Married (1946). Although she was as charming and capable as ever, her film career never revived, and she returned to the theater, touring in Yes, My Darling Daughter (1949) and replacing Ruth Hussey as Agatha Reed in Goodbye, My Fancy, on Broadway. In 1950, she

played Fanny Bowditch Holmes in MGM's The Magnificent Yankee, the story of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., which won her co-star Louis Calhern an Oscar nomination, but was seriously flawed in its historical representation of the Supreme Court justice. Harding made her last three films in 1956, after which she began acting on television with regularity. In 1958, she appeared off-Broadway in a Tennessee Williams' double bill entitled Garden District (playing Grace Lancaster in Something Unspoken and Mrs. Venable in Suddenly Last Summer). She made her final Broadway appearances in General Seeger (1962) and Abraham Cochrane (1964), both of which closed after a few performances. Harding then retired to Westport, Connecticut, where she enjoyed her family, a small circle of friends, and her garden. The actress died at home in 1981.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

McGill, Raymond D., ed. Notable Names in the American Theatre. Clifton, NJ: James T. White, 1976.

Ringgold, Gene. "Ann Harding," in Films in Review. March 1972, pp. 129–153.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1995.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Harding, Ann (1902–1981)

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