Sothern, Ann (1909–2001)

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Sothern, Ann (1909–2001)

American actress who had a popular television series and was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The Whales of August. Name variations: acted under the name Harriette Lake. Born Harriette Arlene Lake on January 22, 1909, in Valley City, North Dakota; died on March 15, 2001, in Ketchum, Idaho; eldest of three daughters of Walter Lake (an actor) and Annette Yde-Lake (a concert singer); attended the University of Washington; married Roger Pryor (an actor-bandleader), on September 27, 1936 (divorced 1943); married Robert Sterling (an actor), on May 23, 1943 (divorced 1949); children: (second marriage) daughter, Patricia Ann Sterling (an actress).

Selected filmography as Ann Sothern unless otherwise noted: (as Harriette Lake) The Show of Shows (1929); (as Harriette Lake) Hearts in Exile (1929); (as Harriette Lake) Doughboys (1930); (as Harriette Lake) Hold Everything (1930); (as Harriette Lake) Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933); (as Harriette Lake) Footlight Parade (1933); Let's Fall in Love (1934); Melody in Spring (1934); The Party's Over (1934); The Hell Cat (1934); Blind Date (1934); Kid Millions (1934); Folies Bergere (1935); Eight Bells (1935); Hooray for Love (1935); The Girl Friend (1935); Grand Exit (1935); You May Be Next (Panic on the Air, 1936); Hell-Ship Morgan (1936); Don't Gamble with Love (1936); My American Wife (1936); Walking on Air (1936); The Smartest Girl in Town (1936); Dangerous Number (1937); Fifty Roads to Town (1937); Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937); There Goes My Girl (1937); Super Sleuth (1937); There Goes the Groom (1937); Danger—Love at Work (1937); She's Got Everything (1938); Trade Winds (1938); Maisie (1939);Elsa Maxwell 's Hotel for Women (Hotel for Women, 1939); Fast and Furious (1939); Joe and Ethel Turp Call on the President (A Call on the President, 1939); Congo Maisie (1940); Brother Orchid (1940); Gold Rush Maisie (1940); Dulcy (1940); Lady Be Good (1941); Ringside Maisie (1941); Panama Hattie (1942); You John Jones (1942); Three Hearts for Julia (1943); Swing Shift Maisie (The Girl in Overalls, 1943); Thousands Cheer (1943); Cry Havoc (1943); Maisie Goes to Reno (You Can't Do That to Me, 1944); Up Goes Maisie (1946); Undercover Maisie (Undercover Girl, 1947); April Showers (1948); Words and Music (1948); The Judge Steps Out (Indian Summer, 1949); A Letter to Three Wives (1949); Nancy Goes to Rio (1950); Shadow on the Wall (1950); The Blue Gardenia (1953); The Best Man (1964); Lady in a Cage (1964); Sylvia (1965); Chubasco (1967); The Killing Kind (1973); The Golden Needles (1974); Crazy Mama (1975); The Manitou (1978); The Little Dragons (voice only, 1980); The Whales of August (1987).

Remembered as the wisecracking Maisie Ravier in the popular "Maisie" movie series of the 1940s, and for her portrayal of a similarly spunky character on the 1950s television series "Private Secretary," Ann Sothern was a talented actress and singer who, by most accounts, should have attained greater movie stardom than she did. Only very late in her career was she recognized by the film academy, winning an Oscar nomination in 1988 for her supporting role in The Whales of August, which also starred veteran actors Bette Davis, Lillian Gish , and Vincent Price. "She was one of those people who I think was never, ever appreciated in her own time," said Robert Osborne, a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter. "There was nothing she couldn't do."

The eldest of three daughters of Annette Yde-Lake , a concert singer, and Walter Lake, an actor who also held a variety of other jobs, Sothern was born in Valley City, North Dakota, on January 22, 1909. She was christened Harriette Lake, under which she acted until 1934. Her paternal grandfather was Simon Lake, who invented the modern submarine, and her maternal grandfather was Hans Nilson, the noted Danish concert violinist. Because of her mother's career, the family was constantly on the move, and Sothern spent her childhood in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. When the Lakes divorced in 1927, Sothern lived with her father in Seattle while attending the University of Washington. After a year, however, she left school to pursue a career in the movies.

The fact that her mother was working as a vocal coach at Warner Bros. may have helped Sothern secure her first movie role, a bit in the musical revue The Show of Shows (1929). She appeared in two additional films at Warner Bros. before transferring to MGM. The new studio, however, had little more than brief walk-ons for Sothern, so when Florenz Ziegfeld offered her a part in the Broadway show Smiles (1930), she jumped at the opportunity. During the show's tryout in Boston, however, Sothern was dropped from the cast, putting her New York debut on hold. Taking the setback in stride, she secured a role in the Rodgers and Hart musical America's Sweetheart (1931), in which she and Jack Whiting introduced the song "I've Got Five Dollars." Characterized by one reviewer as a "lovely synthesis, one part Ginger Rogers , one part Ethel Merman ," Sothern went on to appear on Broadway in Everybody's Welcome (1931), followed by a seven-month tour in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Of Thee I Sing. In 1933, the actress was set to replace Lois Moran during the Broadway run of the show when the New York theaters closed for the summer due to an unprecedented heat wave; she was once again out of work.

Sothern returned to Hollywood, where in 1934, she signed a long-term contract with Columbia. For the next three years, she played ingenues in a series of assembly-line pictures which did little to advance her career. "I'd trade a 'pretty girl' role any day in the week for that of an old hag, if the hag was a real character," she said at the time. Released by Columbia in 1936, she went over to RKO, where she was cast in a quartet of bland romantic comedies with Gene Raymond: Walking on Air, The Smartest Girl in Town (both 1936), There Goes My Girl (1937), and She's Got Everything (1938). Although occasionally loaned out to other studios, she was still unable to find the kind of challenging roles she desired.

Meanwhile, in September 1936, Sothern had wed actor-bandleader Roger Pryor whom she had met in 1932, while on tour in Of Thee I Sing. "I will never play another sweet leading role on the screen as long as I live," she said as she relinquished her lucrative contract with RKO. Free of film commitments, she traveled with Roger, sometimes performing as a vocalist with his band. But producer Walter Wanger lured Sothern back into films with the role of a dimwitted but warm-hearted stenographer in Trade Winds (1938), for which she received rave notices. Her performance led to the title role in Maisie (1939), that of a plucky Brooklyn chorus girl who Sothern viewed as a refreshing change from the romantic roles of which she had grown so tired. The first Maisie film was enormously popular and spawned nine sequels and a radio version, all of which starred Sothern. While continuing in the Maisie series, she also appeared in other films, including the musical Lady Be Good (1940), in which she introduced the memorable song "The Last Time I Saw Paris," which won an Oscar for Best Song of 1941.

In 1942, Sothern divorced Pryor and married MGM actor Robert Sterling, with whom she had a daughter Patricia Ann in 1944. Although she hoped to leave pictures and devote her time to being a wife and mother, the marriage deteriorated into a series of breakups and reconciliations before ending in divorce in 1949. That year, she also snagged her best dramatic

role to date in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives, with Linda Darnell and Jeanne Crain . She was cast in another dramatic role—a murderer—in Shadow on the Wall (1950), after which she contacted infectious hepatitis and was laid up for two years.

In 1952, with her movie career seemingly over, Sothern turned to television, making her dramatic debut on "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars." Hoping to bring Maisie to television as a series, but unable to procure the rights, Sothern embarked on the comedy series "Private Secretary," creating the Maisie-like character of Susie McNamara, a confirmed busybody who interfered regularly in the life of her long-suffering boss, played by Don Porter. The show was an enormous success, running for four seasons. Along with the sitcom, Sothern appeared on a color special of Lady in the Dark (September 1954) and launched a nightclub act which she debuted in Las Vegas and later took to the Chez Paree in Chicago. When her television series was cancelled in 1957, she moved into a new sitcom, "The Ann Sothern Show." In addition to her busy performing schedule, she was involved in a cattle ranch (run by her father), a music publishing enterprise, and a sewing center in Sun Valley, Idaho, where she had a home. "I leave the house early in the morning and I bring home the bacon late at night and the servants think I'm crazy to work so hard," she replied when asked if she was a workaholic.

In 1961, Sothern moved to New York, where she made a pilot for a television show that did not sell and was involved in another ill-fated musical. In 1964, somewhat older and heavier, she resumed her film career, playing character roles in a number of features, notable among them Lady in a Cage (1964). She also continued to make television appearances, including several on Lucille Ball 's popular "The Lucy Show."

In 1973, while appearing in a dinner theater production in Jacksonville, Florida, Sothern was struck by a piece of scenery, which injured a lumbar vertebra and damaged some nerves in her legs. Although told she would not walk again, the actress recovered enough to get around quite well with the use of a cane. Her career, however, was largely limited to a few B movies, including Crazy Mama (1975), in which she appeared with her daughter, also an actress. She recaptured her former status, however, with her role in The Whales of August (1987), a study of aging, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. That year, she also recorded an album of her own musical compositions. From 1984 on, Sothern made her home in Ketchum, Idaho, where she died on March 15, 2001, at the age of 92.


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

"Obituary," in Boston Globe. March 17, 2001.

Parish, James Robert, and Michael R. Pitts. Hollywood Songsters. NY: Garland, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts