Patricia Collinge, a Broadway actress, and a writer, appeared in her first film in her late 40s and made only a handful of films. She created two of the most interesting supporting roles which illustrate not only her talent, but what must have been an amazing empathy for her characters, and for her audience.
These two roles were Birdie in “The Little Foxes” and Emma Newton in “Shadow of a Doubt.” In the first, her scenes as the gentle Birdie are riveting, especially her confession of alcoholism and her dislike for her abusive husband and smarmy son. She is truly heartbreaking. She could easily be a pathetic character, but she is instead the heart and soul of her family and of the film, though she may be continuously verbally (and sometimes physically) slapped down by rapacious relatives. She originated the role on Broadway. A few other cast members were also brought from the Broadway version to appear in the film. Indeed, the supporting cast is so strong in this film, that even the great Bette Davis is occasionally upstaged by almost everybody.
In “Shadow of a Doubt” her flighty portrayal of Emma Newton first comes off as comedy relief, but then as the audience comes to perceive the visiting Uncle Charlie as a threat to the family, Emma’s chipper motherliness leaves her open to becoming a potential victim. We begin to fear for her when at first we only laughed. Her flightiness takes on a different edge now. Her last scene, showing her brittleness and her sense of loss, not only for her brother but her own girlhood, is quite moving.
I’m not sure if that’s called making the most of a small role, or if it’s just a terrific knack that some supporting actors have of performing as if the story were really about their characters all along.
That’s all for this week. See you on Monday.