In an episode of Murder She Wrote, Ann Blyth got to go nuts, stab her husband with scissors, and be accused of murder. It must have been a swell gig. Certainly, it was a deviation from the good girl image we discussed in our last post, here. (As were two murder mystery episodes of Quincy, M.E. that we’ll discuss down the road.) Not that there weren’t opportunities for more wholesome assignments in the 1970s and 1980s for an actress who had more range than her wholesome reputation seemed to indicate, but wholesomeness trailed her like a long shadow.
The makers of Hostess snack cakes made good use of that image in a series of television commercials. Have a look below for these commercials now on YouTube:
There is a collection of Ann Blyth’s Hostess cupcake commercials in the Library of Congress. I don’t know…that just makes me smile. And crave Crumb Cakes.
Becoming a television spokesperson for Hostess may have been only a lark for Ann, especially as it gave her a chance to work with some of her children in front of the camera, but she did have her weather eye out for TV roles, even if she was selective. In an interview with syndicated columnist Vernon Scott in 1976 she remarked,
“Rather than just appear on television for the sake of it, as many do,” she said, “I’d rather wait for things that appeal to me.”
One role she apparently would have liked was a part as Amelia Earhart’s mother in the 1976 NBC-TV movie Amelia, based on the life of aviatrix Amelia Earhart, played by Susan Clark. Miss Blyth was 48 years old at the time, but according to columnist Marilyn Beck, was not chosen because she looked too young to be the mother of a grown daughter. We should all have such a problem. She lost out to Jane Wyatt, then 64 years old, who had once played Ann’s mother in One of Our Own (1950), which we’ll discuss later in the year.
Just before the show opened, in the decade after she lost the role of Amelia Earhart’s mother for looking too young, Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Hawn remarked, interviewing her at the Brown Derby restaurant, “At 57, she verily glowed.”
The Murder She Wrote episode, called “Reflections of the Mind”, was telecast November 2, 1985, the sixth episode of the second season of what would become a long-running and much beloved series, due mainly to the talent and likeability of its star, Angela Lansbury as the intrepid mystery writer, Jessica Fletcher.
The show would be a reunion of sorts: between Ann and Martin Milner, who played the sheriff in this episode who accuses her of murder, and who appeared with Ann in the above-mentioned One of Our Own as her sister’s boyfriend.
Ann, 17 years old, had been nominated for Mildred Pierce, which we discussed here. Miss Lansbury, 20 years old, was nominated for The Picture of Dorian Gray. Both lost out to veteran actress Anne Revere.
A fond and teasing reference to their earlier careers must be the framed photograph we see at the very beginning of the episode of a young Ann and Angela standing together before what appears to be a microphone. The occasion is clearly not the Oscars, but if anyone knows of any radio show they did together, I’d love to know about it. It looks like early 1950s to me. I haven’t been able any to track any information about that photo yet, but I’ll let you know if I do.
This comes from the fun fan blog The Definitive Guide to Murder She Wrote.
Speaking of intriguing images, there’s a large oil painting in one of the rooms of the mansion (the setting of the story is the home of Ann’s character, who is wealthy). The painting depicts a young and glamorous Ann lounging seductively in a chair in a long gown with the figure of a man standing behind her. I’d love to know more about that painting.
The episode starts with a slow pan across family photos, including the pic of Ann and Angela in younger days, and then we see Ann lying on her bed, having nodded off reading one of Jessica Fletcher’s books. Ann plays Francesca Lodge, a really rich lady in Ohio with a grown daughter and a younger second husband. She and Jessica are old pals from days gone by. For those of you familiar with the series, you know that Jessica has friends and family all over the country, all over the world, and they are frequently murdered, have committed murder, or were somewhere on the premises when a murder was committed.
But Ann is, so you know there’s going to be a murder.
Ann is troubled lately with forgetfulness, delusions, and seems to be haunted by images and reminders of her late first husband. She is especially plagued by a music box he had given her years before, that plays unexpectedly by itself. We hear it, too, so perhaps she’s not really nuts, maybe somebody is driving her nuts, “gaslighting” her, as it were.
A manic fit of hysteria is always a good way to start an episode, and we see Ann is in fine form, tearing around the house, staggering down a palatial staircase, and swiping at Ben Murphy like a nervous Zorro. Anyone who can slap Joan Crawford and send her sprawling down a few stairs is certainly going to be pretty handy with a pair of scissors.
Ann is released (because even Jack the Ripper would be released into the custody of Jessica Fletcher), and Jessica bunks at Ann’s house while we settle into story.
Funny how on TV people roused in the middle of the night always look perfect in attractive robes. I’d stagger into the hall, disheveled and far less articulate than Jessica Fletcher in ascertaining the problem at hand. My interrogation would be more like, “Huh? Wha…mmpfh...z-z-z-z-z.”
But I digress.
Ben Murphy runs his wife’s family business, and it turns out his secretary is also his mistress. There’s a lot of suspicious characters around, including that secretary; Ann’s grown daughter who is a former drug user and runaway; a creepy gardener who keeps peering into windows; and the family doctor with the in-your-face manner of a creepy child’s party clown. The aloof housekeeper played by Esther Rolle also seems suspicious—I still don’t get how the switcheroo with the dead canary could be done so quickly.
I love Martin Milner. He’s been on Murder She Wrote a handful of times as different characters. The innocent open-faced boy we saw in Life with Father (1947) here, and I Want You (1951) which we discussed here, grew into a frank and confident and no-nonsense guy you’d want on your side. You can almost smell the Old Spice.
Ann Blyth here is fragile, high strung, at the breaking point. Regrettably, the climax occurs when she is out of the room. Our last image of her is back in the psychiatric ward screaming at that weird doctor.
It’s the last time we saw her play a character on television. Only in her late fifties, she seems too young not to have done more TV, but it had already been an over 50-year career for this woman who started as a child of six. Nor was the career over, for there would be more live appearances on stage doing what she started out doing as a six-year-old child: singing.
We’ll take that up another time. Come back next Thursday when we jump back to 1948 and one of Ann’s finest performances as a dramatic actress, playing the sultry and devious young Regina in Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest.
*******************The Definitive Guide to Murder She Wrote blog.
Karr Collection Television Commercials, Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/rr/mopic/findaid/karr/karr16.html
Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1985, article by Jack Hawn.
The Milwaukee Journal, January 27, 1976, syndicated article by Vernon Scott p. GS1, also April 12, 1976, syndicated article by Marilyn Beck, p. 3.UPDATE: This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -
"Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings
"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey
"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films
"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''
"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood
Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.
by Jacqueline T. Lynch
The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.
The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer. You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.
If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.