Jane Wyatt had an acting career that spanned over sixty years, from about 1930 in the early days of the Great Depression when she was a college girl-turned-summer stock-apprentice (at the Berkshire Playhouse, I’m pleased to say, in western Massachusetts, my neck of the woods. They’re still with us and they still do great work, one of the treats of the New England summer.)—to when she capped it off with her final television sitcom guest appearance in the early nineties, at about seventy-two years old.
One of the features of Turner Classic Movies that I especially love is those days when they program several films of one star—but particularly when they show the films in chronological order. This allows us to see the development of a career, and in the context of the eras in which the different films were made. The star is a youngster in the morning, and by late afternoon when we're starting supper, he or she might be entering middle age and is now an old friend whom we know very well because we've seen so many sides to this person.
Not too long ago TCM showed a day of Jane Wyatt films. Four in a row, for example, began with We’re Only Human (1935), in which Jane was in her mid-twenties, pairing off with Preston Foster in a cops-and-robbers scenario, she playing a feisty “girl reporter.”
Next, it was Kisses for Breakfast (1941), a silly screwball comedy of mistaken identities, where she plays the owner of a Southern plantation and marries amnesiac playboy-turned hobo, Dennis Morgan, who is also already married to her cousin, Shirley Ross. The improbable scenario was the hallmark of screwball comedy, the last leavings of a more innocent America not yet having to face World War II.
Next, Army Surgeon (1942), a wartime drama that actually takes place during World War I in a flashback where she is a pioneering female surgeon. She must pose as a nurse overseas because there is no place, evidently, for a female army surgeon, but she earns the respect of her grumpy doc-in-charge, played by James Ellison, and is the prize fought over by two men. At the end of the film, we are on a troop ship in World War II, she is older now, gray in her hair, in uniform. Her husband, one of the two old beaus from the previous war, is her fellow surgeon on staff.
Finally, Jane is the sassy wife whose home is turned upside down by an unfaithful husband played by Dick Powell in the noir Pitfall (1948).
Each film shows her at different stages in her development as an actress, and also shows the changes in society occurring not always behind the scenes, but right there on the screen.
Miss Wyatt—who despite being a flippant girl reporter, a spirited bride who beat up Shirley Ross in a raucous wrestling match, got her white nurse’s shoes dirty in the trenches with the doughboys, and played a handful of suburban wives and mothers (we also discussed her work here in Our Very Own- 1950)—was a true blueblood. Her crisp and elegant accent never lets us forget. She is feminine and ladylike, but tough as nails. She was raised in a well-to-do New York family where her father was a Wall Street investor and her mother a drama critic.
Can you imagine going into acting and your mother being a drama critic? You’d have to have guts.
She was descended of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and also of a signatory to the U.S. Constitution, yet she lost her place in the blueblood’s bible: the Social Register, when she went to work as an actress on Broadway, understudying Rose Hobart. Jane married the same year We’re Only Human was released, and enjoyed a happy and long (sixty-five years) marriage until her husband’s passing. Jane Wyatt left us at ninety-six years old in 2006.
We may remember her best in Father Knows Best, the TV sitcom for which she won three Emmy’s in a row, but her adventures as these other characters are a fascinating revelation of just how she fits into different eras, shrugging off not just one role for another, but one decade for another. In a matter of four or five hours we have been time travelers through crucial years of the "American Century."
Next week, we’re going to take a closer look at We’re Only Human and Pitfall. They are two very different roles, very different movies, and very different eras. In both, Jane is charming, plays well off her co-stars, and displays exciting moments of commanding the screen, bringing the action to a halt with the same sureness and guts that made her leave Barnard for the Berkshires, and made her one of those infamous Hollywood liberals to stand up to McCarthyism in Congress.
These chronological rosters of films that TCM presents from time to time are excellent windows on the history of Hollywood and of American pop culture—made somehow more intimate when following the thread of one individual’s meandering career. Though TCM gets high praise from classic film fans for so many reasons, I think the chronological roster is one of the most meaningful and important aspects of TCM's classic film programming. It’s so simple, yet powerful, and I don't think any other retro channel or network has ever done this.
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.
My new syndicated column on classic film is up at http://go60.us/advice-and-more/item/2047-everybody-comes-to-rick-s, or check with your local paper.