Mary Field was a very good actress, with the
ability to command a scene and entirely lose herself in a character, yet most
of the roles she played were brief, uncredited, and leaves one wondering what
her career might have been like had the Hollywood caste system not been so
This post is part of the11th Annual
What a Character! blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and @Paula_Guthat, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and @Irishjayhawk66, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and @CitizenScreen. Have a look here at the other great blogs on the roster.
Mary Field appeared in over 100 films, along
with several television appearances in a career spanning 46 years before her
retirement in 1963 at 54. Many of her
roles were spinster types: maids, shop clerks, librarians; many were comic,
some were poignant, but all were unique individuals.
The comic man-chasing spinster in The
Great Gildersleeve (1942) who made Gildy’s life a wreck is unrecognizable
from the quiet, concerned adoptive mother who brings her little Dutch-speaking
orphan to see Santa Claus in a moving scene in Miracle on 34th
Street (1947). You would not know
they were the same actress. Unlike many character
actors, I think she is less recognizable because of her ability to play nuanced
She is one of the boarders in Shadows on the
Stairs (1941), a larger-than-life personality who steals scenes. She is perhaps barely noticed in many other
films, but she appeared in greats such as Ball of Fire (1941), Now,
Voyager (1942), and Mrs. Miniver (1942).
Mary Field was what was called a day worker,
someone reliable to plug into a small role at short notice, but seemingly stuck
in that particular orbit of studio system hirelings. Many struggling actors would be, and were,
grateful for a toehold in the industry, but most would find that it also meant
a dead end of not reaching supporting player status on a studio’s roster, let
Yet Mary Field, I think, had the ability, much
like Lionel Barrymore, to be a character actor-star.
My favorite role, so far, is her turn as the
shop clerk in a women’s clothing store in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid
(1948) which we covered here. I’ll quote
from that essay:
The funniest scene in
the movie is when Mr. Powell heads to a women’s clothing store in town to
purchase some sort of top for his mermaid. His befuddled awkwardness
sets the stage for a terrific scene, and he plays the straight man for Mary
Field, whom you’ve probably seen uncredited in a zillion movie walk-on
parts. Here she gets a good role as the primly officious clerk, who
delights in her soliloquy sales pitches to the uncomfortable Mr. Powell. She
sounds like a Banana Republic or J Peterman catalog description gone
She displays a sweater, “Light as a whisper, gay
as a sunbeam, wearing it will be an emotional adventure spangled with the moon
glow of twilight.”
Miss Field continues her merry prattle, “A gay
spectrum of springtime hues—fuchsia, purple almond, banana, marshmallow, peach
dream and licorice!”
Mr. Powell replies, “Would you be good enough to
tell me something?”
Miss Field: “Enchanted.” (I love her
over-the-top playfulness with proper speech.)
Mr. Powell: “Whatever became of
She finds he is going to be trouble, especially
when he wants to know if someone can swim in her sweaters.
“May I ask is the young lady’s prejudice against
swimming in a swimming suit quite deep-seated?” (One of my
all-time favorite lines. I just love her. In a way, her
intonation and enunciation reminds me of a reformed Eliza Doolittle when she is
carefully trying to explain to Freddy Eynsford-Hill that, “Them she lived
with would have killed her for a hat-pin, let alone a
hat.” Her careful stroking of the difficult language as if to tame
Mr. Powell just realizes he could buy his
mermaid a two-piece swimsuit instead of a sweater and she could just wear the
top part. But Miss Field, Saleswoman of the Year, insists they do
not sell half of a bathing suit. She holds one up, “The diaper
model. Provocative, n'est–ce pas?” (She’s
straight-faced, slam-dunk hysterical.)
Here in Top o’ the Morning (1949), she
plays a chambermaid who gets to sing a line or two with Bing Crosby. She played against the greats, and held her
Miss Field’s personal life was something of an
enigma. Reportedly, she was a foundling
left outside the doors of a church as a baby.
She was adopted, and went to school in Westchester, New York. In her late 20s she went to Hollywood. Perhaps there was some stage work in the
interim, but I don’t know. She married,
had children, and evidently, was satisfied in middle age to leave her acting career.
Hat's off to the day workers, and to Mary Field,
who deserved more screen time and a higher notch in the caste system (and the cast).
Check out the other great characters actors
being paid tribute in this 11th Annual What a Character! blogathon here.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Movies in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century and Hollywood Fights Fascism. Her latest book is Christmas in Classic Films. TO JOIN HER READERS' GROUP - follow this link for a free book as a thank-you for joining.