Posted by medusamorlock on August 3, 2008
There’s one member of the frequently annoying species known as child actor that I’m gaga over, one little kid I just can’t get enough of. It’s young Edna May Wonacott, who co-stars as Ann Newton in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, from 1943. Reportedly director Hitchcock’s favorite film of his own, SoaD has been written about several times by fellow Morlocks but we haven’t said enough about Miss Wonacott’s terrific performance. As the pigtailed, bespectacled, and serious-minded Ann, younger sister to star Teresa Wright’s Charlie (namesake of the secretly evil Uncle Charlie — the amazing Joseph Cotten – who comes to visit), Wonacott is earnest, intelligent, and quite amusing as the family’s resident budding young intellectual with her nose forever buried in a book.
We are introduced to Ann as she’s engrossed in reading Ivanhoe, and gets interrupted by a phone call for her mother. She’s polite, to be sure, but slightly annoyed at being taken away from her book — which she continues to read throughout the call — and when the caller wants to leave a message Ann looks for a pencil with one fleeting glance and when she can’t find one manages to wiggle out of taking the information down. She’s given a lot of character build-up in this sequence, which continues when her father, played by Henry Travers, comes home from work at the local bank with a copy of Unsolved Crimes magazine tucked under his arm. Ann chides him for his choice of reading material and can’t be pried away from that book of hers.
She’s plenty amusing when her mother finally comes in and rings up the telegraph office to get her message. Noting how her mother has raised her voice to talk into the receiver to conquer the distance, Ann is dismayed. “She makes no allowance for science,” she critiques, so much the modern kid with a better grasp of technology than her parents. (Not much has changed very much in society over the last 65 years, has it?)
The character of Ann Newton may be kind of the typical precocious kid sister, but nobody does it better than she does. I think what makes her so appealing and effective is that there’s none of the cutesy Hollywood-brat in her at all. And how could there be? Director Hitchcock discovered Edna May on the streets of Santa Rosa, California, as he scouted for locations for Shadow of a Doubt. She was the daughter of a local grocer, and though many local Santa Rosans were used as background extras in the film, Edna May was such a find that she ended up with the very major role of Ann, opposite some of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors and actresses. She more than held her own in the company of Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Patricia Collinge as her mother, the aforementioned Travers, MacDonald Carey and Hume Cronyn. (Young Charles Bates played Ann’s little brother Roger; he had already been in several movies by 1943.)
The movie is superb on all levels, but I think it really comes alive when Edna is onscreen, offering that little touch of comic relief, gently applied, but also supplying a refreshing skepticism that pegs Uncle Charlie as someone not to be trusted almost from the very beginning. She’s especially ticked when Uncle Charlie tries to distract her with a bit of trick paper folding; “I’m not a baby,” she explains impatiently to him, and she also is less than thrilled with the stuffed animal toy that he’s brought her as a gift. Ann is quite obviously a misfit in the family, as is Teresa Wright, both of them too smart for their small town and wondering why everybody else isn’t too.
There are a number of other nice scenes with Edna May. Ann and Charlie have to share a room while Uncle is in town, and she gives an amusing rushed bedtime prayer — “God Bless Mama, Papa, Captain Midnight, Veronica Lake and the President of the United States” — before Charlie cautions that she won’t be able to include everybody — and then Ann ends up with a reluctant “And Uncle Charlie” before plopping her head onto the pillow. The inclusion of Captain Midnight and Veronica Lake is hilarious, especially with Ann being such a studious little girl, and Wonacott pulls off the scene like a pro.
Ann Newton also strikes up a friendship with the two detectives masquerading as pollsters who are on the trail of the Merry Widow Murderer, and her repartee with both grown men is charming but without any posing or cutesy cloying artifice. She’s simply a unique little girl, genuinely wise beyond her years, and honestly has it all figured out.
Edna May Wonacott made a few more movies, including a role in Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman’s 1945 The Bells of St. Mary’s, but seems to have given up show business entirely in 1951. Some internet sleuthing led me to happily find out that she’s still alive, and her married name is Edna May Green. I hope that wherever she is she knows how much so many of us love her amazing performance in Shadow of a Doubt. I’m sure many of you have your own favorite child actors, but you’ve got to admit — beyond any shadow of a doubt, Edna May Wonacott was a treasure.
(And an interesting P.S. — The entire film of Shadow of a Doubt is available for viewing or download at the fabulous Internet Archive website. Peruse their other wonderful treats, too — it’s a tremendous resource!)
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