Evelyn Varden: A Forgotten Actress in an Unforgettable Role

hunter1My day job at Facets Multi-Media in Chicago has recently turned into a night shift. We are currently experimenting with a midnight movie series. Dubbed Night School, our series combines the late-night movie idea with Facets’ film education efforts.  Each Saturday night, a Facets employee presents a film of their choosing with a 20-minute introduction. After the film, everyone sticks around for a Q&A. At first I was surprised that anyone would be willing  to stay around at 2:00 a.m. to participate in a film discussion, but cinephiles are a dedicated lot, and so far, the series has been a moderate success.

This past weekend, it was my turn to present a movie, and I chose The Night of the Hunter. Its creepy subject matter and eccentric vibe made it a solid choice for a midnight movie while its haunting expressionist imagery and powerful performance by Robert Mitchum gave me a lot to talk about in the introduction.  I have seen The Night of the Hunter many times before, yet each new viewing reveals another interesting aspect or detail that I had not noticed before. This time around, I was intrigued by the performance of Evelyn Varden as Icey Spoon, the character who owns the local ice cream parlor with husband Walt, played by Don Beddoe.

                Most film fans have seen The Night of the Hunter, because it has reached mythic status. Based on the novel by West Virginia native Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter offers the fairy-tale story of Preacher Harry Powell, who uses his identity as a man of God to hide his penchant for marrying well-to-do widows and then killing them. The Preacher weds the widow Willa Harper, whose husband Ben was in the state penitentiary in Moundsville with Harry. Harry is determined to find the wad of stolen cash that Ben stashed somewhere around his home. After realizing Willa does not know where the money is, he slits her throat and sends her body to the bottom of the Ohio River, providing the film with its most haunting image — the sight of Willa bound to the seat of an old Model T, her hair floating sideways with the river grass. Harry then discovers that Harper’s two children have the money, and he pursues them relentlessly down the Ohio. 

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                Over the years, Robert Mitchum’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the menacing Harry Powell has dominated discussion of the film, while Lillian Gish’s performance as Rachel Cooper, who is the angelic counterpart to Harry’s devil incarnate, has also been lauded.  Much debate exists over the performances of child actors Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce who give uneven performances as the two Harper offspring. Some contend that director Charles Laughton disliked the children and had difficulty relating to them, accounting for their lop-sided portrayals; others claim that Mitchum had to step in and direct the children’s performances.  Jeffrey Couchman’s new book, The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film, maintains that these accounts have been exaggerated. His opinion derives from looking at the outtakes of the film in which Laughton’s voice can be heard directing all the actors, including the children. Between Mitchum’s stellar performance and the debate over the child actors, the performances by the rest of the cast tend to get overlooked, including those by Shelley Winters, James Gleason, Peter Graves, and Evelyn Varden.

                Not a lot of information is readily available on Evelyn Varden or her career. Born in 1893 in the town of Adair in the Oklahoma Territory, Varden began her acting career in the New York theater in 1910 at age 17. She appeared as part of the original cast of The Nest Egg in November of that year. Over the next three decades, she played diverse roles in a variety of plays, from original comedies such as Russet Mantle to revivals of classics such as Balzac’s The Honor of the Family. Her best known theatrical role was as Mrs. Gibbs in the original Broadway production of Our Town in 1938, a role that she revived for a brief period six years later. During her years as a stage actress, she paid the bills with radio work,  often performing excerpts from the plays in which she was appearing. In 1951, she was cast as the nurse in a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet featuring Olivia de Havilland in the title role. (See YouTube clip below.) That year, she and De Havilland performed a scene on the NBC radio variety program The Big Show.  Varden was also a regular cast member for several years on the radio soap opera Young Doctor Malone, playing the good doctor’s mother.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UP7K1VWyOxs]

                Varden’s radio and stage careers provided her with a wider range of roles than she would find in Hollywood, though undoubtedly her appearances in such films as Pinky, The Bad Seed, and The Night of the Hunter gave her higher visibility and, in retrospect, a kind of immortality.  She made her film debut as Melba Wooley in Pinky in 1949. That film aside, her big-screen career was limited to the 1950s. By the time she became a character actress in film and television, her plump frame and saggy face relegated her to matronly roles, which were sometimes unsympathetic. Noticing Varden this time in The Night of the Hunter, I recalled that I had recently seen her in Phone Call from a Stranger in which she also costarred with Shelley Winters. Varden played Winters’ mother-in-law, a former vaudeville star who performs nightly in her own club. Controlling and overbearing, she resents Winters whom she sees as a competitor for her son’s attention and affection. Varden stands out as a domineering mother-in-law, but she is anything but a stereotype. Though her scenes in the film were limited, her character goes through a profound change. Varden evolves from a matriarch accustomed to controlling her night club and family to a contrite woman who realizes she has handled her family matters badly.   

phonecall

                The Bad Seed features Varden as Aunt Monica, a gullible busybody who spoils and indulges the little blonde girl with the long braids and murderous temperament. A controversial film at the time of release, The Bad Seed may have given the actress her biggest box office success and her highest profile at the time. However, The Night of the Hunter has since become the classic that will introduce her to generations to come.

                Varden’s character, Icey Spoon, bears similarities to her other film roles from her decade on the big screen. A nosy gossipmonger, Icey is so domineering and overbearing that the character borders on caricature, but Varden’s rich performance gives her a disturbing quality that underscores her function as a dangerous influence in Willa Harper’s life — a point brought out by the audience in the Q&A after the film the other night. Icey lives to offer advice to Willa (played by Shelly Winters), and the vulnerable young widow listens attentively to every word. Icey does not know nearly as much as she thinks she does, and she is as easily manipulated by the Preacher as Willa is. Icey never wavers in her sense of righteousness and rightness, but her opinions, perspectives, and ideas soon prove deadly to Willa. Taking Icey’s advice, the young woman marries Preacher Harry Powell, which results in her murder at his hand.  When her friend Willa turns up missing, Icey believes Harry Powell’s crocodile tears and far-fetched explanation that his wife ran off with a salesman.

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                But, Icey is more than a pawn in the Preacher’s hand; the characters actually share something in common. Icey and Harry Powell are both sexually repressed, with dangerous consequences. Powell’s repressed urges come out when he murders women with his switchblade knife —  presented as a phallic symbol in the movie.  Icey sublimates her desires by matchmaking for Willa. At the community picnic, Icey holds court over the other women, sharing her repressed views of sex: “When you’ve been married to a man for forty years you know all that [sex] don’t amount to a hill of beans. I’ve been married to my Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there and think about my canning.” In the same conversation, she relates: “A woman’s a fool to marry for that. That’s somethin’ for a man. The Good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that. Not really want it. It’s all just a fake and a pipe dream. ” But, Icey doth protest too much. Clearly smitten with the Preacher, she derives satisfaction from pushing Willa and the Preacher together, and she becomes way too involved in their courtship. At the picnic, after her speech about sex, she steals a look at Harry and Willa that suggests she is envious of their supposed passion.

                At the end of the film, when the Preacher’s true nature is exposed, the townsfolk, including Icey and Walt, work themselves into a mob frenzy. Icey’ s repressed feelings erupt in a rage that is as dark as that of a lover who has been betrayed.

                The film’s producer, Paul Gregory, who had also been Laughton’s partner on various stage productions, selected actors for a project based on their voices. And, the voices of the actors in The Night of the Hunter are unique and distinct  — from Mitchum’s Appalachian accent to James Gleason’s prattle as old Uncle Birdie Steptoe. However, it is Varden who really exhibits a talent for creating character through vocal inflection. Obviously, her background in theater served her well, but I’ll bet it was her work in radio that really proved helpful in this regard. As  Night of the Hunter author Davis Grubb noted in an interview, “She put things in that characterization she should have gotten extra for.”  Varden exaggerates the harshness of her high-pitched voice throughout the film, at times verging on shrill. In addition, she frequently over-enunciates her words, or else she drags them out in an irritating way. For example, she insists that the Preacher come to the “pick-nick,” with the emphasis on the second syllable. At the picnic, she calls out to him in her shrill bray, “Yoo-hoooo! Mis-ter Paow-well.”  Varden steals her scenes even when she doesn’t have any lines. When the Preacher reveals that Willa has run off, Icey coos and purrs like a doting mother while he relates his sad tale of woe.

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                Also like Preacher Harry Powell, Icey has violent tendencies that lie beneath the surface of her matronly façade. During the mob scene at the end of the film, Icey calls for the crowd to lynch Harry Powell. The ugliness of her character is revealed as she viciously snarls, “Lyyynnnch him!  Lyyynnnch him!, drawing out the one-syllable word into three. It is a scene that seems brutal even though we see no actual violence.  

                The very talented but virtually unknown Varden lived only three more years after The Night of the Hunter. She died in July of 1958 after making only 15 feature films. The next time TCM shows The Night of the Hunter, take the opportunity to check out Varden’s performance. Anyone who can hold their own on the screen with Robert Mitchum deserves some recognition.  

McClure, Arthur F., Alfred e. Twomey, and Ken Jones. More Character People. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1984. 

Couchman, Jeffrey. The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film. Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 2009.  

** For those in the Chicago area, please check out the Facets midnight movie series, Night School, which runs every Saturday night throughout June. Future films include Eat the Rich, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, Labyrinth, and Dawn of the Dead.  For more information, check out the Facets website, which is currently under construction but still informative.

0 Response Evelyn Varden: A Forgotten Actress in an Unforgettable Role
Posted By medusamorlock : June 1, 2009 4:20 pm

Wonderful tribute to Varden’s excellence!

She’s a character actress in the best and most complete sense of the word. As a life-long fan of “The Bad Seed”, I’ve loved her Monica Breedlove just forever. Thank goodness Rhoda didn’t get the chance to push her off the roof to inherit those lovebirds she coveted so much! (The movie plays on June 20th on TCM, and “The Night of the Hunter” airs on July 12th — I’ll be watching both!)

The movie series sounds amazing — wish we could all be there enjoying the whole thing!

Great post, Suzi!

Posted By medusamorlock : June 1, 2009 4:20 pm

Wonderful tribute to Varden’s excellence!

She’s a character actress in the best and most complete sense of the word. As a life-long fan of “The Bad Seed”, I’ve loved her Monica Breedlove just forever. Thank goodness Rhoda didn’t get the chance to push her off the roof to inherit those lovebirds she coveted so much! (The movie plays on June 20th on TCM, and “The Night of the Hunter” airs on July 12th — I’ll be watching both!)

The movie series sounds amazing — wish we could all be there enjoying the whole thing!

Great post, Suzi!

Posted By Patricia : June 1, 2009 5:01 pm

We have treasure at our fingertips by being able to focus on such marvelous performances as Varden’s in “The Night of the Hunter”. Thank you for an insightful article.

Posted By Patricia : June 1, 2009 5:01 pm

We have treasure at our fingertips by being able to focus on such marvelous performances as Varden’s in “The Night of the Hunter”. Thank you for an insightful article.

Posted By debbe : June 1, 2009 10:42 pm

a couple of things… one I wish i lived in chicago so icould attend the programs at feacets, and two, excellent post suzidoll. i always learn so many things when I read your post…. even when I think i know something… I find out i dont. wonderful to read about evelyn varden. thanks for a great post.

Posted By debbe : June 1, 2009 10:42 pm

a couple of things… one I wish i lived in chicago so icould attend the programs at feacets, and two, excellent post suzidoll. i always learn so many things when I read your post…. even when I think i know something… I find out i dont. wonderful to read about evelyn varden. thanks for a great post.

Posted By medusamorlock : June 2, 2009 8:42 am

Thinking about Evelyn Varden expressing such dried-up anti-sex sentiments at a picnic made me think about Verna Felton, of a similar age, expressing just the opposite *in* the movie “Picnic” when she’s so taken with the chemistry between Novak and Holden. I don’t think Verna was thinking about canning when she looked at William Holden!

Definitely there were all sorts of views on sexuality in the movies coming out of older women’s mouths! :-)

Posted By medusamorlock : June 2, 2009 8:42 am

Thinking about Evelyn Varden expressing such dried-up anti-sex sentiments at a picnic made me think about Verna Felton, of a similar age, expressing just the opposite *in* the movie “Picnic” when she’s so taken with the chemistry between Novak and Holden. I don’t think Verna was thinking about canning when she looked at William Holden!

Definitely there were all sorts of views on sexuality in the movies coming out of older women’s mouths! :-)

Posted By moirafinnie : June 2, 2009 4:26 pm

What a great post, Suzi. Like Debbe, I wish I lived closer to Chicago sometimes, just to visit Facets at midnight.

To be honest, I could barely watch the screen whenever I see Ms. Varden in a movie. She looks just like my fourth grade teacher, and you don’t want to know the details, believe me, but that broad was scarier than any character Evelyn ever played. The subject of your piece, however, was an actress who had a fantastic capacity for the expression of malignancy and mixed emotions. I enjoyed hearing her very dramatic reading of the Nurse to Olivia’s Juliet in that clip, which really made me pay attention to Varden’s theatrically commanding voice.

Good going, Ms. Doll!

Posted By moirafinnie : June 2, 2009 4:26 pm

What a great post, Suzi. Like Debbe, I wish I lived closer to Chicago sometimes, just to visit Facets at midnight.

To be honest, I could barely watch the screen whenever I see Ms. Varden in a movie. She looks just like my fourth grade teacher, and you don’t want to know the details, believe me, but that broad was scarier than any character Evelyn ever played. The subject of your piece, however, was an actress who had a fantastic capacity for the expression of malignancy and mixed emotions. I enjoyed hearing her very dramatic reading of the Nurse to Olivia’s Juliet in that clip, which really made me pay attention to Varden’s theatrically commanding voice.

Good going, Ms. Doll!

Posted By Alfredo : June 3, 2009 6:44 pm

Ms. Varden was unforgettable in THE BAD SEED, but so were all the women in this very stage-y movie. They were all, I believe, from the original Broadway cast, and they were all playing to the last row of the house. Over the top, but in its own way very wonderful. I always thought Monica Breedlove could be brought down a peg or two, but I never did wish Rhoda would show her how.

Posted By Alfredo : June 3, 2009 6:44 pm

Ms. Varden was unforgettable in THE BAD SEED, but so were all the women in this very stage-y movie. They were all, I believe, from the original Broadway cast, and they were all playing to the last row of the house. Over the top, but in its own way very wonderful. I always thought Monica Breedlove could be brought down a peg or two, but I never did wish Rhoda would show her how.

Posted By Lisa Wright : June 4, 2009 11:46 pm

Not to make you guys jealous or anything, but being a Chicagoan I braved the late hour and enjoyed the film and Suzi’s insights about it. I have seen and enjoyed Night of the Hunter before, but I got SO much more out of it at this viewing (on the big screen, too!) and I have Suzi to thank for it. Maybe Turner could send all the Movie Morlocks on tour to take their fabulous knowledge out on the road? Sponsor some great old films at local theatres around the country?! I remember really digging the Bad Seed, too, so I will definitely have to catch it on the 20th— thanks, Medusa! And thanks, Suzi, for this post as it really fleshed out what was just touched upon in the Q and A. You rock!

Posted By Lisa Wright : June 4, 2009 11:46 pm

Not to make you guys jealous or anything, but being a Chicagoan I braved the late hour and enjoyed the film and Suzi’s insights about it. I have seen and enjoyed Night of the Hunter before, but I got SO much more out of it at this viewing (on the big screen, too!) and I have Suzi to thank for it. Maybe Turner could send all the Movie Morlocks on tour to take their fabulous knowledge out on the road? Sponsor some great old films at local theatres around the country?! I remember really digging the Bad Seed, too, so I will definitely have to catch it on the 20th— thanks, Medusa! And thanks, Suzi, for this post as it really fleshed out what was just touched upon in the Q and A. You rock!

Posted By Jack : June 6, 2009 9:31 pm

Lovely piece! I agree that Varden is amazing in this role though I’ve never seen her in anything else. Night of the Hunter is my single alltime favorite film, although it wasn’t until I saw it in the theater during Film Forum’s United Artists retrospective that I realized quite how badly Ma Spoon wants to get into Harry Powell’s pants. It’s a brilliant work of art that I keep seeing more and more in the more I see it.

Posted By Jack : June 6, 2009 9:31 pm

Lovely piece! I agree that Varden is amazing in this role though I’ve never seen her in anything else. Night of the Hunter is my single alltime favorite film, although it wasn’t until I saw it in the theater during Film Forum’s United Artists retrospective that I realized quite how badly Ma Spoon wants to get into Harry Powell’s pants. It’s a brilliant work of art that I keep seeing more and more in the more I see it.

Posted By John : June 9, 2009 9:15 pm

Another great post, Susan, and more proof of what great talent you have as a writer, teacher and viewer. It would be all too easy to focus on Mitchum, Laughton or the expressionist style in the film. But you’ve written a great piece on a bit player in the movie, and one whose performance certainly was worth writing about.

Posted By John : June 9, 2009 9:15 pm

Another great post, Susan, and more proof of what great talent you have as a writer, teacher and viewer. It would be all too easy to focus on Mitchum, Laughton or the expressionist style in the film. But you’ve written a great piece on a bit player in the movie, and one whose performance certainly was worth writing about.

Posted By Jeff : August 28, 2009 1:59 am

Evelyn Varden is the wonderful kind of character actress that really doesn’t exist anymore – the dumpy “town gossip” type with a scary undercurrent. Try and catch her in “Phone Call from a Stranger.” She certainly looks different than in her other roles; she looks like a tough old Madam with her hair swept up in curls and plays a hard-edged, showbiz type who runs a nightclub… you wouldn’t want to cross her.

Posted By Jeff : August 28, 2009 1:59 am

Evelyn Varden is the wonderful kind of character actress that really doesn’t exist anymore – the dumpy “town gossip” type with a scary undercurrent. Try and catch her in “Phone Call from a Stranger.” She certainly looks different than in her other roles; she looks like a tough old Madam with her hair swept up in curls and plays a hard-edged, showbiz type who runs a nightclub… you wouldn’t want to cross her.

Posted By David H. : February 5, 2010 6:58 pm

The title of your piece, ‘A Forgotten Actress in an Unforgettable Role’, says it all Suzie.
Glad to know that other people notice such things too and feel they should be acknowledged …and you’ve managed to locate a photo of her too. There is no photograph of her on the Radio Times reviews of Night of the Hunter or of The Bad Seed (1956), on IMdB, on Wikipedia, or the film websites Channel 4 Film, Roger Ebert.com, or Rotten Tomatoes.
Loved her portrayeal of Icey Spoon as busy-body chatterbox in the first half, and the drunken mob leader seeking revenge at the end. “Lynch him! Lynch him!”
The film says so much about human nature on many levels.
Bravo!

Posted By David H. : February 5, 2010 6:58 pm

The title of your piece, ‘A Forgotten Actress in an Unforgettable Role’, says it all Suzie.
Glad to know that other people notice such things too and feel they should be acknowledged …and you’ve managed to locate a photo of her too. There is no photograph of her on the Radio Times reviews of Night of the Hunter or of The Bad Seed (1956), on IMdB, on Wikipedia, or the film websites Channel 4 Film, Roger Ebert.com, or Rotten Tomatoes.
Loved her portrayeal of Icey Spoon as busy-body chatterbox in the first half, and the drunken mob leader seeking revenge at the end. “Lynch him! Lynch him!”
The film says so much about human nature on many levels.
Bravo!

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : August 15, 2010 3:13 pm

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