Posted by Moira Finnie on December 8, 2010
“Looking at [Ann] Harding,” wrote film historian Mick LaSalle in his book, Complicated Women (St. Martin’s, 2001), “is like looking into clear, deep water. Nothing stands in the way. No stylization, no attitude, no posing. In fact, little about her technique could date her as a thirties actress.”
These are some of the words that inspired Scott O’Brien, author of Ann Harding – Cinema’s Gallant Lady (BearManor) in his research into the career and life of actress Ann Harding (1902-1981). For those who met her during the height of her Hollywood career, she left starkly different impressions. Laurence Olivier called her “an angel.” Henry Hathaway said that she “was an absolute bitch.” Myrna Loy found her “a very private person, a wonderful actress completely without star temperament, but withdrawn.” Ann Harding may not be as well-remembered as actresses whose stellar careers extended well beyond the pre-code era, such as Norma Shearer or Barbara Stanwyck. Her natural reserve means that her name does not automatically come up when particularly saucy favorites of the period like Ruth Chatterton, Joan Blondell or Dorothy Mackail are discussed. Powerful icons whose last name conjures something singular, such as Garbo, Dietrich and West, are better remembered. In recent years, in large part because of the rediscovery of her early films on Turner Classic Movies, occasional revivals of her movies and the work done by film historians reassessing the pre-code period, Harding has begun to captivate audiences again. Her lustrous beauty and surprisingly modern style of acting are only part of her appeal.
With the publication earlier this year of Scott O’Brien’s beautifully illustrated and well written biography, a balanced portrait of a skilled actress emerges, as well as some sense of the publicly guarded but privately intense woman behind her fame. Recently, I had a chance to ask the author of this meticulously researched and long overdue biography of Ann Harding about his interest in this unique, transitional figure in American film. Perhaps after reading this post a few more people who have yet to discover her work will pause next time one of her rarely seen films, such as Devotion (1931), The Animal Kingdom (1932), Double Harness (1933), When Ladies Meet (1933), The Flame Within (1935) or Peter Ibbetson (1935) emerges from the movie vault. This often surprisingly modern actress may intrigue and touch you with her presence. You might find yourself unexpectedly enthralled.
Scott O’Brien: As an actress, Ann Harding believed she had, “an obligation to try to preserve the illusion of the profession.” Ann also stated, “Whatever charm and dignity an actor may possess are ruined if delved into too deeply.” Even so, I wanted to know more about her, to write her story, to preserve her legacy. I always found her to be an extraordinary talent. A biography is a vital step in the preservation of an artist’s contribution to the world. Considering her beliefs, it is unlikely that Ann would have cooperated with my endeavor. For what its worth, the biographies I have written on Kay Francis, Virginia Bruce and Ann Harding are about human beings—written with the intention to understand and appreciate their experience—not to sensationalize, or exploit.
Before I began writing her biography, I expected Ann’s personal life to mirror her screen image. As her co-star on stage, actor Robert Brown, pointed out, “Ann was a gentle, creative force.” Ann had stated, “In playing a role, I get to intimately understand another’s point of view. I learn that circumstances may alter cases—and for the time being, to think as another thinks.” For Ann to recognize this ability speaks well of her humanity—on screen and in her professional work. If Ann had applied this “intimate understanding” in her personal life, who knows how things would have turned out? It’s a struggle we all deal with.
Born Dorothy Walton Gatley in San Antonio, Texas in 1902, Ann Harding was the second daughter of a professional soldier, George G. Gatley, a graduate of West Point who became a Brigadier General. In the process of pursuing his military career, Dody (as Dorothy was called), her mother, Elizabeth (Bessie) Crabb Gatley, and her older sister, Edith, followed him to various outposts around the United States and Cuba, eventually settling in the New York City area.
Aside from some impressive efforts by the future actress in the part of MacDuff (complete with kilt, horned helmet and walrus mustache) in a school production of MacBeth and a turn as a Theda Bara-style vamp in another production at school, acting was never openly discussed in the Gatley home as a possible career path. Harding began working in a clerical position for an insurance company after high school, supplementing her income by becoming a script reader for Long Island-based Famous Players-Lasky, (the parent company for Paramount Pictures). At the age of 18, out of restless boredom or a need to break out of the pattern set by her circumstances, Ann followed an impulse toward performing. As she later wrote: “I had to have adventure!”
Harding responded to an ad in 1921 stating “Inexperienced Girl Wanted” that directing interested individuals to the Greenwich Village berth of the influential Provincetown Players. Looking for someone who was “young, spirited, and could convey a sense of midwestern pioneering stock and yellow, sun-drenched cornfields” for a part in a play called Inheritors by Susan Glaspell, the management of the players, especially director Jasper Deeter, were impressed by the grave teenage beauty who arrived at their door. Harding’s Rapunzel-like blonde hair, low, distinct voice, and an unsettling concentration when listening to others persuaded them to add the girl to the cast–despite her lack of professional training and experience. Her debut, under the pseudonym of Ann Harding, a name that Dody Gatley had made up when she was ten years old, was well received. As new opportunities in the theater world opened up for Ann, a break with her past that would set a lifelong pattern for the actress took place.
Q: What were Ann’s feelings about the military atmosphere in which she was raised?
Scott O’Brien: Ann Harding once remarked “Army life is a narrow prison cell for the soul of a woman. She must restrict her thoughts, fold her wings.” Ann grew up to feel that she was at war with her father’s generation. She stated that the traditions of General Gatley and the traditions of ‘the woman of my generation, building new traditions, no longer in bondage,’ were at odds. In the truest sense Ann was rebelling and it was necessary for her growth and fulfillment. Ann’s sister, Edith, recognized a “seething restlessness” in Ann which was assuaged by Ann’s passion for horses. Riding horses, grounded Ann during her late teens. In 1921, while stuck in New York City, Ann’s restlessness became grounded in ‘acting.’
Q: What was the response of Ann Harding’s family to becoming an actress?
Scott O’Brien: Initially it was her father that turned his back on Ann when she decided to go on stage. He told her she had taken the “straight and inevitable road to Hell.” Ann defended her position, left home, and wrote her father saying that she was “a producer and not a consumer of bread that was begrudged her. It is too bad that you have never had a daughter and that I—have never had a father.” A curtain of silence fell between them. “We were exactly alike,” Ann admitted. “That was the trouble.” [Father and daughter would remain estranged until just before the end of her father’s life in 1931, when they reunited at his deathbed at the Presidio in San Francisco.]
Q: While Harding often appearded to disregard the impact of her appearance, (though I think she must have known how lovely she was), and you make it clear that part of the reason for her early success was her singular beauty, particularly her unusually long, white blonde hair. Do you believe that she was aware of the effect of her looks on others?
Scott O’Brien: It’s funny. Ann’s blonde hair was first thing I noticed about her. I was captivated by her looks while watching Devotion in the 60’s. Of course, there was much, much more beneath the surface for me to ponder. Ann Harding carried unusual depth as an actress. I couldn’t forget her. And yes, Ann dealt with her hair issues as best she could. She sent a lock of her famous tresses to Broadway producer Daniel Frohman in 1921 with a note that read, “It is hair, not me, which you seem to want.” Ravings about Ann’s hair haunted her for years. By 1951, Ann lamented that people were “wailing” that she ought to cut it and look more fashionable. “I know how I’d look,” said Ann, “and I’m not cutting my hair for anyone!”
In public, though, Ann was certainly no diva, she never played the “star.” Her face, free of make-up, was virtually unrecognizable on the street, where Ann wore what some columnist referred to as “dollar-day bargain dresses.” “Only the poor and climbing have to dress up to impress,” declared Ann.
Scott O’Brien: In their first play together, Inheritors (1921), Ann balked at her character’s defense of a conscientious objector. “I don’t believe in slackers,” Ann complained to Deeter. He stopped the rehearsal. “Deeter pulled back my blinders as an actress … and as a person,” Ann acknowledged. From that moment on, Ann’s reverence for Deeter and what he stood for—the ability to lay bare a character’s soul, and transport audiences into deeper understanding of the human experience, was her gauge. She measured her theatrical talent and success by what she had learned from her self-declared “Svengali”: Jasper Deeter. I’m sure that Deeter recognized that Ann’s complexity as an individual combined with her ability to subdue her “stubborn temperament” was the key to the humility and talent she brought to her art.
[Though Deeter is a nearly forgotten name today, before he became Ann Harding’s mentor, he had suggested to Eugene ONeill that they cast a black actor in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and break the tradition of using a white actor in blackface. This idea was a real breakthrough for the American Theater. The idealistic Deeter founded The Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, PA, just outside of Philadelphia in 1923 to foster theatrical life that would be based in art rather than the commercial requirements of Broadway. The non-profit repertory company became a touchstone in Harding’s working life. She returned annually to work and recharge there. The Hedgerow, which still is in existence,became the most famous regional theatre company in the US. A famous mix of actors, playwrights, technicians and designers came to learn and study with Jasper Deeter. The stringent standards may not have been practical in commercial theater, but Deeter’s influence reverberated throughout the theatrical world. The playhouse helped to train figures such as actor Richard Basehart and playwright Edward Albee, as well as sustaining Harding’s talent. Note: In 1956, during the company’s financial crisis, Hedgerow players, including Deeter, who plays a civil defense worker, can be seen in the film The Blob (1958)].
Q: Did Ann Harding‘s enjoy her early successes in the theater? Even though Harding received great praise from the critics and the public, she appears to have been, at best, ambivalent about her success. Do you think that Harding enjoyed this period in her life?
Scott O’Brien: I believe she enjoyed the acting, but the grind, being on the road, the lousy living conditions, took its toll on her health. At one point, in 1927 Ann was advised to convalesce at a sanatorium in the Catskills. She did. For several months. It wasn’t an easy task to return to the theatre, but when Ann stepped on stage as the gold-digger in The Trial of Mary Dugan, she had a smash hit on her hands that ran for two seasons. [This highly successful, scandalous play about a rich man's mistress, a former show girl who may have murdered her benefactor, was made into a film by MGM in 1929 starring Norma Shearer. Most observers who had seen both regard the Bayard Veiller's play as the better of the two versions, noting that Harding's intelligent and sympathetic interpretation of the adult material made the experience a dramatic tour de force. Harding is seen in the above photo on stage in this role].
In 1931 Ann stated, “My memories of the theatre are not pleasant. Hard work, constant struggle and study, stuffy hotels, cold, ill health. Though not actively discontented then, I felt no firm ground.” A film career meant having a permanent home, working in a new medium, living in a warm climate, and having a substantial salary. In spite of her memories of “life on stage,” Ann’s real passion was the theatre. She stated that the highlight of her career was a 1936-37 English tour in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida.
Scott O’Brien: Ann stated that her relationship with Harry was simply a matter of “propinquity.” She was managing a summer stock theatre in Detroit. Harry filled in as “leading man” when she needed a replacement. They both loved theatre, saw each other daily and Ann basked in Harry’s sense of humor. Neither thought their marriage would last and were philosophical about it … at first.
In 1929, Harry was on a tour in Strange Interlude, which ended in Los Angeles. Ann took a brief respite from theatre work to enjoy some California sunshine. A friend at Pathe Studios coaxed the couple into doing a screen test. Ann was completely taken back by the lucrative contract they offered her. One could say that Harry, because of his stage tour, was indirectly responsible for Ann’s screen career. Regardless, I think that Ann would have made it to the screen at some point. Valentino had approached her to play opposite him as early as 1924.
Q: Let’s talk about Ann’s film work. I think that I first noticed Ann Harding in the film The Animal Kingdom (1932), which was showing in a beat up, grainy print on public television. Despite this, I was caught up in the film in part because she was a striking woman playing a genteel bohemian artist who was the longtime mistress of a publisher (Leslie Howard). When he marries a more socially acceptable woman (Myrna Loy, in one of her early meanie roles) Howard tells Ann that he wishes to remain friends with her. Her gently rueful character, realizing then how much she actually loved the man, decries her single state with the lines “A foolish virgin me. Oh, foolish anyway.”
She was such a different-looking woman for a movie made in the early 1930s. Her doll-like face and blonde tresses, usually worn caught up in a chignon at the nape of her neck (no Jazz Age bob for her!) also seemed to be in marked contrast to the behavior of her characters in these early movies. Also I loved that her character, Daisy Sage, had some of with Philip Barry‘s best lines, and she delivered them with such a blend of humor and wisdom especially, “For all our big talk, we both still belong to the animal kingdom.” There was something indefinable about her–a quality that I would later hear described aptly in the movie Double Harness (1933) as “coolly virginal yet exquisitely inviting.” Scott, when did you first become aware of Ann Harding as an actress?
Scott O’Brien: I was 14. Devotion (1931) was on TV. I was spellbound by Ann’s natural, un-actressy style. The warmth she generated on screen, and her unique blonde looks captured my attention. A couple of years later I saw Peter Ibbetson (1935) and that nailed it. Ann’s Duchess of Towers in this film was formidable and interesting. The way Ann molded her portrayal allowed her character to soften graciously during her encounters with the mystical and subdued Ibbetson, played by Gary Cooper. This exquisite film has remained my favorite Harding film.
Q: I find the level of romanticism in that movie to be extraordinary, with excellent performances from Gary Cooper, Harding, Ida Lupino and Donald Meek. Yet wasn’t Peter Ibbetson, which was cited by Luis Buñuel and others as a masterpiece of surrealism, a difficult film to shoot?
Scott O’Brien: Director Henry Hathaway (seen below chatting with Gary Cooper while Ann Harding reads), was responsible for what many consider Ann’s best film, Peter Ibbetson. He later bluntly referred to her as “an absolute bitch.” It could well have been a compliment, as Hathaway was a self-declared “bastard.” “To be a good director claimed Hathaway, “you’ve got to be a bastard. I’m a bastard and I know it.” Whatever dynamic fueled the Hathaway-Harding relationship … it worked. As one critic observed, Ann’s performance in Peter Ibbetson was a “complete and attractive revelation of her art.”
While filming Peter Ibbetson Ann complained to Hathaway that she had difficulty relating to Gary Cooper. Director Henry Hathaway explained to her that Cooper’s technique only showed “on film.” “It’s a very strange quality … this man has,” he told her. “I would suggest that you watch yourself and not worry about him.”
Q: For those of us who are still discovering Ann Harding’s work, what movies would you recommend to anyone who has never seen an Ann Harding movie?
Scott O’Brien: In order of preference, not necessarily availability, I would choose the following…
*Ann Harding received an Academy Award nomination for her film performance in Holiday, the first version of Philip Barry’s play. Unfortunately, since the 1938 remake with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, the earlier movie has not been widely screened.
Q: Between 1929 and 1935, Ann co-starred with leading men Fredric March in Paris Bound, Ronald Colman in Condemned, Leslie Howard in Devotion and The Animal Kingdom, Laurence Olivier in Westward Passage, Brian Aherne in The Fountain, William Powell in Double Harness, and Gary Cooper in Peter Ibbetson. Did Ann Harding have a favorite screen partner?
Q: Were there any actors that she preferred to avoid working with again?
Scott O’Brien: Ann had privately referred to her co-star in East Lynne [a 1931 version of the old-fashioned theatrical chestnut that may have hurt Harding's career] , Conrad Nagel, as “an impossible stick,” but she ended up co-starring with him again in the Broadway stage production of Goodbye, My Fancy in 1949. Ann also stated in a letter to her mentor, Jasper Deeter, that John Halliday, who played her husband in Peter Ibbeston, was “one of the world’s many worst actors.”
Q: Among the better directors Ann worked with were Henry Hathaway, William Wellman, and Gregory La Cava. Did she learn much from them or did they challenge her to interpret her roles differently? Did she have a director with whom she established a rapport?
Scott O’Brien: While they did argue, Ann was especially comfortable with director Edward H. Griffith. He was at the helm of her screen debut in Paris Bound (1929) [the early talkie paired Harding with Fredric March in a story that toyed with the notion of an open marriage]. Griffith was also behind camera for her successes in Holiday (1930) and The Animal Kingdom (1932). In October 1933, Ann and Griffith teamed up to get financing for the ill-fated The Sun Also Rises. Even though their work together in Biography of a Bachelor Girl was considered a misfire, Griffith could easily be seen as Ann’s personal favorite.
[While Harding had other suitors, including avante-garde filmmaker Dudley Murphy, who may be best remembered for The Emperor Jones in 1931], but the tall, trim, impertinent Gene Fowler was another story. Ann may have hoped for a life with this “bad boy” although he had been married for years and had three children. According to his son, Ann was the one mistress that Fowler never got out of his system.
[Ann Harding's life off-camera became considerably more complex after 1932, when the tentative relationship between Harding and her largely under-employed actor husband, Harry Bannister, dissolved into a protracted divorce. Harding also became more involved in political and social issues of the time. She found her career at RKO changing as she became typecast in repetitive roles that she find increasingly onerous.]
Q: How did Ann Harding‘s divorce affect her already ambivalent attitude toward stardom? Was she a bit naïve about what it meant to be in the public eye?
Scott O’Brien: The divorce proceedings and the on-going custody battle were devoured by the press from 1932-37. Ann absolutely hated being a celebrity. [She] was naïve about what it meant to be a “movie star” when she signed on with Pathe in 1929. By the time that she left Hollywood in 1936, she later stated that it would take “an earthquake” for her to take on another Hollywood film assignment.
While making her mark in Hollywood, Ann waxed poetic about how “wonderful” Harry was. Reporters got tired of hearing Ann go on about how Harry was sacrificing his career to manage hers. Many felt Harry saw dollar signs when he latched onto Ann. Her success certainly provided him with lots of expensive “man toys” such as airplanes. By 1931, Ann saw through him—recognized his lack of ambition and his limitations as an actor. After their divorce Harry confessed that Ann told him that she had “fallen out of love” with him.
According to Ann Harding’s niece Dorothy (who referred to Ann as “Aunt Dody”) Ann had “a wonderful sense of humor.” When Ann stopped speaking to her sister, Edith Nash MacKenzie (who was Dorothy’s mother), it was a huge disappointment. “The last time I saw Aunt Dody was about 1935 … before she went to England,” Dorothy told said,“It was a wrenching blow, because I was her namesake and she was my godmother. I just had her right up there on a big pedestal. For a little girl it was exciting to have such a beautiful movie star as an aunt. Besides, she was very dear to me. She was very, very sweet. We had a nice relationship.” Ann had also written Jasper Deeter describing how “angelic” Dorothy was.
Q: Though very different in style and substance, Ann seemed to share a similar reserve on film and off with Greta Garbo. Both actresses seemed diffident and hostile to publicity but on-screen each could–with just a look, a sigh, or a quiet word suggest a character’s full inner life. Do you think that it was a conscious decision by Harding to approach her work in the public eye in this manner?
Scott O’Brien: As an actress, Ann Harding believed she had, “an obligation to try to preserve the illusion of the profession.” Ann also stated, “Whatever charm and dignity an actor may possess are ruined if delved into too deeply.”
After her divorce from Harry Bannister, Ann signed on with Garbo’s agent Harry Edington. Edington advised Ann, like he had Garbo, to remain silent and inaccessible to the press. He referred to this approach as “inverse publicity.” Ann made a point of saying that her aloofness was her own idea. “After the divorce,” she stated, “I decided that the only thing to do was not talk about anything.” This “inverse publicity,” which worked for Garbo, backfired on Ann. There was an underlying conspiracy among a select group of New York critics to tailspin Ann’s career (ie., Richard Watts, Jr. New York Herald Tribune.) Ann’s “aloofness” fostered catty comments about her acting. Janet Beecher, who co-starred in Gallant Lady, raved to east coast reporters about how generous and cooperative Ann had been to her. “None of them would print a word of it,” she told Los Angeles columnist Radie Harris. Critics’ “we’ll-fix-her” attitude contributed greatly to Ann’s eventual fall-out in Hollywood.”
Did Ann care? It was very clear that she did not relish being a celebrity. Ann felt it worked against being a true player of the theatrical arts. In 1934, she referred to being a celebrity and the accompanying publicity as: “a disturbing guest.”
Q: After Pathe Studios was merged with RKO, how do you think that Harding‘s contractual ties to that studio affected her career?
Scott O’Brien: After Pathe sold out to RKO, Ann signed a more complex, but lucrative contract. She balked at the contract’s morality clause. “I have to lead a decent life,” she scoffed. “I must work in any picture that my employer wants me to. I could be suspended for this or that.” She signed after a few alterations. Temporary production chief Charles R. Rogers, put Ann in the disaster Prestige (1932). It was so bad that she offered to buy and destroy the negative. When the Broadway lead in Mourning Becomes Electra was offered to Ann by Eugene O’Neill, the new head of RKO productions, David O. Selznick, refused to let her do the play in New York. Ann later complained, “It is a major tragedy of my professional life that I was deprived of that great opportunity.” After her outburst over Prestige Ann conceded that she had decided to become “docile” and do whatever RKO wanted. “I thought they were paying me more than just a face to photograph and a voice to register,” she commented.
As her box-office sagged, RKO had the sense to loan her MGM for the wonderful When Ladies Meet (1932).
Gallant Lady at Fox also boosted Ann’s popularity. The “financially shaky” RKO saw revenues roll in from Gallant Lady. They decided to put Ann in a “follow up,” one of her best pictures, The Life of Vergie Winters (1934), (Harding is seen below with John Boles in the story of a politician’s faithful loyal mistress through the years, a popular plot device in the early ’30s. ). Of all Ann’s RKO films the heart-wrenching The Life of Vergie Winters made the biggest profit, despite being blacklisted by the Catholic Church.
The only other RKO films that made money were: Double Harness (1933) and The Lady Consents (1936). Finding good stories was the real problem for Ann. When RKO bought the rights to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, it was set to be a Selznick production for Ann [as Lady Brett] and Leslie Howard [as Jake]. Censor king Joseph Breen bristled at the idea. Ann would not give in. She spent over $25,000 to buy the rights herself and approached Irving Thalberg at MGM. After learning that the Catholic Legion of Decency noisily planned boycotts, Breen lobbied to have the book banned from the screen forever. The MPA made a unanimous resolution that the film “should not be made at all.” It was cinema’s loss that Ann never realized her ambition to play the twice-divorced, smart, seductive Lady Brett Ashley who refused to commit to any one man.
The only public statement that I came across in reference to Ann’s attitude toward the Production Code office was a comment from 1935. “Censorship is silly,” she argued. “How would newspapers like censorship? The public stays away from offensive films of its own accord.” She had previously stated, “I don’t tread on anyone’s toes, and I don’t crave to dictate morals, manners, and customs. I expect to be free from such supervision myself.”
A few years prior to the establishment of the PCA Ann was guest speaker at the Southern California Daughters of the American Revolution. Ann assured these ladies that she would raise the standards of motion pictures. She had the right (per her contract) to “cut out lines that are objectionable to me.” The organization had established Ann as their “ideal.” When news of Ann and Harry’s divorce hit the fan, these ladies were horrified.
Scott O’Brien: Mediocre films with good performances by Ann: Prestige (1932), Westward Passage (1932), Witness Chair (1936), The North Star (1943). Fair films in which Ann’s eccentric characterizations are decidedly off key: Enchanted April (1935), Christmas Eve (1947). A completely unbearable film: Her Private Affair (1929). [Harding can be seen in a still from her second film, Her Private Affair seen on the right. This is the only film to star Harding and her first husband, Harry Bannister, who is the tall man on the right. While the character that Ann plays is interesting because she looks so sweet but is actually a rather unrepentent adulteress, but once the blackmail begins, the movie creaks rather badly. ]
Q: Did Ann Harding‘s activism in the Screen Actor’s Guild’s efforts to become established in Hollywood and to help others during the worst years of the Great Depression Hollywood affect her career?
Scott O’Brien: Ann’s work on behalf of SAG gained her the respect of fellow actors. She was the first female big-name star to help move the organization forward. Along with James Cagney and Eddie Cantor, Ann helped SAG gain clout and membership. Ann and Cantor caused quite a stir at SAG’s initial protest meeting in the fall of 1933. After their speeches at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theater over 500 actors joined the Guild. Cantor got President Roosevelt involved. Ann opened her home to a Washington official who met with guild members for a secret investigation into unfair studio controls and practices. By the fall of 1934 Ann was 2nd Vice-President of SAG. [The photo below shows actors James Dunn, an unidentified lady, Ann, Boris Karloff and James Cagney at work on SAG organization.]
Q: Was there a single incident that changed Ann Harding‘s attitude toward the public side of being a film actor?
Scott O’Brien: Ann’s final appearance at Hedgerow, her beloved repertory theatre in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, was the real clincher. It was 1933. Ann was at her peak in screen popularity. “People from all over came to Rose Valley to look at the ‘movie star,’” Ann complained. “They stormed the theatre. It was necessary to summon state troopers to take care of the traffic—an unheard of thing in that peaceful community. I had unwittingly brought a disturbing guest with me—Spectacular Publicity.” This incident really soured Ann on the “public side of being a film actor.” And, the feeling stuck.
One of my favorite “Ann Harding-in-retirement-stories” comes from a fan who saw her the evening she attended a 1976 performance of The Magnificent Yankee at the Huntington Hartford Theatre in Los Angeles. She was in the lobby during intermission wearing a green suit with a fur piece. It was unmistakably Ann. The hair style the same as ever. The devoted fan noticed Ann and approached her with, “Aren’t you Ann Harding?” But, Ann wasn’t having any of it. She responded with, “How ridiculous! What would Ann Harding be doing here?!?!” Other people recognized Ann as well, but she was not about to be cordial. The fan emphasized that he “still loved her anyway.”
Q: How did the divorce color Ann‘s attitude toward her notoriety?
Scott O’Brien: While making her mark in Hollywood, Ann waxed poetic about how “wonderful” Harry was. Reporters got tired of hearing Ann go on about how Harry was sacrificing his career to manage hers. Many felt Harry saw dollar signs when he latched onto Ann. Her success certainly provided him with lots of expensive “man toys” such as airplanes. By 1931, Ann saw through him—recognized his lack of ambition and his limitations as an actor. After their divorce Harry confessed that Ann told him that she had “fallen out of love” with him.
Ann and Harry’s divorce gained much notoriety in the press. Front page stuff. Their custody battle went on for years. When doing my research I couldn’t see how Ann could possibly concentrate on making films. She was perpetually preparing for numerous courtroom dates. There were threats of blackmail from Harry. The press hounded her wherever she went. I was amazed that she had any time left over for an intense love affair, but she did. By the time she left for England in 1936, she was completely burned out. Emotionally distraught, she cut off her ties with her family.
Below: A cringe-worthy advertisement emphasizing the domestic bliss of Harding and her first husband:
Q: Did Ann Harding and her daughter, Jane Bannister, have a warm relationship when she was a child? Did they remain close?
Scott O’Brien: They were very close when Jane was small. However, things changed … dramatically, [causing a break in their relationship in the 1960s]. In my conversations with Jane’s friends from the Bay Area they concurred that, as a mother, Ann was perceived as “remote.” After my book on Ann was published, I had the opportunity to talk to Ann’s niece, Dorothy, and grand-niece, Faeylyn. In 2000, Faeylyn had a phone conversation with Ann’s daughter, Jane, who was living in Sante Fe. Jane was cold and bitter when the subject of Ann came up. “I had a terrible childhood,” Jane told her. “I hated my nurse. I never saw mother. She was always busy.” By the late 1960’s, Jane was approached by a magazine writer who was doing a “Where Are They Now?” article about Ann. He asked her, “Where is your mother?” She answered, “Well, if you don’t know where she is. What makes you think I do?” At the time of her death, Ann and Jane hadn’t spoken for years. Jane Bannister died in 2005.
Q: After leaving Hollywood, Harding ceased making movies for a period of time, beginning in 1937 when she married her second husband, orchestral conductor Werner Janssen, whose career was on an international scale. Was their marriage a happy partnership?
Scott O’Brien: Ann and Werner’s interest in each other began before she left for England in 1936. (At the time, Janssen was married and had two teenage children.) Classical music was a life-long passion for Ann. She was adept at playing the piano, and completely taken with Werner’s talent as a conductor. Following their marriage, Ann relished her new role as conductor’s wife, stating, “I’m living in a new world. His career is of much more importance than mine.” After her 1938 west coast tour in Shaw’s Candida, Ann was happy to accompany Janssen for his second season with the Baltimore Symphony. “I’m tired of reaching for movie plums,” Ann told reporters, again asserting that it would take an “earthquake” before she would ever make another film.
Q: Despite her emotional setbacks and commitment to her new husband, Harding did eventually return to films when she appeared in Eyes in the Night (1942), and she had a series of often undemanding roles in that period. Did she have any good roles offered to her in the ’40s or was she taking the work primarily for the income?
Scott O’Brien: At $4,166 per week for six weeks, Ann gladly took on the role of Marjorie Merriweather Post Davies (mother of Dina Merrill) for the propaganda piece Mission to Moscow (1943). As the wife of Russian ambassador Davies (Walter Huston), Ann didn’t have much to do on screen, and admitted, “I say ‘How do you do?’ a great many times—I’m trying to use different inflections on it. … Mr. Huston and I don’t have much to do.” Her appearance in The North Star (1943) was really a waste of her talent. [Harding can be seen in a still from this Lewis Milestone film below]
I think Ann was so disappointed after her potential MGM assignment to co-star with Spencer Tracy in The Yearling fell through, that she took whatever was offered her. Ann was all set to play the lead opposite Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine (1943) until Bette Davis got wind of it. That was the final blow. Ann had only one strong role after 1937—the touching and intimate The Magnificent Yankee (1950), (seen below with Louis Calhern). Eventually, Ann Harding made approximately 44 appearances on TV from 1950-65. From some of her letters, I gather she took assignments for the money, or, as you put it, she “had to eat.” [Harding received good reviews for some of her work, but] Ann didn’t care for “live” TV, and stated, “That glazed look you see in the eyes of actors on ‘live’ TV is not histrionic emotion, but inner panic.”
Ann could be tough on producers in television. When I wrote actor Peter Mark Richmond about working with Ann, he replied, “Ann was of the old school in manner and work habits, and I respected that. She was also strong when she had to be. She didn’t like the man who was playing her husband [in Playwrights ‘56 “Center of the Maze”] and was responsible for getting him fired.” Ann had asked for George Brent as replacement, but didn’t get her wish—she finally accepted Russell Hicks. My favorite of those TV performances I was able to locate was an adaptation of Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles (retitled “Jury of Her Peers) for Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1961.
In this same period, Ann did informally adopt Grace Kaye, though it does not appear to have been a formal, legal arrangement. [Some sources assert that Ms. Kaye was also adopted by Werner Janssen, but Scott O'Brien's research has yielded no legal connection for her to Harding or her second husband, despite the fact that Ms. Kaye, who prefers not to communicate with scholars about Ann, was often introduced as Harding's daughter. She appears to have been a woman in her thirties who befriended Ann while the actress was living in Connecticut. Kaye continued to live with Ann, providing, perhaps, the emotional replacement for Ann Harding's estranged daughter, Jane]. Years after the break with her sister and her family in the mid-30s, before Ann passed away in 1981 she made a diligent attempt to contact her sister Edith to make amends. The two hadn’t spoken for decades. “She went through all the MacKenzies in California trying to find her,” Dorothy’s daughter Faeylyn told me. “When she couldn’t, she called Irene Dunne.” [Edith was Dunne’s secretary/bookkeeper for many years.] “Irene Dunne was just too busy being Irene Dunne to help. She just couldn’t be bothered.” It is likely that Ann, whose ability to “understand another’s point of view” while playing a role, had at last found the capacity to include her own family members in this equation—a commendable accomplishment for a headstrong individual.
In closing, I’ve requested a message from Ann’s namesake and niece, Dorothy Nash Wager. When Dorothy learned that Ann had tried to contact Edith near the end of her life, it meant a great deal to her. “After years and years of their not having any discourse,” said Dorothy, “tears came to my eyes, because I was so happy and relieved to think that that happened. Aunt Dody must have undergone quite a change with regard to her relationship with my mother and wanted to get in touch with her. I wish my mother had known that.”
Dorothy’s message, addressed to me, is priceless in its ability to “capture” the real Ann Harding. I’ve always felt that through a child’s eyes one can tap into the true nature of an individual. From ages 7-13, Dorothy “connected” to Ann in the truest sense of the word. Ann was an intimate part of her world. Dorothy’s letter is dated: November 15, 2010.
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