Obituary: Josephine Hutchinson

`It's quite natural for actors to fall in love with the people they work with,' she said

IN ALFRED Hitchcock's superb thriller North by Northwest, a chilling moment occurs when the hero, Cary Grant, having taken the police to the mansion where he has been held captive, is confronted with an outwardly charming, handsome woman who professes to be the respectable wife of a senator and, with a benign tolerance all the more chilling for its surface kindliness, confesses that Grant had too much to drink at the previous night's party. Josephine Hutchinson, who makes this brief role so effective, had decades earlier been a leading theatrical player, a film star at Warners, and a celebrated dramatic coach. She also had a total of three husbands and a legendary lesbian affair.

Hutchinson was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1898 (although some sources claim 1904). Her mother was the actress Leona Roberts, best remembered for her portrayal of Mrs Meade, the doctor's wife, in Gone with the Wind. Through her mother's acquaintance with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, the petite, Titian-haired girl was given a small role in The Little Princess (1917) starring Mary Pickford, after which she studied drama and dance in Seattle for three years, making her stage debut as a dancer at the city's Metropolitan Theatre in The Little Mermaid in 1920. For two years she worked with the Rams Head Playhouse Company in Washington, run by Robert Bell, the son of Alexander Graham Bell, and in 1924 she and Bell were married. The following year she made her Broadway debut with an acclaimed performance in A Man's Man opposite Pat O'Brien.

Gladys Calthrop, designer for Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre, saw Hutchinson in the play and, when Le Gallienne fired Rose Hobart from the role of Irina in Three Sisters, Calthrop recommended Hutchinson. "She is beautiful, direct and possessed of emotional reserve," wrote one critic of her performance. Le Gallienne's troupe, considered the nearest thing to a permanent repertory theatre that America has had, presented low-price classics, and nurtured some of America's finest talent.

Hutchinson played in Ibsen, Chekhov and Shakespeare as well as an acclaimed Wendy opposite Le Gallienne's Peter Pan (1928). The Herald Tribune recorded: "Josephine Hutchinson gave to Wendy the right sense of budding motherliness that the part demanded."

"It was the best training that could happen," said Hutchinson. "Often we would be rehearsing six or seven plays in one week . . . Le Gallienne was my teacher in both love and work." Hutchinson had led a protected life until her marriage, usually in the company of her mother (who also joined Le Gallienne's troupe). "It's quite natural for actors to fall in love with the people they work with," she said later, and she and Le Gallienne started an affair. "It was good and normal and healthy," she stated, "There was never any sense of shame connected with our relationship."

She and Bell remained good friends, and in 1930 he allowed her to divorce him on fictional grounds of extreme cruelty, though the Daily News headlined, "Bell divorces actress, Eva Le Gallienne's shadow." Hutchinson moved in to Le Gallienne's apartment and made headlines again in 1930 when a water heater exploded when being lit, igniting Le Gallienne's dress. Hutchinson and a maid beat out the flames, both receiving bad burns. Le Gallienne's hands remained badly scarred.

The following year Hutchinson won rave reviews for her performance as Alice in a delightful Le Gallienne production of Alice in Wonderland with Le Gallienne as the White Queen and Burgess Meredith as a duck on roller skates. In 1934, her relationship with Le Gallienne faltering, Hutchinson asked the agent Leland Hayward (whose associate, James F. Townsend, she married in 1935) if he could arrange a screen test for her. At Warners, she tested with the final scene from A Doll's House (her Nora had already been lauded on stage) and was signed to a lucrative contract.

Her film debut, the musical Happiness Ahead (1934) with Dick Powell, was not auspicious. As a rich girl posing as a poor one after falling in love with a window cleaner, the actress, perhaps realising that she was too old for the role, smiled a lot with desperate coquettishness in possibly the worst performance of her career. She was fine as a woman who falls in love with the brother of her invalid husband in The Right to Live (1935), based on Somerset Maugham's The Sacred Flame, and superb as the supportive wife of an oil company executive with divided loyalties in Oil for the Lamps of China (1935), memorably pleading with her husband's company that they keep him employed, but neither film did well commercially.

She gave another fine performance as a caring wife in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), prompting the studio to announce that Hutchinson would star in a biography of Marie Curie, but instead they gave her I Married a Doctor (1936 - Sinclair Lewis's Main Street with a happy ending unconvincingly added) and Michael Curtiz's sombre Mountain Justice (1937), based on a real-life tale of a girl from the backwoods of Virginia who killed her brutal religiously fanatical father and was nearly lynched.

Hutchinson's assignments had not allowed her to develop a strong following, and in 1937 Warners let her go. Freelancing, she did a lot of radio work (she had a beautifully modulated voice), playing opposite Clark Gable in a 1937 broadcast of A Farewell to Arms, and more films including, at Universal, one of the very best of their horror cycle, Rowland V. Lee's Son of Frankenstein (1939), in which she played Elsa Von Frankenstein to Basil Rathbone's baron. "The director had a theory that dialogue learned at a moment's notice would be delivered more naturally. For actors like Basil, Binky (Lionel Atwill) and myself trained in theatre technique, this is not true." The film started a lifelong friendship between the actress and Boris Karloff, who was playing the Monster for the last time in his career.

As the wife who dies leaving her son to be spoiled by his father in My Son, My Son (1940) and the wife of headmaster Cedric Hardwicke in Tom Brown's Schooldays (1940), Hutchinson gave assured performances, but her starring days were over and she temporarily gave up performing to become an acting coach at Columbia Studios, her pupils including the contract players Adele Mara and Marguerite Chapman. "I had gone to several drama coaches," said Chapman, "but learned more from Josephine Hutchinson than all the others put together."

Hutchinson returned to films with Joseph Mankiewicz's gripping film noir about an amnesiac Somewhere in the Night (1946), followed by a series of mother roles - to Shirley Temple in Adventure in Baltimore (1949), Elizabeth Taylor in Love is Better Than Ever (1952), Jennifer Jones in Ruby Gentry (1952) and Dean Stockwell in Gun for a Coward (1957). She was aunt to Tommy Sands in Sing, Boy, Sing (1958), and the director Michael Curtiz, noted for remembering his former leading ladies, cast her as the Widow Douglas in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960). The actress was now concentrating more on television than movies - she was in four Perry Mason stories and was featured in the television movie The Homecoming - A Christmas Story (1971), the forerunner to The Waltons. Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Twilight Zone, Dr Kildare and Burke's Law were other series in which she appeared. She was a mother again - to James Caan - in her last film, Rabbit, Run (1970).

In 1972 she married Staats Cosworth, with whom she had acted in the Civic Repertory Theatre 40 years earlier.

Josephine Hutchinson, actress: born Seattle, Washington 12 October 1898; married 1924 Robert Bell (marriage dissolved 1930), 1935 James F. Townsend, 1972 Staats Cosworth (deceased); died New York 4 June 1998.

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