Obituary: Sylvia Field

ALTHOUGH SHE was a versatile actress of stage, screen and television, who between 1920 and 1950 had leading roles in over 40 plays, it was through television that Sylvia Field became a well-known name to the general public, with her role as Martha Wilson, the kindly next-door neighbour who always had a smile and plate of warm biscuits ready for the mischievous young lad in the adaptation of Dennis the Menace.

Her early roles had included a good share of chorus-girls and vamps, but by the Forties the actress had patented a beguiling line in understanding wives and mothers, perfectly showcased in the classic film comedy Junior Miss. In 1941 she married as her third husband the diminutive, raspy-voiced actor Ernest Truex. They had acted on Broadway together playing man and wife as early as 1934 in the bedroom farce Sing and Whistle. Truex specialised in flustered and excitable characters which were neatly complemented by the conciliatory and ultra-feminine Field on the frequent occasions that they played a married couple.

Born Harriet Johnson in Aliston, Massachusetts, in 1901, Field attended Arlington High School and in 1918 made her Broadway debut as Joy and the "Veiled Figure" in The Betrothal. After more plays and a season in repertory in Canada, she took over the juvenile lead in the long-running comedy thriller The Cat and the Canary in New York (1922) and played the same part on tour.

She returned to Broadway to play the title role in Connie Goes Home (1923), the first of many leading roles, notably in such landmark productions as George S. Kaufman's The Butter and Egg Man (1925), Philip Dunning and George Abbot's smash hit Broadway (1926), in which the New Yorker lauded her "superlatively good work" as a chorus girl loved by a dancer, Kaufman and Edna Farber's The Royal Family (1927), in which she played the youngest member of a theatrical dynasty, A.A. Milne's Give Me Yesterday (1931), as a Yorkshire girl whose true love forsakes her in pursuit of success, and Richard Maibum's Birthright (1933), which ran for only seven performances but is notable as the first Broadway play to confront the subject of Nazism. Outside New York, Field played such roles as Fanny in Ivor Novello's Autumn Crocus and Leonora in John Van Druten's There's Always Juliet. After succeeding Dorothy Gish on Broadway as the wife of Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee (1946), she played the part for a year on tour.

Field made her screen debut with a silent movie, The Exalted Flapper (1929), and in the same year had the female lead in MGM's first all-talking gangster film Voice of the City, but her finest film role came in 1946 with George Seaton's scintillating adaptation of the Broadway hit Junior Miss. As wife to Allyn Joslyn, who is forever on the verge of apoplexy due mainly to the antics of his youngest daughter, Field, in a performance of warmth and humour, provided a convincing picture of calm and good sense as his loving and understanding partner.

She entered television with a local show about her own domestic life, The Truex Family (she had a daughter and three stepsons), and was a guest star in over 30 shows, including Perry Mason, Father Knows Best and Hazel, but had her greatest successes as Mrs Remington (with Truex as her husband) in Mr Peepers (1953-55), and as Martha Wilson in Dennis the Menace (1959- 62), in which Jay North starred as a live version of Hank Ketcham's cartoon imp. Field's husband in this show, the garrulous George, was played by Joseph Kearns, who died before the end of the 1962 season and was replaced by Gale Gordon, playing George's brother.

Her last major film was the sentimental favourite All Mine To Give (1957, called The Day They Gave Babies Away in Britain). In this the story of an oldest child's efforts to find his baby siblings homes on Christmas Day, after their widowed mother dies, Truex and Field were the village doctor and his wife, who eventually agree to become surrogate parents.

After the death of Truex in 1973, Field remained at their home in Fallbrook, south of Los Angeles, where she enjoyed fishing, golfing, and tending her avocado orchard.

Harriet Louisa Johnson (Sylvia Field), actress: born Aliston, Massachusetts 14 February 1901; married 1924 Robert J. Frowhlich (marriage dissolved 1929), 1930 Harold Moffat (died 1938; one daughter), 1942 Ernest Truex (died 1973; three stepsons); died Fallbrook, California 31 July 1998.

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