Actress vivid in 'best friend' roles
Monday 04 September 2006
Shirley Ann Richards, actress, born Sydney, New South Wales 13 December 1917; married 1949 Edmond Angelo (died 1983; two sons, one daughter); died Torrance, California 24 August 2006.
The Australian actress Ann Richards made a vivid impression in several Hollywood films of the Forties, and might have had a longer screen career had she not suffered some bad luck. The film that should have made her a star, King Vidor's epic piece of Americana An American Romance, was a major flop, and a second chance of stardom was blighted when a bigger star suddenly became available.
She had notable roles in such films as The Searching Wind and Sorry, Wrong Number, but her most memorable role was a supporting one, that of the enigmatic Dilly in William Dieterle's enormously popular melodrama Love Letters. Soft-spoken and sincere, she was at her best when conveying depths of wisdom, with a suggestion of passion stoically controlled.
Born Shirley Ann Richards in Sydney, Australia, in 1917, to an American father and New Zealander mother, she acted on stage before becoming a star in the films of the noted producer-director Ken Hall, including It Isn't Done (1937), Tall Timber (1938), Dad and Dave Come to Town (1939) and Come Up Smiling (1940). She went to Hollywood in 1941 ("on the first ship after Pearl Harbor - the attack was on December 7th 1941, and we left on December 11th").
Hall had sent a reel of her best scenes to the Hollywood writer Carl Dudley, but the can of film was lost. Richards recalled,
At the time MGM was preparing a short subject called The Woman in the House, about an Englishwoman who becomes a recluse, ageing 40 years. They felt no one under contract could play this role, and of course by then everyone knew my sad story - how I'd sailed across Japanese- infested waters, lost the film Ken Hall had put together for me. All I had was my scrapbook to prove that I had been an Australian movie star.
She won the role, her performance resulting in a contract with MGM and the part of Ronald Colman's cousin in Random Harvest (1942). "I loved MGM - except for the waiting - there were long periods when I wasn't being used." Small roles in Dr Gillespie's New Assistant (1942) and Three Hearts for Julia (1943, as a cellist) preceded what should have been her breakthrough movie.
Back in 1925 MGM's production chief Irving Thalberg had given the director King Vidor a choice of subjects. Vidor replied that he favoured three: war, wheat and steel. Thalberg chose war, and the result was the silent classic The Big Parade (1926). Later in Vidor's career came wheat - Our Daily Bread (1934), another classic - but his epic on steel was to have a bumpy history.
The saga of a poor Czech immigrant who becomes rich and prosperous over the years, An American Romance (1944) was to star Spencer Tracy, but, when he became unavailable, Vidor accepted Brian Donlevy, and later rued his decision not to wait for Tracy, since Donlevy, though a fine actor, did not have the charisma necessary for such an important and symbolic role. Ann Richards was cast as his Irish wife, and though she too was fine the ambitious film was overlong (151 minutes even after some drastic cutting by the studio) and won praise only for its Technicolor shots of furnaces, factories and fields. "They made a mess of it," said Richards, "cutting out a lot of the personal story and leaving too much of the steel-plant footage."
After its release, Vidor left MGM never to return, and Richards also departed after promised roles in Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray were not given to her. She accepted the offer of a contract from the producer Hal Wallis, who announced that she would be starring opposite Barry Sullivan in the romantic thriller, Love Letters (1945). The powerful producer David O. Selznick then made one of his manipulative deals, persuading Wallis to use two stars he had under contract, Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten.
Sullivan was out, and Richards was instead given the role of Jones's best friend, Dilly. She was given excellent billing (a solo title card) and her character figures prominently in the first half of the film, in which she handles with subtle flair some of the movie's most intriguing dialogue (by Ayn Rand). First seen giving a party at her Bloomsbury flat, she introduces Cotten to Jones (an amnesiac known only by the name "Singleton"). When Cotten wakes after drinking too much and talking excessively, he is told by Richards to contact her later:
Remember my name . . . and I want you to remember this evening, how I listened when you weren't aware of it. Turn it over in your mind, and remember particularly how mysterious I was.
Cotton, bemused, replies, "Anybody would think a murder had been committed", and she responds, "It has."
Aided by William Dieterle's moody direction and Victor Young's haunting theme tune (which became a pop hit), the film was an enormous success. Jones won an Oscar nomination for her performance, but Richards commented years later,
Perhaps things worked out for the best, because I think Dilly was a more human, sympathetic character and remained my late husband's favourite of my screen performances.
Richards then starred with Sylvia Sidney and Robert Young in another Wallis production, The Searching Wind (1946), also directed by Dieterle but less successfully. Adapted by Lillian Hellman from her Broadway play, its anti-war story was told through the lives of a radical journalist (Sidney), a career diplomat (Young) who constantly sits on the fence and supports Neville Chamberlain's appeasement efforts, and his socialite wife (Richards), who accepts Young's ongoing affair with Sidney, and whose son is maimed in the Second World War.
Two years earlier, the film version of Hellman's earlier anti-Fascism play Watch on the Rhine had found a large audience, but in 1946 few were interested in a talky tract, fascinating though much of it was, and the film flopped. Richards said,
I met two extraordinarily interesting women on Love Letters and The Searching Wind, the novelist Ayn Rand, and Lillian Hellman. I remember a conversation I had with Miss Rand. I mentioned that my mother in Australia was not well and that I might have to take a sabbatical from my career to go and bring her back to America with me. Miss Rand insisted (and I can still see this little woman's black eyes flashing), "You owe absolutely nothing to anybody! You must not consider doing this thing." I thought this was rather cruel and said, "But you must help people, especially those dear to you." And she replied, "You must take care of yourself rather than do anything for anybody else!". . . Miss Hellman was easier to comprehend: she wouldn't throw out edicts. Politically, the two were at opposite poles: Miss Rand was super-conservative and Miss Hellman was very liberal.
Hal Wallis next loaned Richards to RKO to be Randolph Scott's leading lady in the enjoyable western Badman's Territory (1946), and she was also loaned out for a trivial comedy, Lost Honeymoon (1947), and a thriller, Love from a Stranger (1947), based on an Agatha Christie story about a lottery winner who marries a Bluebeard-type fortune hunter. Sylvia Sidney was the heroine, with Richards her best friend. Her final role for Wallis was also that of a best friend - to Barbara Stanwyck in the taut thriller based on the famous radio play Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).
In 1947 Richards returned to the stage - the previous year Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire had formed the Actors' Company, to enable film players, unable to take the time to appear on Broadway, to perform in revivals of hit shows at a small playhouse in La Jolla, a Californian beach community. Richards starred with McGuire and John Hoyt in a production of Noël Coward's Tonight at 8:30 that won considerable praise.
Two years later Richards married Edmond Angelo, who produced and directed her last American movie, Breakdown (1952), an ineffectual film noir. Angelo left show business to become a space engineer with a California firm, and the couple, who had three children, maintained a large house in Los Angeles and a mountain house near Big Bear.
Richards wrote a volume of poems, The Grieving Senses (1971), and a verse play, Helen of Troy, which she and her husband occasionally presented at college campuses. She appeared as herself (billed as Shirley Ann Richards) in a documentary about women in the Australian film industry, Don't Call Me Girlie (1984), and occasionally on television, but otherwise limited her performing to giving readings of poetry, mainly at schools.
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