Janet Shaw

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Ellen Martha Clancy Stuart (Janet Shaw), actress: born Beatrice, Nebraska 23 January 1919; married 1944 Williard Ilefeldt (marriage dissolved); died Beatrice 15 October 2001.

The actress Janet Shaw once said that she hoped to emulate Bette Davis, but she was never able to rise above the rank of supporting player. She did, though, play one memorable role, when cast by Alfred Hitchcock in his masterly thriller Shadow of a Doubt as the waitress Louise Finch. Her one short scene in the film makes an indelible impression and has given her a place in movie history.

The heroine of the film, Charlie (Teresa Wright), has just had her comfortable middle-class small-town world shattered by the discovery that her beloved uncle (Joseph Cotton) is the notorious "Merry Widow" killer, and he propels her into a seedy cocktail bar, where they are served by a careworn waitress (Shaw) who recognises Charlie. "I was in Charlie's class in school," she explains to the uncle, before telling Charlie, "I sure was surprised to see you come in. I never thought I'd see you here. I've been here two weeks. Lost my job over at Kearn's. I've been in half the restaurants in town." It is the first of two short speeches that Louise has, but her flat, cynical delivery conveys a whole lifetime of disappointment and disillusion. Though Janet Shaw's career was prolific, it was not distinguished, but she will always be remembered for this indelible cameo.

Born Ellen Martha Clancy Stuart in Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1919, she decided at the age of three that she would be an actress after seeing Douglas Fairbanks Snr in Robin Hood. When she was a teenager her family moved to Los Angeles, where she attended Beverly Hills High School and studied acting. At the age of 15, she was signed by Warner Brothers and made her screen début as one of several young hopefuls in the short A Trip Through a Hollywood Studio (1934).

Renamed Janet Shaw by the studio, she then played small roles in films including She Married Her Boss (1935), Confession (1937), Comet Over Broadway (1938), Girls on Probation (1938) and Torchy Blane in Chinatown (1939). Four films in which she featured starred Bette Davis, It's Love I'm After (1937), Jezebel (1938), The Sisters (1938) and The Old Maid (1939), and Shaw stated that her ambition was to be another Davis.

Despite talent and pert prettiness, however, she failed to win major roles, and, after playing small parts at MGM in Escape (1940), Waterloo Bridge (1940) and Johnny Eager (1941), she signed a contract with Universal, where she was to spend seven years as a supporting player – in several of her films she was uncredited, playing anonymous girlfriends or switchboard operators. In 1942 Elyse Knox, scheduled to play a prominent role as a maid who becomes a murder victim in Ford Beebe's intriguing horror mystery Night Monster, became ill, and Universal replaced her with Shaw. Beebe recalled,

Hitchcock, who was also making a picture on the lot, screened a rough cut because he was interested in Janet Shaw for a part in his film.

The result was to be Shaw's most memorable role, Louise in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). When she spies a valuable ring (the evidence of guilt that Charlie has uncovered) on the table shared by Charlie and her uncle, she picks it up admiringly. "Ain't it beautiful," she says wistfully, adding,

I'd just die for a ring like that. Yes sir, for a ring like that I'd just about die. I love jewellery, real jewellery. Notice I didn't even have to ask if it was real. You can tell. I can.

At the time, Shaw's performance went almost unnoticed amid the film's general brilliance and fine cast, and it failed to increase her stature at the studio, where she continued to play minor roles in such films as Hers to Hold (1943), Ladies Courageous (1944), Moon Over Las Vegas (1944) and Hi, Good Lookin' (1944). She was leading lady to Tex Ritter in the western Arizona Trail (1944), and had a good role in the serial Jungle Raiders (1945) with Kane Richmond and Veda Ann Borg. Shaw also featured in two Charlie Chan films made by Monogram.

In The Scarlet Clue (1945) she was a radio actress killed by a poisoned cigarette, and in Dark Alibi (1946) she was a typist run down by a truck. She gave an impressive performance in Robert Siodmak's heavy drama Time Out of Mind (1947), the Hollywood début of the British actress Phyllis Calvert, but the film was a failure and ended Shaw's stay at Universal. Her final film was Prehistoric Women (1950).

Briefly married to an Army Air Force lieutenant, she lived in Los Angeles until 1994, when she returned to her home town of Beatrice.

Tom Vallance

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