Martha Scott

Stage and screen actress with an ethereal quality

Martha Ellen Scott, actress: born Jamesport, Missouri 22 September 1914; married 1940 Carlton Alsop (one son; marriage dissolved 1946), 1946 Mel Powell (died 1998; two daughters); died Los Angeles 28 May 2003.

Martha Scott created the role of Emily Webb, the young heroine of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, in the original 1938 Broadway production, and was nominated for an Oscar when she repeated the role on screen.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which spans 12 years in a small New Hampshire town through three acts titled "Life", "Love" and "Death", Emily is seen in adolescence, on her wedding day, and finally after her death in childbirth. In one of the most touching scenes in modern drama, she is granted the wish to live again one whole day of her life. She chooses her 12th birthday but finds the experience unsettling when she realises how people fail to make the most of every moment, and she returns willingly to her resting place. Having made an historic impact with her youthful role, Scott matured quickly and this, coupled with her lack of conventional glamour, affected her subsequent movie career. She found greater success and satisfaction on the stage.

Born Martha Ellen Scott in 1914 in Jamesport, Missouri, she was educated at the University of Michigan. After working in repertory, she joined the Globe Theater at the Chicago World's Fair in 1934. Moving to New York in 1936, she found work in radio while making the rounds of theatrical agents.

During the winter of 1937-38 she had still never acted on the Broadway stage when she was asked to read for Our Town. Two other actresses had already been fired for not capturing the right ethereal quality. "The producer Jed Harris was desperate because the play was about to open in New Jersey," explained Scott.

He said they were going to close down because he couldn't find an Emily and he asked if anybody in the company

knew an actress they thought could play the part. Evelyn Varden and Philip Coolidge had both seen me and they suggested me. After I read for him, he just pushed back my hair, looked at me and said, "You've got the job."

When the play opened on Broadway in February 1938, the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote of Scott and John Craven, who played her husband, "Some of their scenes are lovely past all enduring." When asked to test for the subsequent film version, Scott was not optimistic, later relating,

David O. Selznick brought me from New York to Hollywood to test for Melanie in Gone with the Wind. I looked awful in the test, and Mr Selznick told me to go home. "You're for the theatre," he said. Consequently, when I was asked to test for the film version of Our Town, I had no high hopes.

Still, I went ahead and did the test with Bill Holden, who was already signed to co-star. I saw the test in a projection room and I couldn't believe how well it went! Bert Glennon, who photographed the test and the movie, was a genius. I was 24 but he made me look like a kid!

Scott's luminous performance in the film, released in 1940, won her an Academy Award nomination, but she lost to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle. She remained in Hollywood for three years, but producers tended to see her as school-mistresses or stoic wives weathering several generations. In a town noted for hyperbole, producers labelled her "Miss Average".

In her second film, Frank Lloyd's The Howards of Virginia (1940), a plodding saga of a family's fortunes prior to and during the War of Independence, she played the aristocratic wife of a rebel politician (Cary Grant). It was the first of several films in which Scott was called upon to age from youth to middle-age. She received top billing in Tay Garnett's Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941), the tale of 50 years in the life of a midwestern schoolteacher. In They Dare Not Love (1941), the last film completed by the director James Whale, Scott was an Austrian fleeing the Nazis. She was described by Variety as "the one bright spot" in a blatant propaganda piece.

She then played the devoted wife of a Methodist minister (Fredric March) in Irving Rapper's popular movie One Foot in Heaven (1941), based on the true story of the Rev William Spence. The film was nominated for an Oscar, and Scott was applauded for making the endlessly self-sacrificing wife and mother a believable and humane character. This period of Scott's film career ended with a musical farce, Hi Diddle Diddle (1943) and a lively John Wayne vehicle, In Old Oklahoma (1943).

She returned to Broadway in a revival of Our Town (1944), with the rising star Montgomery Clift playing her sweetheart. Later the same year she starred in a hit comedy, Soldier's Wife, by Rose Franken, playing an unworldly housewife who becomes a celebrity when the letters she wrote to her soldier husband are published. In 1945 she took over the role of Sally Middleton originated by Margaret Sullavan in John Van Druten's delightful, long-running comedy The Voice of the Turtle.

Scott returned to the screen in 1947 to play a rare unsympathetic role in Edward Dmytryk's British-made So Well Remembered. She played a shrewish, selfish wife who deplores the selfless humanistic views of her husband, a Lancashire newspaper editor (John Mills). In 1949 she starred with Jeffrey Lynn in Strange Bargain, a neat thriller but a B movie and a sign that Scott's stature in Hollywood was declining.

The following year she was back on Broadway in Design for a Stained Glass Window, a short-lived historical drama based on the true story of Margaret Clitherow. The rising actor Charlton Heston, who portrayed her husband, was about to be signed by Hollywood, and Scott was later to play mother to his Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956) and to his Judah Ben-Hur in William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959).

When the British actress Marie Ney, cast as the mother in Ben-Hur, proved unsatisfactory to Wyler after a few days shooting, he sent for Scott. Heston later described her as "markedly better", adding,

I think one of the reasons Willy replaced Marie Ney was that he'd by then decided there would be some value in having all the Jews in the story played by American actors and all the Romans played by British performers. Marie was the only exception to this, and her replacement by Martha Scott, aside from giving us a very good performance, conformed to Willy's casting theory.

She appeared with Heston once more when they co-starred on Broadway in the play The Tumbler (1960).

In 1969 Scott and her second husband, the musician Mel Powell, moved to Hollywood after living for many years in Connecticut. She made occasional films, such as Airport 1975 (1974), in which she played a nun, and the ballet drama The Turning Point (1977), but she worked more in the theatre and on television. She returned to the New York stage for the last time in 1991 to play the doomed Rebecca Nurse in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Scott once said of her career,

When you've been in the business as long as I have, you learn to live with this thing actors call insecurity. If you become so preoccupied with security that you permit it to dictate your professional future, then you're lost. You can't take money with you, but you can take satisfaction.

Tom Vallance