Obituary: Shirley Booth

Thelma Booth Ford (Shirley Booth), actress, born 30 August 1898, married 1929 Edward Gardner (marriage dissolved 1941), 1943 William Baker (died 1951), died Chatham Massachusetts 16 October 1992.

SHIRLEY BOOTH was a magnificent actress with a broad range but she was still unknown in Britain when the film of Come Back Little Sheba appeared in 1953. She had been acting on Broadway since 1925 - and with some success when she played Mabel in Three Men on a Horse 10 years later. Among her later roles were the journalists in The Philadelphia Story (1939) and My Sister Eileen (1940) - played on screen respectively by Ruth Hussey and Rosalind Russell. Booth was a less glamorous version than either, but she was regarded as a sleek career-woman with a nifty line in wisecracks. She used her skill at these in a popular radio show, Duffy's Tavern, which starred her then husband, Ed Gardner.

As Miss Duffy, she presented a homely image - and that was something she was obliged to take on again in Come Back Little Sheba, on Broadway in 1950. The author, William Inge, was sub- Tennessee-Williams, complete to the poetic titles, and this is certainly his best play. Lola, as played by Booth, shuffled about in a dressing-gown, forgetful and fantasising (about Sheba, the dog of the title), enjoying radio soap operas, spying on the young lovers in the parlour and hoping against hope that her husband has abandoned alcohol without understanding what drew him towards it in the first place - a woman blowsy, good-natured and shabby.

Sidney Blackmer played the dipsomaniac husband, but when the producer Hal Wallis decided to film the play he replaced him, as box-office insurance, with Burt Lancaster. Wallis turned down Bette Davis's request to play the wife, and cast Booth over Paramount's objections because, in his own words, 'she was a great actress'. Britain's best critic, Richard Winnington, wrote: 'Miss Booth is a magnificent actress of patently wide range, who accomplishes the miracle of making Lola at once repulsive and beneath her load of pain, longing and stupidity, oddly beautiful.'

Among the other actresses nominated for an Oscar that year were Davis, Joan Crawford and Susan Hayward - whom we may regard as traditional Hollywood actresses when we see that the critic of the New York Herald Tribune wrote that Booth had 'an acting style like the best modern French and Italian motion pictures'. Booth's Oscar for Best Actress was an enormously popular one and the film was very successful.

In the meantime she had played Aunt Cissy (the role Joan Blondell took in the movie) in the musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951), with a couple of comic songs, including a hymn to her slob of a husband, 'He Had Refinement'. Another musical, By the Beautiful Sea (1954), was written especially for her, and she glowed in it. After 30 years in the business she had become one of New York's most beloved actresses.

Before that, she had had a stunning success in Arthur Laurents's romantic comedy The Time of the Cuckoo (1952), as a spinster schoolteacher who has her first, and possibly last, affair with an eye-to-the-main-chance Lothario while on holiday in Venice. William Marchant also wrote Desk Set (1955) for Booth, but in both cases the screen versions were offered to Katharine Hepburn (The Time of the Cuckoo became Summer Madness or Summertime on film). Since Hepburn and Booth had been friends since they had appeared on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn asked whether she minded that she took over the roles - but not only did Booth not mind, she gave Hepburn some tips on how the roles should be played.

Wallis had been looking for a screen role for Booth, to follow her Oscar, and he came up with a Back Street-type story, About Mr Leslie, in which she was a night- club singer sharing the life of Robert Ryan for just a couple of weeks every year. It was not a success - which was why Wallis dropped his plan to film The Time of the Cuckoo. He tried twice more with Booth, in 1958. Hot Spell found her as Anthony Quinn's put-upon wife, and despite too many echoes of other family dramas of the time - including those of Inge and Williams - it worked beautifully because of Booth's warm performance. Her three films had been directed by Daniel Mann, but Wallis handed her over to Joseph Anthony when he produced Thornton Wilder's comedy The Matchmaker. In the title-role Booth was much funnier than Ruth Gordon had been on the stage (both in London and New York), and she was probably better than the many stars who played the role when it was musicalised as Hello Dolly].

But once again the public was not very interested, and Paramount's executives, who had not seen movie-star potential in Booth in the first place, did not encourage Wallis to continue with movie plans for her. She agreed with Paramount; Robert Ryan observed that she was 'uncomfortable working in the movies. She is a very timid woman and walked part of the way to work before someone told her she could park her car on the Paramount lot. In fact, I told her.'

She turned down other movie roles, including A Pocketful of Miracles and Airport, but continued working on the stage until the Seventies, in, among other plays, Juno and the Paycock and Hay Fever. But she was happiest with a television sitcom, Hazel, based on the Saturday Evening Post cartoon about an obstreperous and none- too-efficient household maid. It began in 1961, and ran for several years, bringing Booth another clutch of awards. During her life it was assumed that Booth was born in 1905, but her family has announced that she was 94 years old at the time of her death.

For myself, I cherish her four screen appearances. I remember vividly her playing Amanda - the mother - in a television version of The Glass Menagerie in 1967. I'm told that she was miscast, but as far as I'm concerned it didn't matter.

As the New York Post said when reviewing A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Shirley Booth was 'one of the wonders of the American stage; a superb actress, a magnificent comedienne and all-round performer of seemingly endless variety.'

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits