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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003