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Clara Lou Sheridan was a girl from a big Texas family who went to Hollywood in 1934 at age 19 after her sister sent her photo in for a “search for beauty” contest run by Paramount. “They’re still searching, mind you,” Sheridan told interviewer John Kobal, in her knowing way. The odds were against her, but she was one of the few contest winners who got herself into the movie Search for Beauty (1934), and then Sheridan stayed on at Paramount to play bit parts and did shots of hands and feet and legs for other stars and anything else she could get while getting rid of her Texas accent.
About what could have been her big break in pictures, Behold My Wife (1934), for which director Mitchell Leisen went to bat for her, Sheridan was also humorous. “I was the society girl in love with Gene Raymond who commits suicide when he leaves her,” she told Kobal. “Committing suicide was the great thing, you know. Makes everybody look at you and think you’re serious about your career.” In this nine-minute showcase part, Sheridan makes the distress of her character feel very real, with Leisen’s help, yet it didn’t do her any good at Paramount, perhaps because of her hearty and cheerful behavior off screen.
“They always wanted you to be seen to be serious at Paramount,” she said. “When they caught you laughing, the front office would say you weren’t serious…Then I was fired. I didn’t suffer—but it can get very dark before things begin to look up. But I’m a Texan, dear, and we Texans are proud. We don’t give up without a fight, and I wasn’t going to go home and admit I was licked.” Sheridan stayed around and eventually got herself signed to Warner Brothers in 1937, which meant a different sort of grind of work, but Warners suited her scrappy, fighting spirit far better than Paramount had.
Sheridan played small parts in A pictures and a few leads in B pictures, and then she got caught up in a publicity campaign that got her attention but proved hard to live down. Columnist Walter Winchell had seen her in a movie and wrote that she had an “umphy” quality, and so Warners publicity chief Bob Taplinger arranged for Sheridan to win a contest that crowned her the Oomph Girl. Oomph was maybe supposed to call to mind It, which is what Clara Bow had, but with a bit more sock-it-to-‘em power.
Sheridan played a saloon singer in the color Dodge City (1939) who nearly snarls at her male audience and kicks them away if they try to get fresh, and this set her tough-girl type for the next few years. She had a way on screen of shooting a cranky look at people who annoyed her that was very appealing and got the audience in her corner. Oomph aside, Sheridan can never take being sexy seriously and usually squirms around physically when asked to put over a sultry musical number, but this has its own no-nonsense sex appeal.
The apotheosis of this period for Sheridan was Torrid Zone (1940), in which she plays a sharpie named Lee Donley who rolls with the punches and has a way with a low-voiced wisecrack: “The stork that brought you must have been a vulture” she says to Pat O’Brien, her young, full face hard with distemper. But Sheridan has a nearly childlike loveliness sometimes as she runs around after James Cagney here, even if she almost leers at him when he invites her into his room. So Lee Donley is a kind of fantasy woman who can look very hardboiled and very tender by turns, and that tenderness of hers has an attractive sort of weary quality to it.
Sheridan was only 25 in Torrid Zone, but she looked at times as if she had been around for quite a while, and this combination of youthful freshness and exhausted maturity was beguiling. Sheridan’s Lee Donley is resilient partly because she can see the humor in most situations, and so she is that great American female type of this period, a young woman living by her wits who is blithely hopeful for a break she knows will come along at any moment.
Her pal Humphrey Bogart told Sheridan about the book Kings Row and said that it had a good part for her in it, and she had to fight to get herself into the movie in 1942, which was her high-water mark at Warners. They had her filming Kings Row and The Man Who Came to Dinner simultaneously, and Sheridan was ready for this challenge. Her Randy Monaghan in Kings Row is a good-hearted girl from the wrong side of the tracks who is capable of deep feeling and commitment, and Sheridan has close-ups here that are memorably full of joy and a few later in the film that are a picture of touchingly stoic sorrow.
As Lorraine Sheldon in The Man Who Came to Dinner, a part based on the glamorous stage star Gertrude Lawrence, Sheridan is not obvious casting, yet she has acquired the high-pressure technique to put over all the fluted cries of “Darling!” and the larger arm gestures of a stagy lady, and she gets a big laugh when she drops her piss-elegant manner and snarls “You French moron!” into the phone in her butchest voice. Director William Keighley said that Sheridan flattered co-star Bette Davis by asking her advice on timing her lines, which got the queen of the lot on her side.
These two movies proved that Sheridan had a wider range than might have previously been suspected, yet her remaining years at Warners rarely took advantage of that. It was only when she was freed of her contract that she became what she was always meant to be, a Howard Hawks heroine, in I Was a Male War Bride (1949) opposite Cary Grant. When she was truly amused, Sheridan had a very winning way of breaking into surprisingly high yet chesty laughter on screen, and part of the fun of her Hawks movie is that she has several scenes where she is trying to hold this laughter down as she teases Grant, who is at his driest here, but it keeps bubbling up. Sheridan is at her most commandingly masculine in this Hawks picture, with her short hair and her military uniform and that low wised-up voice of hers, but there is an amused femininity there just below the surface, and that’s what makes her an ideal male-female partner for Grant.
Sheridan was the brassy entertainer Vermilion O’Toole in Take Me to Town (1953), which is minor Douglas Sirk but major Ann Sheridan where she explains that the color vermilion is “just one step hotter than a redhead.” This is her most assured star performance, and she even manages to work with a plot that asks her to take on the care of three young boys who want a stepmother with some oomph. She’s especially hilarious here when showing some maiden ladies how to “sell a song” for a benefit show, putting on some very aggressively male-snaring bravado and then immediately dropping it and falling into her most exhausted seen-it-all voice.
Sheridan was fond of Come Next Spring (1956), which she called “a sleeper that was never allowed to wake up,” but her career hit a snag at this point, for she was over 40 now, and she had smoked too many cigarettes; on television Sheridan started to get the hollow-cheeked look of someone who is ill. She was seriously sick with esophageal cancer when she agreed to do a sitcom called Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats in 1966, where she is painfully thin and seems to have trouble getting her lines out. John Kobal remembered that he had been visibly disappointed when he first saw her un-made-up and with grey in her hair for their interview, and before she went to shoot this show—which she must have known would be her last stand—Sheridan took the trouble to meet Kobal one more time and had gotten all made-up so that she looked like the Oomph Girl he remembered. Before getting on her plane, Sheridan told him, “You know, darlin’ I did this for you.” She died at age 51, much too soon.