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Ann Sothern

1/22/2004:

Today is the birthday of Hariette Lake, who was born in 1909 in Valley City. Her mother was an opera singer, her father was a “traveling thespian”; and her grandfather was a violinist.

When Hariette was 6 years old, her father deserted them, and her mother, Annette, moved the family first to Minneapolis, then to southern California, where she was hired as a diction coach during the early days of “talking pictures.” Annette also prepared her daughter, Hariette, for life in show business, training her as a lyric soprano and teaching her piano.

In 1933, Hariette started her career with a brief movie role in which she and co-star, Lucille Ball, played bathing beauties. They hit it off and started experimenting with hair colors and makeup while slogging through a quagmire of bit-parts and walk-ons. Lucy described it as being “categorized with the scenery.”

Film mogul Harry Cohn saw Hariette in a stage performance and decided to cast her in a picture he was making for Columbia Studios, Let’s Fall in Love. But there was a catch... “There are already too many Lakes in show business,” he said, and promptly renamed her Ann Sothern. She didn’t complain. “I (wasn’t appearing) in B or C pictures,” she explained, “I was in Z pictures.”

Her performance got her noticed, and in 1939, she landed a sophisticated comedy, Trade Winds, which gained her rave reviews. MGM picked up her contract, and her popularity as a comic actress was cemented in Maisie, in which Sothern played a flippant former burlesque dancer with a warm heart and a lot of man trouble. The film was a smash hit and led to nine more Maisies. But Ann knew enough to leverage that success – for each successive Maisie, she insisted that the studio first give her another strong movie role to play. And Lucy? “I got all the parts Ann Sothern turned down,” she quipped.

Sothern’s greatest exposure came in the 1950s with the advent of the sit-com. While the studios forbade their actors to get into television, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz boldly launched The Lucy Show, and soon after, Ann Sothern launched her own TV career with a sassy character in a very successful show, Private Secretary. “The best comedienne in this business, bar none, is Ann Sothern,” Lucy said, and after Sothern left Private Secretary, Lucy and Desi commissioned their writers to create The Ann Sothern Show. Again, she was a hit, and the show ran for three years.

In 1986, Ann Sothern was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in The Whales of August, co-starring Lillian Gish, Bette Davis and Vincent Price. Twelve years before, Sothern had suffered a fractured vertebra and permanent nerve damage to her legs, yet she was still the life of the party. “When Ann appeared on the set,” said director Lindsay Anderson, “the whole atmosphere lightened up. She brought her own poker chips and played cards with the crew.”

Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, has said, “There was nothing she couldn't do. Light comedy was her forte, but she also was a good singer and the camera loved her.”

Ann Sothern died in 2001 at the age of 92. Today, as we remember her birthday, we can look back to how she ended her episodes of The Ann Sothern Show – she would look into the camera and say, “Good night... and stay happy.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm