Singer, comedian, and actress, Ann Sothern turned heads with her irresistible good looks and wowed audiences with her ability to consistently deliver sharp dialogue with perfect comedic timing and vigor. After making appearances in several critically acclaimed and commercially successful musicals, Sothern transitioned into cinema, first appearing in a handful of B-movies. While she earned her keep performing in those minor roles and developed a reputation for being a reliable actress, she finally made her big break when she became a contract player with MGM.
In 1939, MGM cast Sothern as Maisie Ravier, a cheeky yet lovable Brooklyn showgirl. That character was based open the short stories by Nell Martin who in addition to her Maisie series, also wrote the 1928 novel Lord Byron of Broadway. That novel was adopted into a film of the same name by MGM in 1930.
The first Maisie film proved to be so popular that it spawned a successful film franchise as well as a network radio program, The Adventures of Maisie.
In the early ‘50s, Sothern moved into television when she became the star of her own sitcom, Private Secretary. The series debuted on CBS in 1953 and ran for five seasons. In the process, Sothern was nominated for a total of three Primetime Emmys.
Later that decade, in 1958, Sothern starred in yet another CBS sitcom, The Ann Sothern Show, which aired for three seasons. She went on to provide the voice for Gladys Crabtree in the quirky sitcom My Mother the Car. After that series ended in 1966, she continued her acting career throughout the remainder of the decade, appearing in numerous stage productions, films, and television shows.
Unfortunately, in her later years, health issues prevented her from acting as much as she would have liked to. Throughout the ’70s and 80s, she was only able to work sporadically due to limited mobility. Join Facts Verse as we discuss why Ann Sothern required a cane to walk in her final years. While her story is one that has many twists and turns, which ultimately led her to spend her golden years in a great deal of physical pain, she never once gave up on pursuing her dreams. We’re willing to bet that you’ll find her life story to be very inspirational. You’ll likely also be pleasantly surprised to hear about her unique relationship with one of television’s most iconic matrons, Lucille Ball.
Driven From Day One
Ann Sothern was born Harriette Arlene Lake in Valley City, North Dakota, on the 22nd of January, 1922. She was the youngest of three daughters born to Annette Yde and Walter J. Lake.
Annette was a concert singer, while Harriette’s father worked in the importing and exporting industry. Harriette and her two younger sisters, Marion and Bonnie, grew up in Minneapolis. When she was just four, her parents separated and later divorced.
The year after her parent’s marriage fell apart, she began taking piano lessons. She later attended the McPhail School of Music, where her mother was a piano teacher. Occasionally, when time would permit, she would accompany her mother on her concert tours.
When Harriette was 11, she was already a remarkably accomplished pianist and regularly sang solos in her church’s choir. Once she was a teenager, she began taking voice lessons while continuing her studies of piano and musical composition. Around this time, she discovered her love for theater when she started appearing in stage productions at Minneapolis Central High School. Born with a knack for leadership, she even took a few stabs at directing shows as well.
Before graduating from high school in 1926, Harriette entered the annual state-sponsored contest for student composers, winning three competitions in a row. After earning her diploma, her mother moved to LA, where she found work as a vocal coach for Warner Brothers. Instead of accompanying her mother in California, Harriette instead moved with her father to Seattle, Washington, where she enrolled at the University of Washington. Academia, however, evidently wasn’t for her, as she ended up dropping out after just one year.
Sothern then visited her mother in California, where she was cast in the Warner Brothers revue The Show of Shows. This role led her to land a screen test with MGM, which resulted in her signing a six-month contract with the studio. This is about the time when she began to appear in minor roles and bit parts in the studios films, but she soon grew frustrated with just appearing such small parts.
When she met Florenz Ziegfeld at a party, she was offered a role in one of his productions. After her contract with MGM expired and they decided not to pick her option, she moved across the country to New York to take Ziegfeld up on his generous offer. In 1931, Harriette had leading roles in Broadway productions like Everybody’s Welcome and America’s Sweetheart. After getting her fill of theater life in the Big Apple, she returned back to California to continue pursuing her dream of becoming a screen actress.
Since we already gave you a brief overview of her acting career past this point in the intro, we’ll go ahead and skip forward a bit to the chapter in her life when she started experiencing health issues. It’s worth noting, however, that she was given the professional name Ann Sothern by Harry Cohn after signing a contract with Columbia Pictures in 1934.
Health Issues Forced Her To Slow Down
As previously noted, Sothern spent the bulk of the next two decades appearing in major theatrical releases. Following the success of her popular Maisie film series, she began work on the Maisie radio program. Although Hollywood had been good to her, she never stopped appearing on stage. Not long after filming 1949s A Letter of Three Wives, Sothern contracted hepatitis after getting a tainted serum shot while she was in England doing a stage production.
The disease left her bedridden. Though she was incapable of doing films and plays at this time, she continued to work on her radio show while she recuperated. Sothern would later say that her illness had restored her faith in God. Her close friend Richard Egan’s loving guidance led her to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1952.
In 1974, Sothern experienced yet another health setback when she was injured while appearing in the stock production of Everybody Loves Opal in Jacksonville, Florida. Apparently, a fake tree fell on her back, leaving her with a fractured lumbar vertebra and nerve damage in her legs.
Her injuries were so extensive that she needed to be hospitalized several times. While in the hospital, she was put in traction. Traction is a set of mechanisms that are used to straighten broken bones and relieve pressure on the skeletal system and spine.
Sothern’s injuries additionally required her to wear back braces. Since she was someone who was, up until this point, always seen up and about working tirelessly at her craft, her forced inactively led her to develop severe depression. If it weren’t for her deep faith as a Catholic, she may not have gotten through this incredibly trying chapter of her life.
For the remainder of her life and career, Sothern experienced numbness in her extremities and required the use of a cane to walk.
Sothern Pushed On
In 1974, despite her limited mobility, Sothern traveled to Hong Kong to film the martial arts flick Golden Needles. The following year she appeared in the action comedy film Crazy Mamma, appearing onscreen alongside Chloris Leachman. For the remainder of the decade, her health issues forced her to really cut back on her acting career. Despite this, she continued to work sporadically in TV and stage productions. Notably, she enjoyed a minor role in the 1978 horror film The Manitou alongside Tony Curtis.
After taking a bit of a hiatus, she returned to TV in 1985, playing the character Ma Finney in an adaptation of one of her previous films, A Letter to Three Wives. Sothern made her final film appearance in 1987s The Whales of August.
In that movie, she portrayed the neighbor of two elderly sisters played by Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. For that performance, she earned her one and only Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nomination. After filming wrapped on that feature, she retired from acting and relocated to Ketchum, Idaho, where she spent the remainder of her days.
On March 15, 2001, Sothern passed away at home at the age of 92, succumbing to heart disease. She was laid to rest at the Ketchum Cemetery.
Lucille Ball Considered Sothern To Be One Of Her Greatest Influences
When Lucille Ball first arrived in Hollywood, she looked to Ann Sothern for inspiration. Sothern was one of the most prominent B-movie actresses in Tinsel Town at the time. Ball would later say that she wanted to follow in Sothern’s footsteps. Ann, just like Ball, was a natural redhead. She dyed her hair blonde for roles in screwball comedy films.
Ball once was quoted as saying that she built her entire career on everything that Sothern “didn’t have time to do”. In fact, she apparently would hang around the casting office and ask if there was anything that Sothern wasn’t able to do that month.
Ball and Sothern eventually got a chance to appear alongside each other in several episodes of The Lucy Show. Following Sothern’s passing, Ball referred to her as the ‘best comedian in the business, bar none’.
Considering Lucille’s reputation for comic ingenuity, that’s quite a lofty compliment.
It would seem that Ball wasn’t the only one that recognized Sothern for her talents because she has been honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – one for her work in motion pictures and the other for her television career. The first can be found at 1612 Vine Street, and the other at 1634 Vine Street.
While Ann Sothern might not be the best-known Hollywood star of all time, she clearly made a significant impact in the 60-plus years that she was active in the entertainment industry. When you have someone like Lucille Ball showering you with praise, then you know that you’ve done at least something right.
Ann Sothern will forever be remembered as one of the wittiest comics of her day. She was an incredibly gifted actress who displayed an astounding amount of versatility. Her one and only daughter, Tisha Sterling, whom she had with her husband Robert Sterling, went on to follow in her footsteps by becoming an actress herself. And Just as Sterling is still alive and well, the memory of her mother is as well.
Where you a fan of Ann Sothern? If so, what was your favorite film, radio program, stage production, or television show that she appeared in? Let us know in the comments.