Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Ann Sheridan's Glamour Brightens Gloomy Noir 'Nora Prentiss' 1947

Ann Sheridan is top-billed and the title character, but plays second fiddle to WB's resident wimp, Kent Smith!

Ann Sheridan, one of the '40s most appealing actresses, had her last hurrah with WB in 1947-48. The Unfaithful was a San Fran transplant of The Letter and Nora Prentiss was a domestic drama turned film noir. Sheridan teamed with Errol Flynn in ’48 for the Raoul Walsh western, Silver River. Ann then appeared in Leo McCarey's Good Sam with Gary Cooper. Though the comedy disappointed critics and audiences, Sheridan and Cooper’s appeal still helped make it a box office success. None of these movies are classics, but overall, were popular at the time.
After leaving WB, Ann starred in Howard Hawks 1949's I Was a Male War Bride with Cary Grant. Sheridan was sparkling in this smash screwball comedy, with Hawks' showcasing Ann’s comic flair as he did with Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century.
Ann Sheridan in a publicity pose as 'Nora Prentiss.' Though hyped as a femme fatale, Ann's singer is sympathetic.

With all this, Sheridan’s box office standing seemed in better shape than most veteran female stars. Yet, the bottom dropped out of Ann Sheridan’s career in 1950. Was it because Sheridan turned 35? Back then, that was the point of no return for an actress. Was it that Sheridan never had a signature movie role? Say, a role or film that could take Ann to the next level, of a Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, or Rosalind Russell? Even as Randy Monaghan in Kings Row, Sheridan didn’t appear till nearly half way through the picture. Was it because she wasn’t a careerist, like Crawford, Davis, and Hepburn? I think that Sheridan was a bit like Joan Blondell, someone who was considered a great broad that could do a little of everything, but not a so-called great actress, like Norma Shearer or Greer Garson.
What a shame, since Ann Sheridan had one of film’s most distinctive personalities, full of warmth and good humor. Not only was Sheridan a terrific wisecracking comedienne, but also a natural dramatic actress, much like Lombard. Ann also had an appealing singing voice, unlike many dubbed movie divas. Sheridan looked like a more “down to earth” version of Rita Hayworth, and wasn't called 'The Oomph Girl' for nothing! With all of this going for her, why did Ann Sheridan’s star fall so far after 1950?
I preferred the first half of 'Nora Prentiss,' where the good doc is torn between family and Sheridan's sassy singer.

In retrospect, 1947’s Nora Prentiss seems like a sign of things to come. As the title character and top billed star, Ann Sheridan somehow plays second fiddle to Kent Smith. Yes, the Kent Smith. The actor arrived at WB after WWII, and Smith quickly became typecast as the milquetoast male for the leading lady or the bad guy to walk all over. Smith was certainly a capable performer, and after he left WB, became a reliable character actor. Kent Smith just wasn't dynamic enough to become a top rank star. In fact, WB never really had a breakout male superstar after John Garfield. There were middling male stars like Ronald Reagan, Dane Clark, and Harry Guardino—or worse, Steve Cochran and David Brian! How ironic that mild-mannered Kent Smith's big starring role came at the expense of Ann Sheridan, who was about to walk out the WB door, like so many of her fellow stars, over money and scripts.
 Ann Sheridan on the set of 'Nora Prentiss' with co-star Kent Smith. Does he measure up?

Nora Prentiss is a sassy night club singer who is the catalyst for dull doctor Richard Talbot to leave his wife and family. The first half of the movie is a romantic triangle, with Talbot increasingly drawn to Nora, yet guilt-ridden for wanting to leave his family. Sheridan and Smith’s first scenes together, when Nora is tended to by the doc after a minor accident, showcase Ann’s snappy delivery. Sheridan later sings two numbers, sounding especially lovely on “Who Cares What People Say?”
Ann Sheridan is a more than capable chanteuse as 'Nora Prentiss.' 

Their romance is reaching dead end when an improbable opportunity presents itself. Talbot takes it, and from then on he hijacks the movie to the road of abject misery and absurd twists. The WB ads play up Nora as a femme fatale, which she isn't. None of the events are Nora's fault, and she tries to leave him several times, so he can salvage his life. I won't give away the major plot spoiler, but what happens to make the doctor’s new life possible is so ridiculous, even before the DNA era, is patently phony. Eventually, Talbot pays an extreme price.
Smith's respectable doctor goes on the skids in record time over Sheridan's nightclub chanteuse.

Aside from unbelievable, I found the last half of Nora Prentiss tiresome and depressing. The domestic drama was more real and heartfelt to me. The story seemed familiar, then I read a few comments on how similar Nora Prentiss was to Dreiser's Sister Carrie: A respectable businessman with a solid but dull life and dominating wife, throws it all away for a captivating small-time performer. Bingo! What's strange is that a film version, titled Carrie, was made five years later with Laurence Olivier—and Larry and Kent Smith bear more than a passing resemblance to each other—the basset hound eyes, set jaw line, and pencil mustache. However, unlike Olivier, Kent Smith's doctor declines in record time; it's like watching Dr. Jekyll turn into Mr. Hyde!
Laurence Olivier in 'Carrie.'
Kent Smith in 'Nora Prentiss.'

Nora Prentiss has a stellar supporting WB cast. Yet it is typical how up and coming WB actors got thrown into thankless roles. Just a couple years earlier, Robert Alda made his WB film debut as George Gershwin and he played several starring roles shortly after. Alda was a nasty night club owner in The Man I Love. Here in Nora Prentiss, he's a nice night club owner. It's very hard to believe that tall, dark, and handsome Alda, whose character owns a nightclub and wants to marry singer Nora, would seem like a no-brainer, right? Sheridan’s Nora laments to Smith’s married doctor at the movie’s beginning that she can’t meet a good guy, only bums…yet takes a pass on Alda’s Phil.
Bruce Bennett, who was relegated to one scene in Bette Davis' A Stolen Life in ’46, hadn't made much progress since playing Bert Pierce opposite Joan's title character the year before. In Nora Prentiss, he's Smith’s fellow partner, who's there to pick up the pieces and find clues. Like Kent Smith, Bennett was a rather dull actor, but he was solid enough and attractive, but is stuck in a totally nothing role. It seems like WB filled out the background characters with anybody on the lot who wasn't working!
Vincent Sherman took over the helm from Edmund Goulding and Irving Rapper as WB’s top director of women. Combine all the Bette and Joan movies Sherman helmed, he should have gotten, if not an Oscar, perhaps a Purple Heart! Sherman was a solid, smooth, if not groundbreaking director, and he keeps spinning this tale skillfully before you have enough time to think about it.
Director Vincent Sherman, a bit of a ladies man, seems to be enjoying the charismatic Ann Sheridan.

Film noir fans will probably enjoy Nora Prentiss most, as will Sheridan admirers. I just wished it was truly an Ann Sheridan film.
As for Ann Sheridan’s career, while she is well-liked, you don’t see classic film historians and fans fawning over her or trying to elevate Sheridan’s legacy, like certain other “underrated” actresses who have become overrated by revisionism. Ultimately, a star’s work is their legacy, and as Ann Sheridan tearfully sings as Nora Prentiss, who cares what people say?
Ann Sheridan is the song bird in the gilded hotel cage for the last half of 'Nora Prentiss!'

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