Teresa Wright on TV

Teresa Wright is decency personified for many fans.  Her portrayals of young women at a crossroads—as Bette Davis’ independent daughter in The Little Foxes(1941); the intelligent young bride in Mrs.Miniver (1942); the spirited protector of her family against a maniacal, and former favorite, uncle in Shadow of a Doubt (1942); the gallant wife of Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees (1943); and most especially, the young woman who came of age during World War II and who now faces its aftermath in the form of a hopeless love for a distraught, and married, veteran in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)—are all characters that carry her particular stamp of forthrightness and humble courage. 

This post is part of the 2015 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted this year by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film.  Have a look at her blog for other terrific entries.  Today TCM’s Summer Under the Stars is dedicated to the films of Teresa Wright, and most of those mentioned above will be featured in today’s programming.  But, as you can see by the links on those movies (as well as California Conquest and Casanova Brown), we’ve discussed them before, so today I’d like to turn our attention to Miss Wright’s television work, which was filled with opportunities to perform exciting roles at a point in her career when Hollywood was no longer granting her that option. 

Most of her later film roles in the 1950s treaded into the hysterical female area, which, being fairly one-dimensional, are unfulfilling for the fan and, I would guess, the actress.  An artist of subtle depth and delicate underplaying, Wright had earned Academy Award nominations in two different categories for her first three roles, and won Best Supporting for Mrs. Miniver, the same year she was up for Best Actress for Shadow of a Doubt. She is the only actress to have been nominated for Oscars® for her first three films in a row. It was a prodigious beginning for an actress who took her work seriously and cared very little for stardom (we’ve also referred in this post toher famous contract clause excusing her from any publicity nonsense).

None of those early roles are typical ingénues, certainly not damsels in distress waiting to be rescued; at least, she does not play them as such. There is something of iron in her will, despite the softness of her voice and the sweetness of her expression.  There is a knowing sadness that creeps into her young women that tells us that though she is genteel, she is not fragile, and is capable of standing up to the obstacles, or threats, against her.  Charley is shocked by the evil uncle, but she recognizes evil when she sees it and won’t back down.  Peggy Stephenson is deeply touched by the deeply troubled ex-Army Air Corps officer, but she has been exposed to damaged warriors through her wartime hospital work and she knows something of what he is suffering.  She’s a nice girl, but not sheltered.

In this vein, the two TV roles I’d like to discuss today are her work in “No. 5 Checked Out” from Screen Directors Playhouse from 1956, and “Lonely Place” from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, 1964.  These are two women in peril, but she plays these women as possessing a frank capability far beyond the template laid down by the script. 

Some of her work on TV was pioneering, most especially that she originated the role of Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Workerwhen it debuted on Playhouse 90 in 1957, long before the film or Broadway play.  I enjoyed watching this some years ago at the Paley Center for Media in New York City.  Unfortunately, it is not available on DVD.

She also played the intrepid Lifephotographer Margaret Bourke-White on Sunday Showcase in 1960, Mary Todd Lincoln on General Electric Theater in 1955, among many other TV roles.  In her TV career, she was nominated for three Emmys®. However, most of her work from the 1950s onward took place in theatre, where she began her career and which provided intelligent and challenging roles.

The roles in Screen Directors Playhouseand The Alfred Hitchcock Hour are both women in danger and the stories are offbeat and quirky.  Both feature surprise endings, but the plot is secondary to characterization.  We go on a psychological journey with these women. It is this journey that defines them, not the danger.  Both, incidentally, are also three-person plays creating tension within that triangle.

“No. 5 Checked Out” on Screen Directors Playhouse was directed by Ida Lupino, and co-stars Peter Lorre and William Talman.  Teresa Wright is a deaf woman, who is capable of reading lips and speaking without impediment.  We are told that an operation may help her, but the story is not about curing her; it’s about her acceptance of herself.  She is a teacher in a school for the deaf, but is currently helping her father run a tourist cottage camp.  He must leave to care for a sick relative, and she is left alone to prepare the cottages for the opening of the season. 

William Talman and Peter Lorre are bad guys on the lam.  Mr. Lorre is the badder of the bad guys, with his creepy leer and sociopathic enjoyment of making others squirm.  He makes Talman squirm.  Talman was the getaway driver in a bank heist that went wrong, and he feels betrayed because a man died and there was supposed to be no violence.  Lorre likes violence, and he has Talman under this thumb.

Mr. Talman has a nice role here and he plays it beautifully, a sadder-but-wiser schmuck who can easily be seen as a romantic hero paired with Teresa Wright.  He is not aware at first that she is deaf, as she is able to hide it well, and chooses to hide it to after being jilted by a boyfriend who found her deafness inconvenient.  Eventually, Talman discovers it, and encourages Wright to believe in her chances for a full and happy life, including romance.  

He sadly acknowledges to himself and her that she could do better than him, gallantly not attempting to be more than her friend. 

Lorre, who does not know she is deaf, thinks she has been eavesdropping on their plans for escape and intends to kill her.  Talman tries to stand up to him to protect Wright.  The ending is as cynical and fatalistic as any noir. 

In “Lonely Place” for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Teresa Wright is the careworn farmer’s wife of  Pat Buttram.  Bruce Dern is their new hired hand.  It is a tale of deception, betrayal, and terror. 

First, one is struck by Wright’s beauty in this episode.  In middle age, she has passed beyond the delicate prettiness of her youth and has developed—with fine lines around her eyes, her jaw set in determination, and a wide, clean smile—into a beauty that is natural and mature.  Her face registers many moods in this piece as she takes us on a journey that is as introspective as it is distressing.

For those used to seeing Pat Buttram in slow-witted, clownish sidekick roles, this performance is a revelation.  He is splendid as Wright’s penny-pinching husband, too engrossed in making a buck that he walks a doomed path from taking her for granted, to neglecting her, to putting her in danger, to saving himself at her expense.  He is so meek a man that we fail to see until it is too late, as does Wright, that his self-centered personality is as deadly a threat to his wife as Bruce Dern.

Dern has the flashy role of a knife-wielding maniac, who shows up looking for work, and will work so cheap that Pat Buttram won’t send him away, even when Dern begins behaving rudely to his wife.

The performances are top-notch, and are complemented by intriguing camera work.  They are framed carefully in the context of the moment.  The trio at dinner, with Dern in the center of the shot literally between them as he is coming between them in their marriage.  A shot of Dern’s razor-sharp hunting knife in the foreground in his grip as he talks to Wright.

At the beginning, Teresa Wright is shown feeding a favorite pet squirrel, laughing over his antics. Later, Bruce Dern will kick sand in the little squirrel’s face, and then kill it.  When she suspects his is attacking her pet, Wright runs out of the farmhouse and we switch seamlessly to a hand-held camera.  

When she finds the animal dead, she screams in horror, a wail of heartbroken despair that breaks into a silent, breath-catching sob.  It’s a stunning scene.

Her journey of discovery is played out in her sensitive face: her expression of hatred for Dern, her expression of disbelief at her husband’s seeming unconcern for this event, at his apparent ignorance of Dern’s manipulation as the episode progresses, her expression of disgust when her husband belittles her and allows Dern to tease her.  Dern frightens her, but it is her new perspective on her husband that causes her the most discomfort.  When he playfully suggests he was jealous of her attention for the squirrel anyway, and complains that she fed the animal too well, she asks him if that is why they never had any children.  It is implied that he did not want additional mouths to feed, or to have her attention centered on anyone but him.  Her throwing a handful of corn to a wild, but friendly, squirrel who has grown to trust her, giving him water in an old baking pan, was too much time spent away from the kitchen, in her husband’s eyes.  Buttram is not bullying, but employs as passive-aggressive tactic to make her feel guilty for not being more sensitive to his feelings.

She does feel badly, but Dern is too scary.  Finally, she can take no more and attempts to sneak out of the house at night—and Dern catches her.  There is the ultimate terror of being physically attacked, prolonged by Dern’s enjoyment of terrorizing her.  He tries to make her scream again, as she did over the squirrel, because he wants her husband to come out to save her so he can kill him.  She knows this, and she will not scream.  She will save her husband if she cannot save herself.

As a thunderstorm moves in, they scuffle and she gets his knife.  She has the upper hand now, and he runs away. 

The ultimate shock when she returns to the house is discovering, slowly in their conversation, that her husband, whom she thought was asleep during her alteration with Dern, was actually awake.  He heard everything.  He refused to help her because he was afraid of Dern.  Also, he hoped that Dern would just settle down and continue working for him the next day, because he worked dirt cheap.

The ending is a great surprise, but the finely crafted scenes building up to it are really the driving engine of the story.  The image of Teresa Wright, with all her decency, her intelligence, and her gentle humanity being a caged woman in her own simple home, at the mercy not only of crazed Bruce Dern, but of her greedy, stupid pig of a husband are what is most shocking about the episode and this is what stays with us long after.

Perhaps the image is indelible because it is not just a helpless woman being threatened, it is that decency and humanity of the young bride from Mrs. Miniver, the loyal daughter of Shadow of a Doubt, the noble wife of Pride of the Yankees, and the beloved Peggy Stephenson who gently comforted Dana Andrews during his nightmare in The Best Years of Our Lives.  Teresa Wright not only owned those early roles, she took them with her all the rest of her life.

Have a look at the other great posts in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon this month at Journeys in Classic Film.


Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.

My new syndicated column on classic film is up at http://www.go60.us/govoice/advice-and-more/item/2025-ccc-movie-fan, or check with your local paper.
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