Star of the Month: Ann Sheridan

Star of the Month: Ann Sheridan

June 5, 2020 | by Shannon

Ann Sheridan Has Plenty of “Oomph,” Does Her Own Singing, Is Voted Best Dressed, Fights Warner Bros. for Better Roles, and Moves to Mexico.

Ann Sheridan may not be a household name today, but throughout her career, particularly during her heyday in the 1940s, Ann was one of the most beautiful and glamorous stars of the silver screen. Known for her spunk, humor, and down to earth kindness, Ann was just as beloved off screen as she was in her films.

Ann was actually one of the first Classic Hollywood Stars whose name and face I became familiar with: I distinctly remember the first time I saw her sultry eyes and glamorous look in the George Hurrell photos that would lead to Ann being coined “The Oomph Girl.”

Discovering Ann Sheridan

Even though I was immediately drawn to her unique look, Ann Sheridan never became one of my favorite stars as a nine-year-old Classic Hollywood fan: none of her movies were available to me, I couldn’t find a single book written by or about her.  Encarta–yesssss, these were the young days of the internet–sadly didn’t even have a page for her…

So I had to be content with the beautiful images of Ann Sheridan in John Kobal’s Move-Star Portraits of the Forties [aff. link] book my dad got for me.

Even today, with all the resources we have at our fingertips, there hasn’t been a whole lot written about Ann.  So I’m absolutely thrilled to have the chance to share all about Ann as we celebrate her this month.  This gorgeous, talented, spunky, witty, down to earth woman deserves to be remembered.

Be sure to check out my podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood.  Episode 12 is all about Ann!  You can listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify here.

Ok, now here are a few things about Ann Sheridan you didn’t know.

Young Clara Lou Sheridan.

She's From Texas

Clara Lou Sheridan was born in Denton, Texas on February 21, 1915. The youngest of five syblings, Ann was a spunky gal right from the start, full of life and unquestionably a tomboy. She was kind and well-liked, but the other kids knew not to mess with her.  A childhood friend would recount that

“If she [Clara Lou] punched you, she’d break your d – – – arm.”

As a young woman, Clara Lou studied to be a teacher at North Texas State Teachers College, though she’d later say that a teaching career was never her great ambition. Dramatics classes at North Texas State would be Clara Lou’s first taste of acting, which she loved, but did not consider a career option.

A Beauty Contest Brought Her to Hollywood

While Clara Lou was a student at North Texas State, her sister Kitty entered her in Paramount Pictures’ “Search for Beauty” contest, one of many beauty contests that were fairly common publicity gimmicks employed by Hollywood studios at the time.  Clara Lou had no idea that Kitty submitted her photo, so when she was chosen as one of 30 finalists to come to Hollywood for a screen test, it all came as a big surprise.

“It was mythical to me. I almost fainted,”

Ann would later say.

Clara Lou went to Hollywood in 1933, did the screen test, received a very brief appearance in her first film, and was one of six from the group of 30 finalists that Paramount signed to a contract.

It was officially the start of Clara Lou’s career in Hollywood, but it would be a slow climb to the top.

It Was A Slow Climb

Though Clara Lou was grateful for the financial stability her contract at Paramount provided, she didn’t become a star overnight. In fact, it would be five years from the day she signed her Paramount contract before Clara Lou would have her first role in an ‘A’ picture, opposite James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).

In the meantime, ‘Clara Lou Sheridan’ became ‘Ann Sheridan’ after the brass at Paramount informed her that ‘Clara Lou’ just wouldn’t do:

“They called me into the front office and told me that Clara Lou Sheridan was too long for the marquee…I chose Lou at first, and they said, no, that wouldn’t do, it sounds too much like a boy’s name…”

Looking glamorous with James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Ann's first 'A' picture.

So Clara Lou took inspiration from the name of the character she was currently playing in The Milky Way, a stock company production on the Paramount lot, and officially became “Ann Sheridan.”

Ann would also do “doubling” in these early years of her career.  So look closely at Paramount films from the early and mid 1930s–if you watch a scene of an actress’ hands or legs, supposedly belonging to the star of the film, it may actually be Ann Sheridan you’re looking at!  As Ann would later say,

“I did everything, dubbed hands, legs, everything except make movies.  I used to go to Grauman’s Chinese or Pantages and sit there waiting to see my faceless body on the screen.”

Ann would credit the film work she did get at this time to her horseback riding abilities.  She’d learned as a girl growing up in Denton, and the skill made her a shoe-in for any film where a female equestrian was needed.

She Was Told to Quit

Ann Sheridan was literally told to quit her Hollywood career and go home by Paramount’s drama coach, Nina Mouise. But remember how Ann was super spunky? Well, Mouise’s negativity only strengthened Ann’s desire to make it in Hollywood.

As Ann would recount in 1965,

“She advised me to go back to Texas and forget the whole thing, and of course that was just the wrong thing to say.  If she’d told me to try harder I might have gone back, but the minute she said go back, that gave me the incentive to prove to her that I was serious about my career.”

Ann’s increased motivation would be greatly needed, for in 1935, Paramount didn’t renew her contract, and she’d freelance for a year and a half. The only film Ann would make between her break with Paramount and eventual signing with Warner Bros. was Fighting for Youth (1935):

“And from early in 1935 until August of 1936 I had to live off of that $375 [what she made for the film].”

Through that “drought ridden period,” as Ann would refer to it, she wisely refused to do extra work, believing that doing so would make it near impossible for her to ever be taken seriously for lead roles.  It was a smart move, and she signed with Warner Bros in 1936.

George Hurrell's photos of Ann inspired the Warner Bros. publicity campaign that coined her "The Oomph Girl."

She Was “The Oomph Girl”

Ann would joke that she must have appeared in just about every ‘B’ picture on the Warner lot, mostly in roles that required nothing more of her than to look pretty, and move the story line along. Ann later humorously summarized how elementary and similar all of her lines in her early Warner Bros. films were:

“‘Oh , that man is evil, they went that way.’ This is what I always played.  Just reactions…these were just feminine leads and I was stuck into them.”

But Warner Bros. finally realized they had something special in Ann Sheridan after George Hurrell took some now classic portraits, which showed Ann’s great beauty and natural glamour.

Warner Bros. decided to start promoting Ann, in whom they saw shades of Jean Harlow’s earthy sensuality, and cooked up a publicity campaign that would stick with her the rest of her career.

In March of 1939, the studio put together a panel of judges, consisting of “beauty experts,” most of them Warner Bros. employees. (David Niven was among those chosen, so I assume they used the term “beauty expert” loosely…)

The panel was then asked to vote on the most glamorous woman from a group of about a dozen actresses, which included Ann, Carole Lombard, and Hedy Lamarr.  The winner, whoever had the most “oomph,” would earn the title of “The Oomph Girl.”  (What a compliment!)

The whole thing was rigged for Ann to win, so she officially became “The Oomph Girl.”

Ann and "Oomph"

Jack Warner was convinced the publicity campaign would be short-lived, that Ann’s popularity would “be dead in six months,” but he was wrong: the title stuck, and Ann’s popularity continued to grow.

Ann and “oomph” became so popular that Warner Bros. publicist Bob Taplinger copyrighted the word!  Ann’s “oomph” was insured for $100,000 by the Nevin-Seymour Company, and “oomph” products started popping up, including cigarettes and even cars.

Ann's "oomph" was insured for $100,000!

To her last days, Ann would swear she didn’t know what all the fuss was about, joking that

“Oomph is the sound a fat man makes when he bends over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth.”

She’d even tell the makeup department before filming whatever her current assignment was to

“Come over and put some oomph on me!”

Though the “Oomph Girl” title did put the glamour girl label on Ann and made it difficult for her to find more serious film roles, all the publicity and increased popularity from the campaign also put Ann in a position to bargain for better films: once she became “The Oomph Girl,” Ann’s fan mail skyrocketed, and she recieved the third highest of any star at the studio.

She Sang!

Though Ann is best known for playing sultry, wise-cracking sirens, she also sang.

As a student at North Texas State, Ann sang with the school’s band. Warner Bros. would make use of Ann’s unusual singing voice in such films as San Quentin (1937) and It All Came True (1940). 

Modest as she was, Ann would insist that

“Nobody can teach me to sing, I haven’t got that kind of a voice.  It’s kind of an odd voice…it’s just somebody teaching you how to sell a song, it’s really not singing…to make me a singer would be absolutely impossible.”

Ann’s opinion aside, her singing is unique, soulful, and as you’d probably expect, sultry. It’s one of a kind and all her own. While many actresses would have their singing dubbed anytime it was required, Ann would do her own singing in all her films, with the exception of Shine on Harvest Moon (1940) and one number in Naughty But Nice (1939).

She Fought For Better Roles

Fellow Warner Bros. star Paul Muni encouraged Ann to make the “Oomph Girl” title work for her, and she did.  Ann used her new bargaining power, and asked Warner Bros. for a raise, in addition to better film roles. When the studio refused both requests, Ann went on an 8 month suspension. Though she wouldn’t get the raise she asked for, at the end of her suspension, Ann was given the film role she asked for–which good friend Humphrey Bogart tipped her off to–that of Randy in King’s Row (1941), the film that would really demonstrate just how under-utilized Ann’s acting talents were.

When Warner Bros. once again deluged Ann with a slew of terrible film roles, she again went on suspension in December 1944, this time for 18 months: Ann knew she deserved better, and was willing to go on suspension to gain the respect, roles, and salary she deserved.

Ann with Mary Landa and Ruth Denas in Yangkai, China on her U.S.O tour. Here the girls stand in front of the "Sheridan Express," a 22nd Bomb Squadron aircraft named in Ann's honor.

She Entertained the Troops Overseas

In the summer of 1944, Ann entertained the troops in China, Burma, and India for eight weeks with the U.S.O.

She took the advice of Bob Hope before leaving, and made sure that the majority of her time overseas was spent with the GIs, not just the officers:

Ann on board the "Sheridan Express." Note the fashionable snood she's put her hair back in. Even when roughing it on the the road, traveling across the world, Ann Sheridan was one stylish lady.

“Bob Hope told me before we left not to let the officers occupy all of our time, that the GIs were the ones we were going to entertain.  You can’t imagine the arguments we got into with the officers…All those dull, stupid pink teas with the officers’ wives–the minute they demanded that we go, we wouldn’t.  We all stuck together on that.  We went to entertain the GIs.”

Entertaining the troops with comedian Ben Blue.

How cool is that?!!

I love that Ann felt so strongly about her duty to entertain and boost the morale of the troops, and not just enjoy teatime with the officers and their wives.

She Smoked Three Packs A Day

When recounting her early years in Hollywood, Ann Sheridan would describe herself as

“…pudgy fat with kinky hair and a space between my teeth.”

It’s hard to image Ann as anything but the svelte woman she would be during her years of stardom. 

So it’s interesting to contrast Ann’s words with those of James Cagney, who observed on the set of Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) that Ann

“Was a lovely, talented gal…so much to offer–and a three-pack-a-day smoker.  She just didn’t eat because cigarettes killed her appetite..Years later when the lung cancer hit, she didn’t have much of a chance, and what a powerful shame that was.  A mighty nice gal, Annie.”

James Cagney would recall that Ann was "a three-pack-a-day smoker."

Ann would die tragically young at age 51 in 1967 from cancer. As Cagney infers, years of heavy smoking and respiratory problems combined to take Ann from the world much too soon. Ann was such a trooper, however, that right up until the end she continued filming her television show, Pistols n’ Petticoats. Ann kept her illness a secret from the cast a crew out of fear that if her poor health was known, the show would be canceled, and many would lose their jobs. Ann selflessly succeeded in filming 25 of the 26 episodes in the season before passing.

A publicity shot for Pistols n' Petticoats. The television show's costume designers would hide Ann's frail figure and rapid weight loss in layered costumes such as this. She kept her cancer a secret from the cast and crew.

She Was a Fashion Plate

If you’ve seen a single photo of Ann Sheridan, it’s obvious she had impeccable fashion sense, and knew how to wear clothes. As a fashion lover myself, I always love watching Ann’s entrances in her films–particularly of the 1940s–to see what stunning creation she will manage to make even more stunning with her confidence and carriage.

I’ll cover this more next week in Nora Prentiss (1947), and at the end of the month in my fashion tribute to William Travilla, but Ann’s keen eye for fashion is what gave William “Billy” Travilla his start in films. The legendary designer would become most famous for the flawless gowns he created for Marilyn Monroe, but Travilla’s success in Hollywood can all be traced back to Ann.

Ann looking every inch the fashion plate in this stunning black gown.

And if photos and the Travilla connection aren’t enough to prove Ann’s sense of style, she was named the “Best Dressed Woman in Motion Pictures” by New York’s Fashion Academy in 1945, and would serve on Modern Screen magazine’s Fashion Board in the 1950s.

Ann with talented designer Billy Travilla, whose career in film can be traced back to Ann.

She Loved Poodles. And Mexico

Two of Ann’s great passions were poodles and Mexico. She would actually breed poodles during the 1950s with her veterinarian, but had such a hard time parting with the puppies, she stopped poodle breeding in 1959.

Ann’s love of Mexico started in her Texas childhood, when she learned to speak Spanish. Throughout her years in Hollywood, Ann would say she’d love to mostly leave her career behind, and move to Mexico City. Staying true to her word, Ann did move to Mexico City, and lived there from 1953-1956 after the passing of her longtime boyfriend, publicist Steve Hannagan.

I couldn't find a pic of Ann with her poodles, but OH MY GOSH how cute and stylish does she look here with this cat?!!!

She Had No Ego

It’s clear from the way Ann responded to all the publicity and compliments she got for her sultry beauty that the woman had zero ego.  Ann would insist in a 1965 interview, when asked about her success in the “Search for Beauty” contest that led to her Hollywood career that

 “I didn’t, and still don’t, think I was good looking enough.”

Her lack of ego is further driven home by Ann’s comments about winning the “The Oomph Girl” title:

“Simply another publicity stunt. Nothing special. My Lord, they took the back of Hedy Lamarr’s head and the backs of whoever else’s heads they entered in the contest…Of course it was all a set-up to pick me. They could never have had a good picture of Hedy Lamarr and said that I was more glamorous than she was.”

I just love how humorous, humble, and unaffected Ann was by her beauty and glamour.

A publicity shot of Ann in her later years.

She Was In a Soap

Ann would say towards the end of her career that

“I love those corny things.  I’m crazy about soap operas…I adore them.”

In the fall of 1965, Ann became one of the very first Hollywood stars to appear in a soap opera, and starred in Another World, beginning a trend that other stars would soon follow.

She's a Murder Mystery Heroine

In 1943, Whitman Publishing Company published a series of mystery books, using favorite female stars as the protagonists. Ann Sheridan was one of those stars. The title of Ann’s murder mystery?

“Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx, I’ll have you know. I’ve got a copy that they sent me, but I haven’t had nerve enough to read it…Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx…maybe we could make that into a soap opera.”

My 1943 copy of Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx. Click to view or purchase this fun book on Amazon! [aff. link]

My personal take on Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinxit’s pretty cute and reads like a Nancy Drew mystery novel, but with Ann as the heroine, wise-cracking such sassy lines as:

“You try jumping off a burning sphinx into a mystic pool.”

How could that not be a fun read? The book was meant to help boost morale and participation on the homefront during the war years.  So it’s a great compliment to Ann–and evidence of her popularity and “influencer” status–that she was one of the stars selected to have a murder mystery book in the series written about her.

(Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx is such a fun book, and you can purchase it here on Amazon! ) [aff. link]

Celebrate Ann!

And that’s my introduction to our June Star of the Month, Ann Sheridan!

Be sure to catch Ann’s films that will play Tuesdays on TCM this month. You can check the TCM schedule here.

And don’t forget to join me next week as I review Nora Prentiss (1947), one of the most fascinating–and definitely most fashionable–films of Ann’s career.

Are you an Ann Sheridan fan?

I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my little girl, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

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