Day 29 of Noirvember: Remembering Signe Hasso
With her composed beauty, glacial countenance, and stately bearing, Signe Hasso was always considered less a star than a true actress. Sadly, many of today’s classic film fans don’t know her – although she appeared opposite some of Hollywood’s most romantic leading men, including Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant, Hasso was seen in fewer than 25 American-made films. Still, the actress, who was also an accomplished author and songwriter, enjoyed a career that spanned more than six decades, and proved to be most memorable on screen in four films noirs: The House on 92nd Street (1945), Johnny Angel (1945), Strange Triangle (1946), and A Double Life (1947). Today’s celebration of Noirvember takes a look at the path that this talented actress traveled to get to Tinseltown.
Signe Eleonora Cecilia Larsson began her life in Stockholm, Sweden, on August 15, 1915, the eldest of three children born to businessman Kefas Larsson and his wife Helfrid, an earnest but unsuccessful artist and writer. Her earliest years were happy ones, but when Signe was four years old, her father died of tuberculosis, leaving his family penniless. Initially, the family (which included Signe’s grandmother, one of the Sweden’s premier female artists) remained in their large, elegant apartment by taking in boarders, but after two years they were forced to move to a one-room, six-floor walk-up in a Stockholm housing project. “One room for five people – all I remember is beds everywhere. Four families shared an outside toilet,” the actress recalled. “We were so poor you couldn’t believe it.” To support her family, Signe’s mother sold baked waffles from a street stall, but the three Larsson children were able to attend exclusive private schools paid for by wealthy relatives.
Although the actress remembered attending school in “patched, welfare clothes,” it was her expensive education that would lead to her first acting experience. When Signe was 11 years old, a schoolmate appearing in La Malade Imaginaire at the Royal Dramatic Theater fell ill, and suggested that the stage manager call the Larsson household for a replacement. “Mother flipped a coin and I was sent to the theater instead of my sister Helfrid,” the actress said. “I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. I threw myself on the rug and drummed my heels and screamed that my sister should be in the play, not I. Then my mother said, ‘There’s money in it – they will pay you, and I’ll give you an orange if you do this.’ An orange was very rare. We never had treats like that. So I went to the theater – with the orange in my pocket.”
Portraying a nine-year old in the play, Signe was an overnight sensation, and her original salary of five crowns a night was soon increased to 15. This debut performance led to a scholarship at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, and over the next several years, the actress appeared in numerous productions. In 1933, she made her screen debut in Tystnadens Hus, and the following year, Signe won the presitigious Anders de Wahl Award.
At age 18, in the midst of her burgeoning career, the actress married Henry Hasso, a theater director-inventor. Although the union would produce a son, Henry, on June 14, 1934, the marriage would end in divorce in 1940. Still, the actress would retain her married name, and thereafter was known as Signe Hasso. (The pronunciation of her name – SEEN-ya HAH-so – would cause a bit of confusion in years to come, prompting the actress to jokingly declare, “You can pronounce it any old way – it means ‘Bless you’ in Swedish.”)
Meanwhile, Hasso continued to excel as an actress of the stage and the screen, earning the Swedish equivalent of the Academy Award, the “Guld Bagge,” in 1937, the first female to receive this coveted honor. Two years later, she was awarded the first Stockholm Stage Award. By now, Hollywood had started to beckon; after offers from several Hollywood film execs, Hasso signed with RKO and arrived with her son in Los Angeles in August 1940. Once in Hollywood, however, the actress found that the studio had no film assignments for her. Instead, she went to New York where she landed a role on Broadway in Golden Wings. Although the play closed after only a week, Hasso caught the attention of famed theater critic George Jean Nathan, who termed her “the most attractive new foreign actress in America.”
Back in Hollywood, Hasso signed a contract with MGM and was given a small role in what is commonly known as her American screen debut, Journey for Margaret (1942), a heart-tugger set in wartime Britain. But Hasso’s part in the picture was completely cut out. “I took too much interest away from [co-stars] Margaret O’Brien and Laraine Day,” the actress maintained. “So, that was not my first film.”
Instead, she was first seen in a prominent role in MGM’s Assignment in Brittany, the story of a Free French solider in Nazi-occupied France. Later that year, Hasso was loaned to 20th Century-Fox for Heaven Can Wait, a delightful fantasy comedy helmed by Ernst Lubitsch.
The actress later recalled that she was cast in the role shortly after being invited to lunch by the renowned director: “I arrived at his office just as he had to leave for a few minutes,” she said. “On his desk I noticed that the script for Heaven Can Wait was opened, so I started to read. It was at the point where the racy but funny French maid enters. When he came back, he said, ‘That’s the part I want you to play.’ He had purposely left so that I would read the part. Naturally I said yes.”
Hasso would enter the world of film noir the following year, and the rest is history! Check out her films when you get the chance – you’ll be glad you did!
And join me tomorrow for the last (sniff) day of Noirvember!!!