Day 4 of Noirvember: Femme Noir Discoveries (Or, How I Got My Big Break)
A petite brunette with soulful blue eyes and a wide, genuine smile, Ann Blyth enjoyed a performing career that spanned more than a half century. During the height of her fame, she held her own opposite such stars as Joan Crawford, Mickey Rooney, Claudette Colbert, and William Powell, and she delivered a classic bad girl performance in Mildred Pierce (1945).
Today’s Noirvember post takes a look at Blyth’s beginnings, and the path she took that led to the shadowy world of film noir.
From an early age, Blyth expressed an interest in performing. She made her first appearance when she was only five years old, singing and reciting on New York radio station WJZ. In the years that followed, Blyth honed her talents through study at Manhattan’s Professional School as well as private acting and singing lessons. Unlike her peers, Blyth spent little time playing with baby dolls or skipping rope; instead, as the owner of a neighborhood restaurant recalled in a 1957 Photoplay article, Blyth’s energies were more likely to be focused on arriving on time to her next appearance: “Sometimes she’d want to be out playing with the other kids, but there’d be a radio performance to give, or singing and dancing lessons to go to . . . . Spaghetti became a strategic necessity. A plate of her favorite dish somehow helped to ease the disappointments.” But Blyth’s endless hours of coaching paid off – between 1937 and 1940, she joined New York’s Children’s Opera Company, sang three seasons with the San Carlos Opera Company, and became a seasoned radio performer.
Blyth’s introduction to the “big time” came when she was only 13 years old. While the attractive youngster was eating lunch at the Professional Children’s School, she was spotted by Broadway director Herman Shumlin and renowned playwright Lillian Hellman. Blyth was eventually cast as Paul Lukas’s daughter in Hellman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Watch on the Rhine, appearing in the hit production for more than two years, first on Broadway, and then on a cross-country tour. “It meant so much for so many reasons,” Blyth recalled of her professional stage debut. “It meant that for the first time in years, my mother wouldn’t have to work so hard.”
Fortune smiled on Blyth again while she was touring with Watch on the Rhine. During a run of the play at the Los Angeles Biltmore Theatre, her performance was admired by director Henry Koster, then with Universal Studios, who offered her a screen test. A short time later, she signed a seven-year contract with Universal and in 1944 made her movie debut in a teenage musical, Chip Off the Old Block, starring Donald O’Connor. Playing a talented member of a show business family, Blyth displayed her lilting soprano voice in two numbers, making a favorable impression on critics and audiences alike.
Just a year later, Blyth was cast as the bitchy, self-absorbed Veda in Mildred Pierce, and turned in one of noir’s most memorable performances.
Join me tomorrow for Day 5 of Noirvember!