She stood six-foot-two and weighed in at 230 pounds. She was a performer for more than 30 years, gaining prominence in film, on stage, in radio and television, and entertaining audiences with her “hot” piano playing in supper clubs nationwide. And she possessed a uniquely versatile talent that allowed her to portray, with equal believability, the sadistic, terror-invoking matron in Caged (1950) and the vaudeville performer who hoisted Spencer Tracy six feet into the air in Adam’s Rib (1940).
She was Hope Emerson. What a character!
Perhaps best remembered for her Academy Award-nominated performance in Caged, Emerson played in everything from Greek classics to musical comedy and, in addition to Caged and Cry of the City, she lent her presence to three additional noirs: Cry of the City (1948), Thieves’ Highway (1949) and House of Strangers (1949).
Emerson was born in Hawarden, Iowa, a small town near Sioux City, on October 29, 1897. Although an MGM studio biography would later claim that Emerson began her professional career singing and dancing at the early age of three, the actress said that she started working when she was 12 years old, selling music in a ten-cent store. “I was so big everybody thought I was 18,” she recalled. “I sat behind the counter and played the piano.” Later, Emerson honed her talents at the keyboard by playing for “every road show that hit town” at the local opera house owned by her uncle. After her graduation from Des Moines West High School, Emerson played stock in Omaha, Sioux City and Denver, then toured in a coast-to-coast vaudeville act called “June and Buckeye” with her partner, Ray Shannen.
The early days.
By the time Emerson was 18, she decided that she was ready for the big time and headed for New York. To make ends meet, she relied on her piano-playing ability, appearing in local nightclubs and later signing on as an entertainer at Pennsylvania’s Buckward Inn, a popular resort in theatrical circles. It was during her run at the Buckward that a friend suggested Emerson try out for the Broadway play Lysistrata. “Norman Bel Geddes was directing the play, and I heard he was looking for a big woman for a part,” Emerson said. “I wrangled an interview with Bel Geddes [and] he took one look at me and yelled, ‘Finally, I’ve found a big woman.’ The play lasted two years.”
After a few more years in a variety of stage productions – including one in which she actually shoed a horse every night on stage – Emerson returned to the nightclub scene and was initially hired for a two-night engagement at the Ruban Bleu, an elegant club on New York’s East side. “The management thought I was too raucous, but evidently the customers didn’t. I played there for the next 46 weeks, and for the next 10 years did nothing but work in nightclubs.” Around this time, Emerson joined the Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore radio show, portraying a character known as “Toodles Bong-Snook” by day, and playing her piano and singing in clubs at night. Later, she found time to launch her own show, That’s a Good One, and was also heard on Ed Wynn’s radio show, on which she originated the voice of Elsie the Cow for the program’s sponsor, Borden.
In the mid-1940s, Emerson returned to Broadway to play a drunken yodeler in Chicken Every Sunday, then tried out for the musical version of Street Scene, but she found that her size was an obstacle. “They wanted someone who looked like Beulah Bondi who could sing and dance. I was constantly told, ‘We want a little girl – you’re too big,’” she remembered. “Finally, I got mad and said, ‘Just listen to me read. That’s all I ask.’ So I read for 19 people and met the man who wrote it. ‘Size doesn’t mean a thing to me,’ said he.” Emerson won the role of a malicious gossip in the play, in which she sang six operatic arias and, as she remembered, “never missed a show.”
The murderous masseuse in Cry of the City.
Emerson’s performance in Street Scene caught the attention of a 20th Century-Fox talent scout, who promptly cast her in Cry of the City (1948), a taut film noir focusing on a small-time hood, Martin Rome (Richard Conte). Although Emerson’s role in Cry of the City was limited to only a few scenes, she caught the notice of the critics with her performance as a murderous masseuse, including the reviewers for Variety, who noted her “standout job,” and the New York Times, who included her in his praise of the film’s “fine supporting roles.” Of the memorable scene in which she was required to strangle Conte, Emerson later said that she was fearful of hurting the actor and was jokingly berated by the film’s director, Robert Siodmak, for her “lifted pinky” choking technique. Determined to infuse the scene with realism, Emerson “went all the way,” causing Conte to seek medical treatment!
The following year, Emerson was seen in her second film noir, Thieves’ Highway (1949), in a small role as a savvy, no-nonsense produce buyer. Directed by Jules Dassin, this gritty film focuses on 24 hours in the life of war veteran Nick Garcos (Richard Conte), who is bent on retribution against Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), a corrupt merchant responsible for an accident that crippled Nick’s father. Again playing a relatively minor role, Emerson nonetheless gave a memorable portrayal of the crafty fruit buyer whose formidable presence intimidates her fellow merchants, and the film itself was almost unanimously hailed by critics, including Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who noted its “top-form cast” and termed it “one of the best melodramas – one of the sharpest and most taut – we’ve had this year.”
By now, Emerson was becoming well-known in the Hollywood community, but she found that she was frequently confused with two other actresses, Faye Emerson and Hope Hampton. “If I had their looks and Hope’s money,” Emerson once jested, “I’d be leading a Technicolor life for love, instead of working in a Technicolor picture for dough.” Meanwhile, after Thieves’ Highway, Emerson remained in California, appearing next as the gun-toting Levisa Hatfield in RKO’s Roseanna McCoy (1949), a fictionalized retelling of the infamous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. This picture was followed by a role as an overbearing mother in the actress’s third film noir, House of Strangers (1949), for which she learned to speak Italian.
Giving a lift to Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib.
A fascinating character study, House of Strangers focuses on the lives of the Monetti family, whose close-knit relationship is severed because of a banking scandal. For her performance as a stern, uncompromising Italian mother, Emerson was singled out for acclaim in Citizen News and Motion Picture Herald, and the film itself was praised by the latter publication as “dramatic, punchy, understanding, tender at times, and earthily humorous.” Emerson followed this box office hit with a role as an irate landlady who evicts William Powell from his apartment in Fox’s musical comedy Dancing in the Dark (1949), then played a circus performer in Adam’s Rib (1949), starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Featuring Judy Holliday and Jean Hagen in their first significant roles, this sophisticated comedy was highlighted by a courtroom scene in which Emerson was required to lift Tracy several feet off the ground. “We waited a week for him to get up the courage to do that scene,” Emerson told columnist Hedda Hopper, “He didn’t trust me. I don’t blame him – I don’t trust myself. We’d never have gotten the scene if there’d been more than one take, but we did it in one take and I damned near broke my arm and my back. Spencer wouldn’t have done it again for anything.”
After well-received Adam’s Rib, the actress was seen in Universal’s Double Crossbones (1950), a musical comedy starring Donald O’Connor, and Paramount’s Copper Canyon (1950), a run-of-the-mill Western starring Hedy Lamarr. Emerson’s appearance with the glamourous brunette in this film prompted the good-humored actress to quip, “I’m always the contrast gal – the ugly duckling who makes everyone else look like a graceful swan. But with Hedy and me in the same picture, they ought to call it Beauty and the Beast!”
Scariest prison matron in town.
Next, as Evelyn Harper in Caged, Emerson’s final film noir appearance, the actress played the role with which she is best identified, a sadistic matron described by one critic as “evil incarnate.” Labeled by critics as “vicious and inexorable,” Emerson offered an unforgettable performance, creating a character with a steely exterior and a heart to match. Her temperament is evidenced early on, after one inmate severs an artery during an escape attempt. As the women lies bleeding on the cold prison floor, Harper callously suggests: “The cold hose will quiet her down.” And later, she brazenly upbraids the warden for her kind-hearted techniques: “Do you know how [the prison] ought to be run? Break ‘em in two if they talk out of turn. Anyone who doesn’t toe the mark sits in solitary for one month. Bread and water. One funny move from a girl and I’d clip every hair off her head. That’s the way it used to be run and that’s the way it ought to be run. Just like they’re a bunch of animals in a cage.” Although the critic for the New York Times panned the film as a whole for its “cliché-ridden account” of prison life, most reviewers applauded the film and its principal players, especially Emerson, who received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her efforts (she lost, however, to Josephine Hill for Harvey).
Soon after the release of Caged, Emerson noted the series of “bad girls” that she had played since her film debut. “For 20 years before I came to Hollywood I did comedy,” she said. “Then I got into the worst rut on the screen, killing, choking people and playing jail matrons. Since I got in pictures, people write to ask why I do such terrible things. They all think I’m a sadist and figure my family must be highly abused.” But the actress’s life off-screen was a far cry from her film persona. Since the death of Emerson’s father in 1935, she had taken care of her wheelchair-bound mother, with whom she lived until her mother died. Despite her devotion to her only living parent, however, and her size and weight notwithstanding, Emerson was seldom “beau-less,” according to the press. Although she would never marry, Emerson was seen most often during the 1950s in the company of Los Angeles jeweler Bob Overjorde who, at six-foot-three, was an ideal physical match for the immense actress. “When we enter a restaurant, everyone looks as though they’re afraid we’ll literally raise the roof,” Emerson cracked, “but they soon get used to us.”
As a pioneer in Westward the Women.
On screen, Emerson was seen in MGM’s Westward the Women (1951), a Robert Taylor starrer about a wagon train full of women who trek across country from Chicago to California, followed by several features for Republic Pictures, including Belle LeGrand (1951), a mediocre musical Western; The Lady Wants Mink (1953), a mildly amusing comedy about a woman who tries to grow her own mink when her husband can’t afford to buy her a fur coat; and Champ for a Day (1953), a hard-hitting crime drama. During the rest of the decade, Emerson appeared in only four pictures, including two big-budget box office successes, Casanova’s Big Night (1954), a costume comedy starring Bob Hope and Joan Fontaine, and Untamed (1955), an adventure-romance with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward that was advertised as being “Africolosssal” and dubbed by many as the African Gone with the Wind. Her last screen appearance would be in All Mine to Give (1957), a four-hanky tearjerker about the efforts of an orphan to find homes for his baby siblings on Christmas Day.
During this time, Emerson also reached a new level of fame with roles on two popular television series, Peter Gunn, on which she played a nightclub owner known as “Mother,” and The Dennis O’Keefe Show, which featured her as “Sarge.” Having conquered every performing medium, Emerson’s prolific career subsided in the late 1950s when she was diagnosed with a liver ailment. Then, in spring 1960, after driving from Phoenix to California, she entered Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where she died a few days later, on April 24, 1960. She was 62 years old.
Hope Emerson: What a Character!
With a career that spanned four decades, Hope Emerson possessed a unique talent that was equally adaptable to comedy or drama, and an inner fortitude that sustained her even in the bleakest of times. But although the actress would eventually never want for work, and would maintain houses in Iowa, New York and Hollywood, she seemed to never forget the early years of her career when she “starved successfully,” and she once claimed that “making money” was her only hobby. “My life was never easy. I have never had time to play,” Emerson said. “But I love the work. I have the best time playing the worst part in the world. I work on my voice all the time – I always figure that someday I’ll have to go back to nightclubs or some beat-up saloons. But that’s my life and I love it. I’ll work until I’m so old they’ll have to wheel me in.”
This post is part of the “What a Character!” Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. Visit these blogs to read a variety of posts on Hollywood’s greatest character actors!
You only owe it to yourself.