As W.C. Fields’ Wife, Kathleen Howard Took Henpecking to Operatic Heights
Some movie-loving girls toss around lines by ladies like Lauren Bacall (“You just put your lips together and blow.“), Vivien Leigh (“I’ll think about it tomorrow…”) or Bette Davis (“Fasten your seats belts—it’s going to be a bumpy night!”)
I grew up quoting Kathleen Howard.
“Those were my mother’s feathers!” I’d roar to my Dad, out of nowhere, across the breakfast table on the odd Tuesday morning. That would get us rolling on some routine or other from It’s a Gift—maybe the scene on the porch, or the one at the picnic, where he got to mutter like W.C. Fields and I got to howl like Howard.
When Fields needed an imposing comic foil who could boom and bellow at him from the opening credits to the final fade-out, he wisely tapped a former opera singer he’d first met, and hit it off with, during his days in vaudeville. You see, acting in films wasn’t Howard’s first career, or even her second. It was her third—and it didn’t start until she was 54.
Born in 1880 on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Howard had such a spirit of adventure it’s a wonder she didn’t go over them in a barrel. “Nine-tenths of me were the normal characteristics of a well-brought-up, bright, good-looking girl,” she recalled in her 1918 memoir, Confessions of an Opera Singer. “But the last tenth was an unknown quantity, a great big powerful something which I vaguely felt, even then, to be the master of all the other tenths, a force which was capable of having its way with the rest of me if I should ever give it a chance. My voice was the agent of this great power.”
As a teenager, Howard longed to sing opera, but her parents—who had recently “lost all our money in dramatic fashion”—reluctantly discouraged her dreams, lacking the funds to support them. Not one to give up that easily, she left home for New York City, where she lived in a rundown boarding house and took a job as a church singer to pay for her lessons. Eventually she sailed for Europe to study with famed tenor Jean de Reszke and began touring with small companies. Soon the larger ones beckoned: Howard became the top contralto at the Municipal Opera in Metz, Germany, where she sang the lead in Carmen, which won her a personal invitation from the Grand Duke of Hesse to join the Royal Opera at Darmstadt.
Other offers, including London’s Covent Garden, eventually followed, and by the end of 1913, Howard had sung the principal contralto parts in 65 operas in French, German, English and Italian all across the continent. She then returned to New York to join the Century Opera, where she promptly married its president, Edward Kellogg Baird. “I worked with him for the success of the opera, which lay very near our hearts,” she remembered. “But the war and other unfortunate circumstances proved too much to overcome and we were forced to suspend.” Ahem. After running up debts of $18,000, Baird was drummed out of the company and fled the country, resettling in Bermuda.
Following three seasons at the Century, the poor girl from the little Canadian border town “finally attained the Metropolitan Opera, the most absorbingly interesting house with which I have ever been connected, and which is the greatest school of all.” As the Met’s leading character contralto, she sang the kind of roles she’d later create on film, including the pompous and greedy Aunt Zita in the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s only outright comedy, Gianni Schicchi, in December 1918. (The New York Times critic James Huneker hailed her portrayal of “the horrid hag.”) She spent 12 seasons at the Met, where her co-stars included a guy named Enrico Caruso, who fondly captured her in caricature:
Howard retired from opera at age 48 to embark on a new adventure. But she left behind more than 30 albums, some of which are archived here.
Her second act began in 1928, at the height of the Art Deco era, when she parlayed her cultural connections into a fashion editorship at Harper’s Bazaar. There she worked daily with designers such as Erté and George Barbier, while also writing pieces for The Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies Home Journal.
Heeding the old adage that if you want something done, you should ask a busy person, Howard’s new colleagues quickly elected her president of the influential Fashion Group, one of the first nonprofits to support professional women. According to its charter, “each member holds a job of consequence in the business of fashion and a belief that fashion needs a forum, a stage, or a force to enhance a widening awareness of the American fashion business and of women’s roles in that business.”
Founding members included Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein and Edith Head. Oh and Eleanor Roosevelt—who remained active even after becoming First Lady, although she resigned her membership in all other clubs.
Howard spent most of her spare hours on the group even after her term was up. But by 1934, she was ready for another leap of faith—and hopped a train for Hollywood to try her hand at acting. While making the rounds of the studios, she was spotted by director Mitchell Leisen, who snapped her up for the plum role of Princess Maria in Death Takes a Holiday before she’d even finished unpacking.
“My livelihood is to me a great adventure, and I change my line of work whenever it shows signs of growing dull,” she told an interviewer as she prepped for her film debut at age 54. “Confidence in my ability as an opera singer gave me the courage to write, edit and lecture, and success in those enabled me to try motion pictures without a shade of skepticism as to the outcome.”
She then shifted back to a more sympathetic role as a kindly dowager in James Whale’s One More River. But the white gloves came off for It’s a Gift. Howard plays Amelia Bissonette (“pronounced Bisson-AY,” she says airily), the long and loudly suffering wife of Harold, a grocery store owner (W.C. Fields) who wants nothing more than to be left alone but never is. By anyone. (Click the link for perhaps the funniest scene in movie history, which for some reason WordPress isn’t letting me import.)
While henpecking her husband within an inch of his life, Howard almost never actually yells at him—but with her booming voice rising constantly in exasperation, it feels like she’s yelling at him all the time. And her sarcasm is so withering it could be weaponized. (“Yes, the sun is wrong but your watch is right of course!”) She speaks with such authority that even when she makes no sense (“Norman don’t eat any more sandwiches, you’ve had enough today! Harold give him half of yours.”), her beaten-down better half just reflexively goes along.
But this is no one-dimensional shrew. You can feel her regrets—that nagging sensation that she should have and could have done better—and her frustration at being married to a man with so little ambition. You sense that she almost wishes he’d fight back. When everything works out for these two in the end, you’re just as happy for her as you are for him.
Oddly enough—or maybe not—the actress Howard is most often compared to in these roles, Margaret Dumont of Marx Brothers fame, also trained in opera. (But Fields loved and respected Howard, never suggesting that her skill at playing it straight meant that she didn’t get the joke—a claim Groucho falsely made about Dumont for decades.)
Howard’s other memorable roles include Miss Bragg, the haughty, huffy housekeeper in Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Ball of Fire. And here, for once, her impeccable timing failed her: when Barbara Stanwyck delivered what was supposed to be a mock punch, Howard didn’t bob out of the way quickly enough and wound up flat on the canvas with a fractured jaw. Stanwyck was horrified to have sent her 61-year-old co-star to the hospital.
But Howard bounced back to appear in five films the following year and 27 more movies in all, including Take a Letter Darling, You Were Never Lovelier, Reckless Age, and Laura. She made her last film, Born to Be Bad, in 1950, racking up 52 credits in just 16 years.
Whew. What a life this lady had. And what confidence! “If a person has succeeded in one profession, it takes nothing more than courage and a bit of common sense to succeed in any other calling,” she once told a reporter. “And it makes no difference how remotely related the two lines of endeavor may be.”
If you’d like to read more about this amazing woman, her opera memoir is available here for free on Gutenberg. I only wish she’d written a follow-up covering her film career—perhaps called Those Were My Mother’s Feathers.