Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

The Un-Chilly Elegance of Frieda Inescort

“I’m so aristocratic on stage it’s a wonder I don’t come out blue when I take a bath.”

Probably best known as the hopelessly haughty Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice—who seemed to smell cabbage whenever Elizabeth Bennet stepped into the room—Frieda Inescort took a wry view of her typecasting. But there was so much more to her than that.

inescort-39

Born with the new century in 1901, Frieda was the daughter of John “Jock” Wrightman and Elaine Inescourt, an Edinburgh journalist and actress who met when he reviewed her performance in a play. Favorably, I assume, as Elaine seemed to be a bit of a galloping narcissist: After her husband divorced her on the grounds of abandonment and adultery, she basically carted Frieda off to convent schools for most of her childhood while she pursued her social life and career—the latter, at least, to limited avail. (Later on, her deep resentment of her daughter’s success left the two permanently estranged.)

With sporadic schooling but possessed of a bearing beyond her years, Frieda was barely out of her teens when she sailed to the States as the personal secretary of Lord Waldorf Astor and his American wife, Nancy. When they headed back home, their adventurous charge stayed on in New York to seek out a stage career, working at the British consulate by day. She made her Broadway debut at just 21, opposite Leslie Howard in A.A. Milne’s comedy The Truth About Blayds. There, she was spotted by Philip Barry, who cast her as the lead in his new play, You and I.

Frieda worked steadily through the 1920s, with key roles in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever and Alfred Wing Pinero’s Trelawney of the Wells, and as the headstrong Mary Howard in When Ladies Meet (later played by Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford onscreen). She also shone as Eliza Doolittle in the Theater Guild’s national tour of Pygmalion. But knowing how fragile a stage career could be, she usually kept a day job—and while working at the publishing house of George Putnam (who later married Amelia Earhart), she met her husband, Ben Ray Redman, who soon became the literary critic for the New York Herald Tribune.

She had always resisted the lure of the screen, turning down roles in silents and early talkies. But when Redman was offered a consulting job with Universal Studios, the couple went West. Picking up her stage career in Hollywood, she was quickly singled out and signed by a scout for the Goldwyn Company, and in 1935 made her film debut as Fredric March’s sympathetic secretary in The Dark Angel.

Her natural warmth, set off by her wide eyes, patrician profile, and soothing, melodic voice, should have made her a natural for leading roles. But at 34 (!), she was deemed too old, and quickly settled into secondary parts. Sometimes she supported stars, as in Mary of Scotland, but more often she lost out to romantic rivals, as in Another Dawn, Give Me Your Heart, Beauty for the AskingYou’ll Never Get Rich, and most famously, Pride and Prejudice, where the temperature dropped 30 degrees every time the icy Miss Bingley appeared onscreen.

inescort-astaire-1

inescort-maryofscotland-1

But every now and then, we got a tantalizing glimpse of what Frieda’s career as a leading lady might have looked like. In Archie Mayo’s Call It a Day—where she’s sixth-billed but clearly the heart of the film—she even gets to cut loose in a comedy, as the befuddled calm at the center of a spring storm that drives her whole family a bit mad. And watching her try to politely fend off Roland Young, as a thoroughly confused but violently smitten suitor, is pure joy.

inescort-callitaday-1

Early on in the film, they do their best to dowdy her up a bit—at 36, she’s supposed to have been married 22 years, with a grown daughter (21-year-old Olivia de Havilland)—but she’s still pretty breathtaking, especially in the last scene, when Orry-Kelly really comes through for her. She should have had bushels of roles, and scenes, like this.

inescort-callitaday-4

Even in as broad a film as Call It a Day, Frieda never acted “out loud,” instinctively knowing when to underplay. Utterly natural, she never gave a “look at me” performance, which, I suspect, is one reason she didn’t get the bigger roles she deserved. (That, and of course the fact that, by her mid-thirties, much-older studio bosses had deemed her one step short of decrepitude.)

Her other, rare leading roles were mostly in B-films such as Convicted Woman, Shadow on the Stairs, and Portia on Trial,  where she stars as a feminist attorney defending a woman who shot her lover—kind of a precursor to Amanda in Adam’s Rib, but with roughly twice the vitriol. (Sample: “You seem to be a frustrated, mentally snarled woman!”—and that’s from the guy who loves her.)

inescort-portiaontrial-1

Higher-profile films usually found her back in supporting roles. In The Letter, she was Bette Davis’s elegant rock, quick with a cocktail and a silk-clad shoulder. (And like Bette—who needed no double as she furiously crocheted her way through a murder trial—Frieda was one of Hollywood’s inveterate knitters, sending lovely, intricately crafted gifts to friends and colleagues.)

In the mid-1940s, when good movie roles grew inexplicably scarcer, Frieda returned to Broadway for The Soldier’s Wife, The Mermaids Singing and a hit revival of Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. After touring with the Shaw play, she returned to Hollywood, often focusing on the fledgling medium of television, including a recurring role on Meet Corliss Archer and a guest turn on Perry Mason. Her last major movie role was as Ann Vickers, Elizabeth Taylor’s increasingly alarmed mother, in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun.

inescort-aplaceinthesun

inescort-15

In 1960, while filming a small role in her last movie, The Crowded Sky, Frieda began struggling with her balance and muscle control. Soon after, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and within a year she was walking with the aid of a cane. The following August, her husband of 35 years, overwhelmed by career and financial woes, called her into the bedroom and calmly informed her he’d just swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. He succumbed to an overdose before help could arrive.

The shock and stress of his suicide accelerated the pace of Frieda’s disease, and by the mid-1960s, she was confined to a wheelchair. Determined not to feel helpless, she threw herself into raising funds for local MS organizations. Deeming no task too humble, she’d often join other volunteers collecting donations in malls and outside supermarkets. When her condition worsened and she could no longer live on her own, Frieda reluctantly surrendered her independence and moved to the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. She died in February 1976, at 74.

inescort-32

This article is included in the “What a Character!” blogathon. To read the rest of the entries, just click here!  

 

17 Comments

  1. Vienna

    A fine tribute to an actress I always liked. A pity she didn’t get the starring roles she deserved. Loved your photos too.

    • Thank you!! I was thinking of making this a photo tribute — the kind you do so well! — but found I just wanted to keep writing about her!! ❤

  2. I had so much to learn about the marvelous Frieda Inescourt. I always sit a little taller when her name appears in the credits, partially because I am excited to see her and partially because I don’t want her to judge my poor posture.

    One favourite role of mine is as Alexander Knox’s wife in The Judge Steps Out. We start out thinking of her one way, but she grows through adversity and it is charming to see.

    • Vienna

      We should take your advice and sit a little taller when Frieda’s around!

    • Yes, and it’s all very subtle! I think maybe that’s why she didn’t get the roles she deserved — she didn’t act “out loud.” And I think if she saw you slumping, she’d be less likely to judge your posture than to ask after your health and offer you some tea…

  3. Shame she isn’t more well-known. Great write-up!

    • Thank you so much, Carol! And yeah, one of the reasons I started this site was to get some people out there more. I feel like an evangelist… 🙂

      • Yeah same! That’s why I started my blog!

  4. Thank you for this post. I have a new appreciation for Ms. Inescort and I’ll be seeking out CALL IT A DAY.

    • You’re welcome, Paula! And if you scroll down one post on my site, you’ll find a post on CALL IT A DAY and a link to the movie!! 🙂

  5. Great introduction! From the photos you posted it’s obvious that Frieda was elegant and beautiful — her profile is distinctively strong! — but you shone a light on her strength beyond the lights. Thanks to your write-up, she is not forgotten!

    • Thank you for your kind words! She deserves to be celebrated and remembered…

  6. No!!! What a horrible thing to happen (her husband). And with her already battling MS! I’ve been an admirer of Frieda Inescort for a long time, but I had no idea she had to struggle with these things. So sad!

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute, and for sharing your love of, and research on, Frieda. I have more admiration for her than ever.

    • Thank you, Ruth!! Yes, I adore this woman. She bore so much with an incredible amount of grace and dignity. Not the kind of haughty “dignity” that her characters often had, but real dignity…

  7. Thank you for bringing Frieda to my attention. I’ve seen her in many of the films you mentioned, but didn’t even realize it. What an underrated actress she is.

Trackbacks

  1. Announcing the SEVENTH Annual What A Character! Blogathon – Dec. 14-16, 2018 – Paula's Cinema Club
  2. Day 3 of the 2018 What A Character! Blogathon – Paula's Cinema Club

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

MovieMovieBlogBlog II

A continuation of moviemovieblogblog.wordpress.com...More of my thoughts on movies and pop culture

ladysilky

Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever

Eddie Selover

The Art of Communications

supervistaramacolorscope

Movie & TV stuff by Mel Neuhaus

Ephemeral New York

Chronicling an ever-changing city through faded and forgotten artifacts

The Old Hollywood Garden

Come take a walk with me in Old Hollywood. There's so much to talk about!

"fate keeps on happening"

"Going to the fortune teller's was just as good as going to the opera, and the cost scarcely a trifle more - ergo, I will disguise myself and go again, one of these days, when other amusements fail." - Mark Twain, Letter to Orion Clemens, February 6, 1861

Making a Cinephile

All things film-related.

cracked rear viewer

Fresh takes on retro pop culture

cinemaclaco

über Film und Kinos in Leipzig

OldMoviesaregreat

Old Movies are best

The Film Noir Guy

Film noir off the beaten path

Well, Here's Another Nice Mess . . .

Random, Rambling, Ruminations . . .

Etcetera

Thoughts from my perfectly-wrecked brain

Abstractly Distracted

'So many thoughts, so little concentration.'

SCENTS MEMORY

Wear what you love, not what they say you should like.

The Criterion Completion

Complete again ... for a week.

%d bloggers like this: