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.
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 Asking, You’ll Never Get Rich, and most famously, Pride and Prejudice, where the temperature dropped 30 degrees every time the icy Miss Bingley appeared onscreen.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
This article is included in the “What a Character!” blogathon. To read the rest of the entries, just click here!
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- Tagged: a place in the sun, a.a. milne, alred wing pinero, another dawn, beauty for the asking, bette davis, call it a day, classic films, convicted woman, elaine inescourt, elizabeth taylor, frederic march, frieda inescort, george bernard shaw, george stevens, hay fever, ian hunter, katharine hepburn, leslie howard, mary of scotland, noel coward, olivia dehavilland, philip barry, pride and prejudice, roland young, sam goldwyn, shadow on the stairs, the crowded sky, the dark angel, the letter, the truth about blayds, Tintype Tuesdays!, trelawney of the wells, you and i, you never can tell, you'll never get rich