Gotta watch those character actors…
Only ten actors to date have been nominated for Best and Supporting Actor or Actress in the same year. Fay Bainter is the first one.
Fay Bainter was biz-ee. She was an able supporting player, and her work spans radio, film, television, and stage. Mostly stage, though. Born in Los Angeles on December 7, 1893, Bainter was a child performer with the Morosco Stage Company. She moved on to Broadway, starting with 1912’s The Rose of Panama. Although it was a flop, it was the beginning of a healthy span of playing ingenues and romantic leads.
Dissimilar to many thespians of any era, Bainter married only once, to Reginald Sidney Hugh Venable when she was twenty-eight. Venable was a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy who, while engaged to Bainter, used his destroyer to meet up with Bainter’s steamer, on which she was returning from a trip to Europe. His commanding officer let him off with a smile and what amounted to saying, “Kids these days.” Venable and Bainter had one child in 1926, also named Reginald Sidney Hugh Venable, and lived together happily until Venable’s death in 1964.
What drove Bainter into movies was her advancing age. Some film sites say MGM persuaded Bainter to make the change. I disagree, because ingenues and romantic leads have had short shelf lives as long as there have been women in the theater. TCM seems to agree with me, as they quote Bainter saying, “There comes a day when the flush of youth disappears from every woman’s face. Most women dread it. I did. Like so many things, however, it is worse in anticipation than in actual fact.” Either way, Bainter’s first movie was 1934’s This Side of Heaven, filmed when she was forty-one. Unlike her time on the stage, where success came slowly, Bainter’s film métier was more bullet-like.
In 1938 she received a Best Actress nomination for White Banners and a Best Supporting Actress for Jezebel. She only won Supporting Actress, but after that became even busier, making four to five films a year. Her most crowded period was, by far, the early forties, and in between bond tours and tours of military hospitals, Bainter turned out quite a few gems. Here’s a very short list of her Second World War output, plus a bonus:
Babes On Broadway (1941)
Bainter plays Jonesie, Wisconsin transplant and assistant to big-time Broadway producer, Thornton Reed (James Gleason). She stumbles on Mickey Rooney and his two cohorts as the Three Balls of Fire, singing and dancing in an Italian restaurant. When she slips them a five-dollar tip, they think it’s a mistake. None of them have any idea who she is until they get a call to come up to Thornton Reed’s office, and it’s all downhill from there. Jonesie is their advocate and instigator, sometimes going under her boss’s nose, which is always fun.
This was a great part for Bainter because of her experiences as the young hopeful trying to make it on Broadway, and she obviously loved making the movie. In every scene she has a knowing gleam in her eye, watching the up-and-comers navigating territory she knew so well.
Woman of the Year (1942)
Bainter is Ellen Whitcomb, aunt of Tess Harding and champion of feminism. Her role is relatively small but memorable, as she’s a tempering influence on Tess, the woman of the world, and gentle encourager of Sam, the people person. She is Tess’s role model and her surrogate mother–Tess even says Ellen is her “woman of the century” and above marriage. However, Ellen’s independent woman has a lesson for Tess that modern feminists would do well to remember: It’s no good being alone. Don’t just win prizes. Be the prize yourself.
The War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942)
One of Bainter’s rare leading roles, The War Against Mrs. Hadley follows a rich society woman named Stella who is very put out that the war is happening. She stubbornly refuses to do her part until she sees how necessary it is for everyone to pitch in. It also stars Edward Arnold, Jean Rogers, and Richard Ney, as well as a young Van Johnson in his fourth film.
I wish, wish, wish Mrs. Hadley was on DVD, because I saw it on TCM years ago and loved it. Its topical home front plot makes it the kind of film that delights World War Two buffs, as well as any other fan of classic Hollywood. As it is, I will have to content myself with the radio version, which also starred Bainter and Arnold and broadcast on Bainter’s forty-ninth birthday. Listen to it here.
Journey For Margaret (1942)
Bainter plays Trudy, a psychologist who runs a home for children orphaned by the London bombings. Many of them have seen their houses destroyed and their parents die right in front of them, which has left them traumatized.
Trudy and her staff provide a loving environment in a chaotic, scary city, and she is a tower of strength most of the time, but her character feels her charges’ pain very deeply. There’s no way to see so many hurting children and not be affected by it. When one little girl releases a pent-up storm of tears, Trudy hugs her tightly and surreptitiously sobs behind a handkerchief.
Most of Bainter’s scenes were opposite Robert Young, and the two of them had a warm, brother-sister rapport. Journey For Margaret is an often passed over film that we’ll look at in more detail someday.
Cry Havoc (1943)
Here’s another interesting World War Two time capsule we’ll go into more deeply soon. Bainter is Captain Alice Marsh, a warm but no-nonsense commanding officer at a jungle hospital on the Bataan Peninsula, acting alongside a host of great actresses such as Margaret Sullavan, Connie Gilchrist, Ann Southern, Joan Blondell and Marsha Hunt.
The film was made during a time when America’s situation in the Pacific was very dire, because we had left thousands of Americans there in the lurch due to a strategic withdrawal. It wasn’t just soldiers who were taken prisoner, but Armed Forces nurses and civilians of both America and the Philippines, and in 1943 people were hard-pressed to be hopeful about it.
The bulk of the screen time goes to the younger set in the film, but Bainter’s Marsh is stoic and steady, bringing wisdom and bravery to a doomed set of characters.
Salute To the Marines (1943)
Yeah, we’ve been here before. Bainter is Helen Bailey, the pacifist wife of Bill Bailey, played by Wallace Beery. It’s the story of a Marine in the Philippines who has been in the Corps for thirty years and never seen a battle. Bainter’s kind of a spitfire in this film, because she doesn’t like the Marine Corps, and she resents that it’s kept her husband away from her for so many years.
Since it’s a wartime film, and everyone was to do their part, Bainter’s character again had to be brought round. The obvious question is, will she or won’t she? Since it’s wartime, the answer is equally obvious. Still, it’s a good, albeit dated film populated by character actors like Bainter. Listen to the radio version here.
State Fair (1945)
Another musical for our Fay, only this time she sang a little bit. In this Rogers and Hammerstein charmer, she plays Melissa Frake, cook extraordinaire and Blue Ribbon hopeful. Will her mincemeat and pickles bury the competition? How much brandy in mincemeat is acceptable? These and other pressing questions will be revealed throughout the course of the film.
Bainter appeared opposite another stage veteran, Charles Winninger. The two of them have a ball taking in the fair and evading a tipsy judge who eats a bit too much of Melissa’s mincemeat. The whole film is a comforting, fun excursion into Americana that probably felt like a balm to a war-weary public.
The Children’s Hour (1961)
Bainter’s career was always evolving. Her film output dropped sharply immediately following the Second World War, and Bainter switched to working mainly in television during the nineteen-fifties. In that era, if an actor did that, it was generally accepted that they weren’t a film actor anymore.
Still, she did make few more movies, and the last was an adaptation of the Lillian Hellman play about two teachers who are accused of lesbianism. Bainter played the disapproving grandmother whose granddaughter tells a lie and starts the rumors flying. Not a very lighthearted character for Bainter to end her film career on, but it only went to show how times had changed.
Bainter died of pneumonia in Los Angeles on April 16, 1968, and was buried in Arlington Cemetery alongside her husband. She leaves behind an impressive legacy of wonderful performances and a graceful, kindhearted film presence.
For more characters, visit Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Thanks for hosting, ladies–it was a pleasure as always, and a fine way to end the year. Thanks for reading, and I hope you all will check back here on Tuesday for yet another Origins post…