Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What a Hussey!

When I was younger, I always identified with the characters played by Ruth Hussey. Rarely was she the leading woman and she never got the guy you knew she would be perfect for until the last reel. (That pretty much describes my life in a nutshell.) Along with Geraldine Fitzgerald, Gloria Graham and the deliciously bitchy Gail Patrick, Ruth Hussey was one of the best supporting actresses of Hollywood's golden age.

Hussey started her career in summer stock after graduating from the drama school at the University of Michigan. She went on to work as a radio fashion commentator in Providence, Rhode Island before landing a role in the touring company of Dead End. In 1937, she was signed as a features player by MGM and appeared in a string of B-movies and as a supporting player in A-pictures. She was one of the millions of women (I exaggerate, it was only hundreds) featured in the film The Women (1939) and she even had a small role in one the Andy Hardy films, Judge Hardy's Children (1937)

Hussey could be counted on to play the vixen or the cynical sophisticate with equal ability. In 1940, she got her best role as the cynical New York City Spy Magazine photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie, in The Philadelphia Story (1940). In the film Hussey was the scene stealer. Teamed with Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart, I have to admit I always gravitated to and sympathized with Hussey's character.

Her Elizabeth Imbrie was at once comedic and sardonic never crossing into malicious and always sympathetic. She stuck by her indecisive emotionally elusive boyfriend, Mac Connor played by James Stewart, as he was swept up by Hepburn's flighty flaky Tracie Lord and you saw her heartbreak on screen when she realized the two might be closer than she ever imagined. But above all, Imbrie was steadfast and knew that Mac's infatuation was just that, an infatuation. She was mature and witty and even though her heart was bruised she kept her composure and her remarkable sense of humor. In the end, her loyality paid off when Mac realized his perfect match had been at his side the entire time. For this role she was nominated for an Academy Award for best Supporting Actress

In 1944, Hussey appeared in one of the best ghost movies of all time, The Uninvited. Prior to the release of this film ghosts were often played for laughs and The Uninvited was the first to portray a haunting as a genuine supernatural event.

The film also starred Ray Milland, Gail Russell and the wonderfully creepy stage actress Cornelia Otis Skinner. Hussey and Milland play a brother and sister who buy a classically haunted house on the English coast and battle a malignant and vengeful ghost in order to save their home and the life of local girl, Stella Meredith. This film is truly creepy and never ever campy. There is a seance scene that involves Russell's character channeling a Spanish speaking spirit that is truly unsettling.

I can just imagine what it would have been like to be in an audience in 1944, before the conventions of this genre were established, seeing something like The Uninvited on screen for the first time. The ad copy for the film called it "truly terrifying" and that is not an understatement. The film introduced the beautifully haunting song Stella by Starlight which is used as a theme throughout the film and is now a classic standard.

The Uninvited was made at Paramount and as Hussey's career at MGM wound down she began appearing in films at other studios. In 1945, she appeared on Broadway in State of the Union with Ralph Bellamy. As the demands of family life increased Hussey's career took a back seat to raising her children but she continued to make occasional screen and television appearances. Hussey died in 2005, at the age of 93.

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