Two actresses born on August 30th share a career and two roles. Both were born in New York City and started Broadway careers in the 1920s. One was whisked away to Hollywood in 1930 and appeared in over 90 films. The other only made a handful of movies, the first one in 1952.
When fans think of Shirley Booth it is likely their first image is of Hazel, the sitcom maid based on Ted Key's comic in the Saturday Evening Post, which ran 1961 to 1966, and then in syndication for kids to catch after school. Perhaps Lola Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba or Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker.
When fans think of Joan Blondell, whose film and TV work is more extensive, their first image may run the gamut from Lottie, the saloon keeper on Here Come the Brides which ran from 1968 to 1970 or the saucy, naughty gal of Warner Brothers 1930s output. The studio kept her very, very busy. At first glance the two actresses have little in common, but let's look a little bit closer.
William Lynn and Shirley Booth
Three Men on a Horse
Opening in 1935 George Abbott and John Cecil Holm's comedy Three Men on a Horse was a major hit that ran for over 800 performances. It is the story of a simple writer of greeting card verses with a knack for choosing winning race horses. Two denizens of that world take advantage of our hero, Erwin, keeping him from hearth and home to fatten their pocketbooks. The scheme's mastermind has a ditzy girlfriend named Mabel who is enthralled with Erwin's poetic nature. Oh, if his wife ever found out! Shirley Booth starred as Mabel.
Before the play finished its run in New York, Warner Brothers released the film version of Three Men on a Horse. Sam Levene came from the New York Company and Joan Blondell played the very scatterbrained Mabel. Joan's sister Gloria, played a hotel maid in the Broadway show. Three Men on a Horse is an exceptional farce that has enjoyed many Broadway revivals, most recently in 2011. Joan Blondell's characterization is outside the normal wisecracking dame that the studio usually handed her, and she's great fun.
Joan Blondell as Aunt Cissy
Betty Smith's 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a great popular success and the 1944 film release from Twentieth Century Fox was the film directing debut of Elia Kazan. Joan Blondell played the character of the beloved Aunt Cissy; warm and loving, tough and practical, vulnerable Cissy. Miss Blondell's work is exemplary and how she managed to avoid an Academy Award nomination is a mystery.
Shirley Booth as Aunt Cissy
In 1951 a musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with songs by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields and starring Shirley Booth as Cissy. Shirley had won the second of three Tony Awards the previous season for Come Back, Little Sheba. An Oscar would come her way for the same role shortly.
Shirley Booth and Katharine Hepburn also shared a journey on their career paths.
Frank Fenton, Joseph Cotten, Katharine Hepburn, Van Heflin, Shirley Booth
The 1939 Philip Barry play The Philadelphia Story ran for over 400 performances and gave Katharine Hepburn a great personal success starring as Tracy Lord. Shirley Booth co-starred as Elizabeth Imbrie, the photographer played by Ruth Hussey in the film with Hepburn.
In 1952 Shirley Booth won the Tony Award starring in The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents. Katharine Hepburn was nominated for an Oscar starring in the film version entitled Summertime in 1955 directed by David Lean. The play and film is the moving story of the unexpected romantic adventure of a spinster traveling in Italy.
Opening in 1955 and running for almost 300 performances, Shirley Booth starred as Bunny Watson in The Desk Set. The office comedy and romance centers on the threat of automation to clerical staff. The 1957 movie Desk Set co-starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and featured Joan Blondell.
Three unique actresses of great skill crossing paths on that road from Broadway to Hollywood and back again.