Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Great Villain Blogathon: The Spider Woman

Something scary is happening.  Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and Silver Screenings have pooled their considerable talents to bring us The Great Villain Blogathon, running April 20th to 26th.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce first embodied Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson for Twentieth Century Fox in 1939s The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  The Victorian-era tales were well made and popular, but a series idea did not continue past those two excellent movies.  In 1942 Universal took up the mantle with Rathbone and Bruce, updating the pair to a contemporary setting with the majority of the films directed by Roy William Neill.  Holmes was free to pursue various nefarious villains from Professor Moriarty to Nazis.  In 1944 Holmes was pitted against one of the most fiendish of them all - The Spider Woman!

Gale Sondergaard, Basil Rathbone

Holmes:  I suspect a woman.
Watson:  A woman?  You amaze me, Holmes.  Why a woman?
Holmes:  Because the method, whatever it is, is peculiarly subtle and cruel.  Feline, not canine.

Well, if that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.

London newspapers are full of reports of mysterious deaths known as "pajama suicides".  Eminent men of means retire for the evening and, with no apparent cause, leap to their deaths.  What is behind it all?  Only one man can solve the puzzle, but that one man is dead.  While on a fishing vacation in Scotland, Sherlock Holmes falls to his death leaving behind a baffled constabulary and a bereft John Watson.  Of course, we know he's an old faker.  Holmes wouldn't go and die on us.  He wants to lull the criminal element behind the "pajama suicides" into a false sense of security.  A disguised Holmes will follow up on his one lead by placing himself in harm's way.  Holmes, in his everlasting confidence, does not fear the "female Moriarty" of crime.

Dennis Hoey, Basil Rathbone

Gale Sondergaard stars as Adrea Spedding, the Spider Woman.  Ms. Spedding has quite the lucrative racket.  Through the auspices of a gaming establishment she induces the eminent men of means to sign over their insurance policies and then on a luckless night frightens them into causing their own deaths to escape the lycosa carnivora, the deadliest insect known to science.  Creepy and effective.

It is a deadly game of cat and mouse between Holmes and the Spider Woman.  They see through each others disguises and ploys easily, and their enjoyment in the game is as great as ours is in watching the sparring.  Holmes comes very close to underestimating his adversary in this adventure.  Adrea Spedding is a brilliant manipulator and exceedingly clever.  She controls her organization with an uncanny ability to anticipate her enemy's moves and an easy access to her dark side.  A mad scientist, an annoying child, and an arcade shooting gallery all figure in the match-up between the two masterminds, which gives us one of the most entertaining entries in the Universal Holmes series.

 
Vernon Downing, Basil Rathbone, Alec Craig, Gale Sondergaard

Holmes aficionados will have fun looking for nods to The Adventure of the Final Problem, The Sign of Four, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, The Adventure of the Devil's Foot and The Adventure of the Empty House in Bertram Millhauser's screenplay.

Gale Sondergaard
(1898 - 1985)

When stage actress Gale Sondergaard came to Hollywood in the 1930s it was for her husband, writer/director Herbert Biberman's career.  However, it was Gale's screen career that started off brilliantly when Mervyn LeRoy cast her in the 1936 epic Anthony Adverse.  Her peers saw something in her portrayal of the manipulative and avaricious Faith that moved them to nominate her for a Best Supporting Actress Award in the first year of that category.  For her first film Gale was the first winner of the, at the time, plaque.  Less than two decades later her peers would not be so kind when Herbert Biberman was jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten and Gale was blacklisted.  Her last movie role for many years before the blacklisting set in was as Barbara Stanwyck sympathetic mother in Mervyn LeRoy's East Side, West Side.

Gale Sondergaard was an actress of versatility and intelligence who could and did play a variety of roles, including the mysterious Mrs. Hammond in The Letter, Lady Thiang in Anna and the King of Siam (another Oscar nomination) and the possessive Mrs. Manette in Christmas Holiday.  It is for the classy relish she brought to her villains for which Gale Sondergaard is best remembered.  Whether played in earnest or played for laughs her presence is as welcome and comforting as any on the screen.  You know what you are getting when Gale shows up in The Cat and the Canary, The Road to Rio or The Time of Their Lives as surely as when you are watching The Mark of Zorro and The Spider Woman.  In the 1970s, Gale Sondergaard returned to our screens with guest spots on television programs including Get Smart, Rod Serling's Night Gallery, the mini-series Centennial and the daytime drama Ryan's Hope.



Once a Spider Woman, always a Spider Woman.  Originally a freelance actress, during the 1940s Gale Sondergaard signed with Universal who capitalized on her appearance in the Holmes series by again presenting her as the "Spider Woman".  However, in the 1946 film The Spider Woman Strikes Back she plays a different character named Zenobia Dollard.  Ms. Dollard is even more mad than Ms. Spedding.  Does anyone else feel a chill?    


37 comments:

  1. It occurs to me that there aren't many actresses who were career heavies. Sounds like Sondergaard came close.

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    1. I think you may be onto something. Some actresses might lend themselves to overbearing mothers-in-law or other slightly unpleasant associations, but Gale was often cast for her malign presence.

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  2. I'm currently reading a book that mixes Sherlock and science (very nerdy!), so this post really called my attention. Maybe someday I will have watched all Basil Rathbone's Sherlock movies?
    I love Gale Sondergaard, such a great supporting actress. Nice to know more about her background.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!

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    1. Gale Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone appeared in five films together, but I really think they must have had the most fun in "The Spider Woman".

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  3. Ooh! What a fantastic cast in this film! I adore Gale Sondergaard and am so glad you included some background on her career.

    Thanks for including a Sherlock Holmes selection for the blogathon. The Spider Woman surely deserves to be more famous (infamous?) than she is!

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    1. It is a pleasure to contribute to the amazing blogathon. So many interesting film characters and "The Spider Woman" is right at home.

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  4. Hmm, don't think I've seen this Sherlock—but I do love a glamorous lady villain, and Sondergaard in that fur get-up is to-die-for! Definitely adding this one to the list.

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    1. I'm sure you'll get a kick out of it. Ms. Spedding is one cool customer. Moriarty could take lessons!

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  5. What a great choice, Gale Sondergaard, for a screen villain blogathon. She had a uniquely malevolent presence on screen, and I think Rich is right--she's one of kind in terms of a career based on this quality.

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    1. I've been wracking my brain and can't come up with anyone else who filled the Sondergaard niche.

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  6. The Spider Woman. Her name alone makes her a great villain, right? The fact that Gale Sondergaard gives such a wonderful performance just takes everything to the next level. She is an actress that deserves more praise, and this role is a particularly evil one. Great thoughts on a film that should not be overlooked!

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    1. The name instantly conjures up the personification of evil. She really was Holmes' equal.

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  7. Another great post! What an excellent choice for the blogathon and another "must see" for my growing list.

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  8. This is one of my favorite Rathbone/Holmes films. What sets Sondergaard's Spider Woman apart is not only her ruthlessness, but her glamour and sexiness (she probably could have made an excellent Irene Adler). Thanks for such a splendid review!

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    1. Sondergaard as Adler is a fabulous idea! She's so elegant and confident, lounging in her opulent apartment, devising her evil plans.

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  9. I eat up these Sherlocks like comfort food, and what a great pick for a villain from them. Perfect word, malevolent, she has that haughtiness and a scary elegance which makes it all work. Forget about Jolie, Gale would've made an awesome live action Maleficent. Thanks for joining in!

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    1. I think Gale Sondergaard's performances must surely have influenced many actresses taking on villainy. She's in our subconscious.

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  10. I've never seen this film (or any Sherlock Holmes feature, for that matter), but I greatly enjoyed your write-up. I especially enjoyed reading about Gale Sondergaard -- she was so fascinating!

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    1. A very interesting woman and actress. For many fans the Holmes series is like coming home. Rathbone was our first Sherlock. To this day when I read my Conan Doyle, it is Basil Rathbone's voice I hear.

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  11. I had no idea Gale Sondergaard had played a role like this (I've actually only seen in The Cat and the Canary) - I can't wait to watch this and explore some more of her films. Holmes has encountered some wonderful villains through his various incarnations, and I'm happy to have discovered a new one!

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    1. Forget Moriarty! It was a woman who came the closest to doing away with our hero.

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  12. Rathbone was good being good and great being bad

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    1. True. One of these days we'll have to take a closer look at Rathbone's villains.

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  13. LOVE those posters, CW! Love the tag line: Mistress of Murder! Most especially love the SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK poster and wish I had it. Well, maybe not, that pix of Rondo Hatton might keep me up at night. :) I hadn't realized that Gale Sondergaard had been blacklisted. That makes me like her even more.

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    1. I'm crazy about that poster as well. Her character is flat out nuts in that movie.

      Gale's life and career certainly had its ups and downs. In the end, she triumphed.

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  14. Kudos for the Spider Woman choice! Completely out of left field (where I built my house). :)

    This one is a thrill through and through. Thanks for the great writeup! This is the first Blogathon I've done, and it's fun to cruise these other entries...thanks, Caftan Woman!

    Clayton @ Claytonology.com

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    1. Thanks. Anyone from left field is a pal of mine.

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  15. Paddy, Oscar-winner Gale Sondergaard is always a compelling screen presence, be it THE LETTER; ANTHONY ADVERSE, and of course, The Spider Woman. If Gale Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone isn't a dream cast of adversaries, I don't know who is! I was fascinated by her movie history, and I felt frustrated on her and her husband when they were caught in the Blacklist in that terrible time. What a remarkable woman, and what an excellent blog post -- BRAVA for your great piece for the Great Villain Blogathon!

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    1. Thanks so much, Dorian. Gale Sondergaard is one inspiring lady. On the other hand, the Spider Woman is best to avoid!

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  16. Gee, the "female Moriarity" makes a delightfully wicked villain of choice! I love your descriptions of the "classy relish" that Sondergaard invariably brought to her bad girl roles; her polished facade and her obvious intelligence do indeed make her a scary foe for Holmes... I wonder to what extent her performance in this one might have inspired comic book villains. The overview of Sondergaard's career of evil deeds, from funny to frightening, was also very enjoyable. Thanks for a great read and a reminder that I need to rewatch the Rathbone-as-Holmes movies soon.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. One should never let too much time pass between Rathbone-as-Holmes movies or, for that matter, enjoying Gale Sondergaard's influential brand of villainy.

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  17. I really enjoyed your post about "The Spider Woman" and the background you wrote about her. You definitely made me want to see it and Gale Sondergaard's other movies you mentioned. My list of movies I want to see is growing longer and longer. Thanks for your input!

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    1. You're welcome. The more I read, the longer my own movie list grows! Always something to discover.

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  18. At its center, design is about making the wearer look great. Men's form prides itself on a perfect, streamlined outline, while ladies' mold is a great deal more imaginative, trying to highlight wonderful bends while concealing imperfections behind flawlessly composed neck areas, sleeves, trims, and midriffs. Sherlock's female adversary

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