Thursday, April 3, 2008

Esther Howard

Elmira Sessions, Joel McCrea and Esther Howard in Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Miz Zeffie knows how to hold her man!

Greetings classic movie fans and welcome to this online celebration of one of the silver screen's character actress greats, Esther Howard. Born April 4, 1892 in Helena, Montana (the stamping ground of Myrna Loy and Gary Cooper), I have little more to relate on Esther's early years. It is for certain that by the age of 25 Esther had taken her comic timing, expressive eyes and soprano voice far from Montana to the Great White Way.

For a dozen years from 1917, she appeared in as many Broadway shows - comedies, musical revues and featured roles in hits such as Sunny (Jerome Kern) and The New Moon (Sigmund Romberg). During this time she married Arthur Albertson, a Georgia-born leading man in silent films (1914 - 1917) and stage performer who committed suicide upon the closing of a show in 1926.

Esther Howard and Skeets Gallagher in Merrily We Go To Hell (1932)

Esther left NYC for Hollywood in 1930 and hit the ground a-running. She has 28 movies to her credit before one of my earliest sighting in 1935's Stars Over Broadway where she plays an eager radio talent show contestant. Many of her roles are of the uncredited variety: tenement resident in Wyler's Dead End (1937), streetwalker in Van Dyke's Marie Antoinette (1938), lunch counter lady in Ulmer's Detour (1945) up to inmate in Cromwell's Caged (1950). Columbia used her talent for comedy in 17 films with Scotland's own Andy Clyde over a 20 year period beginning in 1935. Most of these shorts were directed by Jules "Three Stooges" White.

Every once in awhile Esther would hit the jackpot. A variety of good roles in really good films showcasing her extraordinary ability. She was part of Preston Sturges' famed stock company and appeared in seven of his pictures. Esther is unforgettable as Miz Zeffie, so admiring of Joel McCrea's torso in Sullivan's Travels (1941), Mrs. Weenie King in The Palm Beach Story (1942), Madame La Jolla in The Great McGinty (1940, and the mayor's wife in Hail the Conquering Hero, 1944. Perhaps no one else could have played those parts so well.

Esther Howard and Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet (1944) brought only one of the classic noir roles for which Esther Howard is remembered by noir junkies. Here's how Jessie Florian is described by Philip Marlow: "She was a charming middle aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle". Quite a build-up and Esther Howard doesn't let the audience down.

Gordon Douglas directed Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946) which gives Esther a delightful turn as another denizen of the underworld, Filfthy Flora. Another noir ripe for rediscovery by the public at large is Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947). Esther's role as the loyal and resourceful Mrs. Kraft determined to bring a friend's killer to justice can only be described as sheer noir perfection. Her last role of major note was as the mother of Kirk Douglas and Arthur Kennedy in Mark Robson's Champion (1949) although she can be seen in movies throughout the 50s as a variety of landladies and bystanders with pithy comments.

Esther Howard passed away from a heart attack on March 8, 1965, at the age of 74. Any one of those roles, Jessie Florian or Mrs. Kraft was certainly worthy of a nomination for those awards the Hollywood folks are so keen on handing out and a nomination would have gone a long way to keeping the name of Esther Howard at the forefront of Tinsel Town's great character actors. As it is, the lady with the big eyes and bigger talent left a body of work that is a treasure for classic movie fans.


  1. Sullivan's Travels! That's where I have seen your profile photo face before...I didn't have the heart to ask, but I couldn't quite pinpoint it. Nice b-day tribute, CW.

    Kudos for including Joel McCrea in the celebration. Yowza!

  2. The happy occasion of Esther's birthday gave me the opportunity to enlighten people about my "representative icon". I'm crazy about yours, by the way.

  3. Oh, how I love your blog! And how sad I am that my copy of Sullivan's Travels does not play on my busted VCR. Yowza, indeed.

  4. Gee thanks Tracey. High praise indeed from my blogging inspiration.

    PS: I think we know someone with the DVD of Sullivan's Travels.

  5. Kudos to you for appreciating the talents of Esther Howard. The Academy may have overlooked her talent but you payed her a beautiful tribute.

  6. Esther was my great aunt, and your tribute to her is much appreciated by the family - we're still very proud!

  7. Thank you so much for commenting. Your family indeed has much to be proud of in Aunt Esther.

  8. Caftan Woman, I should have realized that since you love memorable character actors as much as I do, you'd be an authority on character actress Esther Howard! I'm sure you'd agree that character actors don't always get the kudos they deserve (heck, they're lucky if they get screen credit!), so I especially enjoyed your wonderful tribute to Esther Howard; you did a great job! And how cool that Esther's kinfolk weighed in, too! Thanks for steering me to your awesome post, C.W.!

  9. You're a doll, Dorian. Looking over my blog history, one might get the impression that I am prejudiced against the leading men and ladies of cinema. Not true. But where would they be without stalwart support?

  10. Thank you, Caftan, for the great background. I enjoyed and marveled at Esther Howard"s portrayals on Murder My Sweet and Born to Kill on TCM. She had such power and radiance.

    1. She's one of the reasons we love these movies.

    2. Thanks for the tribute to the estimable Esther Howard. A great actress. Once seen, never forgotten. You may remember me from the glory days of the IMDB as Telegonus. Best wishes!

  11. Wait: according to Wikipedia, she was born in Butte, not Helena, and moved to Boston and age 5. I agree though that she was a brilliant, under appreciated talent.



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