Monday, December 28, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #3

I'm not sure when I fell in love with Teresa Wright. All I know is that I've been entranced by this fresh-faced beauty for as long as I can remember.

The phrase "girl next door" gets thrown about sometimes too much, but it applies to Wright. Bright, friendly and lovely, she shied away from the glamour of Hollywood to concentrate on her work. Her co-stars and directors would praise her professionalism, and it's too bad that her body of work isn't more extensive.

Still, she appeared in a number of fine classics during the 1940s, several of them particular favorites of mine. Plus, she remains the only actor or actress to receive Oscar nominations for her first three film roles.

She was on Broadway when Sam Goldwyn saw her. He signed her to a long-term contract and her first film was "The Little Foxes." And what a film. She played Alexandra Giddens, daughter of Regina (Bette Davis), in this tale of family and greed. Directed by William Wyler, the film gives Wright a chance to combine sweetness with intelligence and a fighting spirit, qualities she would bring to most if not all of her films. Wright, making her film debut, also held her own with Bette Davis, which is saying a lot. Davis, Wright and Patricia Collinge, who was also making her film debut, all received Oscar nods for their strong work.

In 1942, Wright hit a home run in two films. First off, she played Eleanor Gehrig opposite Gary Cooper in the excellent "The Pride of the Yankees," the biography of baseball player Lou Gehrig. Again, Wright seems unfazed by the talent surrounding her, playing the loving wife with sincerity and warmth. Then she played Carol Beldon in "Mrs. Miniver," MGM's monster hit of that year. Wright is fine as the woman who wins Vin Miniver's heart.

Wright became the second performer to earn Oscar nods in both lead and supporting categories in the same year, and she won the supporting Oscar for "Mrs. Miniver."

So, if you're keeping count, she's made three films, all superb. Then came my favorite role of hers, as Charlie Newton in Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt." The theme is straightforward -- what happens when an element of evil is introduced into the typical American small town family.

Hitchcock uses Wright's girl-next-door appeal to full advantage, and she's up to the challenge, as Charlie begins to suspect that her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, above) is not the loving family member he pretends to be. Wright beautifully plays young Charlie's progression from happy-yet-bored small-town woman to a realization that life is not always fair and that families can hold dark secrets, some of which can tear them apart. It's brilliant work. Perhaps the Academy felt she had been honored enough at this point, and she was overlooked for what should have been a well-deserved Oscar nod.

Although I have not seen her 1944 release "Casanova Brown" (it's on my Tivo wish list), she then played Peggy Stephenson in one of my all-time favorite films, "The Best Years of Our Lives."

In this 1946 film, she is elated that her father has returned from World War II but soon finds herself in love with another returning soldier (Dana Andrews, above), who happens to be married. This plotline also deals with Andrews' quickie marriage before shipping out and his nightmares of the war, which Peggy learns to accept. Although her role may not be as well-rounded as some of the other characters, she is a welcome presence, and her screen persona quickly gains the audience's sympathies. Her final scenes with Andrews are lovely.

Unfortunately, the quality of her films never sustained itself. The enjoyable weepie "Enchantment" in 1948 certainly benefits from her appearance, but she became less enchanted with Hollywood. Film work was interspersed with quality stage and TV appearances, as well as taking care of her family, and she didn't mind this at all.

Still, she remains a true 1940s legend, making the most of a handful of films and casting a spell on audiences that has lasted well beyond this era. She certainly did so on me, and I'm thankful for that.

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