Hollywood Soprano: Ann Blyth
By Jennie Watters
The teenager sailed over the hard-packed snowy hillside without a care in the world. She squinted her clear blue eyes while her dark hair whipped behind her in the wind. Suddenly, an icy mound jutted out in front of the toboggan. Before she realized what was happening, she was hurtling through the air, landing with a sickening thud on her back. Stunned and unable to move, Ann did not scream from the pain. Instead, she whispered a prayer as the tears sprang to her eyes.
Once she was transported from the San Bernardino Mountains to the hospital, she noticed how concerned the doctors looked as they ran their tests. Her injury was a serious one. Her mother held her hand as they told Ann that her back was broken. She might never be able to walk again. “At first, I couldn’t look at my mother. When at last I raised my head, I was startled. Those warm, hazel eyes under her crown of auburn hair were actually smiling. ‘Have faith, my darling,’ she said. ‘You’ll walk.’”
At sixteen, Ann Blyth was not only her mother’s beloved youngest daughter, she was also the primary breadwinner of the family and already an Oscar nominated actress. When Ann was small, Mrs. Blyth made a living as a washerwoman. Her husband had abandoned his family, so it was up to Nan Lynch Blyth to provide for Ann and her sister. They did not have much, but the girls always had enough to eat and clothes to wear. Ann admired her Irish immigrant mother, fondly remembering: “Mother worked very hard and her tiny body wasn’t nearly as big as her heart.” Education was a priority for Mrs. Blyth, she made sure her daughters attended good schools and even signed them up for voice lessons and drama.
From an early age Ann was part of the children’s chorus, singing with the New York San Carlo Opera Company. Being surrounded by the glorious music of Puccini and Bizet led to a lifelong love of opera. She also got minor roles in plays and had her first radio appearance when she was only six years old. Despite these positive experiences, Ann occasionally felt the sting of rejection when she wasn’t chosen for a part after an audition. Her mother never seemed disappointed however. “Just have faith, my darling,” she would say as they walked home in the fading light. “Something better will come.” Her mother’s attitude gave her confidence, and she continued to do the things she loved free of the pressure to win every time.
Even though she knew her mother was always proud of her whether she got the part or not, Ann was beyond thrilled when she was cast in the Broadway play, “Watch on the Rhine” in 1941, when she was 12. During the play’s successful nine month run, Ann turned thirteen, toured across the country, performed for the president and had
dinner at the White House. Henry Koster, a director for Universal Studios, attended the play one night. He was impressed by her performance and after a successful screen test, Ann was signed for seven year contract. She was going to be in the movies!
At first the studio cast her in lightweight musicals, usually with comedian and dancer Donald O’Connor as her High School sweetheart. But in 1945, she landed a big, dramatic role, in a movie co-starring Hollywood legend, Joan Crawford. Ann blew everyone away in “Mildred Pierce” as Veda, Crawford’s ungrateful, cold-hearted, scheming daughter who takes advantage of her mother’s kindness. The fact that sweet Ann Blyth was able to pull off this cruel character so convincingly is a testament to her ability as an actress. When asked about how she did it, Ann humbly explained that her Oscar nominated performance was due to “a good imagination.”
After her sledding accident, Ann’s promising career had to be put on hold. It was hard to spend seven months flat on her back in a body cast when she had been so used having a hectic filming schedule. Now that she was helpless physically, she learned to trust in God more than ever. “I found myself blessed, for a new sense of prayer began to unfold to me…there were not the busy times of telling Him what I needed, but rather, times of listening communion, of gathering strength, when my human strength and courage seemed to ebb away.” Even after she was freed from the body cast, it took a lot of time to recover. She was in a wheelchair, then later graduated to a back-brace. Her mother celebrated every step forward with her as she slowly gained back what she had lost.
One month after Ann’s back-brace permanently came off, another tragedy struck. Mrs. Blyth died of cancer. Ann was only seventeen years old.
Ann’s mother had been her role-model, her best friend, her mentor. Now she was alone. In her grief, she realized that her mother had prepared her for this loss, just as she had prepared Ann for so many other things she would have to face in life. Mrs. Blyth had felt alone all those years ago when her husband left her and her two little girls, but she worked hard and relied on Jesus for the rest. Ann became assured that God would be with her and that her mother was in heaven watching over her every step of the way. It comforted her to remember that they would be truly reunited one day.
Human comfort came in the form of Ann’s aunt and uncle, who moved all the way from Connecticut to California to live with her so that their niece could continue her career as a Hollywood actress. Ann threw herself back into her work, appearing in several more dramas, and then finally a comedy. The 1948 movie featured William Powell, a middle-aged man who falls in love with a mermaid! Ann had a golden tail custom made for her and weighted down so that she wouldn’t float during her scenes in the water. “Mr Peabody and the Mermaid” made good use of her beauty and athleticism, but for some reason, the beguiling mermaid is mute!
Of course for music lovers, any time Ann Blyth sang onscreen was a real treat. Her earlier films do little to showcase her full, rich soprano voice. In “Top o’ the Morning” her co-star Bing Crosby got the lion’s share of the songs, same for her first really big MGM musical with Mario Lanza, “The Great Caruso.” Of course that movie IS about the famous opera singer Enrico Caruso, but Ann’s voice is so lovely, it seems a shame that she only sings once. In 1954, Ann FINALLY got the chance to exhibit her skill as a vocalist in two big-budget musicals, “Rose Marie,” and later “The Student Prince,” both MGM adaptations of operettas. A year later, she starred with baritone Howard Keel in “Kismet” which features some of my favourite songs ever written: “And This is My Beloved,” “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” and “Stranger in Paradise.”
By that time, Ann’s film career was coming to a close. Too many important things were happening in her personal life! She got married in 1953, had her first child in ’54, and a second one in ’55. Between pregnancies she was still acting, but she knew she wanted to devote more time to her growing family. By 1957 she had already made thirty-two pictures, in a variety of genres which included costume dramas, mysteries, musicals, time travel, westerns, film noir, comedies and war movies. Ann decided to act in stage plays again, with occasional forays into television. In 1963 her fifth (and last) child was born. During the 1970s, Ann didn’t work much because home life kept her busy, but she did do commercials. She became known as the “Hostess Mom” who advertised Twinkies! Her children were often featured in these ads with her.
In the 1980s, she made her last television appearance, guest starring in “Murder, She Wrote.” She was not done with show business though! Her husband encouraged her to continue doing what she loved, so she started putting on concerts, singing classics from her theatre performances and movies. In Las Vegas she even reunited with her old friend, Donald O’Connor. At a 1992 concert, columnist Liz Smith wrote: “Ann Blyth, who was a movie star when the words really meant something, looks incredible. Time seems literally to have stood still for her, and not only physically. The star’s soprano is as lilting and steady as when she was knocking out those MGM musicals.”
She continued singing well into the 2000s, and still does interviews and participates in Turner Classic Movies festivals and cruises.
On my fridge, I have an autographed photo of this beautiful lady, her name signed under mine in perfect script. I have always enjoyed her movies, but until very recently I had no idea that her career was as varied as it was, or that her faith was such a vital part of who she is. I had heard of the album, “Hail Mary With Ann Blyth,” which has Ann singing and reciting scriptures, but ignorantly assumed it was just another project. Now I realize what a genuine human being she is, as beautiful inside as she is outside. She survived tragedy bravely, and enjoyed good fortune without becoming self-centred. When asked in a recent interview how she would like people to remember her in years to come, she said: “That I made them happy. That would make me very happy.”