Sothern began her career in the late 1920s in bit parts in films. In 1930, she made her Broadway stage debut and soon worked her way up to starring roles. In 1939, MGM cast her as Maisie Ravier, a brash yet loveable Brooklyn showgirl. The character proved to be popular and spawned a successfulfilm series and radio show, The Adventures of Maisie.
In 1953, Sothern moved into television as the star of her own sitcom Private Secretary. The series aired for five seasons on CBS and earned Sothern three Primetime Emmy Award nominations. In 1958, she starred in another sitcom for CBS, The Ann Sothern Show which aired for three seasons. From 1965 to 1966, Sothern provided the voice of Gladys Crabtree in the sitcom My Mother the Car. She continued her career throughout the late 1960s with stage and film appearances and guest starring roles on television. Due to health issues, she worked sporadically during the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1987, Sothern appeared in her final film The Whales of August, starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. Sothern earned her first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film. After filming concluded, she retired to Ketchum, Idaho where she spent her remaining years before her death from heart failure in March 2001.
Born Harriet Arlene Lake in Valley City, North Dakota, she was the oldest of three daughters born to Walter J. Lake and Annette Yde-Lake. She had two younger sisters, Marion and Bonnie. Her maternal grandfather was Danish violinist Hans Nielsen, and her paternal grandfather was Simon Lake.
Annette Yde-Lake was a concert singer while Sothern's father worked in importing and exporting. Sothern and her sisters were raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her parents separated when she was four-years old (they would later divorce in 1927). At the age of 5, she began taking piano lessons. She later studied at McPhail School of Music where her mother also taught piano. She also began accompanying her mother on her concert tours when her school schedule permitted. By age 11, she had become an accomplished pianist and was singing solos in her church choir. At age 14, she began voice lessons and also continued to study piano and music composition. As a teen at Minneapolis Central High School, she appeared in numerous stage productions and also directed several shows. During her high school years, she entered the annual state sponsored contests for student musical composers and won three years in a row. In 1926, she graduated from high school. Her mother moved to Los Angeles where she worked as a vocal coach for Warner Bros. studios. Sothern moved with her father to Seattle where she attended the University of Washington. She dropped out after one year.
While visiting her mother in California, she won a role in the film The Show of Shows. She did a screen test for MGM and signed a six-month contract. She appeared in bit parts and walk on roles but soon grew frustrated with only appearing in small roles. She then met Florenz Ziegfeld at a party. Ziegfeld offered her a role in one of his productions. When MGM decided not to pick up her option, she moved to New York City to take Ziegfeld up on his offer.
On Broadway in 1931, she had leading roles in America's Sweetheart (135 performances in which she sang "I've Got Five Dollars" and "We'll Be The Same") and in Everybody's Welcome (139 performances).
Films and radio
Sothern in the radio show The Adventures of Maisie
. Ann Sothern made many radio guest appearances from 1935 to 1952.
In 1934, she signed a contract with Columbia Pictures. Harry Cohn changed her name to Ann Sothern. "Ann" was chosen in honor of her mother and "Sothern" was chosen for Shakespearean actor E. H. Sothern. While at Columbia, she mainly appeared in roles in B-movies. After two years, the studio released her. In 1936, she was signed by RKO Radio Pictures and after a string of films that failed to attract a large enough audience, she left RKO. She signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer shortly after leaving RKO.
After signing with MGM, Sothern was cast as brassy Brooklyn burlesque dancer Mary Anastasia O'Connor, known as Maisie, in the 1939 film of the same name. MGM originally acquired the Maisie property for Jean Harlow who died in June 1937. After years of struggling and appearing in supporting parts, Sothern found major success with Maisie. The film was profitable for MGM, as were the string of Maisie comedy sequels that followed (box office proceeds from Maisie pictures financed MGM's costly dramas). From 1939 to 1947, she appeared in a total of ten Maisie films. A review of Swing Shift Maisie (1943) by Time magazine praised Sothern and described her as "one of the smartest comediennes in the business".The popularity of the film series led to her own radio program, The Adventures of Maisie, broadcast on CBS from 1945 to 1947, on Mutual Broadcasting System in 1952 and in syndication from 1949 to 1953.
Sothern's next film was the musical Words and Music in 1948. In 1949, she appeared in the Academy Award-winning film A Letter to Three Wives. The film earned her excellent reviews, but failed to stimulate her career which had began to wane in the late 1940s. In 1949, Sothern contractedhepatitis which she would battle for the next three years. After Sothern became ill, MGM canceled her contract.
By the early 1950s, Sothern was only appearing in supporting roles in films. In need of money due to her mounting medical bills, she turned to television. In 1953, she landed the lead in the series Private Secretary. Sothern portrayed the role of Susan Camille "Susie" MacNamara, a secretary working for New York City talent agent Peter Sands (Don Porter). The series aired on CBS on alternate weeks with The Jack Benny Program. Private Secretary was a hit with audiences and Sothern was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for her role on the series four times. In 1957, Private Secretary was renewed for a fifth season, but Sothern left the series after she had a what she later described as a "violent fight" with producer Jack Chertok over profits from the series.
She returned to television the following year in The Ann Sothern Show. Sothern starred as Katy O'Connor, the assistant manager at the fictitious Bartley House hotel. The series originally co-starred Ernest Truex as Katy's timid boss Jason Macauley who was routinely out shined by Katy and bullied by his wife Flora (Reta Shaw). Ratings for the series were weak and after twenty-three episodes, the show was re-tooled. Sothern's co-star from Private Secretary, Don Porter signed on Katy's boss James Devery. The addition of Porter added romantic tension to the series and helped to improve ratings. In 1959, the series won a Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy. During the series' second season, Jesse White, who also starred inPrivate Secretary, joined the cast. Ratings for the series remained solid until CBS moved The Ann Sothern Show to Thursdays for its third season. Scheduled opposite the popular ABC series The Untouchables, ratings dropped substantially and The Ann Sothern Show was canceled in 1961.
After The Ann Sothern Show ended, she returned to films in 1964's The Best Man, opposite Henry Fonda. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for her work in the film. That same year, she appeared in the psychological thriller Lady in a Cage, starring Olivia de Havilland. In 1965, she had a recurring role on The Lucy Show, starring her friend Lucille Ball. After Ball's long-time co-star Vivian Vance announced plans to leave the show, the press speculated that Sothern would be Vance's replacement. Sothern denied the rumors and ultimately, the series continued without Vance or Sothern.
From 1965 to 1966, Sothern provided the voice for Gladys Crabtree (the car) in sitcom My Mother the Car, starring Jerry Van Dyke. She continued the rest of the 1960s working in guest roles in television. In 1972, Sothern appeared in the Sid and Marty Krofft television special Fol-de-Rol. The next year, she played the mother of a homicidal son in psychological horror film The Killing Kind. In 1974, she traveled to Hong Kong to shoot the martial arts film Golden Needles. She portrayed the role of Ann, a mahjong parlor owner. Sothern's next role was in the 1975 action/comedy film Crazy Mama. For the rest of the decade, she worked sporadically in television and in stage productions.
Sothern returned to television in 1985 in the role of "Ma Finney" in the television adaptation of one of her old films A Letter to Three Wives. Sothern's final film role was in The Whales of August in 1987. Her role as the neighbor of elderly sisters, played by Lillian Gish and Bette Davis, earned her the only Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination of her career. After filming, Sothern retired from acting and moved to Ketchum, Idaho, where she spent her remaining years.
Over the course of her career, Sothern also managed several businesses and production companies. In the 1950s, she opened the Ann Sothern Sewing Center in Sun Valley, Idaho which sold fabric, patterns and sewing machines. She also owned a cattle ranch in Idaho named the A Bar S Cattle Company. Sothern owned Vincent Productions, Inc. (named for Sothern's patron saintVincent de Paul) which produced her first series Private Secretary, and Anso Productions which produced The Ann Sothern Show.
In addition to acting, Sothern also pursued a musical career. During her hiatus from Private Secretary in 1954, she starred in her own nightclub act featured in clubs in Reno, Las Vegas andChicago. In the late 1950s, she formed the A Bar S Music Company and released Southern Exposure, her first album in 1958.
Marriages and children
Sothern married actor and band leader Roger Pryor in September 1936. They separated in September 1941 and Sothern filed for divorce in April 1942 charging Pryor with mental cruelty.Their divorce became final in May 1943. Less than a week after her divorce from Pryor, she married actor Robert Sterling. The couple had one daughter, Patricia Ann, before divorcing in 1949. Patricia later became an actress using the name Tisha Sterling.
Shortly after filming A Letter to Three Wives, Sothern contracted infectious hepatitis after getting an impure serum shot while she was in England for a stage performance. She was confined to her bed where she continued to work on the Maisie radio program while she recuperated. Sothern later said that her illness had restored her faith. With the help of friend Richard Egan, she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1952.
In 1974, Sothern was injured while appearing in a Jacksonville, Florida stock production of Everybody Loves Opal when a fake tree fell on her back. The accident left her with a fractured lumbar vertebra and damaged nerves in her legs. Her injuries required hospitalizations where she was put in traction. She was also required to wear back braces. Due to her forced inactivity, Sothern gained a considerable amount of weight. In addition to her physical pain, Sothern also developed depression. Sothern credited her "optimistic belief" and Roman Catholic faith for getting her through. For the remainder of her life, Sothern suffered from numbness in her feet and required a cane to walk.
On March 15, 2001, Sothern died from heart failure at her home in Ketchum, Idaho at the age of 92. She was buried in Ketchum Cemetery.
Ann Sothern has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for motion pictures (found at 1612 Vine Street) and television (found at 1634 Vine Street).