In our week highlighting the screen villains of the 30s and 40s we mustn’t forget women (in addition to film noir femmes fatales, general all-around baddies). Today’s choice is — Gale Sondergaard.

She was the dragon lady? Or, perhaps a cat woman?

Your may not at first be sure since today’s subject, born Edith Holm Sonderghaard in rural Minnesota in the winter of 1899, possessed such an strikingly unusual look that she wound up a favorite of directors casting exotic roles no matter the species.

Gale was truly an accidental Hollywood character actress.

Her first love was the stage, and she followed her then husband (director-producer Herbert Biberman) to Hollywood in the early Thirties principally because she was married to him.  Director Mervyn Leroy was the first to realize her big screen potential, casting Sondergaard in her maiden feature, the 1936 costume drama Anthony Adverse, costarring Fredric March, Claude Rains (below left) and Olivia DeHavilland.


Thus began a career that covered 56 credits over a 46-year span — with one significant interruption. Sondergaard’s name has turned up among classic movie trivia fans for roles that she turned down or didn’t get.  But those she did show her as a supporting actress of real power.

She scared so many of us when we were young.

That’s Paulette Goddard pictured above left, with our subject assuming her no-nonsense look, to the right. She said more than once that her acting forte was playing characters who were ‘sly, manipulative, dangerously cunning and sinister.’

Even so she turned up (as the above still indicates) with Goddard in, of all things, a 1939 Bob Hope comedy The Cat and the Canary. Her character was exotic, of course, one ‘Miss Lu.’ The Cat and the Canary Movie Poster (27 x 40 Inches ...

For our money, Sondergaard’s most memorable performance, just from its sheer physicality, was her  turn in director William Wyler’s 1940 pre-film noir thriller, The Letter. Bette Davis stars with Herbert Marshall, both involved in a murderous plot driven by love, sex, jealousy and an exotic mistress portrayed by Sondergaard.

Gale Sondergaard and Bette Davis in “The Letter”, 1940 | MATTHEW'S ...

If I were to make a list of movie characters I would most afraid to run into in a dark alley, Mrs. Hammond as played by Gale Sondergaard in ‘The Letter’ would absolutely be on that list, writes a critic on The Hollywood Revue website. She doesn’t yell, she doesn’t slap or punch anyone. Instead, she spends most of her time on screen standing still and glaring. But she stands still and glares more terrifyingly than anyone.

Gale Sondergaard - Wikipedia

Some thing you should know about Gale Sondergaard:

—  Minnesota-born Gale and Russia-born Maria Ouspenskaya generated Oscar action for their maiden features. Maria was nominated in the best supporting actress category for 1937’s Dodsworth, while Gale WON the best supporting actress nod for 1936’s Anthony Adverse.

—  Sondergaard did NOT appear in Cat People, the superb 1942 Val Lewton production about  Serbian-born fashion designer (Simone Simon) who has much in common with felines of all sorts.  However, there is a brief onscreen appearance of a truly exotic-looking woman who scares the hell out of Simon’s character on her wedding day. The tiny but telling part could have well been played by Sondergaard.  Instead, the actress is Elizabeth Russell (sister-in-law to Roz).

—  Gale did not sign on as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz because the final script changed the appearance of character from beautiful to ugly.

—  Sondergard’s career was involuntarily suspended for at least 20 years because she was blacklisted in 1947 because of her political views.  Her husband, writer-director Herbert J. Biberman, one of the ‘Hollywood 10,’ was also blacklisted. They didn’t work again in Hollywood until the late 1960’s.

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