#BornThisDay: Actor, Mildred Natwick

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June 19, 1905Mildred Natwick

My favorite Broadway Musical flop has to be the deliciously witty 70, Girls, 70 (1971) by Fred Ebb and John Kander, based on the Breath Of Spring (1958) by Peter Coke (gay men all) about a group of larcenous old folks who steal furs from various New York City stores planning to use the proceeds from their resale to buy their Upper West Side retirement hotel which is slated to be sold to developers.

It ran for just 44 performances, but the delightful score lives on in its Original Broadway Cast recording. The cast included Natwick, David Burns, Lillian Roth, and Lillian Hayman. Burns collapsed onstage from a heart attack and died; always a danger when doing an all-geezer musical. It was very much Natwick’s show and she was nominated for the Tony Award for her performance.

Natwick (C) on the moon in “70, Girls, 70” via YouTube

She had also been nominated for a Tony in 1957 for The Waltz Of The Toreadors. She won an Emmy Award for her work in the miniseries The Snoop Sisters, opposite Helen Hayes. In 1967, she earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Neil Simon‘s Barefoot In The Park (1963) a role she had done on Broadway for 1,530 performances opposite Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford.

Natwick was a lesbian whose gayness was an open secret in the theatre community. She appeared in 40 Broadway shows: musicals, classics, dramas and comedies, plus 30 films.

You know, there really should have been a television mystery series featuring sensible lesbian couples. Something like two Jessica Fletchers sharing a sensible home and sensibly solving complicated murders together while wearing sensible shoes. Maybe based on books from the 1920s and 1930s, just after the War, either one, written by lesbian author with three names and set in a quaint village outside London, the kind of village with many corpses in the shrubbery. Or maybe set in the city but including suspects who were women they have both had affairs with. Their mantle would be filled with photographs of them on holiday with Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, Djuna Barnes or even, possibly, Greta Garbo.

The series should have played on Masterpiece Theatre or various BBCs. It should have proved so popular that there were Sesame Street parodies teaching children how to use words like “lesbian” or “sensible”.

Then I remembered the television movie Do Not Fold, Spindle Or Mutilate (1972) a part of the NBC Mystery Movie series from 1972 to 1974. Though it features two sisters, I think it was hard to read them as anything but a married couple.

Do Not Fold, Spindle Or Mutilate starred Helen Hayes, Natwick, Myrna Loy and Sylvia Sydney as older women who occupy their time with luncheons, amazing outfits and creating a fake profile of a much younger woman for a computer dating service. Unfortunately for them, their profile attracts a serial killer. Unfortunately for him, these gals had moxie. It was somewhat reprised with the series The Snoop Sisters, only with Natwick taking on Loy’s role as Hayes’ sister. It is the jazziest Natwick had ever been, playing the fashionable Gwendolyn Snoop-Nicholson. It is one of the only times I can think of that Natwick was better dressed than everyone else on the screen.

The Snoop Sisters had the things people like in 1970s made-for-televion mysteries: women in their 70s, magicians, Roddy McDowell, switches, scams and twists. Natwick wore so many outfits: fantastically printed caftans and ties; wide lapels; loudly patterned suits; sweaters with ring pulls.

I remember there was one episode where Barbara Stanwyck‘s house is probably possessed and another where someone is trying to drive her mad. One was about a theatre company that re-enacts a murder to get a confession. One where Shelley Winters‘ passion for Debbie Reynolds proves her undoing. Another in which Eve Arden plays Hildegard Withers, a character who was played by ZaSu Pitts and then Edna May Oliver in a series of 1930s films. Withers is an ex-schoolteacher with an intriguing taste in hats and another good candidate for sensible lesbian detective.

Sadly, there were only five episodes of The Snoops produced.

Natwick created an engaging gallery of eccentric, whimsical and spunky characters in plays, films and television for more than 60 years. Her comic brilliance in Barefoot In The Park prompted The New York Times theatre critic Walter Kerr to acclaim her in 1963 as “… the most hilarious woman in the Western hemisphere“.

Among Natwick’s films were four directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne: playing a prostitute in The Long Voyage Home (1940), a doomed mother in Three Godfathers (1948) a hard-bitten Army wife in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and a sly widow in The Quiet Man (1952).

With John Wayne in The Long Voyage Home

Alfred Hitchcock gave her with a plum part in his black comedy, The Trouble With Harry (1955) with Shirley MacLaine in her screen debut. Natwick is quirky as the old woman (she was only 50 at the time) who discovers the corpse of the title and is touching in her love for an old sea captain played by gay actor Edmund Gwenn. Natwick in flannel shirts; does that make her the first lesbian ever seen in Technicolor?

With Gwenn in The Trouble With Harry via YouTube

She is also a delight as convent-girl Lucille Bremer‘s grotesquely over-refined aunt in Vincente Minnelli‘s demented fantasy, Yolanda And The Thief (1945). Perhaps her most famous lines in her films is her tongue-twisting instructions to Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (1956): “The chalice from the palace has the pellets with the poison; the vessel with the pestle, not the flagon with the dragon, has the brew that is true.”

Natwick celebrated her 83rd birthday by shooting Stephen FrearsDangerous Liaisons (1988), in which she gives a finely modulated performance as Madame de Rosemonde, at whose country estate the sexual intriguing takes place.

With Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) via YouTube

But, Natwick mostly concentrated her career on Broadway, saying she had always preferred plays to films:

… on the stage, you’re in control for two hours, while in a film, you do bits and pieces, usually out of sequence.

Natwick was born in Baltimore. She graduated from Bryn Mawr where she majored in Theatre. She joined the celebrated University Players on Cape Cod, working with Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Joshua Logan.

She made her Broadway debut in a melodrama, Carry Nation,in 1932. She played the eccentric medium and clairvoyant Madam Arcati in the Broadway premiere of Noël Coward‘s Blithe Spirit opposite gay actor Clifton Webb.

Among her other film credits are The Enchanted Cottage (1945), Cheaper By The Dozen (1950) with Webb and Loy, and the exquisite, much misunderstood, Daisy Miller (1974).

Natwick lived most of her life in an apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan, where she took her final bow in 1994, taken by cancer at 89-years-old. She may have been gay, but she seemed to have lived a life that was scandal free. Although, she shares her birthday with Wallis Simpson, the American Duchess of Windsor, who was known to enjoy a lady on the side on occasion, so maybe they ate more than cake when they celebrated together.

Please, don’t confuse her with pencil-lipped, birdlike actor Mildred Dunnock (about the same age and also from Baltimore). Don’t get The Snoop Sisters confused with Snoop Dogg or Scissor Sisters. In fact, do us all a favor and just don’t get confused.

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