Remembering Ann Sheridan

Putting the "oomph" back in "The Oomph Girl"

Ann Sheridan "Life" Story

July 24th, 1939

by Noel F. Busch

Ann Sheridan Life Magazine Cover
Clara Lou Sheridan became the Oomph Girl of America on March 16, 1939, when Lucius Beebe, Busby Berkeley, Dudley Field Malone, David Niven, the Earl of Warwick and a score of Hollywood's other male celebrities, after enjoying a dinner of Columbia salmon and boneless squab at the Los Angeles Town House, awarded her the title after passing over the considerable claims of Hedy Lamarr, Alice Faye and Carole Lombard.

American had never had an Oomph Girl before and may never have one again. The nation's press viewed the phenomenon in its proper perspective. A year ago, Ann Sheridan, as Clara Lou is known to the movie public, was an obscure bit-part actress, celebrated solely for minor roles in B pictures. Since March 16, she has received more literary and pictorial attention than any other actress in Hollywood.

The April Screen Guide hailed Ann Sheridan as "The Most Exciting Star Since Harlow!" and proclaimed that "Ann Sheridan's got what gets you -- and makes you like it!" Photoplay for June carried an extensive discussion on Ann Sheridan entitled "From Ranch to Riches," describing Miss Sheridan as a "redheaded tornado."

Reconsidering, the June Screen Guide asked its readers: "Has Ann Sheridan more than Sex Appeal?" implying that behind Miss Sheridan's impressive front lay an undiscovered Duse. Miss Sheridan's memoirs in 12,000 words were syndicated to 50 U.S. papers; and in its August number, Motion Picture magazine asked plaintively, "Will The Oomph Title Hurt Her?" taking it for granted that its readers would know whom they meant by "her."

The word "Oomph," long current in U.S. slang, had rarely appeared in print before being used to describe peculiar attractions of Ann Sheridan. Since March, prolonged semantic investigations have been carried on to uncover its exact meaning. Asked to define it, the Hollywood bon vivants who applied it to Miss Sheridan were by no means unanimous.

Gene Towne, a celebrated screen writer, described it as "the indefinable something that lies in women's eyes -- oomph, oomph, oomph." The Ear of Warwick countered politely with, "Oomph is a feminine desirability which can be observed with pleasure but cannot be discussed with respectability.

Graham Baker said: "Oomph is to a girl what a pear is to an oyster," In the reams of print which have appeared about Miss Sheridan since the memorable eve of St. Patrick's Day on which she burst into bloom upon the U.S. scene, the most esoteric consideration of her influence upon aesthetics so far has been on published by the sedate Boston Sunday Globe. Its title was "Your Oomph Girl Has Glamour While the Yumph Girl Is Active."

Whatever Clara Lou Sheridan's title as the Oomph Girl may mean to the literary world, its meaning to the movie industry is unmistakable. For the 85,000,000 U.S. citizens who go them every week, the movies exist primarily as a means of psychic escape. The escape which these 85,000,000 enthusiasts accept most readily lie in a certain type of feminine charm.

Since 1937, the death of Jean Harlow, the renaissance of the Hays organization and the erroneous notion that a foreign accents is the equivalent, in sex appeal, or a good figure have combined to eliminate this type of charm and thereby to deprive the cinema industry of its No. 1 excuse for existing.

Whether Ann Sheridan's future screen deportment will gratify the appetite which still photographs, biographies, learned critiques and the accolades of gossip columnists have aroused is a question which will soon be answered, probably in the affirmative.

This week she will grace the U.S. screen again in Winter Carnival, a picture designed by its producer, Walter Wanger, to exhibit all Ann Sheridan's natural assets to the best advantage. If Winter Carnival substantiates Ann Sheridan's claims to attention at the American Oomph Girl, March 16, 1939 may become a date as important in Hollywood history as that on which Al Jolson uttered the first shrill squawks which heralded the arrival of the talkies, in October, 1927.

Ann Sheridan's upbringing, cultural background and home life render her ideally suited to become a U.S. idol. Every since the miraculous success of Greta Garbo, the movie magnates have labored under the delusion that appearing as an understudy in provincial theatres of Europe is automatically qualification for success with the U.S. movie audience. The fallacy in this therapy has been successfully demonstrated by Marlene Dietrich, Anna Sten, Simone Simon, Annabella and half a dozen other exotic beautifies without making any more impression upon producers than the continued success of homebred products.

As a matter of cold fact, the richest mine of screen material in the world is the State of Texas which , noted in most statistical summaries for its output of beef, oil, cotton, and garden vegetables, has never been properly recognized for its contributions to U.S. mass culture. Even considering its size, these have been disproportionate, including, as they do, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Ann Harding, Margaret Tallichet and a dozen other comparable characters.

Clara Lou Sheridan's first step to screen celebrity was taken when she was born in Dallas, on Feb. 21. 1915. Her father, who died a year ago, was the grandnephew of General Phil Sheridan and a garage mechanic. When Clara Lou was 3, the family moved to Denton where, at the Robert E. Lee grade school and the Denton Junior High School, she exhibited a fondness for football and basketball.

Her vague ambitions to be an actress were frustrated when, trying for parts in school plays, she was always made the understudy. America's future Oomph Girl decided that she had been destined to become a school teacher and enrolled at North Texas State Teachers College.

Next to being born in Texas, nothing is better preparation for a successful career in Hollywood than winning a dancing, singing or beauty contest. When in 1933, Kitty Sheridan eldest of the Clara Lou's three sisters, entered a bathing-suit picture of Clara Lou in a Paramount contest, her destiny was settled.

The finals of the bathing suit contest were held in the Hotel Adolphus, just across a Dallas street from the Baker Hotel in which Ginger Rogers had won a crucial Charleston contest eight years earlier. A few days later, Clara Lou Sheridan entrained for Hollywood where she made her first appearance with other local beauty-contest winners in something called Search for Beauty. The non-Texas contest winners in Search for Beauty were fired as soon as the picture was finished.

Clara Lou was a good influence

Miss Sheridan's option was taken up and she began a six-year apprenticeship in which she played everything from a cow-girl in Home On The Range to an East Side school teacher in The Great O'Malley. Prison pictures require little more scenery than an adjustable tenement house front and a few pailfuls of watered cement for cell blocks.

They have always been popular with Warner Brothers who obtained Miss Sheridan by the waiver system. At Warners, she established the foundation of her career by appearing as a gun-moll. a gangster's sweetheart and an influence for good in peewee penitentiary epics like San Quentin, Alcatraz Island, Angels with Dirty Facts and They Made Me a Criminal.

Ann Sheridan's sudden emergence from the ranks of B pictures ingénues occurred last year, in four steps. She was borrowed from Warners by Universal for Letter of Introduction in which, directed by John Stahl and photographed by Karl Freund, she appeared to better advantage than she had ever done on her home front.

Impressed, Warner Brothers assigned Hurrell, a high-priced specialist, to take still photographs of her which were widely reprinted by fan magazines. Hurrell's pictures of Ann caused so many studio visitors to ask about her, in preference to the lot's top glamor girls, that Warner's West Coast publicity chief, Charles Einfeld, summoned his East Coast publicity chief, Mitch Rawon, to discuss her potentialities as a top-rank star.

Rawson, before learning why had had been sent for, asked for an autographed picture of Ann Sheridan. New York movie publicity men are supposed to be totally impervious to Hollywood movie publicity. Warner Brothers reasoned that if she could impress Rawon, Ann Sheridan would certainly flabbergast the ordinary public and the effort to turn her into the American Oomph Girl got under way.

Improvement is made on Clara Lou

Warner Brothers have never been noted for developing glamor girls. Hollywood's top specialist in this department is Walter Wanger, a 45-year-old Dartmouth alumnus who became a movie producer after a varied career which included Wartime flying, stage managing for Granville Barker and running first errands, and then Paramount studio for Jesse Lasky.

His first star creation was the celebrated Clara Bow, whom Sheridan resembles. Last year, producing independently for United Artists, Wanger borrowed Hedy Lamarr, then unknown in the U.S., from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and made her into a great star with one picture, Algiers.

Then while M-G-M was trying to enable Miss Lamarr to live up to the reputation made for her by Wanger, Wanger hired Joan Bennett and made her into a double for Hedy in Trade Winds. When Wanger asked Warners to loan him Ann Sheridan for a picture which, since it was to be about his alma mater, might be expected to occupy a special spot on the Wanger release calendar, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. When Ann Sheridan gets back to her home studio, with her value properly enhanced by now snow-backgrounds and collegiate love in Winter Carnival, she will have the top billing in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.

Upon Clara Lou Sheridan, the effect of becoming the American Oomph Girl has not been altogether salubrious. Physically, she is perfectly equipped for the part. Her red hair, which photographs brown, is less spectacular than Jean Harlow's but this is advantageous because few girls have platinum hair anyway and the spectacle of such a freak makes people nervous.

Her low, husky voice is friendly and her Texas drawl has a pleasantly concupiscent quality. Her torso -- 36 inches around the top, 26 inches around the middle -- is highly satisfactory. Standing 5 foot 5 inches and weighting 121 lbs. she does not have to diet.

Here, unfortunately, the list of nature's endowments to Ann Sheridan comes to an end. Although she has given up her ambitions to be a school teacher, she has never been able to acquire the temperament of a seductress. The fact that, to an overwhelming proportion of the U.S. population, she is one, tends to cause her moments of mild worry.

Clara Lou awaits Oomph Boy

Glamor girls fall into two classes, amateur and professional. Amateur glamor girls, like Barbara Hutton, Brenda Frazier, Gloria Baker and the Duchess of Windsor may be irritated by the activities of the press but after all their parsnips are not buttered on the front pages. Furthermore, their social doings can be conducted on the pretence that reporters are a nuisance which, whether they believe it or not, simplifies the situation for their cronies.

Professional glamor girls, however, must take their status seriously. Ann Sheridan married an M-G-M stock actor named Eddie Norris in 1936. In 1938, when she began to be successful, they were amiably separated. She now lives in North Hollywood with her Denton high school friend, Gwenn Woodford. Since her separation, her love life has been a much a product of the studio as her acting. She is under tacit obligation to Warner Brothers to appear at least three times weekly at one of Hollywood's half-dozen reputable night clubs. On excursions of this sort, which she finds a bore, Ann Sheridan usually appears with Cesar Romero, Hollywood's most expert rumba dancer.

Her personal choice as a boy friend is Dr. Charles M. ("Spud") Taylor, a Los Angeles specialist in rare diseases, whom the studio would certainly not want her to marry. Whom the American Oomph Girl can marry remains a question. Stage or European actresses often marry millionaires, but most such actresses are not well paid.

Few U.S. millionaires can support Hollywood actresses as well as they can support themselves which means that the latter are reduced to intermarriage with their own kind. Among Hollywood eligibles, Clark Gable, Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power were all cross off the list this spring. There is practically nobody left. Furthermore, if Ann Sheridan married a mere leading man, it would be a mesalliance. She will have to wait until Warner Brothers can discover an Oomph Boy, a procedure which may take several years.

Obligations are discharged by Clara Lou

In the course of her odd, but well ordered and industrious life in Hollywood, American's Oomph Girl has developed a surprisingly wide range of outside interests. She plays tennis, swims, watches polo matches, drives herself about town in a Ford and does oil paintings. This sort of thing fills up her time so thoroughly that she has little left for brooding or introspection but it would be unfair to suggest that Ann Sheridan has failed to fact the problem of an Oomph Girl's relation to the outside world.

Interviewers frequently ask her what she thinks about Oomph in general and her own Oomph in particular. Her answers show that she understands her responsibilities and is capable of shouldering them. Her advice to other girls, with or without Oomph is: "Never laugh at a man when he is serious -- about anything." She has also said: "Don't forget that all men like to be thought pretty dangerous" and speaking ex cathedra, "Don't think you can get by on sex appeal alone."

In night clubs, or on display elsewhere, Ann Sheridan behaves well. She half closes her eyes, leans back in her chair and seldom speaks, unless spoken to. On her wrist she wears a bracelet which says: "From Clara Lou to Ann, who often surprises me."

Return from Ann Sheridan Life Story to Ann Sheridan Information Page