Family & Companions
Gladys George was one of the movies' greatest hard-luck dames, both on- and off-screen. Unlike other notorious party girls -- including Barbara Payton and Lila Leeds -- she consistently delivered solid performances over the course of a half-century career.
George's consistency may be a result of her theatrical upbringing. She was born to a family of British actors touring in Maine in 1900. By the time she was three, she was part of the act, touring vaudeville theatres with The Three Clare's (her parents' professional name). She never really stopped working, making her Broadway debut in an adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck's The Betrothal in 1918, though not, as some sources suggest, opposite Isadora Duncan. Rather the cast included Augustin Duncan, Henry Travers and a very young Lillian Roth. George then had the good fortune to sign with actress Pauline Frederick's touring stock company. She refined her technique working with Frederick and also found her type -- as bubbly ingénues, particularly society girls.
In 1919, George made her first trip to Hollywood, where she made her screen debut as the romantic lead in Red Hot Dollars (1919), opposite Charles Ray. She was building a solid career in silent films, thanks largely to her youthful blonde beauty, when an accident that left her face severely burned brought an end to that phase of her career. Instead, she returned to the stage, where it was easier to cover up the scarring while she healed. She also married her first of four husbands, actor Ben Erway. They would divorce in 1930.
By the early '30s she had a rich husband, millionaire industrialist Edward H. Fowler, and had returned to Broadway, albeit briefly, in the flop Queer People. She also returned to Hollywood for a colorful supporting role as a gangster's moll in MGM's Straight Is the Way (1934), starring Franchot Tone, May Robson and Karen Morley. Then it was back to Broadway for her biggest stage hit, playing the temperamental, hard-living film star in Personal Appearance (Mae West would re-write the script and play George's role in 1936's Go West, Young Man). George lived up to the role off-screen when her husband caught her in an affair with co-star Leonard Penn, who would become her third husband. Fortunately, the play's success kept her away from Hollywood until the scandal blew over.
On George's return to Hollywood, she was still under contract to MGM, but they loaned her to Paramount for what would be one of her biggest personal hits, Valiant Is the Word for Carrie (1936). As a woman with a past who discovers her maternal side when she takes in two orphans, she was top-billed for the first time on screen and earned her only Oscar® nomination. MGM rewarded her with a leading role opposite Spencer Tracy in They Gave Him a Gun (1937) and the title role in the sixth screen adaptation of the classic weepie Madame X (1937). George's growing reputation for hard-partying made her a perfect choice for the story of a woman whose indiscretion costs her her only child. The two are reunited years later when, not knowing she?s his mother, he defends her for killing a blackmailer who had threatened to expose their family connection. The casting was a special thrill for George as her mentor, Frederick, had played the same role in a 1920 silent version. In her last top-billed role at MGM, George appropriately played a stage star in Love Is a Headache (1938). Dogged by gossip columnist Franchot Tone, she sets out to adopt orphaned siblings Mickey Rooney and Virginia Weidler, first for publicity and then out of love.
By that point, her hard-living was beginning to show in her face, and MGM decided to move her to supporting roles, starting with a strong turn as Madame du Barry in Marie Antoinette (1938), starring Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power. George then left MGM and found a string of strong supporting roles, starting with Panama Smith, the speakeasy proprietor in love with James Cagney in The Roaring Twenties (1939). That solid Warner Bros. production gave her a chance to utter one of the screen's greatest closing lines. Cradling a dying Cagney in her arms she tells a cop, "He used to be a big shot." Warner Bros' grittier approach to filmmaking was well-suited to George's evolving image as an aging party girl. She scored as a showgirl dealing with an unwanted pregnancy in A Child Is Born (1939), the studio's maternity-ward drama, and then landed the role of Iva Archer, the philandering widow of Humphrey Bogart's partner in The Maltese Falcon (1941). The studio also gave her a great role, as an aging, alcoholic Broadway star Ida Lupino pushes out of the way to foster sister Joan Leslie's career in The Hard Way (1943). Though it may have been hard to envision Leslie as a suitable replacement for the older, more magnetic George, the scenes in which Lupino preys on her insecurities are electric.
George's late '40s work was marked by several solid supporting roles, including Dana Andrews' sympathetic stepmother in William Wyler?s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), back at MGM in the Wallace Beery crime comedy Alias a Gentleman (1948), as the road-house owner who gives Joan Crawford a job in Flamingo Road (1949), as a madam running a "boarding house" with Lauren Bacall in Bright Leaf (1950) and as John Garfield's mother in his last film, He Ran All the Way (1951). As her roles shrank, her partying, if anything, increased. In 1946, she married a bellboy 20 years younger than she. The marriage only lasted four years.
There were two more solid supporting roles left for George. As Doris Day's mother in Lullaby of Broadway (1951), a former star reduced to singing in saloons, she got to sing two songs and share a memorable dramatic scene with her daughter. And although her screen time was brief, she showed her effectiveness in a straight dramatic role as the abortionist's nurse in Detective Story (1951), a reunion with Wyler. By the '50s, however, George's health was in decline. She was suffering from heart disease, cirrhosis and throat cancer. She made her last film appearance as one of the small-town eccentrics Loretta Young and John Forsythe have to deal with when they take over the local paper in It Happens Every Thursday (1953). By then she had started doing TV work. Her last performance was a 1954 episode of the crime series The Lineup. On December 8, 1954, she died of a stroke at the age of 54. Gossip suggested her doctor had covered up the real cause of death, an overdose of sleeping pills. Either way, it was a fitting ending to one of the screen's greatest hard-luck dames.
TCM's Summer Under the Stars pays tribute to Gladys George with 11 films -- Madame X (1937), Love Is a Headache (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), A Child Is Born (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Hard Way (1943), Alias a Gentleman (1948), Flamingo Road (1949), Bright Leaf (1950), He Ran All the Way (1951) and Lullaby of Broadway (1951). .