Although it almost certainly won't be, this Christmas release season at the movies ought to be remembered as the year the Golden Age actresses made their comebacks. Of the films in current release, no fewer than three feature performers whose careers began decades ago, and who have been seen on the screen rarely, if at all, since before the careers of their current co-stars began.
If you've seen "The Rainmaker," you may well have found yourself charmed by the screen presence of the main character's elderly landlady. If so, you're not the first. Generations of moviegoers have fallen under the spell of Teresa Wright's charm. She began her career back in 1941 and retired as a full-time movie actress in 1958. Since then she has appeared on the stage and in occasional film roles. If you'd like to see more of this beguiling performer in her prime, look for these titles on home video.
"The Little Foxes" (1941). Wright's screen debut could scarcely have been more auspicious. Cast as Bette Davis's daughter in the screen adaptation of a Lillian Hellman play, she came away with an Academy Award nomination, as did Davis herself. The play depicts the machinations of a Machiavellian family of the reconstruction-era South. Wright's character is the young and innocent daughter of the scheming, ruthless character played by Davis.
"Mrs. Miniver" (1942). During the Second World War, Hollywood studios were encouraged to make movies portraying our allies as noble people fighting the good fight. This popular film does an admirable job of portraying the stiff-upper-lip dignity in the face of crisis for which the British are renowned. The Minivers are an upper middle class family whose pleasant, ordered life is turned upside down by the coming of war. Wright plays a granddaughter of the local landed gentry who marries into the Miniver family just as hostilities break out. Once again, Wright was nominated for an Academy Award, and this time she won, as Best Supporting Actress.
"Pride of the Yankees" (1942). Hollywood's biography of Lou Gehrig features Gary Cooper in the title role. It is, of course, a story of the tragedy of a popular athlete cut down in his prime by a cruel illness. That part of the story belongs entirely to Cooper, who rose to the challenge magnificently. It is also, however, a love story. To make that aspect of the film work, Cooper needed the strong support of a charming co-star who could project a convincing image of emotional resilience in the face of adversity. Wright, as Gehrig's wife Eleanor, filled the bill admirably.
"Shadow of a Doubt" (1943). Long before "Psycho," director Alfred Hitchcock made this disturbing film about another full-blown psychopath. Joseph Cotton stars as Charlie Oakley, beloved uncle of young Charlie Newton (Wright). Young Charlie has always felt a special familial bond with Uncle Charlie, for whom she was named, and is delighted to learn that he will be visiting the Newtons in the small town of Santa Rosa, California. During his stay, however, Uncle Charlie's behavior becomes more and more unsettling. Eventually even the adoring niece is forced to the conclusion that Uncle Charlie isn't entirely on the up and up. Gradually she learns how horrifyingly true that disquieting conclusion is.
"The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946). Having played a role "Mrs. Miniver," the definitive movie statement about the impact of the war on the British, Wright then played a role in the definitive movie statement about the impact of the war on postwar America. Playwright Robert Sherwood adapted for the screen MacKinley Kantor's novel about three American servicemen returning home to start their lives anew. Wright plays the daughter of Al Stephenson (Fredric March), the oldest of the three ex-servicemen. When she falls for his younger buddy, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Al isn't so sure that he approves. While Al has returned to his position as a banking executive, Fred has found readjustment to civilian life much more problematic, and has become something of a down-and-outer. As in "Pride of the Yankees," Wright's combination of ingenue charm and emotional strength made her an ideal choice for the role.Next week we'll look at the career of another actress who has recently resurfaced on the screen after many years in eclipse. Her career dates back to the early thirties, but you can see her today in James Cameron's "Titanic."