In its heyday, Hollywood showcased dozens upon dozens of wonderful character actresses. As with their male counterparts, most of them fell into “types,” roles for which they were well suited and extremely competent and reliable. Looking for a ditzy dame? Call upon Joyce Compton (The Awful Truth , Christmas in Connecticut ) or Barbara Nichols (Sweet Smell of Success , Pal Joey ). Need a high-toned, fussy society woman? Get in touch with Florence Bates (Heaven Can Wait , The Devil and Miss Jones ) or Edna May Oliver (Ann Vickers , Pride and Prejudice ). Want the ultimate kind, gentle, and understanding mother? Look no further then Fay Bainter (Young Tom Edison, The Human Comedy ) or, if the child in question is Jimmy Stewart, Beulah Bondi (Stewart’s onscreen mother in a record four films: Vivacious Lady, Of Human Hearts , Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , and It’s a Wonderful Life ).
And that’s fine. It’s the way it should be. As an audience, we look to these women to fulfill a specific role with great competence and gentle dignity (yes, even the ditzy dames).
What we don’t often see is the onscreen growth from one type of character into another. And another. But that’s exactly the sort of metamorphosis that character actress Lee Patrick achieved throughout the course of her long tenure as a bona fide character actress in Tinsel Town.
Patrick was born in New York in 1901, the daughter of a trade paper editor. Thanks to him, her interest in the theatrical arts was sparked, and, by the age of 21, she had snagged a role as a part of the ensemble cast in the Broadway review The Bunch and Judy. The leads? Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. Not a bad place to start. Over the next decade, she would become something of a fixture on the Broadway stage, appearing in 26 productions including a co-staring role (and off-stage romance) with future film great Humphrey Bogart in Baby Mine (1927) and the lead role in the smash hit Stage Door (1936).
The prospect of starring in the 1937 RKO film adaptation of Stage Door ultimately lured Patrick to Hollywood, but her hopes were dashed when the studio demurred from taking a chance on a newcomer and ultimately rearranged the cast list and chose to spotlight the talents of Ginger Rodgers and Katherine Hepburn as the leads. To be fair, at the age of 38, Patrick’s ingénue days in Hollywood were well behind her. She wasn’t graced with leading lady looks at this point, although she did have a set of amazing cheekbones that would serve her well in front of the camera for years to come. However, even as an “older women” her dreams of mega-movie stardom were quelled when she lost out on the title role in Stella Dallas (1937) to slightly younger and more bankable leading lady, Barbara Stanwyck.
There were more disappointments to come. Patrick’s husband, writer and journalist Thomas Wood, penned a frank and unflattering piece about Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons. According to conventional wisdom, the powerful Parsons fought back by using her considerable influence to keep Patrick stuck mostly in B pictures.
Despite her feud with Parsons, Patrick had a long and successful career as a character actress, and over the course of three decades, appeared in scores of movies and television shows. In her performances, Patrick displayed a versatility that was rare even among the most gifted character actors. Three films in particular illustrate her range. In the first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), Patrick portrays Effie, the reliable and quick-witted Girl Friday of detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). Her onscreen time is brief, but in it, she matches Bogart in snappy banter and adds just the right amount of brightness to a film cloaked in murder, deceit, and the fog of San Francisco.
Throughout the 1940s, Patrick appeared on screen steadily, albeit mostly in second-tier films. There were a few supporting roles in A movies thrown into the mix, such as Now, Voyager (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), and The Snake Pit (1948). Then, in 1950, she portrayed Elvira Powell, the “vice queen” sentenced to serve some time in lockdown in director
John Cromwell’s Caged, celebrated as the first bona fide entry into the genre of women’s prison films. Patrick doesn’t appear until well into the movie’s second act, but her impact is immediate and unforgettable. Filmgoers who knew her as Sam Spade’s helpful assistant would be excused for not recognizing her here. Her portrayal of a steely and resourceful incarcerated madam, bent on recruiting soon-to-be-paroled prisoners to work for her on the outside, deftly skirts campiness as her character cooly plots the ultimate downfall of two fellow inmates; first, the leader of her cellblock whose position she ruthlessly usurps, and second, the once naive heroine who finally succumbs to Elvira’s seductive bribes. It is a nuanced performance in a sub-genre where that term is seldom, if ever, used.
In the 1950s, Patrick successfully found her way into television, and was celebrated for her portrayal as the scatterbrained wife of the title character in the series “Topper,” based upon the 1937 film and the character originally played by Billie Burke. It’s not a stretch to suggest she parlayed this new characterization into her film role as Doris Updike in the Warner Brother’s hit Auntie Mame (1958). Surely, no one could be expected to top the wonderful Rosalind Russell, but Lee Patrick easily holds her own in two delicious scenes with Russell as Doris Upson, an upper-middle-class matron completely bent upon seeing her bourgeois lifestyle perpetuated through the marriage of her vapid daughter to Mame’s unsuspecting nephew. With her “New Look” style dresses (already hopelessly outdated by the end of the decade) and her hair swept into a classic French roll, Patrick epitomized the vacuity of a particular sect of the post-war generation long before it was stylish to do so, all with an infectious charm and goofiness so unlike her characterizations in Caged and The Maltese Falcon.
Lee continued her work in film and television up until 1975 and spent her remaining years battling health problems while still pursuing her various hobbies including her love for painting. She died one day before her 81st birthday in 1982 and was survived by her husband of 45 years.
Lee Patrick may not have become the most recognizable of character actresses in film, but that’s a great part of what made her so special. Find Patrick’s name in a movie’s opening credits, and you are assured of a solid and satisfying performance – as well as one that just might surprise you.