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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone


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1920's Ann Harding 5x7 Fan Photo 1934 Ann Harding Godfrey Phillips Shots from the Films Tobacco CardIn many ways, Ann Harding’s story is a familiar one. A child not of the silent but of the studio era (though she started her career precisely at the transition between silents and talkies), Ann became an instant star – under the protection of the studio bosses, it could hardly have been any other way. But her trajectory was not as illustrious as many of her peers’ were; for some, typecasting works like a charm, but it makes others old news fast. While she was at the top of her game, she was making movie after movie, reaching her dedicated and wide fan base, and for this, she becomes an indelible fixture in the history of the motion picture.

Ann was born Dorothy Walton Gatley on August 17, 1901, in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Her father was a captain in the Army, so little Dorothy traveled a lot growing up, mostly around the United States (places like New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania) and Cuba. Obviously, this is not a typical upbringing for a child, nor can it have been an easy one. Eventually, though, the family settled down in New York – Dorothy was already graduated from high school by this point, so she found a job at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

Ann had wanted to go to college, but that wouldn’t have been financially feasible for her. As for acting, she did some stage productions in high school, but did not have the same yearning to perform we see in so many of the other would-be movie stars of the time. But, as we know, she did end up an actress, and for her it all started when she left her job at the insurance company to become a scriptreader at the Famous-Players-Lasky Company – pretty much the biggest game in town. This isn’t a traditional entry point to the world of superstardom, and for Ann, it wasn’t even her real foot in the door.

She went to see a play in New York, and while there, saw that they were auditioning/casting for an upcoming project. She auditioned, and was called back to read for an even larger part. She got the part, and wowed critics with her performance in Inheritors (1921); this gave her the impetus to continue her journey as a working actress. Her family, for their part, was not thrilled, acting being a less than respectable or stable career choice (then as now), but Ann persisted.

Between 1921 and 1929, Ann got married (in 1926, to Harry Bannister – the marriage would only last until 1932), acted prolifically on the stage, and truly became one of Broadway’s star attractions. This is what caught the attention of Pathe Studios, who signed Ann in 1929 as one of their contract players. Her first film, made the very year the first sound films were being made (in Mono), was Paris Bound, co-starring Frederic March (Anna Karenina, 1935). She also made a film with her husband that year: Her Private Affair. Also in 1929, she was loaned out to United Artists to make her final film of the year, Condemned.

Ann was just starting to come into her own as a movie actress and emerging star. With her fair complexion and demure good looks, she was a natural to play the gentle heroine, the sacrificial lamb as counterpoint to other actresses’ vixens and divas. Everyone loved to love Ann before long, as she graced her way into fans’ lives with1930's Ann Harding Dixie Lid Premium films like Holiday (1930), The Girl of the Golden West (also co-starring her husband) and East 1930's Ann Harding 5x7 Fan PhotoLynne (1931, a Fox production). But Harry was starting to interfere with her work, telling the director how to do his job, to the point where he was finally forbidden to join his wife on set – their marriage ended shortly after this.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Ann didn’t do scores and scores of movies a year, and she was loaned out to other studios often, a luxury not given to many. Ann was very careful about what roles she picked, how they would affect her image and how they would challenge her. Consequently, she only made four films in 1932 (including Prestige and The Animal Kingdom), and four in 1933 (among them Double Harness and Gallant Lady). The Animal Kingdom was a pivotal role for her – her role as the rejected fiancé of Leslie Howard epitomized her image as stoic heroine. From here on in, she seemed to appear in nothing but tearjerkers, which worked for her – for a time.

In 1937, after making Love From a Stranger (in the United Kingdom), she quit the movies for awhile. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she didn’t have the problem of transitioning into sound – she had become a bonafide star using her own voice in the new era – but the consistency of her work was growing tiresome. She married conductor Warner Janssen in 1937 and settled into married life.

Five years later, though, she came back, making Eyes in the Night in 1942. During her absence, something within her had matured, and she brought this to each of her new performances, which were ultimately some of the best of her career. Among the films for which she shone in character roles are:  Mission to Moscow, The North Star (both 1943), Janie (1944), Janie Gets Married (1946) and It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947). At this point, she took another break (for reasons unknown), and then appeared in three more films before doing her final feature in 1956: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, with Frederic March. She had come full circle, it seems.

But she didn’t fully quit the scene. She continued to act on stage, and did several television spots (for Kraft Television theatre, The Defenders, and Ben Casey before her death on September 1, 1981 in Sherman Oaks, California at the age of 80. It may sound strange to put it this way, but Ann, to me, is memorable for the lack of legend and lore surrounding her image today. She is the kind of actress whose impact on our consciousness is in jeopardy because she was not a diva, or a generator of scandal. Ann Harding was one of the merely-but-truly remarkable actresses who were the real foundation of the studio system that would make movies the form of entertainment of the 20th century.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles and Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at with any questions or comments on her column.

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Denny Jackson's Ann Harding Page -- A Most Unpretentious Actress!!