Film

Ann Sheridan, Back on the Big Screen, One-Ups Cagney and Bogart

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The “strong woman” label patronizingly foisted on modern Hollywood actresses would’ve been spat at by such formidable 1940s Warner Bros. stars as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Ida Lupino. Their hard-boiled but restrained studio-mate Ann Sheridan (1915-67) is less celebrated today, but her cool aplomb has aged better than Davis’s hectoring, Crawford’s emotionalism, even Lupino’s unstable toughness.

Onetime Texas teaching student Clara Lou Sheridan adopted her marquee-friendlier name when she signed with the Warners in 1936 after a lackluster Paramount apprenticeship. The latter studio had failed to recognize that, like its employee Marlene Dietrich, Sheridan wasn’t meant to play tootsies, but grown women amused by sexual gamesmanship — the word knowing might have been minted for her — or antagonized by its crude expression. Though capable of being a pal, she had no peer at putting down boors, as her earthy truck-stop waitress does when Humphrey Bogart ogles her breasts in Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940).

That harsh proto-noir is being screened October 29-31, concluding MOMA’s month-long “Acteurism: The Emergence of Ann Sheridan, 1937-1943.” The daytime mini-fest initiates a series showcasing the evolution of stars as repositories of the social values their particular qualities reflected. Sharpened by hard times, most of Sheridan’s films rely on asperity or wit.

Her insouciance elevated Torrid Zone (Oct. 1-3), a 1940 comedy adventure set in Central America that centers on a Yankee banana plantation run by jumped-up manager Pat O’Brien and his effective but reluctant overseer (James Cagney). Peasant revolutionary George Tobias aside, their chief irritant is Sheridan’s droll, languid chanteuse/card sharp. O’Brien terminates her saloon gig because she distracts his workers. Womanizer Cagney senses he’s met his match in her, and so takes up with a colleague’s adulterous wife. The movie’s moral center, Sheridan eventually pelts Cagney with sandwiches.

Torrid Zone is several notches below Josef von Sternberg’s ravishing exotica, but director William Keighley granted Sheridan one sublimely Dietrichian close-up. Cagney knows she’s hiding from cops behind a rubber plant on his balcony, and she knows he knows. Cinematographer James Wong Howe concealed the right side of Sheridan’s face in shadow, thus highlighting her parted lips and her left eye as she listens intently for a sign of male interest. When Cagney grudgingly invites her “into my office,” she smiles triumphantly to herself.

The grim 1943 propaganda picture Edge of Darkness (Oct. 8-10) enabled Sheridan to show the steel string in her bow as a resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Norway. In Juke Girl (Oct. 15-17), she’s a mercurial taxi dancer involved with a labor activist improbably played by Ronald Reagan. She’s comparatively naive as the Lower East Side social worker smitten with Cagney’s hoodlum in 1938’s Angels With Dirty Faces (Oct. 22-24).

MOMA’s Sheridan selection offers a crash course for newcomers to “the Oomph Girl,” as the Warners marketed the indignant star. Aficionados will pine for The Man Who Came to Dinner, Kings Row, Nora Prentiss, The Unfaithful, I Was a Male War Bride, and Woman on the Run, a ‘Frisco noir in which Sheridan startlingly extended her range as a dowdy, disappointed wife hoping to save her husband from a Mob hit.