Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Extraordinary Mildred Natwick

On a Friday earlier this month, with time to spare before a screening of the Jacques Becker heist classic Touchez pas au grisbi at the Pacific Film Archive, we stopped by Rasputin’s, a decades-old Berkeley haunt that deals in new and used records, CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays. There I managed to unearth two films, Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and Truffaut’s Day for Night, along with a ‘70s TV series, all at a good price. The series is one I’d been only vaguely aware of and knew very little about, really. The Snoop Sisters (1972 – 1974), starred Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as a pair of sisters aptly named Snoop, one of whom (Hayes) writes mystery novels. The two invariably get mixed up in solving real crimes (sound familiar?).

The Snoop Sisters was one of several programs that aired in rotation as part of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie series of 1972 – 1974. As some will remember, from 1971 – 1977 NBC enjoyed varying degrees of success with its Mystery Movie format, a formula that sprang from its prior success with The Name of the Game (1968 - 1971), a hit series that rotated three different shows under one umbrella title.

Before it joined NBC’s mystery movie stable in 1973, The Snoop Sisters aired as a 90-minute pilot now known as “The Female Instinct” in December 1972. This initial outing featured key supporting actors who would be replaced by others once the series got underway. In the pilot episode, Art Carney appeared as the sisters’ ex-cop chauffeur and Lawrence Pressman portrayed their nephew, police lieutenant Ostrowski. Carney was replaced by Lou Antonio and Pressman by Bert Convy when the show was picked up a year later.

Mildred Natwick and Helen Hayes, the Snoop Sisters
The Snoop Sisters aired for just one season, 1973 – 74, and consisted of four 90-minute episodes. The series boasted formidable guest stars (in the pilot, Paulette Goddard, Jill Clayburgh and Craig Stevens), fine production values, a clever premise and the charming chemistry between Hayes and Natwick. But these assets didn't seem to be enough to offset weaknesses that the production was given no time to tweak. The loss of both Carney and Pressman was damaging. Episode quality was uneven, and the overlong hour-and-a-half format lent itself to some obvious padding. It’s possible, too, that The Snoop Sisters was ahead of its time, spotlighting as it did two elderly ladies who repeatedly outsmart countless men (and women) of all ages, though most are younger - cops, lawyers, businessmen, crooks, killers, you name it.

Although its run was brief, with the final episode airing in March 1974, The Snoop Sisters did not pass entirely without fanfare. The series was Emmy-nominated for its costume design and both Hayes and Natwick were nominated in the Outstanding Performance by a Lead Actress in a Mini-Series or Movie category. Natwick would take home the gold.

My first memory of Mildred Natwick is her performance as Mrs. Banks, Jane Fonda’s mother in Barefoot in the Park (1967). In a deft and comic turn, she stole the picture from co-stars Fonda, Robert Redford and Charles Boyer. Perhaps Miss Natwick had an advantage, having originated her role on Broadway, but Robert Redford, who portrayed her son-in-law, also originated his role onstage right alongside her. Adding to her coup, she also garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Mrs. Banks in Barefoot in the Park was the perfect introduction to Mildred Natwick and I adored her on sight, as she struggled to make her way up five grueling flights of stairs to visit her newlywed daughter. The play was Neil Simon’s second Broadway effort, a big hit, and he also scripted the film. Like his other early works, Barefoot in the Park is littered with laughs sparked by dialogue rich with quick and smart set-ups and punch lines that, over the years, some have criticized for coming at the expense of character. Natwick’s personification of Mrs. Banks, however, delivers a character who does more than dispense Simon’s riotous repartee. She is a combination of maternal elegance, flustered gentility - and wit - who occasionally (and very believably) suffers moments of barely contained hysteria.

Barefoot in the Park (1967)

Mildred Natwick made her Broadway debut at 27 in the Frank McGrath play Carry Nation and would go on to appear in productions of Candida, Blithe Spirit and Our Town among others. She earned Tony nominations for her featured role in the Jean Anouilh drama The Waltz of the Toreadors (1957) and for her starring performance in the Kander and Ebb musical, 70, Girls, 70 (1971), in which she made her singing debut.

She first appeared onscreen in John Ford’s The Long Voyage (1940), and would appear in supporting roles in three more Ford films, 3 Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Quiet Man (1952). But following The Long Voyage, she resumed her stage career and only returned to Hollywood five years later when she appeared first in The Enchanted Cottage, and soon after in Vincent Minnelli’s Yolanda and the Thief. Natwick would continue to lend her unique talent and presence to movies for the next four-plus decades. Along the way she worked for Alfred Hitchcock on The Trouble with Harry (1955), co-starred with Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (1955) and worked twice with Peter Bogdanovich toward the end of his Cybill Shepherd phase, in Daisy Miller (1974) and At Long Last Love (1975).

The Court Jester (1955)

Mildred Natwick’s final film performance came with the much acclaimed and awarded Stephen Frears production of Dangerous Liaisons (1988), with Michelle Pfeiffer, John Malkovich and Glenn Close. In this film, Natwick portrayed a wise and kindly aunt to Malkovich's Vicomte de Valmont, an unrepentant womanizer. It has been reported that when director Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton met with Miss Natwick to discuss the film, they were so charmed by her that they didn’t realize until much later that they’d forgotten to offer her the role.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

She was a Baltimore native, born in 1905, a descendant of one of the first Norwegians to emigrate to the US. She attended the Bryn Mawr School and Bennett College, where she earned her degree in theater arts. Mildred would not be the only Natwick to succeed in the entertainment field. Her cousin Myron ‘Grim’ Natwick (1890 – 1990), an artist and animator who worked for the Fleischer Studios, Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, would gain fame as the creator of Betty Boop for Max Fleischer.

Natwick began her stage career in Baltimore at age 21 as a member of a local non-professional acting troupe. She would continue to work in the theater over most of the next 50 years. She would maintain that she preferred stage work over film because film acting is generally performed in “bits and pieces, usually out of sequence,” but that “on the stage, you’re in control for two hours.” Still, her film work was prodigious, and so was her work on television.

She began in TV in 1949 with an appearance on The Boris Karloff Mystery Playhouse in an episode titled, "Five Golden Guineas." She was active throughout the golden era of live television and received an Emmy nomination in 1957 for her portrayal of the medium, Madame Arcati, a role she’d played on Broadway, in a Ford Star Jubilee telecast of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Natwick would go on to appear in countless series, mini-series and TV-movies. Her final appearance was in the TV-movie Deadly Deception (1987). Just prior to that she’d guested on Murder, She Wrote ("Murder in the Electric Cathedral," 1986), Angela Lansbury’s long-running blockbuster series about a woman-of-a-certain-age mystery writer who invariably gets mixed up in solving real crimes.

The Snoop Sisters’ run may have been short and bittersweet, but the episodes are enjoyable to watch. It’s a treat just to see Hayes and Natwick, two old pros (with the emphasis on pro) chewing up scenery and playing off each other with style and ease and what at times even seems like glee. Helen Hayes, long considered the “First Lady of the American Theater,” is one of the few to win an Oscar (two: The Sin of Madelon Claudet and Airport), an Emmy (“Battle Hymn”/Medallion Theatre), a Grammy (Great American Documents) and a Tony (numerous). She is marvelous as quirky mystery author Ernesta Snoop. Mildred Natwick is equally enchanting as the supportive Snoop sister, Gwendolyn, known as “G,” a character she fully endows with her trademark aplomb and fluttery charm, accentuated by an almost musically modulated voice.

Intro to "Corpse and Robbers," the 1st episode of the 1973 - 74 season of The Snoop Sisters

Mildred Natwick's acting career began in college and ended 65 years later, in 1988. She performed roles ranging from dramatic to comedic in the theater, on film, TV and radio (in 1938 she played "Mrs. Danvers" to Margaret Sullavan's "Second Mrs. de Winter" for Orson Welles on his Mercury Theater on the Air). She never married but was cherished by her friends, who called her Milly, and colleagues. She lived in Manhattan and died there, at home, in 1994 at age 89.

Al Hirschfeld's rendering of Mildred Natwick, center, and Clifton Webb on stage in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, 1941


  1. Oh, the Hirschfeld! Oh, the wonderful information! Oh, the delights of Mildred Natwick. It was either The Quiet Man or The Court Jester where my dad first made sure we knew that lady's name.

    No matter how I try I can never capture what Mildred brought to the line "What seems to be the trouble, Captain?"

    Oh, the coincidence!

    1. Thanks for the link to your piece on "The Snoop Sisters," Paddy, seems I came a little late to the party.

      Your dad had a very good eye for singular talent!

  2. Lovely tribute to a fine actress.

    1. Thank you, I've admired her forever and it was time to put it in (blog) writing.

  3. Eve, I've always loved Mildred Natwick, one of those superb actresses who could play in any kind of role. Of all her performances, my favorite has to be as Angela Lansbury's witchy lady-in-waiting in THE COURT JESTER. It's interesting that years later, THE SNOOP SISTERS kinda paved the way for MURDER, SHE WROTE, Angela's long-running mystery series. I was always intrigued with the "umbrella TV series," which rotated shows weekly. The format dates back to the 1950s with "Warner Bros. Presents," which showed "Casablanca," "King's Row," and "Cheyenne" on different weeks. The only one that became a hit was Clint Walker's Western.

    1. Somehow I knew you'd be a Mildred Natwick fan, Rick. She could do just about anything, but her comedic turns are my favorite. There's a bit in the "Corpse and Robbers" episode of Snoop Sisters in which she finds herself on the spot at a toy factory and improvises being a telephone company "maintenance inspector." Hilarious. I remember the Warner Bros. "umbrella" series, actually. At some point Cheyenne was rotating with Sugarfoot and another western, maybe Maverick (there were sooo many!).

  4. She began performing at the age of 21 with the Vagabonds, a nonprofessional group in Baltimore. She soon joined the celebrated University Players on Cape Cod, trading lines with such other young performers as Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Joshua Logan. She made her Broadway debut in the melodrama "Carry Nation" in 1932.

    She will forever be remembered.