TCM Classic Film Fest: Ann Blyth on 'Mildred Pierce,' Musicals and Slapping Joan Crawford (Video)

On Sunday, the last day of the fourth annual TCM Film Festival, I had the great pleasure of spending a bit of time with one of this year's honored guests of the fest, the legendary actress/singer Ann Blyth. The lovely and demure 84-year-old traveled from her home near San Diego to Hollywood for all four days of this year's fest, and many -- including TCM host Robert Osborne -- gushed that it was as special to see her as any of the dozens of Golden Age stars in attendance. Blyth, of course, is best known for her work opposite Joan Crawford in the film noir classic Mildred Pierce (1945), for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, and in M-G-M musicals of the fifties such as Kismet (1955). She appeared for a special TCM tribute before a screening of the former on Saturday evening and the former on Sunday afternoon before sitting down with me to reflect on her life and career.

(The video at the top of this post contains highlights of our conversation.)

Ann Blyth was born in 1928 in Mount Kisco, New York. A naturally precocious child with a mother who encouraged her love of singing, she was the star of a radio show at six and on Broadway by the time she entered her teens. She was spotted by Universal Pictures director Henry Koster while performing in Los Angeles in 1944, and soon thereafter signed a seven-year contract with the smallest of the big studios. Almost immediately, she was teamed with fellow youngster Donald O'Connor in a couple of Charles Lamont-directed light musical-comedies, which the studio hoped would turn the duo into its own version of M-G-M's popular pairing of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

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Blyth's first few films were successful enough, but her career skyrocketed after she was loaned to Warner Bros. and cast against type as Joan Crawford's backstabbing -- and face-slapping -- daughter Veda in Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce. The film proved to be a critical and commercial hit and received six Oscar nominations, including nods for best picture, best actress (Crawford) and best supporting actress (Blyth). Crawford ended up winning; The Lost Weekend won best picture and Anne Revere won best supporting actress, in part because Blyth and her co-star Eve Arden, who was also nominated in the category, probably split the vote.

At the time, though, Blyth had bigger problems. Shortly after Mildred Pierce was completed, she was thrown from a toboggan and broke her back, leaving her unable to work for roughly a year. To make matters worse, when she was finally healthy enough to return, as a wronged woman in Frank Tuttle's Swell Guy (1946), her beloved mother passed away. Her parents had divorced when she was a baby and her father had never been a part of her life, so she was now parentless; fortunately, an uncle and aunt from out east moved to California and became her guardians.

In the early 1950s, Blyth's contract with Universal came to an end and M-G-M, which had borrowed Blyth on a number of occasions, signed her to work for them full-time. It was a fortunate pairing, for the young woman with a beautiful soprano voice was well-suited to be at the studio that made more and better musicals than any other. Between 1951 and 1957 she starred in a number of fine films that showcased her voice, including Richard Thorpe's The Great Caruso (1951), opposite Mario Lanza, and The Student Prince (1954), opposite Edmund Purdom (who lip-synced Lanza), as well as Mervyn LeRoy's Rose Marie (1954) and Vincente Minnelli's Kismet (1955), both of which paired her with Howard Keel.

Dropped by M-G-M in 1956, she went to Paramount to make one last film opposite O'Connor, Sidney Sheldon's The Buster Keaton Story (1957), and returned to Warner Bros. to work once again with Curtiz on The Helen Morgan Story (1957) with the young up-and-comer Paul Newman. After that, she opted to stay at home with her husband Dr. James McNulty, whom she wed in 1953 (and to whom she was married until his death in 2007), and their five children, taking occasional jobs on television and theater until 1985, but never again film.