Like other Broadway actresses imported to Hollywood to cope with sound (Ruth Chatterton, Helen Hayes, Hepburn herself, Harding started at the top—she is the star, and the essence of fineness, in every one of her thirties vehicles: Her Private Affair (29, Alexander Korda); Condemned, a penal colony movie with Ronald Colinan (29, Wesley Buggies); The Girl of the Golden West, Belasco rather than Barry (30, John Francis Dillon): East Lynne (30, Clive Brook); Devotion, with Leslie Howard (31, Robert Milton); Prestige, in a different penal colony, with Melvyn Douglas (32, Tay Garnett); Westward Passage, with the young Laurence Olivier (32, Milton); The Conquerors— imitation Cimarron, with Richard Dix (32, William A. Wellman); the first version ol When Ladies Meet—the lady she meets is Myrna Loy, the man they share is Robert Montgomery (33, Harry Beaumont); Double Harness, with William Powell (33, John Cromwell); The Eight to Romance (33, Alfred Santell); Gallant Lady (34, Gregory La Cava); The Life of Vergie Winters (34, Santell)—imitation Back Street; The Fountain, from a prestigious and pretentious hest-seller by Charles Morgan (34, Cromwell); Biograjihy of a Bachelor Girl, Sam Behrman in place of Barry (35, Griffith); Enchanted April (35, Beaumont), a Hop, unlike the recent remake; The Flame Within (35, Edmund Goulding); in a time warp with Gary Cooper in George Du Mauriers Peter Ibbetson (35, Henry Hathaway); The Lady Consents (36, Stephen Roberts); The Witness Chair (36, George Nicholls, Jr.). By this time, bad scripts and changing tastes had undercut Hardings Hollywood career, and after escaping from Basil Rathl tone’s wife-killer in Love from a Stranger, a cheap British thriller (37, Rowland V. Lee), she retired from the screen. But she had been a unique icon of amused sophistication, throaty vulnerability, and brave integrity—at her best when coolly composed and wryly humorous, at her worst when turned into fodder for weepies.
Five years after her retreat from Hollywood, she was back—for a series of appealing wife-and- mother roles. First came Eyes in the Night (42, Fred Zinnemann). Then she was Walter Huston’s wife on their Mission to Moscow (43, Michael Curtiz); North Star (43, Lewis Milestone); Joyce Revnolds’s mother in the teenage comedy Janie (44, Curtiz); Nice Girls (44, Leigh Jason); Laraine Day’s mother in Those Endearing Young Charms (45, Lewis Allen); Janie’s mother again hut with a different Janie, Joan Leslie, in Janie Gets Married (46, Vincent Sherman); It Happened on Fifth Avenue (47, Roy Del Ruth); and performing the hat trick in Christmas Eve (47, Edward L. Marin), in which her three sons grow up to be George Brent, Randolph Scott, and George Raft. Then a gap of three years until she’s Jane Powell’s mother in Two Weeks with Love (50, Roy Rowland); Mrs.
Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee (51, John Sturges); and The Unknown Man (51, Richard Thorpe). Finally, in 1956, three last ventures: Fredric March’s wife in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Nunnally Johnson) and two programmers: I’ve Lived Before (Richard Bartlett) and Strange Intruder (Irving Rapper). Only Mary Astor and Myrna Loy had managed the transition from leading lady to Mom so success-fully.
Elegant, refined, serene, classy, superior, noble, aristocratic—perhaps “patrician" best suggests the quality Ann Harding conveyed at the height of her starring career, from 1929 through the mid-thirties. Even her hair was patrician—usually parted in the middle and pulled back in a simple yet starry bun, and pure ash blond rather than rowdy platinum blond or, even worse, sleazy bleached blond. She had been a successful Broadway leading lady in the twenties, and its not by accident that three of her early vehicles were from Philip Barry plays: her first movie, Paris Bound (29, Edward H. Griffith). The Animal Kingdom (32, Griffith), and in between, the first version of Holiday (30, Griffith yet again). Harding’s Holiday sticks closer to the Barry play than the later Hepburn version and has a different but considerable effect, Harding being more plaintive and vulnerable, less take-charge, than Hepburn. (It also has the advantage of Mary Astor as the sister, and the disadvantage of Robert Ames, rather than Cary Grant, as the leading man.)