Oscar Profile #455: Gail Patrick

Born June 20, 1911 in Birmingham, Alabama, Margaret LaVelle Fitzpatrick, known professionally as Gail Patrick, was the daughter of a municipal fireman and his wife. After graduating from Howard College, she remained as the school’s acting dean for two years while studying law at the University of Alabama, hoping to eventually become her state’s governor.

For a lark, the future actress entered a Paramount Pictures beauty and talent contest, winning train fare to Hollywood for herself and her brother. Although she did not win the contest for a part in 1932’s Island of Lost Souls, she made her film debut in an uncredited role that year in Paramount’s If I Had a Million.

Patrick’s early films included Murder in the Zoo, The Phantom Broadcast, To the Last Man, Cradle Song, Death Takes a Holiday, Mississippi and No More Ladies. She established her on-screen persona as the bad girl or other woman as Carole Lombard’s spoiled sister in 1936’s My Man Godfrey. She then outdid herself as Ginger Rogers’ rival in 1937’s Stage Door.

In December 1936, Patrick married restauranteur Robert H. Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby and inventor of the Cobb Salad. He was also owner of the Hollywood Stars baseball team for which she often threw out the first ball.

In 1940, Patrick had one of her most famous roles as Cary Grant’s second wife in My Favorite Wife for which she helped Leo McCarey write the judge’s speech during the early court scene. She and Cobb separated in 1940 and divorced in 1941.

Patrick’s career prospered during the early to mid-1940s in such films as Gallant Sons, Love Crazy, Kathleen, We Were Dancing, Tales of Manhattan, Up in Mabel’s Room, Brewster’s Millions and Twice Blessed. During World War II, she made four tours of Canada promoting Liberty Loans, becoming the only film star to visit the entire country from coast to coast. On her return from a war bond tour, she met Lt. Arnold Dean White, a U.S. Navy pilot who she married in 1944. In 1945, she gave premature birth to twin sons who soon died. She became diabetic and had to take insulin for the remainder of her life. She and White divorced in 1946.

In 1947, Patrick married her third husband, Thomas Cornwell Jackson, head of the Los Angeles office of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, the literary agent for Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels. She stopped acting without formally retiring in 1948. She and Jackson adopted a daughter in 1952 and a son in 1954.

In 1957, she developed the Perry Mason series for TV and sold it to CBS where she remained its producer for all nine years of its run. She was Vice President of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences from 1960-1962 and president of its Hollywood chapter. She was the first and only woman to serve in that capacity until 1983.
Patrick divorced Jackson in 1969. She married fourth husband John E. Velde, Jr. in 1974. Although suffering from leukemia for four years until her death on July 6, 1980 at 69, she kept her illness secret from her husband. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea off Santa Monica in a private ceremony.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934), directed by Mitchell Leisen

The decidedly brunette Patrick went blonde to distinguish her from brunette Katharine Alexander who played the other party guest enamored of visiting prince Fredric March who only has eyes for the somber Evelyn Venable at the estate of nobleman Sir Guy Standing. March’s prince is, of course, death in disguise, on vacation for three days while no one in the world dies. Patrick’s character keeps her distance and her sanity while Alexander gets too close and goes mad and Venable gets even closer and goes with him when he resumes his real identity. The definitive film version of the famed play, it also featured Helen Westley, Henry Travers and Kent Taylor.

MY MAN GODFREY (1936), directed by Gregory La Cava

Patrick was too nervous to ever watch any of her films until 1979, the year before she died, when she screened this film and finally understood why people loved to hate her. Her nervousness came off as haughty and aloof on screen, adding to the pleasure audiences felt in her eventual comeuppance. In this one, William Powell as her butler, Carole Lombard as her scatterbrained sister, Alice Brady as her flighty mother, Eugene Pallette as her exasperated father and Mischa Auer as her mother’s latest cause are all so lovable and endearing that her character seems five times nastier than her characters normally were.

STAGE DOOR (1937), directed by Gregory La Cava

Patrick was at her nastiest as Adolphe Menjou’s mistress, the nemesis of aspiring actress Ginger Rogers in this comedy classic. In real life, she and Rogers were friends, while Rogers’ real nemesis was top-billed Katharine Hepburn who, according to Patrick, despite her devil-may-care airs was livid that she failed to get an Oscar nomination while Andrea Leeds as the film’s ingenue did. The film owes much of its tension and charm to the rivalry between Hepburn and Rogers and the superb supporting work of Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Constance Collier, Menjou and Patrick as well as Leeds.

MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940), directed by Garson Kanin

You can’t tell from the on-screen hijinks, but there was a pall over the film as original director was badly injured in an automobile accident that the cast and crew who adored him didn’t know if he’d live or die through much of the filming under replacement director Garson Kanin. Irene Dunne is the wife who returns from a desert island where she was stranded for seven years with Randolph Scott just in time to find she’s been declared dead and her husband Cary Grant has just married Gail Patrick. Patrick helped McCarey, who co-wrote the original story, on judge Edgar Buchanan’s dialogue during the court scene that declares Dunne dead.

UP IN MABEL’S ROOM (1944), directed by Allan Dwan

They really had to dig through the mothballs for this one. Originally produced on Broadway in 1919 with Hazel Dawn in the titular role of the playgirl who holds captive an undergarment given her by the husband of a nervous bride. Third billed Patrick comes off best in the film featuring Marjorie Reynolds as the bride and Dennis O’Keefe as Reynolds’ husband, a business partner of Patrick’s fiancé Lee Bowman. Set primarily in Bowman’s country estate, the double entendres fly fast and furious as Reynolds, O’Keefe, Bowman, John Hubbard, Binnie Barnes, Mischa Auer and Charlotte Greenwood all end up in Mabel’s room with Patrick.

GAIL PATRICK AND OSCAR

  • No nominations – no wins.

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