Sunday, December 17, 2017

Connie Gilchrist - A Hard-Working Woman

Some character actors have such larger-than-life personalities that they literally seem to step out of the screen and walk among you. To me, Connie Gilchrist has always been that type of an actress. She is instantly recognizable and, even for the briefest uncredited appearance, she would give it her all....never making herself conspicuous, however. The mark of a truly great character actor is their ability to blend unobtrusively into the story.

Connie Gilchrist's specialty was portraying strong working-class women, often domestics with a New York or Irish accent. Gilchrist's thick Brooklyn accent was not a part of her act but her birthright. Rose Constance Gilchrist was born on February 2, 1901, in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Martha Daniels, was a stage actress and so Connie decided to follow in her footsteps, making her stage debut at the age of 16 in London. She toured with a repertory company throughout France and then appeared in various US stage companies before she made her Broadway debut in 1935. It was in 1940 that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios offered her a ten-year contract and she then found constant work playing in such classics as A Woman's Face ( 1941 ), Johnny Eager ( 1941 ), Tortilla Flat ( 1942 ), Presenting Lily Mars ( 1943 ),  The Thin Man Goes Home ( 1945 ) and The Hucksters ( 1947 ). 

If that classic jig "The Irish Washerwoman" was based on a true-life woman, Gilchrist would have played her. You could also easily picture her walking the streets of Dublin peddling cockles and mussels. She had a loud voice and a big personality to match. Onscreen, Gilchrist was often seen with her shirtsleeves rolled up washing dishes or scrubbing a floor. She portrayed domestics in such films as The Valley of Decision ( 1945 ), Good News ( 1947 ), Big City ( 1948 ), and Luxury Liner ( 1948 ). 
No matter how tough the work she never despaired over it....neither was she ever ashamed of her position. Gilchrist always portrayed honest women who kept their heads held high. If she happened to be poor and had to scrub floors for a living, then she would set to the task with two strong hands and not complain - nor would she put up with hearing complaints from anyone else! Her motto could be: you simply do your best in life and never waste time wishing circumstances were different. 
Her characters were always level-headed and resourceful, very often spunky. She liked playing women who were troopers. When Sister Mary ( Claudette Colbert ) begins to lose hope in proving the innocence of Valerie Carnes ( Ann Blyth ) in Thunder on the Hill ( 1951 ), it is Sister Josephine ( Gilchrist ), one of the nuns who toils in the convent kitchen, who renews Sister Mary's faith. 

Gilchrist's characters made themselves at home wherever they happened to be. If she played a maid then the household that hired her would soon find that they gained a new member of the family. In Junior Miss ( 1945 ), she was memorable as Hilda, the apartment maid who helped to raise Harry Grave's two rambunctious daughters. Gilchrist had a special knack with children ( in real-life she had a daughter who became an actress, too ) and in many ways she was like Louise Beavers, playing huggable "mammies" who knew how to give a youngster a good scolding when needed. 
Sometimes Gilchrist made a departure from her usual characters and would portray slovenly women who enjoyed sticking their nose in a bottle of whiskey. In these situations, she had no shame in donning fuzzy slippers, a threadbare night robe, and messing up her hair to make herself look like a sleazy landlord or housewife. 

Gilchrist made occasional appearances in westerns, playing Hominy in the James Stewart classic The Far Country ( 1954 ), and later, on television, in The Adventures of Jim Bowie ( 1957 ) and The Restless Gun ( 1958 ), but her Brooklyn accent made her unsuitable for too many western roles, even though she had the face of a tough western woman. Instead, she enjoyed a recurring role in The Adventures of Long John Silver ( 1956 ) as Purity Pinker, a tavern owner who is intent on wedding Captain Long John. 
She returned to films in the late 1950s playing in Auntie Mame ( as Mame's maid Norah Muldoon ) and Some Came Running and, in the 1960s, interspersed constant television work ( Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Our Man Higgins, The Twilight Zone ) with film appearances in Walt Disney comedies ( The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, The Monkey's Uncle ). Gilchrist retired from acting in 1969 and settled down in New Mexico where she passed away at the age of 84 on March 3, 1985. 

Today, Connie Gilchrist is best remembered for portraying Linda Darnell's wise-cracking mother in A Letter to Three Wives ( 1949 ), a role that captured just about all the qualities that I love best in Gilchrist: her tough-talking mannerisms, her down-to-earth practicality, her maternal care, and her positive outlook. She was a tough but lovable broad. 

This post is our contribution to the What a Character! Blogathon being hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Paula's Cinema Club, and Outspoken and Freckled. Be sure to check out the main roster of posts because there are a lot of great profiles on some fabulous character actors of the 1930s-1970s! 

4 comments:

  1. Try to imagine how my heart skipped a beat when I saw your choice for this blogathon. Many of us may consider Connie Gilchrist a special friend in so many movies.

    I love her enthusiastic entertainment for the patrons of the chop house in The Far Country. Grand Central Murder gives her a terrific role as a gal mixed up in a murder, and she slings the 1940s slang around like nobody's business.

    You made me very happy this day.

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    1. I'm so glad you liked my choice, CW. Isn't she indeed someone special! Grand Central Murder is a film I have not yet seen, but if she plays a gal mixed up in murder than I'll be watching it this week. Sounds too good to miss.

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  2. You're absolutely right when you say a good character actor is able to blend into the story. Connie Gilchrist is one of the best.

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  3. Thank you - have loved her from my many viewings of Auntie Mame and I enjoy discovering her in other roles.

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