February 6th, 2008

carole lombard 03
  • vp19

A heck of an "other woman"

There are some roles that are inherently difficult to play, and few more so than playing the antagonist in a romance. You're the character who's scheming against the people the audience is rooting for, and they aren't going to like you very much. It's a no-win situation, even if your character doesn't win...and in these films, they rarely do. (There have been stories about soap opera villainesses attacked while food shopping by some overzealous fans who confused the actress with the part they played.)

Here's a piece about an actress who was arguably the most famous antagonist in Carole Lombard's film career, as Cornelia Bullock in "My Man Godfrey." She also played similarly icy roles in several other noted films of the era. Her name was Gail Patrick, and her career -- and life -- was a fascinating one. And as you'll discover, away from the movie set she was anything but a villainess.

While Patrick played a conniving older sister in "Godfrey," in reality she was nearly three years younger than Lombard, born Margaret LaVelle Fitzpatrick on June 20, 1911 in Birmingham. Ala. She was dean of women at her alma mater, Howard College (now known as Samford University) in Birmingham, and was a pre-law student at the University of Alabama; that interest in the courtroom would come in handy many years later. She decided to go into acting and won a contract with Paramount. While she occasionally had leading lady roles, most of the time she was cast in second leads suited for her cool, patrician appearance.

"Godfrey" was not Patrick's first film with Lombard. That came more than a year before, when she had a small role in the Lombard-George Raft dancefest "Rumba." They evidently had a good rapport, because here are two pictures of them away from the studio -- one on a pier in 1935, the other with Randolph Scott at the Brown Derby in 1936:

The Brown Derby became a major part of Patrick's life in late 1936, when she married its owner, Robert H. Cobb (he invented the famous Cobb salad). It was the first of her four marriages.

Patrick regularly acted on "Lux Radio Theater," whose first and second homes were at Hollywood theatres near the Derby. Here's Gail at a rehearsal for a 1938 adaptation of "Godfrey":

Patrick also gained notice for roles in "Stage Door," where she had some catfights with Ginger Rogers (in reality a close friend); "My Favorite Wife," where she played Cary Grant's second wife when the first one, Irene Dunne, comes on the scene; and a reunion with Powell, this time co-starring with Myrna Loy, in "Love Crazy."

She continued to act through the forties, but when good postwar roles became harder to find, she retired from acting in 1948. She found some success designing clothes for children.

By this time, she was married to her third husband, literary agent Cornwell Jackson, whose clients included noted author Erle Stanley Gardner. In the '50s she helped bring Gardner's most famous character -- who had been portrayed in a number of '30s films -- to the small screen, serving as executive producer of the "Perry Mason" TV series. Here's Patrick in her later years with actor Raymond Burr (he wasn't the first choice for the role -- former Lombard co-star Fred MacMurray was initially offered the part) as they congratulate Gardner on the sale of his 100-millionth book:

Patrick and Jackson, who had two adopted children, divorced in 1969; Patrick produced a 1973 version of "Mason," starring Monte Markham, but discovered to her dismay that the public would accept no Mason other than Burr. She died of leukemia in 1980, not long after her 69th birthday.

But Patrick's story doesn't end there. In her will, she bequeathed $1 million to Delta Zeta, her college sorority. And nearly a quarter-century later, in June 2005, her estate gave $1.1 million to the Hollywood Wilshire YMCA for the Gail Patrick Memorial Teen Center and Park.

When this photo ran in a city councilman's online report, the caption said, "Gail Patrick's no villainess now." As if she ever was.