Uncommon Ladies of Noir: Rosemary DeCamp
Quick – think of an actress associated with film noir.
There’s a whole list of dames that would fit the bill, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that you didn’t name Rosemary DeCamp.
DeCamp, whose acting career spanned nearly five decades, is perhaps best known for such musicals as On Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), and for her portrayal of Peg Riley in The Life of Riley film and TV series. But – believe it or not – DeCamp also turned in three distinctly divergent performances in features from the film noir era.
The veteran character actress started her career on radio, frequently using a gift for mimicry that she honed as a child on such programs as Gang Busters, The Goldbergs, and Dr. Christian, where she played the nurse for the title character for the entire 17-year run of the program. She took her talents to Hollywood in the early 1940s when fellow radio actress Martha Scott recommended her for a small part in her film Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941). “I didn’t have to do a thing but sit still and use one of my dearly beloved radio accents,” DeCamp recalled.
The following year, DeCamp appeared in five films, including The Jungle Book, where her character aged from 16 to 30, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which she played James Cagney’s mother – even though she was actually 10 years younger than the film’s star. Before long, she seemed to find her niche as the mother in a variety of films: “I was everybody’s mother,” she once said. “I have this non-aggressive motherly look.” Among others, she was the mother of Ann Blyth in The Merry Monahans (1944), Robert Alda in Rhapsody in Blue (1945), Doris Day in Look for the Silver Lining (1949) and Kathryn Grayson in So This Is Love. DeCamp later made her mark on the small screen, with long running roles in such popular programs as The Bob Cummings Show and That Girl. She also wrote a successful children’s book, Here’s Duke! in 1962, authored an audio book of her memoirs, and became a successful copper enamelist, exhibiting her art at several galleries, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry.
Don’t remember seeing this matronly, multitalented Renaissance on the dark streets of noir?
Trust me, she was there.
DeCamp’s initial foray into film noir came in 1945, with Danger Signal. This film stars Zachary Scott as Ronald Mason, a writer who proves to be, from the film’s first scene, both murderous and mercenary. After leaving the dead body of a society doyenne in New York, he travels to the west coast, where he meets and charms boarding house owner Hilda Fenchurch (Faye Emerson). After a whirlwind romance, Hilda agrees to marry the handsome Ronald, but when he learns that Hilda’s younger sister is in line for a sizable inheritance, he undergoes a romantic relocation (if you know what I mean). DeCamp enters the plot as Dr. Silla, a Viennese psychiatrist to whom Hilda turns for help in extricating her impressionable sibling from Ronald’s clutches. After just a brief, single meeting with Ronald, Dr. Silla is able to draw upon her personal experiences as well as her education in order to grasp the essence of his character. “He spent his adult life in pursuit of women. At the same time, he has no respect for them,” Silla warns her friend. “Men like that can be fascinating and dangerous. They prey on women and very often the women love it.”
In order to stop Ronald from exploiting her sister, Hilda plans to permanently remove him from the picture, and the good doctor doesn’t exactly try to dissuade her. Instead, Dr. Silla tells Hilda that her desire to exterminate Ronald is a natural impulse. “The murder instinct,” she says, “is latent in all of us.” Ultimately, Hilda is unable to carry out the deadly deed, but let’s just say that Ronald, nonetheless, gets his comeuppance in the end.
Of her three noir features, DeCamp stated that Danger Signal was her favorite – she loved her “smart and sophisticated” wardrobe and greatly enjoyed playing the cunning psychiatrist, which was a decided departure from her usual roles. All in all, she said, the film was “clever and interesting.”
DeCamp’s second noir, Nora Prentiss, came two years later, in 1947. In this feature, DeCamp portrays Lucy Talbot, a San Francisco doctor’s wife and mother of two teens who places a priority on neatness, order and punctuality. A rather cold fish, she’s far more interested in adhering to an established schedule than she is in, say, taking a spontaneous trip with her husband to the mountains. “A person has to exercise some self-discipline,” she cautions. “One becomes careless about little habits, one’s liable to become careless about big ones.”
Comfortably content in a world of predictable dinner parties and weekend visits to her mother, Lucy fails to notice that her husband, Richard (Kent Smith) is growing increasingly discontented with his home life. But she’s no fool – when Richard starts coming home later and later, and spending less and less time with his family, Lucy knows that something’s not right. “This sudden necessity for you to work until three and four o’clock in the morning seems very odd to me,” she tells Richard. “The population of San Francisco can’t be that unhealthy.”
As it turns out, Lucy’s instincts are correct – Richard meets a local nightclub singer, Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan), while his wife is on a weekend jaunt with the children, and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” he and Nora are carrying on a hot and heavy affair. After several months, though, when Nora tires of playing second fiddle and plans to leave Richard, he takes a drastic step designed to keep her in his life forever – but in the world of noir, things never turn out the way you plan.
Although Nora Prentiss is one of my personal favorite noirs, it received widely varying reviews upon its release. The critic for Motion Picture Herald wrote that “the skill with which they story is unfolded gives it fascination,” while The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called it “major picture-making at its worst.” (I’m not sure what film Crowther was viewing.)
DeCamp’s final noir, Scandal Sheet (1952), centers on the New York Express, a formerly reputable newspaper that has been transformed into a successful but sleazy tabloid by editor Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford). Among Chapman’s unprincipled ideas to boost readership is a Lonely Hearts Ball, where prizes are given to single couples who agree to a public wedding. During the ball, though, Chapman is surprised (and not in a good way) to find that one of the attendees is Charlotte Grant (DeCamp) – who just happens to be the wife he deserted 20 years earlier.
Meeting Chapman in her run-down apartment next to an elevated train, Charlotte shows him her scars from a failed suicide attempt, and bitterly rejects his proposal for a quick divorce and a sizable financial settlement. She doesn’t want money – she wants revenge. “How much for each year? How much for the agony and the heartbreak and the fear?” she asks. “Turnabout is fair play. I’m gonna spread your story all over town – Mark Chapman, the great editor. Wife deserter!” Charlotte doesn’t get the chance to exact the vengeance she’s after, though – when the argument turns physical, she winds up dead, and Chapman scrambles to cover up the crime and keep his own reporters from discovering his guilt.
As the resentful and shrill Charlotte Grant, DeCamp turned in a memorable performance, even though her screen time was less than 10 minutes. Years after the release of Scandal Sheet, DeCamp said that the role was especially memorable for her because of her final scene. “I convinced Brod Crawford that he must really strike me,” DeCamp recalled. “He had hands like hams and hit me off the floor across the room onto a bed. Mother’s Day that year came two days after the blow. I had a black eye, a swollen face, and could only turn my head very slowly.” (Talk about suffering for your art!)
If you only know Rosemary DeCamp as Doris Day’s mom or the wife of Chester A. Riley, you simply must check out her film noir performances.
You won’t be sorry.
— Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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