It is with the deepest sadness that we announce the loss of our beloved advisory board member, legendary actress and film noir icon - Ann Savage.
Ann was a proud longtime member and volunteer of Hollywood Heritage. The preservation and celebration of all things Hollywood were very important personal causes for her because she had grown up, come of age, and began her acting career in the Hollywood community in the 1930s and 40s – considered the ‘Golden Age’.
She is largely known today for her ferocious attack as the predatory femme fatale Vera in Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 noir classic “Detour”. Anyone who ever met Ann, and had seen “Detour”, immediately appreciated what a terrific performance she had given in the film, because she was a kind hearted, sweet natured, lovely person in real life.
What is less known about Ann, but apparent in her work, is that she had a phenomenal acting range – having been trained by legendary Austrian expatriate director Max Reinhardt at his workshop in Hollywood. The workshop was originally located on Sunset Blvd in the building most recently known as the Spaghetti Factory – now an endangered landmark. Her talent often far outshines her material in the movies she made for Columbia Pictures prior to “Detour”. They show that she possessed not only a natural gift for drama, but was equally adept at light musical comedy, slapstick physical comedy, and was a believably innocent ingénue.
Even more unknown is that Ann was a true Hollywood kid, having gone to high school with Mickey Rooney while he attended Fairfax High, and first stepped on a soundstage at the age of 17 at MGM in “The Great Waltz”. MGM screen tested her under the auspices of Edgar Selwyn. Ann had met Selwyn’s step son Russell (‘Rusty’) at a bowling alley in Beverly Hills where she worked as an illegal underage cocktail waitress. Through the kindness and social introduction of the Selwyn family, Ann spent time among the more famous Hollywood kids of the day like Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew and Deanna Durbin.
Unfortunately, her MGM test did not work out. She said “it stunk”, which motivated her to get her teeth capped, and ultimately train under Reinhardt. After appearing as Lorna in a Reinhardt acting showcase of Odets’ “Golden Boy” she won a contract at Columbia Pictures, and was on her way in the movies… eventually making over 30 feature films.
To understand “Ann Savage” it is important to know that she was the Hollywood creation of a somewhat shy, movie loving, and stunningly beautiful girl known to her friends as Bernie Lyon. She was raised by a hardworking single mom in the depths of the 1930s depression. The Broadway movie palaces of downtown Los Angeles, around the corner from the Jewelry District where her mother worked, served as her babysitter during working hours. The movies of the 30s fed her dreams of glamour, and defined her view of romance.
Ann’s favorite stars were Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, and Jean Harlow. She loved to dance, starting to learn steps as a young child. Ann could demonstrate every popular dance starting with the Charleston and Black Bottom, running through the Rumba, Conga and Mambo and end up at the Twist. After the Twist she quit learning once “dancing wasn’t dancing anymore.” In later years, she loved seeing swing dancing come back in vogue and took in The Derby, fascinated by the kids and their retro clothes. Privately, she admitted that she had never learned to jitterbug – too “roughhouse” for her elegant moves.
Among Ann’s many accomplishments, in addition to her versatile film acting career, she was a speed rated competitive Pilot (she flew until the age of 75), a popular WWII pinup model, an Esquire centerfold shot by Hurrell, a tireless barnstorming seller of War Bonds on two tours, a proud volunteer at the Hollywood Canteen, as well as an early television pioneer. In addition, Ann was a skilled tennis player (regular Sunday mornings till age 85), a self educated fine art collector, a dead aim crack shot with her beloved .38, and a terrific gourmet cook – proudest of the steaks she cooked with a blowtorch!
Ann carried her Columbia Pictures employee ID card in her wallet to the end of her life. She was delighted to have been voted the best bowler on the Columbia lot, and the “V-Mail Female” for writing the most letters (V-Mail or Victory Mail) to soldiers overseas during WWII. Over the years, she maintained long-term correspondences with several fans.
Even though Ann lived for a time in New York during the 50s and later in Miami, as well as travelling the world, she and her beloved third husband Bert visited Hollywood frequently, and later maintained an apartment at Shoreham Towers for several years. From the 1940s through the 1960s they were regulars at the famous clubs on the Sunset Strip including Ciros, The Mocambo, The Trocadero and especially Preston Sturges’ Players Club. Among Ann’s favorite nightclub acts were slick cabaret artists like Kay Thompson with the Williams Brothers, and Hildegarde.
Later, they would spend holidays in Havana until Castro invaded in 1959, an event she partially witnessed. “They held us over in Miami for an extra day, and then we went down and gambled as if nothing happened. The way it’s shown in movies is false. Americans didn’t run like Scarlett and Rhett beating it out of Atlanta… at first, Castro wanted the tourist loot as much as the other guys!”
During the time Ann and Bert lived on Schuyler Road in Beverly Hills she was the only person on the street who did her own gardening. She enjoyed catching up with the neighbors, including Mickey Cohen, who would stop and chat with her over the fence. She liked to keep tabs on the romance between Greg Bautzer and Ginger Rogers who lived up the road: “if they were getting along they would drive down the hill together in his car. If they were fighting he would fly down the hill about 90 miles an hour by himself. She would fly by even faster a few minutes later in her car.”
As an actress, Ann Savage was a pioneering artist. She was so far ahead of her time, so honest and direct in her art, so beyond the norm that it took over forty years to achieve proper public recognition for her gifts. Most of 40s Hollywood missed her point, telling her to her face that the role of Vera in “Detour” was an insult to her beauty. The world had to catch up to Ann Savage. Her pride would not allow her to chase it. As she said: “It was a long time coming”.
In later years, Ann devoted much time to volunteer and charity work, always eager to help others. She loved the new friends she made through the Los Angeles County Art Museum, Hollywood Heritage, Cinecon, and The Motion Picture Television Fund. She could be found signing autographs to help raise money for causes she believed in. She made phone calls, attended preservation hearings at the City Council, and even helped trim the roses at Wattles Mansion.
Ann was honored repeatedly at Film Festivals, and fan events, speaking tirelessly live on stage. She also recorded hours of on camera interviews and extensive oral history of her life and career.
In retirement, inspired by Gloria Stuart’s performance in Titanic, Ann harbored the dream of making more movies. She read scripts and took meetings on various projects, but was looking for something special for her return to the screen. Embraced by a new generation of digital filmmakers for her legendary work in “Detour” she took an open minded approach to new material.
Her openness finally led to her appearance in Canadian director Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” which shot in 2006. Ann was delighted by the originality of Guy’s work. The balletic beauty of his “Dracula” impressed her, and after several phone conversations, she felt he was a director she could trust. Over the almost two years it took to shoot, do retakes and complete “My Winnipeg”, Ann and Guy became loyal friends. Look closely at some of the shots of Ann portraying Guy’s Mother, and HHI members will recognize details of a few of their favorite landmark buildings. “My Winnipeg” is about much more than a frozen Canadian city. It is a poetic cinematic elegy to the lost world of glamour, mystery, imagination and the vanishing generation of gals who would not pick up their mail wearing anything less than a full makeup. ONLY Ann Savage could’ve played the part.
Finally, sadly, Ann slowed down, and began to withdraw from public life. Cruelly, she slowly lost the use of her legs, and did not want to be seen, or photographed, in less than excellent condition. She fought hard to walk again, yet never lost faith when her feet ultimately let her down. Forever a positive thinker, she concentrated on the joys still available.
Ann stayed in touch with the world through television and the internet, continuing to absorb an endless variety of films. She loved to watch everything from Mr. Hulot’s Holiday to Bonanza reruns on tapes, laserdiscs, dvds and cable – especially TCM - and her favorite host, Robert Osborne. TCM remembered her with gifts throughout the year, books, movies, and a calendar during the holidays.
It is fitting, as a proud pilot, that one of her favorite modern movies was Scorsese’s “The Aviator”. She had seen it on the big screen and watched it repeatedly at home. She swore off going to theaters, and Woody Allen movies, forever after racing to see “Match Point” on opening day only to find that it 1) wasn’t a comedy 2) had no dramatic tennis action and 3) had no appearance by Woody Allen. “What a DUMMY!” is all she would say.
Ann loved watching “Inside The Actor’s Studio” and dreamed of one day appearing on it to tell young actors “to NEVER give up.” Ann would notate the monthly TCM guide whenever Detour screened, as she had with TV listings since the 1960s. She set her alarm and would get up at any hour to hear the kind words of Osborne, and watch the movie all the way through.
Ever the hard working trouper, Ann kept abreast of the progress of “Detour” and followed “My Winnipeg” as it dazzled the festival circuit, winning awards and ultimately a distribution contract. In her last few years she saw “Detour” named one of the greatest “All Time 100 Movies” by Time magazine, her role as Vera named one of the “Top 25 Movie Villains”, and “My Winnipeg” picked as #3 of the “Top Ten Movies of 2008” by critic Richard Corliss of Time.
Ann’s lifetime collection of personal and career memorabilia will be preserved by the prestigious Harry Ransom Center of The University of Texas at Austin. Her papers and wardrobe will also be housed alongside those of Robert DeNiro, David Mamet, David O. Selznick and Gloria Swanson. As she put it: “that’s as close as I’m ever gonna get to Robert DeNiro.”
Her final wish was to be interred with her beloved husband Bert at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Bert predeceased her by almost forty years, but she never really got over him. She loved flying because it put her “closer to God and Bert”. She wrote, late in life, in a questionnaire sent to her by Larry King, that she tried to do good deeds so she “could earn enough points to fly to heaven and meet Bert with her own wings.” We know she is there, back up on her own feet, with the love of her life, dancing up a storm.