The Magnificent Agnes Moorehead

I was introduced to the fabulous Agnes Moorehead quite early in my exploration of classic films. It was either with Jane Eyre (Robert Stevenson, 1943) or Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), I am not completely sure. However, I remember, at the time, I thought these two characters were pretty awful, especially Mrs Reed from Jane Eyre, who is horrible to the poor Jane. I read the book first and then saw the film. I remember thinking that Agnes Moorehead had the perfect figure and attitude to embody such a character. She was, at the time, elegant, but could also look awfully snob, which would make her perfect for playing the cruel Aunt Reed that tyrannises the young Jane. Then, while her character in Citizen Kane might show a bit more sensibility, I still thought she was pretty hearthless for being the mother who gets rid of her child. Then, with more viewings, I understood the complexity of this character and that she was far from being a bad person, more a poor tortured soul who gives a chance to her son to have an education that she is not able to provide. It’s a character with a lot of subtlety, a subtlety that is shown through unique camera angles and Agnes Moorehead’s calculated acting game. Citizen Kane was Agnes Moorehead’s first feature film, like many of Orson Welles’s Mercury Players, and, although her role is pretty brief, we could tell she was on the right track to becoming an interesting actress.

Two days ago marked what would have been Agnes’s 120th birthday as she was born on December 6, 1900. To commemorate her, one of her great admirers, Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood had planned on hosting a blogathon in her honour. Unfortunately, due to serious health issues, Crystal is not able to host it herself. You can read more about what is going on with this post which was written by her brother. I warn you; it’s very sad and upsetting. Luckily, Gill from Real Weegie Midget Reviews offered to compile the entries on her blog, and then, I believe it will somehow be linked or re-blogged on Crystal’s blog. Thanks for doing so, Gill! I thought it would be a great tribute to Agnes and a gift for Crystal to take part in this blogathon.

After seeing Agnes Moorehead in Jane Eyre and Citizen Kane, I watched eleven more of her films, which makes a total of 13 films seen over the years. It is probably not as much as Crystal’s countdown, I’m sure, but it was enough for her to become my favourite character actress. Of course, I also saw episodes of the legendary TV sitcom Bewitched. If she was introduced to me as the cruel Mrs Reed, she proved to be a versatile actress who could also play women with a lot of compassion, as we see in Caged (John Cromwell, 1950), for example, and, of course, iconic ones as it was the case with her portrayal of Endora, Samantha’s mother in the acclaimed TV show Bewitched.

She was also a brilliant scene stealer which always made her films a real treat to watch. In my opinion, one of the best examples is her portrayal of Queen Maria Dominika in The Swan (Charles Vidor, 1956). Although the overall supporting cast is excellent, Agnes Moorehead really has her “15 minutes of fame”. She’s introduced quite late in the story and her screen time is short, but it’s impossible to forget her after watching the film. She has a wonderful self-insurance and doesn’t let others walk on her feet, which makes her character iconic and somehow funny at the same time. And yes, she does steal the show hands down. I swear, this film should be better-known. Interestingly, Agnes Moorehead also appeared in Grace Kelly’s first film, the excellent 14 Hours (Henry Hathaway, 1951), as Robert Cosick (Richard Baseheart)’s mother. However, she and Grace had to wait for The Swan to have screentime together. It’s interesting to see how both characters’ personalities are clashing, the queen by being, as I said, very down to Earth, and then, Princess Alexandra (Grace Kelly) for being more of a dreamer caught in an impossible love story with her fencing instructor played by French actor Louis Jourdan.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find photos of Grace Kelly and Agnes Moorehead together…

Aside from her success on the big and small screen, Agnes Moorehead also insured herself a career on the stage and the radio. But, despite this complete and varied career and her four Oscar nominations, like most character actors, she remains an underrated figure of the screen. But, although her name doesn’t resonate so much than the names of Marily Monroe or her on-screen partner Grace Kelly, many classic film fans will agree on her greatness. And, aside from her admirable acting skills, what strikes me more and more about Agnes Moorhead is how much of an underrated beauty she was. Ok, first of all, she had those adorable cheekbones that are put in evidence with her smile, she also had beautiful eyes, and she looked super classy. She was not a conventional beauty by all mean, but that’s what made her special.

Despite Agnes Moorehead being my favourite character actress, I am more familiar with Agnes Moorehead through her roles. If you want to read something more informative about her career, I invite you to check this article written by Crystal.

I know this was a pretty short article but, to be honest, I’m not really in a blogging mood these days. Anyway, I hope you still appreciated it! I want to thank Crystal for bringing us this blogathon but also her brother and Gill for making sure it’s happening despite Crystal not being able to host. You can read the entries here.

See you!

Class!

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