The Young Lady, RIP

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When 2005 draws to a close, the media will present its selection of the year’s most significant events including an obituary of celebrities and national icons who died during the year. Most of the deceased will be well-known but members of more recent generations might not recognize names like Teresa Wright, the film actress whose death in March was largely ignored by mainstream media.

Teresa Wright’s flame blazed brightly in the 1940s and 1950s. She remains the only actress to receive Academy Award nominations for her first three films. Her first movie role in 1941 earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her second movie part, in 1942, also resulted in a Best Supporting Actress nomination and this time she won the award. In her third movie, also in 1942, she was nominated for Best Actress.

In 1946, Life Magazine contained a feature article on The Best Years of Our Lives, the biggest Hollywood draw since Gone With The Wind. The film won seven Oscars, including Best Film, and won over a field of strong contenders that included It’s a Wonderful Life. Some of Hollywood’s finest talents were members of the filmu2018s cast: Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo. Picking one of these stars for the cover photo was not an easy task but the editors of Life finally, and wisely, chose Teresa Wright.

Teresa Wright caught the attention of director Alfred Hitchcock while he was still a relatively recent transplant to the United States. At the time Hitchcock was working on a film script that required the leading lady to transform from a naïve young girl into a mature woman fairly rapidly as a result of the circumstances she was thrust into. As the main character of the film the young actress would have to hold the audience’s attention and project intense emotions with minimal dialogue. It was a role that called for a seasoned actress but Hitchcock believed that the newcomer, Miss Wright, could pull it off.

The result was the 1943 film noir, Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock’s personal favorite. The film was a departure from Hitchcock’s usual formula in which a male protagonist, assisted by a glamorous lady, evades police while trying to prove his innocence to a crime he has been wrongly accused of. In these films, the female usually provides the love interest and her role is secondary to the male’s. In Shadow of a Doubt, Teresa Wright, receiving top billing over an impressive array of stars, portrays Young Charlie Newton who is named after her favorite relative, Uncle Charlie, played by Joseph Cotten. Young Charlie is bored and restless with her uneventful life in the small town of Santa Rosa, California, so she is elated by the news that Uncle Charlie is coming for a visit — what she doesn’t know is that Uncle Charlie is a notorious murderer who is hurriedly fleeing from New Jersey as a result of a nationwide manhunt that is closing in on him.

Young Charlie’s initial excitement over her uncle’s visit gradually wanes as she witnesses his periodic dark moods. Eventually she makes the terrifying discovery that her Uncle Charlie is the famous "Merry Widow" Murderer who romances and kills wealthy widows for their money. The tension mounts after Uncle Charlie realizes that Young Charlie has learned his awful secret. Young Charlie, knowing it would break her mother’s heart if she learned that her favorite brother was a murderer, decides to keep the secret to herself while scheming to force Uncle Charlie to leave.

Hitchcock placed immense confidence in the youthful Teresa Wright by selecting her for such a difficult role. Not only does she prove equal to the task but her suggestions for script changes during filming were readily accepted by Hitchcock. In this film, Alfred Hitchcock resisted the temptation for intense gripping action, choosing instead a subtle building of tension leading to the final scene. Because of the absence of fast-paced action, gratuitous sex and other Hollywood gimmicks, the film may not satisfy some of today’s moviegoers.

The disparity between the behavior of small town residents during the period in which this film is set as compared to contemporary society is striking. We see unaccompanied women of all ages safely walking through town after dark. The youngest Newton daughter is reading Ivanhoe, a book she checked out of the local library. The Newton family sits around the dining room table in the evening, conversing as they have dinner together. This is a family before television and fast-food franchises; a portrait of America before it began losing its traditions

Santa Rosa was selected for the filming location because it had all the characteristics of a small town of the time; it could have been in the northeast, the south or the Midwest. Hitchcock believed that placing a notorious murderer from a large metropolitan city in a small crime-free town enhanced the tension. The contrast between the cosmopolitan Uncle Charlie and the provincial Newton family creates another level of tension.

Teresa Wright is the ideal symbol for the 1940s and early 1950s; an era, that if you contrast it to the decades that followed, could very well be called the best years of our lives. Although Teresa Wright was less glamorous than other actresses of the period, she cast quite a spell over male moviegoers. She was the quintessential girl next door; fresh, wholesome and uncontaminated by Feminism, the sexual revolution or Women’s Studies. She was the girl you dreamed of bringing home to meet the family. The girl you proposed to in the old-fashioned way.

However, it would be a mistake to characterize Miss Wright as a submissive shrinking violet. She was an independent, strong-willed woman as evidenced by her first Hollywood contract. She insisted on language that exempted her from the inane publicity stunts and photos that studios required of their actors and actresses. Her contract contained this sentence: "The aforementioned Teresa Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in the water." Her continued refusal to engage in what she considered unbecoming behavior to publicize films eventually caused Samuel Goldwyn to cancel her contract.

Standing firm, she said: "The type of contract between players and producers is, I feel, antiquated in form and abstract in concept. We have no privacies which producers cannot invade, they trade us like cattle, boss us like children." Although she lost her $5000 per week contract with the MGM mogul, Miss Wright continued to make films for other studios, stating: "I will gladly work for less if by doing so I can retain the common decency without which the most acclaimed job becomes intolerable."

Unlike today’s militant feminists, Teresa Wright knew how to be autonomous without sacrificing her femininity. And when we compare Miss Wright with today’s actresses, or with many of today’s young women, we are aware of a tremendous loss. Teresa Wright exemplified the phenomenon known as "young lady," a very precious element of our society and one that we are losing.

Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer.

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