Time for the second in my new series of posts on the individuals and film elements I’d never have gotten the chance to wax fannish over if not for my interest in film noir.
IF NOT FOR NOIR #2: GOOGIE WITHERS
I can’t tell you exactly why or how I knew the name “Googie Withers” before I actually saw her on film. My father was a film and theater buff, so he may have mentioned the name in passing, but whatever the case, it stuck with me…primarily because “Googie” is so silly-sounding.
Georgette Lizette Withers was born in Karachi (now in Pakistan) to a British military father and a German-Dutch mother. Her native nanny nicknamed her “little pigeon” (which is googie in Urdu). And the nickname stuck.
Ms. Withers began acting at the age of 12, danced and took bit parts and by the 1930s was in demand for supporting roles in big productions and leads in little ones. Perhaps her most famous appearance of the decade was as Blanche, one of Margaret Lockwood’s friends, in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).
But I didn’t notice her when I first saw the Hitchcock pre-noir. It was in noirish films of the 1940s that I came to see and love Withers for her striking beauty, charisma, strong acting, and thrilling portrayals of working-class bad girls either trying to go straight or reveling in their wicked natures.
My first noir encounter with Googie Withers was as Helen Nosseross in Jules Dassin’s gripping, manic noir Night and the City (1950). A sharp-dressed, sharp-tongued club manager, Helen brings in the dough by getting her girls to bilk foolish male customers through watered drinks and overpriced cigarettes. She also works her wiles on her bloated husband, Phillip (Francis L. Sullivan), giving as little love and affection as possible to gain the money and furs she craves. She’s a delicious sort of femme fatale, even when she loses the game. Although she’s a secondary character to Richard Widmark’s lead (see If not for noir #1: Richard Widmark for details), I couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she appeared. And when the film was done I longed to see more.
My next opportunity to bask in Withers was as Rose Sandigate in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), a British slice-of-life drama that goes noir. Rose loves then loses her man to prison. Once the dashing Tommy Swann (played by Withers’ husband John McCallum) is out of the picture, Rose goes from idealistic blonde to housewifely brunette as she marries stable but dull George (Edward Chapman) and becomes stepmother to his spoiled daughters. She’s rather hard now, doing what she can to get by, and then Tommy is back in her life, on the run after he breaks out of prison. Will Rose help or spurn him? Does she value her working-class stability despite its dullness? I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it, but I will say that Withers is superb in this, as compelling as a worn-down housewife as she was a failed femme fatale in Night and the City.
Most recently, based on a recommendation by Adam of the Attaboy Clarence and Secret History of Hollywood podcasts, I saw the earliest of the Withers noirish pics, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945). In this Victorian melodrama, she plays the most fully fatale of the femmes I’ve seen so far, Pearl, the wife of a drunken tavern-keeper (Garry Marsh) who doesn’t bother to hide her adulterous behavior with avaricious criminal Dan (John Carol) from either husband or public. Though she is 8th in billing, she’s 1st in interest because her open sexuality and scheming ways dominate the plot and our gaze from the moment she enters the picture. Like Helen in Night and the City, Pearl is doomed by thinking herself smarter than she proves to be, but we never doubt her determination or her beauty. Again, I don’t want to give too much away for those who haven’t seen it. Suffice it to say, Withers’ charisma woos us even when the plot — especially its forced ending to meet censors’ demands — does not.
So, here’s to you, Googie Withers: a goddess I’d never have come to adore if it weren’t for noir!