by C. K. Dexter Haven
Have you ever seen a movie and find that it’s one of the second-tier stars who gets your attention, and that you find yourself waiting for their next fleeting appearance onscreen? This happened to me years ago when I saw Gail Patrick (1911-1980) in the 1936 Screwball Comedy, My Man Godfrey. This is the film that introduced me to the Golden Age’s definitive “Other Woman.” Patrick’s best-known roles have her trading deliciously catty barbs with Hollywood’s greatest stars, most notably in this film, and also in Stage Door (1937), opposite Ginger Rogers.
In My Man Godfrey, her most-famous role, Gail plays Cornelia Bullock, one of the daughters of the impossibly-wealthy Alexander Bullock. The entire family is an out-of-touch rabble afflicted with having too much money during the Great Depression. I don’t want to spoil the entire plot, but what I like about Gail’s role is that she’s the only character who comes full circle and ends up growing as a person. Cornelia is completely different at the end of the film than she was at the beginning. Of course, I didn’t catch on to this plot development until many years and several “Godfrey” viewings later.
From the first time I saw Gail Patrick--I dubbed her the Deco Dame-- I was enraptured and intrigued by the actress who was often characterized as a huffy, stand-offish, statuesque beauty; I’d add that she had a great speaking voice, too. She was someone I sought out in any 1930s film I was watching and I would perk up at the sight of her name in the credits. I didn’t see her in many movies, but when I did it was an event. You see, Gail was the first “bad girl” that I had a cinematic crush on. Normally, I tend to prefer the girl next door types, like Ginger Rogers or Myrna Loy, but Gail changed the dimensions of that daydream. There was a radiant beauty, but I sensed that Gail possessed a keen intelligence. This was merely an assumption on my part, but it would turn out to be true, given her post-acting career accomplishments.
My Favorite Wife (1940) is another of Gail’s better-known films. Gail’s ability to barely contain her annoyance at Cary Grant’s kids’ piano recital is her most memorable comedic moment. However, she managed to make me sympathize with her because she really wasn’t a bad person. We’re supposed to want Cary Grant to be able to get away from Gail, and so the flawed script had to make Irene Dunne more desirable to him, so Gail was sacrificed on the altar of “The Hollywood Ending.”
My favorite Gail Patrick role is in Love Crazy (1941). She’s teamed again with her My Man Godfrey co-star, William Powell. Here Gail plays a lighthearted variation of her “other woman” persona in the role of Isobel Grayson, who’s more of a playful vixen than a catty ex-girlfriend. Isobel has moved into ex-fiancée Powell’s apartment building and of course she causes trouble, if unknowingly, with Powell and his wife of four years, played by Myrna Loy—and on their wedding anniversary. Of all her movies where she’s a supporting player, Love Crazy is the role that lets Gail be bubbly, fun, flirty, yet mischievous. She steals every one of the few scenes she’s in, and has one of the best lines in the whole movie, when she’s covering up for William Powell when the latter is trapped in her shower.
Gail’s movie career ended in 1947. She started her own children’s boutique that catered to the Hollywood clientele she knew so well. However, her most significant off-screen accomplishment was serving as the producer of the Perry Mason television series. It was Gail’s suggestion that Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, and William Talman be cast in the long-running courtroom drama. She was close friends with Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner and he trusted her decisions. In fact, Gardner only allowed the show to exist if Gail would produce it! It would seem as though the tough-as-nails persona Gail honed onscreen also extended to her real-life business career.
Gail Patrick would die from leukemia in July, 1980. She had been both a respected actress and a powerful producer in her extended entertainment career. I still get that sense of excitement every time I watch My Man Godfrey. Of course, there’s the nostalgia when I think of the first time I discovered Gail in My Man Godfrey, but now there’s that newfound knowledge that she imbued her characters with a drive, determination, and intelligence, that is plainly evident in all of her performances.
*The drawing at the top is marker on white paper, mounted on black paper.