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16 December 2018

Elizabeth Patterson: Quiet but Enduring Triumph

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Elizabeth Patterson in about 1914

Elizabeth Patterson's role in the unconventional holiday classic, Remember the Night, is a prime example of the way her intelligence and delicacy of touch added to the whole film. She is the loving spinster Aunt Emma who has helped raise her nephew (Fred MacMurray) along with his widowed mother, her sister. When he unexpectedly brings home a young woman, Lee (Barbara Stanwyck), who is from a far different, and much more difficult, background for Christmas, the family welcomes her kindly. In a key scene, Aunt Emma unpacks a beautiful turn of the century gown for Lee to wear for a New Years party. It is clear that the gown is Aunt Emma's, and that at one time she had every expectation of being a bride -- not a spinster aunt. She conveys this with a light touch, and real emotion, but without a hint of self pity. That is acting.

Elizabeth Patterson in about 1938
Everyone who knows classic films has seen Elizabeth Patterson. In the movies, she was a little lady with a long, expressive face, gray hair usually worn in a bun, and a voice equally useful for acerbic asides or nostalgic reminiscences, narrow-minded condemnation or wisecracks.She was featured in such classics as A Bill of Divorcement. The Story of Temple Drake, So Red the Rose, Small Town Girl, High Wide and Handsome, Sing You Sinners, Tobacco Road, and literally scores more. She was the middle-aged secretary in Dinner at Eight whose confrontation with Marie Dressler doesn't go so well, for example, and the spinster aunt who contributes a hilarious imitation of Mae West's walk in Go West Young Man.

Patterson's hilarious take on Mae West's walk in Go West Young Man

Elizabeth Patterson was in fact a remarkable person, probably one of the most successful actresses ever in her particular corner of the profession. Her career spanned more than sixty years of continuous work, something practically any actor who ever lived would envy.

Born in 1875 to an upper-middle-class family in Savannah, Tennessee, she came into a small inheritance in her early twenties and used it to travel to Europe. In Paris she saw the Comedie Francaise; in London, she was able to witness the legendary productions of Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre featuring the great Ellen Terry. Patterson made up her mind that that was what she wanted to do, despite the objections of her family. And she did it.

She joined a well-known repertory company in Chicago, and from then on never looked back. She gained invaluable experience, touring the country with professional theater companies, playing everything from Shakespeare to children's fairytales.

In 1914, she joined the famous Washington Square Players, an extremely prestigious New York company that premiered new works by George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill. All the while, she caught the attention of critics and was frequently singled out for praise, in comedy, drama, classics, and iconoclastic modern works. There were not a few occasions where she was considered the only good thing in the show.

Through the decades. she mastered every new medium that came along. She made her first silent film in 1926, and her first talkie in 1929. She worked in radio, and by the 1950's moved successfully into television. In fact, probably more people saw her work on the I Love Lucy show, as Lucy's neighbor Mrs. Trumbull, than saw her films and stage work put together.

Known to her friends as "Patty," like many actors who had lived life on tour (which had been the lot of players for centuries), Patterson found an unexpectedly comfortable home in Hollywood where she could work as much as she wanted with no need to travel between jobs. In fact, she lived in the extremely classy Roosevelt Hotel, which was ultra-modern at the time, having been built in 1927. In those days it was not uncommon to actually choose a hotel as a permanent residence, which provided not just a place to sleep but room service, maid, cleaning, and any other concierge services one could wish; all-in-all, not a bad way of life! She never married, but remained close to her family, which included a brother and sister and numerous nieces and nephews. She was able to live independently until shortly before her death at the age of 90.

Elizabeth Patterson lived a life of determination, creativity, and achievement, almost the ideal life for and actor who loved to act. Her career is, in its own non-flashy way, inspiring.