The earthy sultriness and engaging accessibility of this Texas-raised tomboy enlivened the Warner Brothers output for a decade and made Ann Sheridan one of the premier serviceman’s pin-ups of the WWII era. Born in February of 1915, the youngest of five children, to her auto mechanic and homemaker parents, Clara Lou Sheridan grew up learning how to ride, shoot, and fix a car. While she tried her hand at acting in high school, she had set her sights upon a teaching career; that might have well been the case, had her big sister not entered a swimsuit shot of the pretty 19-year-old in a contest Paramount concocted to promote their 1934 project Search for Beauty. To Clara Lou’s great shock, she was one of the six finalists picked, and made her screen debut with a bit role in the Ida Lupino/Buster Crabbe starrer.
Now with a foot in the door, Clara Lou stayed in Hollywood, racking up some two dozen small, mostly uncredited, parts over the next couple of years, among them Murder at the Vanities, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch and Mississippi with W.C. Fields, The Glass Key with George Raft, and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades. It was during this time that she adopted the more marquee-friendly Ann Sheridan as her stage name. She considered packing it in after her Paramount deal expired; although her scenes in the 1936 Warner effort Sing Me a Love Song wound up trimmed, the studio was still impressed enough to take a flyer. Ann impressed early opposite Humphrey Bogart in Black Legion, a 1937 anti-racism film which still sends a powerful message even today; and as one of the few female performers in San Quentin, with Bogie and Pat O’Brien, that same year.
As the decade wound down, the roles became more substantive and her impact grew, as evidenced by 1937’s The Great O’Malley, where Ann was tough policeman Pat O’Brien’s loving sweetheart. In good company with studio friends O’Brien, Bogart and James Cagney the following year in the gangster classic Angels with Dirty Faces, Sheridan was a dazzler even in the depression-era slums of New York. She donned a much more glamorous look in a smaller but very effective role in Universal’s Letter of Introduction (1938), starring Adolphe Menjou and George Murphy, while back at the Warner lot that year she appeared with Dick Powell and a young up-and-comer named Ronald Reagan in the comedy Cowboy from Brooklyn. 1939 found the actress opposite newcomer John Garfield in They Made Me a Criminal; heading west with Errol Flynn in the Technicolor frontier epic Dodge City; and returning to the streets of New York for The Angels Wash Their Faces, where she co-starred with the Dead End Kids and Reagan (the Gipper and she would ultimately share the screen in five films altogether).
By the early ’40s, Warner’s publicists had styled her as “The Oomph Girl”–a tag she despised, years later saying, “They nicknamed me ‘The Oomph Girl’ and I loathe that nickname! Just being known by a nickname indicates that you’re not thought of as a true actress . . . it’s just crap! If you call an actress by her looks or a reaction, then that’s all she’ll ever be thought of.” Regardless of the studio moniker, Ann was figuring prominently in their “A” slate, and she worked through the war years in many of the company’s–and her–most enduring efforts.
1940’s Castle on the Hudson featured her as the faithful girlfriend to imprisoned mobster John Garfield, who believes his political connections will guarantee a quick parole from Sing Sing, only to find himself stranded “up the river.” Later that year Ann was top-billed opposite Bogart in the comedy-drama It All Came True; heated things up with familiar screen partners Cagney and O’Brien in the Latin American-based drama Torrid Zone; hitched a ride with truck-driving siblings Bogart and George Raft in They Drive by Night (about which the studio proclaimed, “No Picture In 1940 Will Have Bigger Thrills”); and was told by blinded boxer Jimmy Cagney that she would always be his girl in City for Conquest.
Sheridan led the parade of “gobs, gals and glee” in 1941’s Navy Blues, and audiences saw Sheridan vamp it up as a vain stage and screen actress in the 1942 film adaptation of the hilarious Broadway comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, which boasted an ensemble cast that also included Bette Davis, Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante, and Monty Woolley as the title curmudgeon. Changing gears that same year, Ann showed how good a dramatic actress she really was as small-town girl Randy in Kings Row, which also featured what most critics consider to be Ronald Reagan’s best performance (and which gave the future commander-in-chief the title for his 1965 autobiography, “Where’s the Rest of Me?”).
Her titular role as 1942’s Juke Girl is another Sheridan-Reagan reunion in which Ann delivers great lines like, ‘Look bud, every time a freight train shakes itself, fleas like you come hopping out.” Having already shown her talent for comedy, she continued her ’42 winning streak with co-star Jack Benny in George Washington Slept Here, where she becomes flustered by a barrage of broken plumbing, kooky neighbors, and money problems after buying a rustic old farmhouse, and then followed with a return engagement opposite Flynn in the 1943 wartime drama Edge of Darkness, playing a resistance leader faced with fighting Nazis and local sympathizers in a small Norwegian fishing village under German occupation.
By the post-war period, though, Ann’s relationship with Warners was growing contentious (she had gone on a six-month “strike” in 1941 for better pay), and her output there slowed considerably. It was distinguished, however, by two top-notch 1947 performances. The Unfaithful, a loose adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s play “The Letter,”cast her as a married woman who kills an intruder in self-defense — or does she? When it’s revealed that the victim was actually the man she was having an affair with while her husband (Zachary Scott) served overseas, Sheridan must rely on her friend and attorney (Lew Ayres) to clear her of murder. Love and death crossed paths again in Nora Prentiss, where very sexy nightclub singer Ann becomes embroiled in a steamy affair with a married doctor who, in a nice little plot twist, has been accused of his own murder. In 1948, after an unbilled cameo in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, she left the brothers Warner to freelance.
Though the early returns were encouraging for the comedy Good Sam (1948) with Gary Cooper and opposite Cary Grant in the riotous post-WWII romp I Was a Male War Bride, directed by Howard Hawks, the ’50s were less kind to the maturing actress, who began interspersing TV anthology drama appearances with ever-more-infrequent big-screen opportunities. In 1950, she starred as a Woman on the Run, a top-notch crime story about an artist who goes into hiding after witnessing a mob murder, also starring Dennis O’Keefe; three years later, Ann had an Appointment in Honduras for thrills and danger, as U.S. tourists Sheridan and Zachary Scott are held hostage by mercenary Glenn Ford and his gang of freed prisoners.
The Opposite Sex, a 1956 musical remake of George Cukor’s 1939 classic The Women, is highlighted by stunning production numbers and unforgettable ’50s fashions. However, although Sheridan is exquisite, she isn’t given very much to do as June Allyson’s best friend. Her last feature project, 1957’s Woman and the Hunter, never even saw theatrical release. Thereafter, there’d be the occasional TV series guest-shot through the mid-’60s, as she began a resurgence of sorts, beginning with her stint on the CBS daytime soap Another World. By 1966, she had landed the lead in the CBS frontier-set sitcom Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats. Sadly, before the first season was fully in the can, the feisty beauty’s long and pernicious cigarette habit got the better of her, and she passed away from cancer a month shy of her 52nd birthday. Once, when discussing her off-screen talents, Sheridan said “I can whistle through my fingers, bulldog a steer, light a fire with two sticks, shoot a pistol with fair accuracy, set type, and teach school.” In front of the camera, she also had the ability to win over audiences…and more than enough “oomph” to get male moviegoers’ hearts racing.