Gail Patrick was the perfect contrast for such sweet and adorable blond stars as Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey and Irene Dunne in My Favorite Wife. She could also play the perfect bitch, roles that didn’t seem to phase her. She knew that with her tall, lithe figure, she was also the perfect model, and she need never be intimidated in any room, especially with a Baccalaureate degree tucked away in her purse pocket.
Gail Patrick was born Margaret LaVelle Fitzpatrick in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 20, 1911, She had an older and a younger brother, and thus grew up competing for attention. Her family was very social, and in the Southern manner, talk and storytelling were part of the environment. Gail received a B.A. from Howard College where she also served as dean of women for a period. She pursued a law degree at the University of Alabama, but after entering a publicized nation-wide contest by Paramount Pictures to play the “Panther Woman” in Island of the Lost Souls in 1932, she gave up her academic life and went Hollywood. She lost the role to Kathleen Burke, who she nonetheless befriended. It turned out to be a good thing for Gail, her friend Kathleen later related to her that she could never get another good role after being identified as “the Panther Woman.”
Gail was nevertheless placed on contract at Paramount Pictures for $50 a week. Not a large sum by movie star standards but a lot of money compared to what many people were earning during the Depression. She was given several uncredited roles in 1932-1933, and with her legal education she quickly negotiated her salary to $75 a week, and added a clause in her contract that she would not pose for cheesecake photos. In 1934 she played a minor role in a more important film, Death Takes a Holiday, shown above. It was directed by Mitchel Leisen and starred Frederick March and Evelyn Venable. In what would later be remade as Meet Joe Black. This was Gail’s first film to be dressed by the talented Travis Banton. From here on, with the exception of a few westerns, Gail Patrick would be a fashion plate on film.
In the photo above Gail Patrick does her best dark Marlene Dietrich imitation in a publicity shot for Mississippi, 1935. The movie has apparently never made it to video or DVD, but was a classic pairing of W,C Fields and Bing Crosby. Crosby played Gail’s beau, until he didn’t meet up to her Southern ideals, whereupon he was relegated to her sister Joan Bennett’s attentions. This was one of eight movies Gail Patrick made in 1935.
Gail’s tough sister act in Mississippi must have made an impression on director Gregory LaCava, who cast her as Cornelia Bullock, the tough and jealous socialite sister of Carole Lombard in the wonderful My Man Godfrey. As Cornelia she tries her best to get William Powell as Godfrey fired since she couldn’t win his attention. As devious as Cornelia is in the movie, and in the best use of characterization, one can be redeemed, and here we see Gail/Cornelia transformed by the nobleness of Godfrey.
Gail married Robert Howard Cobb in 1936, the first of her four husbands. He was the owner of the famed Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood. The second was the derby-hat shaped restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard accross from the Ambassador Hotel, and its famed Coconut Grove lounge. All were famous as hang-outs for the stars. Alas , all are now gone. One lasting tradition, the Cobb salad, invented at the Brown Derby and named after its owner.
Gail played a leading role in a little known film titled Her Husband Lies (originally The Love Trap), from 1937. The story is based on the character of the notorious gambler and gangster Arnold Rothstein (characterized in Boardwalk Empire). Gail plays a nightclub singer married to Spade Martin played by Ricardo Cortez as the Rothstein character. He swore to his wife he was going straight but due to a variety of circumstances involving his younger brother, he gets sucked back into the underworld of gambling. Gail goes back to singing torch songs at the nightclub, and film noir starts early in this movie from the late 1930s.
Gail was dressed by Edith Head in this film as Travis Banton was having his problems with alcohol. Edith would soon be made head designer at Paramount. She followed his advice though, “When in doubt, trim in fur.”
Gail’s next big role was as a society beauty in Artists and Models, in 1937, co-starring Jack Benny, Ida Lupino, and Richard Arlen. The movie was a Paramount take-off from the Shubert’s Broadway Revues of the same title, the musical and chorus-girl themed shows popular in the 1920s. The central plot involved the production of the Artists and Models Ball. Jack Benny as the Ball Chairman had offered the “Queen of the Ball” role to his girlfriend Ida Lupino, a working class girl. But then he meets society girl Gail Patrick playing the part of Cynthia Wentworth, selling tickets for a charity benefit, and he offers her the “Queen of the Ball” role. The plot hinges somewhat on who will win out, but the real action is in the models and the musical numbers, including numbers by Louis Armstrong and Andre Kostelanetz. A real controversy ensued from the film’s showing in the South due to the musical number with Martha Raye, this due to her apparent interacting with the black musicians and dancing and gyrating in a style of the “negroes.”*
With all the emphasis on fashion and the musical stage costumes, Travis Banton got serious and produced some beautiful costumes for the film
Her next film was another classic and one of my favorite movies, Stage Door (below), directed by Gregory LaCava, whom she had worked with in My Man Godfrey, but this time at RKO. Before The Women, this was the women’s film par excellance. Its cast is a good indication of that: Katharine Hepburn; Ginger Rogers; Eve Arden; Lucille Ball; Ann Miller; Constance Collier; Andrea Leeds and of course Gail Patrick. Moreover, they are all roomates at the Footlighters Club, a boardinghouse for aspiring actresses in New York, supporting (or competing with) each other for roles on the stage. Constance Collier serves as a reminder of how it can all go bad, a sort of Norma Desmond without the mansion. This is also the model movie for delicious wisecracking and the women’s dialogue talking all over each other. The instant antagonism between roomates and polar opposites played by Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers reflected their own rivalry at RKO, and the boarding house rivalry between the Ginger Rogers and Gail Patrick characters is feisty to say the least, spiced up with the wisecracks of Eve Arden and Lucille Ball, some of it apparently improvised. Only the Andrea Leeds character is innocent, a victim of the system. Competing for roles and sometimes competing for the same men, Stage Door shows the highs and lows of the stage life.
The women’s wardrobe for Stage Door was designed by Muriel King, a freelance costume designer and fashion designer.
Several B movies and smaller roles followed: Mad About Music; Dangerous to Know; Wives Under Suspicion; King of Alcatraz; Disbarred; Man of Conquest; Grand Jury Secrets; Reno; and The Doctor Takes a Wife, where she plays the “other woman” to Loretta Young.
And then came My Favorite Wife, 1940, where the “other woman” role got really close to importance, as the groom was Cary Grant. As character Nick Arden he was finally free to marry Gail playing Bianca Bates after his wife was declared dead after seven years of being missing at sea. The couple drive off to a honeymoon at a Yosemite lodge, unfortunately the same spot of his first honeymoon, where the now just-returned first wife played by Irene Dunne goes looking for him. Plenty of surprise, embarrassment, and consternation is had by all. And then Cary has to make a decision between her and Irene Dunne. Maybe Randolph Scott that Dunne dragged home with her from the shipwreck island where they lived together will complicate things sufficiently, it certainly did with the movie’s censor. Now if only his wife will take him back, but which one?
This was another RKO film, directed first by the talented Leo McCarey, but following a serious car accident Garson Kanin finished directing the film. Costume designer Howard Greer, formerly at Paramount, who now had his own fashion business based in Los Angeles, designed the women’s wardrobe.
By 1941 Gail had perfected the “other woman” role, as she was once again cast the part, this time as William Powell’s old flame in Love Crazy. In this film he’s married to Myrna Loy, and they are about to enjoy their 4th wedding anniversary when the mother-in-law visits, slips on a carpet, sprains an ankle and prolongs her visit. It’s his job now to go mail an important letter since his wfe was out, whereupon, low-and-behold, he runs into his old flame Gail in the elevator, finding out that she has just moved into the building with her husband. Sure enough, the elevator breaks down and he ends up with a concussion, but with some special nursing by Gail as seen above, a spark is relit (enough for the plot amyway). There are complications galore, although everyone ends up with their respective spouses, Gail Patrick is all fun in this movie, and as usual beautifully dressed.
No costume credit is given in the film, a time of transition between several designers coming and going at MGM. But my eye says it was designed by Adrian.
Gail starred in the Tales of Manhattan in 1942 and Hit Parade of 1943, as seen above. She appeared in several more films through the mid 1940s, but none with any major roles. She retired from acting in 1948, her last film being The Inside Story, produced at Republic Pictures, one of the “Poverty Row” studios.
In 1947 she married Thomas Cornwell Jackson, her third husband. He was the literary agent for Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote the Parry Mason mysteries. Gail and her husband produced the TV show based on the book series, which ran from 1957 – 1966. For a few years previously she also designed a line of children’s garments.
Gail Patrick died in 1980 of leukemia at age 69. She bequeathed $1 million to her sorority Delta Zeta, the largest gift it has ever received.
*American Film Institute, Catalog of Feature Films. Artists and Models. http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=5196Follow @CEsquevin