Plenty of "Oomph": The Underrated Ann Sheridan

June 5, 2020     Updated November 21, 2021

Ann Sheridan

Ann Sheridan Has Plenty of "Oomph," Does Her Own Singing, Is Voted Best Dressed, Fights Warner Bros. for Better Roles, and Moves to Mexico.

Listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood , available everywhere you listen to podcasts! Episodes 12, 13, and 14 are all about Ann Sheridan

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Ann Sheridan may not be a household name today, but throughout her career, particularly during her heyday in the 1940s, Ann was one of the most beautiful and glamorous stars of the silver screen. Known for her spunk, humor, and down to earth kindness, Ann Sheridan was just as beloved off screen as she was in her films.

Ann was one of the first Classic Hollywood Stars whose name and face I became familiar with: I distinctly remember the first time I saw her sultry eyes and glamorous look in the George Hurrell photos that led to Ann being coined “The Oomph Girl.”

Ann Sheridan

Discovering Ann Sheridan

Though I was immediately drawn to her unique look, Ann Sheridan remained an illusive star I only saw in my Classic Hollywood portrait books: none of her films were available to me, and it was virtually impossible to find any information about Ann or her life.

Now, with streaming services, many Ann Sheridan films are readily available.  But it’s still incredibly difficult to find any information on this talented and beautiful star.

After countless hours of digging and research, I’ve managed to piece together Ann’s life.  It’s been captivating to discover just who this too often over-looked star really was.  And the spunky, fashionable, funny, loyal, smart, and earthy woman behind that “Oomph Girl” exterior doesn’t disappoint.

Here are a few things about Ann Sheridan you didn’t know:

Ann Sheridan
Young Clara Lou Sheridan.

She's From Texas

Clara Lou Sheridan was born in Denton, Texas on February 21, 1915. The youngest of five syblings, Ann was a spunky gal right from the start, full of life and unquestionably a tomboy. She was kind and well-liked, but the other kids knew not to mess with her.  A childhood friend of Ann’s later recounted that:

“If she [Clara Lou] punched you, she’d break your damn arm.”

As a young woman, Clara Lou studied to be a teacher at North Texas State Teachers College, though she later claimed that a teaching career was never her great ambition. Dramatics classes at North Texas State were Clara Lou’s first taste of acting.  She loved this new hobby, but did not consider acting a career option.

Ann Sheridan

A Beauty Contest Brought Her to Hollywood

While Clara Lou was a student at North Texas State, her sister Kitty entered her in Paramount Pictures’ “Search for Beauty” contest, one of many beauty contests that were fairly common publicity gimmicks employed by Hollywood studios at the time.  Clara Lou had no idea that Kitty submitted her photo, so when she was chosen as one of 30 finalists to come to Hollywood for a screen test, it was completely unexpected.  As Ann later shared,

“It was mythical to me. I almost fainted,”

Clara Lou went to Hollywood in 1933, did the screen test, received a very brief appearance in her first film, and was one of six from the group of 30 finalists that Paramount signed to a contract.

It was officially the start of Clara Lou’s career in Hollywood.  But it would be a slow climb to the top.

Ann Sheridan

It Was A Slow Climb for Ann Sheridan

Though Clara Lou was grateful for the financial stability her contract at Paramount provided, she didn’t become a star overnight: from the day she signed her contract, it took five years for Clara Lou to get her first role in an ‘A’ picture, opposite James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).

In the meantime, ‘Clara Lou Sheridan’ became ‘Ann Sheridan’ after the brass at Paramount informed her that ‘Clara Lou’ just wouldn’t do:

“They called me into the front office and told me that Clara Lou Sheridan was too long for the marquee…I chose Lou at first, and they said, no, that wouldn’t do, it sounds too much like a boy’s name…”

Ann Sheridan
Looking glamorous with James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Ann's first 'A' picture.

So Clara Lou took inspiration from the name of the character she was currently playing in The Milky Way, a stock company production on the Paramount lot, and officially became “Ann Sheridan.”

During these early years of her career, Ann also did some “doubling” on the side.  So look closely at Paramount films from the early and mid 1930s–if you watch a scene of an actress’ hands or legs, supposedly belonging to the star of the film, it may actually be Ann Sheridan you’re looking at.  As Ann later said,

“I did everything, dubbed hands, legs, everything except make movies.  I used to go to Grauman’s Chinese or Pantages and sit there waiting to see my faceless body on the screen.”

Ann credited the film work she did get at this time to her horseback riding abilities.  She’d learned as a girl growing up in Denton, and the skill made Ann a shoe-in for any film requiring a female equestrian.

Ann Sheridan

She Was Told to Quit

Ann Sheridan was literally told to quit her Hollywood career and go home by Paramount’s drama coach, Nina Mouise. But Ann Sheridan had spunk, and Mouise’s negativity only strengthened her desire to make it in Hollywood.

As Ann recounted in 1965,

“She advised me to go back to Texas and forget the whole thing, and of course that was just the wrong thing to say.  If she’d told me to try harder I might have gone back, but the minute she said go back, that gave me the incentive to prove to her that I was serious about my career.”

Ann would need this increased motivation in the coming years, for in 1935, Paramount didn’t renew her contract.  Ann opted to freelance for a year and a half. The only film Ann made between her break with Paramount and eventual signing with Warner Bros. was Fighting for Youth (1935):

“And from early in 1935 until August of 1936 I had to live off of that $375 [that I made on the film].”

Through that “drought ridden period,” as Ann later referred to it, she wisely refused to do extra work.  Ann believed that accepting extra work would make it near impossible for her to ever be taken seriously for lead roles.  It was a smart move, and Ann signed with Warner Bros in 1936.

George Hurrell's photos of Ann inspired the Warner Bros. publicity campaign that coined her "The Oomph Girl."

Ann Sheridan: “The Oomph Girl”

Ann later joked that she appeared in just about every ‘B’ picture on the Warner lot, mostly in roles that required nothing more of her than to look pretty, and move the story line along. Ann humorously summarized how elementary and similar all of her lines in her early Warner Bros. films were:

“‘Oh , that man is evil, they went that way.’ This is what I always played.  Just reactions…these were just feminine leads and I was stuck into them.”

But Warner Bros. finally realized they had something special in Ann Sheridan after George Hurrell took some now classic portraits.  The portraits showcased Ann’s great beauty and natural glamour, and changed the course of her career.

After the Hurrell photo session, Warner Bros. decided to start promoting Ann.  Warners now saw in her an actress with shades of Jean Harlow’s earthy sensuality.  And so a publicity campaign was drawn up to highlight this earthy sensuality.

In March of 1939, the studio put together a panel of judges, consisting of “beauty experts,” most of them Warner Bros. employees. (David Niven was among the “beauty experts” chosen.)

The panel was then asked to vote on the most glamorous woman from a group of about a dozen actresses, which included Ann, Carole Lombard, and Hedy Lamarr.  The winner, whoever had the most “oomph,” would earn the (coveted???) title of “The Oomph Girl.”

Of course the whole thing was rigged for Ann to win.  So Ann Sheridan officially became “The Oomph Girl.”

Ann and "Oomph"

Jack Warner believed the publicity campaign would be short-lived, and that Ann’s popularity would “be dead in six months.”  But he was wrong: the title stuck, and Ann’s popularity continued to grow.

Ann and “oomph” became so popular that Warner Bros. publicist Bob Taplinger copyrighted the word.  Ann’s “oomph” was insured for $100,000 by the Nevin-Seymour Company, and “oomph” products started popping up, including cigarettes and even cars.

Ann's "oomph" was insured for $100,000!

Even at the height of her “oomph,” Ann remained grounded, joking to the makeup department before filming whatever her current assignment was to:

“Come over and put some oomph on me!”

In fact, to her last days, Ann Sheridan swore she didn’t know what all the fuss was about:

“Oomph is the sound a fat man makes when he bends over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth.”

Though the “Oomph Girl” title did put the glamour girl label on Ann and made it difficult for her to find more serious film roles, all the publicity and increased popularity from the campaign also put Ann in a position to bargain for better films: once she became “The Oomph Girl,” Ann’s fan mail skyrocketed.  She received the third highest of any star at the studio.

Ann Sheridan

Ann Sheridan Could Sing!

Though Ann is best known for playing sultry, wise-cracking sirens, she could also sing.

As a student at North Texas State, Ann sang with the school’s band. Warner Bros. made use of Ann’s unusual singing voice in such films as San Quentin (1937) and It All Came True (1940). 

Modest as she was, Ann always insisted that:

“Nobody can teach me to sing, I haven’t got that kind of a voice.  It’s kind of an odd voice…it’s just somebody teaching you how to sell a song, it’s really not singing…to make me a singer would be absolutely impossible.”

Ann’s opinion aside, her singing voice is unique, soulful, and as you’d probably expect, sultry. It’s one of a kind and all her own. While many actresses required dubbing whenever singing was required, Ann Sheridan did her own singing in all her films, with the exception of Shine on Harvest Moon (1940) and one number in Naughty But Nice (1939).

Ann Sheridan

She Fought For Better Roles

Fellow Warner Bros. star Paul Muni encouraged Ann to make the “Oomph Girl” title work for her.  And that’s exactly what Ann Sheridan did.  

Ann used her new bargaining power to ask Warner Bros. for better film roles and a raise.  When the studio refused both requests, Ann went on an eight month suspension. Though she didn’t get the raise she asked for, at the end of her suspension, Ann was given the film role she asked for–which good friend Humphrey Bogart tipped her off to–that of Randy in King’s Row (1941).  It was the film that really demonstrated just how under-utilized Ann’s acting talents were.

When Warner Bros. once again deluged Ann with a slew of terrible film roles, she again went on suspension in December 1944, this time for 18 months.  Ann knew she deserved better, and was willing to go on suspension to gain the respect, roles, and salary she deserved.

Ann Sheridan
Ann with Mary Landa and Ruth Denas in Yangkai, China on her U.S.O tour. Here the girls stand in front of the "Sheridan Express," a 22nd Bomb Squadron aircraft named in Ann's honor.

She Entertained the Troops Overseas

In the summer of 1944, Ann Sheridan entertained the troops in China, Burma, and India for eight weeks with the U.S.O.  She took the advice of Bob Hope before leaving, and made sure that the majority of her time overseas was spent with the GIs, not just the officers:

Ann Sheridan
Ann on board the "Sheridan Express." Note the fashionable snood she's put her hair back in. Even when roughing it on the the road, traveling across the world, Ann Sheridan was one stylish lady.

“Bob Hope told me before we left not to let the officers occupy all of our time, that the GIs were the ones we were going to entertain.  You can’t imagine the arguments we got into with the officers…All those dull, stupid pink teas with the officers’ wives–the minute they demanded that we go, we wouldn’t.  We all stuck together on that.  We went to entertain the GIs.”

Ann Sheridan
Entertaining the troops with comedian Ben Blue.

I love that Ann felt so strongly about her duty to entertain and boost the morale of the troops, not just enjoy teatime with the officers and their wives.

She Smoked Three Packs A Day

When recounting her early years in Hollywood, Ann Sheridan described herself as

“…pudgy fat with kinky hair and a space between my teeth.”

It’s hard to image Ann as anything but the svelte woman she was during her years of stardom.  So it’s interesting to pair Ann’s words with those of James Cagney, who observed on the set of Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) that Ann:

“Was a lovely, talented gal…so much to offer–and a three-pack-a-day smoker.  She just didn’t eat because cigarettes killed her appetite..Years later when the lung cancer hit, she didn’t have much of a chance, and what a powerful shame that was.  A mighty nice gal, Annie.”

Ann Sheridan
James Cagney recalled that Ann was "a three-pack-a-day smoker."

Ann Sheridan died tragically young at age 51 from cancer.

As Cagney infers, years of heavy smoking and respiratory problems sadly took their toll.  But Ann was such a trooper that she continued filming her television show, Pistols n’ Petticoats, right up until the end.  She kept her illness a secret from the cast a crew out of fear that if her poor health were discovered, the show would be canceled, and countless jobs would be lost.  Ann miraculously succeeded in filming 25 of the 26 episodes in the season before passing in January 1967.

Ann Sheridan
A publicity shot for Pistols n' Petticoats. The television show's costume designers hid Ann's frail figure and rapid weight loss in layered costumes such as this. She kept her cancer a secret from the cast and crew.

Ann Sheridan the Fashion Plate

If you’ve seen a single photo of Ann Sheridan it’s obvious she had impeccable fashion sense.  Ann knew how to wear clothes, and appreciated a good designer.

In fact, it was Ann’s keen eye for fashion that gave William “Billy” Travilla his start in films. The legendary designer later became most celebrated for the flawless gowns he created for Marilyn Monroe, but Travilla’s success in Hollywood can all be traced back to Ann Sheridan.  Read my articles on Nora Prentiss (1947) and Billy Travilla for more information about Ann’s life-changing influence in Travilla’s accomplished career.

Ann Sheridan
Ann looking every inch the fashion plate in this stunning black gown.

And if photos and the Travilla connection aren’t enough to prove Ann’s sense of style, she was named the “Best Dressed Woman in Motion Pictures” by New York’s Fashion Academy in 1945, and served on Modern Screen magazine’s Fashion Board in the 1950s.

Ann with talented designer Billy Travilla, whose career in film can be traced back to Ann.

She Loved Poodles. And Mexico

Two of Ann’s great passions were poodles and Mexico. She actually bred poodles during the 1950s with her veterinarian.  But parting with the puppies was so hard for Ann, she stopped poodle breeding in 1959.

Ann’s love of Mexico began during her Texas childhood, when she learned to speak Spanish. Throughout her years in Hollywood, Ann frequently said she’d love to mostly leave her career behind, and move to Mexico City.  True to her word, Ann did move to Mexico City, and lived there from 1953-1956 after the passing of her longtime boyfriend, publicist Steve Hannagan.

Ann Sheridan
I couldn't find a pic of Ann with her poodles, but how cute and stylish does she look here with this cat?!

Ann Sheridan Had No Ego

It’s clear from the way Ann responded to all the publicity and compliments she got for her sultry beauty that the woman had zero ego.  When asked in a 1965 interview about her success in the “Search for Beauty” contest that led to her Hollywood career, Ann insisted that:

 “I didn’t, and still don’t, think I was good looking enough.”

Ann Sheridan’s lack of ego is further underscored by her thoughts on winning “The Oomph Girl” title:

“Simply another publicity stunt. Nothing special. My Lord, they took the back of Hedy Lamarr’s head and the backs of whoever else’s heads they entered in the contest…Of course it was all a set-up to pick me. They could never have had a good picture of Hedy Lamarr and said that I was more glamorous than she was.”

It’s incredibly admirable that, from the start to the end of her film career, Ann Sheridan remained unaffected by her great beauty and unquestionable glamour.

Ann Sheridan
A publicity shot of Ann in her later years.

She Was In a Soap

Towards the end of her career, Ann shared that:

“I love those corny things.  I’m crazy about soap operas…I adore them.”

In the fall of 1965, Ann Sheridan became one of the very first Hollywood stars to appear in a soap opera, starring in Another World, and beginning a trend that other film stars soon followed.

Ann Sheridan

Ann Sheridan: A Murder Mystery Heroine

In 1943, Whitman Publishing Company published a series of mystery books, using favorite female stars as the protagonists. Ann Sheridan was one of those stars.  I’ll let Ann tell you the title of her murder mystery:

“Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx, I’ll have you know. I’ve got a copy that they sent me, but I haven’t had nerve enough to read it…Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx…maybe we could make that into a soap opera.”

Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx (1943). Click to view or purchase on Amazon [aff. link]

Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx is a fun read, similar in style to the Nancy Drew mystery series, but sassier.  As the wise-cracking heroine, Ann gets such brassy lines as:

“You try jumping off a burning sphinx into a mystic pool.”

The series of leading lady murder mysteries was meant to help boost morale and participation on the homefront during the war years.  So it’s a great compliment to Ann–and evidence of her popularity and “influencer” status–that she was one of the stars selected to have a book in the series written around her.

You can purchase Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx here on Amazon [aff. link].

Ann Sheridan

Celebrate Ann Sheridan!

And that’s my introduction to our June Star of the Month, Ann Sheridan.

Join me next week as I review Nora Prentiss (1947), one of the most fascinating–and definitely most fashionable–films of Ann’s career.

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