Lots of classic Hollywood stars are cast as the tough but tender wise-cracking dame, but perhaps none embody the archetype as well as Ann Sheridan – the infamous “Oomph Girl”. Movie buffs remember the WWII pin-up as much for her comebacks as her comely sex appeal, and her BS-detecting withering looks were as effective as her redheaded good looks.
Ann was born Clara Lou Sheridan, a descendant of Union general Philip Henry Sheridan, likely not an asset in Texas where she was born. Like many a Texan girl before her and after, Sheridan grew up a tomboy, riding horses, playing touch football, working on cars, and standing up to bully boys twice her size. Clara Lou, “Lulu” to family and friends, like many a budding dame, longed for the freedom and fun her male friends enjoyed. “I can whistle through my fingers, bulldog a steer, light a fire with two sticks, and shoot a pistol with fair accuracy,” she boasted.
But apparently roping bulls wasn’t enough for Clara Lou, and she dreamed of going to New York to become a band singer or Broadway chorus dancer. Her religious parents did not approve. “Secretly I wanted to be a band singer,” she confessed, “But that meant I thought I was pretty, and vanity was ‘bad’.” However, while still a teenager, Sheridan’s older sister Kitty enrolled her in a national contest — “Search for Beauty” — a publicity stunt designed to promote an upcoming film of the same name. Clara Lou was one of 30 finalists invited to Hollywood for the privilege of a screen test. Despite pudgy cheeks, coarse frizzy hair, and a gap-tooth smile, she won the contest and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot as a pageant contestant in the movie. Paramount Pictures offered her a $50 a week six-month contract, pretty good dough at the height of the Depression. They ended up not doing much with her, except for changing her first name to the pithier, more marquee-friendly, Ann. She was mostly used as a body double; Ann once quipped she lined up to buy a ticket at the theater just to see the back of her own head.
Luckily she made her way to Warner Brothers, a studio whose gritty urban dramas were best suited to showcase a dame’s droll delivery and straightforward sexiness. She gave as good as she got from tough guys like James Cagney, John Garfield George Raft, and a pre-stardom Humphrey Bogart in 1937’s anti-KKK programmer, Black Legion.
How Ann Sheridan Became the Infamous Oomph Girl
In 1939, a comment by well-known columnist Walter Winchell inspired one of Hollywood’s most successful publicity gimmicks. Praising her role in Cagney’s gangster drama Angels With Dirty Faces (the title refers to the Dead End Kids in the movie), Winchell said she deserved parts with more “umph.” Warner Brothers assembled a team of judges – including Busby Berkeley and Hollywood’s pre-eminent glamour photographer George Hurrell — to select the star who best deserved the “Oomph Girl” title. Ann, ahem, “won” the undoubtedly rigged competition, beating out (or so we were led to believe) such hotties as Alice Faye, Carole Lombard, Hedy Lamarr and Marlene Dietrich. “Oomph” was the 30s euphemism for indefinable sex appeal, just as “It” had been in the 20s when author Elinor Glyn decreed that Clara Bow was the definitive “It Girl.” While it can be argued that the nickname really put her over, Sheridan always hated it, saying “Oomph” is the sound a fat man makes when he leans over to tie his shoelace.
Ann was uncomfortable achieving stardom through via the cheesy stunt, until famous (over)actor Paul Muni told her to exploit the exposure to give her leverage with the studio and secure herself better roles. Meanwhile, her pal George Hurrell’s glamour portraits really helped capture Sheridan’s sloe-eyed sensuality, making her one of the biggest pin-up girls in the War years. (Like Bonita Granville and Deanna Durbin, Sheridan even became a heroine sleuth in a series of Nancy Drewesque mysteries for teens.)
But just as other Warner players like Cagney and Davis knew only too well, good parts weren’t easy to come by. “I had to fight for everything at Warners. A knock-down, drag-out fight. You didn’t always win, but it let them know you were alive,” said Sheridan. “ I would never have gotten the role in Kings Row if I hadn’t fought for it, and that was one of the best parts I ever had at the studio.” In fact, Sheridan enjoyed top billing as the tomboy heroine of Sam Wood’s “King’s Row” (1942), the film where a small-town surgeon sadistically amputates Ronald Reagan’s legs. (Upon discovering this, Ronald famously cries “Where’s the rest of me?!”)
Oomph or No Oomph, Ann Made Some Bad Choices
However, Ann made some rather poor career choices, most notably turning down the lead in Mildred Pierce (I know, right?!), the noir film for which Joan Crawford won her Best Actress Oscar. Speaking of iffy decisions, in 1942, Sheridan married co-star George Brent, the stalwart dependable leading man Bette Davis and others had had their eye on. But the union that lasted only a year. Seems Errol Flynn was at it, again.
Ann had been in several of Flynn’s pictures and she considered him a good friend. So good that it appears they resumed their romancing on the set of the 1942 war drama, Edge of Darkness. Though Sheridan only ever had good things to say about him, Errol was less gallant. He once called Ann “a star’s perk who made good” and claimed to have furthered her career. The filming of Edge of Darkness occurred during Errol’s infamous rape trial (where do you think we get the phrase, “In like Flynn?”) and Flynn unchivalrously blamed his old flame for his increasing reliance on vodka me to get him to the set.
Not gentlemanly, but possibly not far from true. Scriptwriter Stephen Longstreet recounts “By 1947, Flynn had deteriorated. That year, I wrote the screenplay of Silver River to star him and Ann Sheridan. She too, as the director told me, was ‘lapping up the sauce’. It soon became clear that they were, even if we didn’t see how. [Later on set] I went over and tasted the ice water. It was pure 90-proof vodka.” (It has been said that stars like Judy Garland, Sheridan and Flynn used to inject vodka into whole oranges to hide their habit.)
Between the alcohol and, perhaps even worse by Hollywood standards – the fact that Ann’s Oomph was now in its 30s (oh the horror!) – it’s not surprising that Silver River was one of the last films she made for Warner Brothers. (The other is an uncredited bit as a Mexican prostitute in the 1948 classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Now a free agent, the only film of real note was Howard Hawks’ comedy I Was a Male War Bride, where she memorably co-starred with an in-drag Cary Grant. During filming Ann remarked, “There have been three phases of my career — and the present one, playing comedy and to hell with the Oomph, is by far the most satisfying.”
Eventually, like many stars of the 30s and 40s, Ann moved to where the parts were –on TV. She appeared on the soap “Another World” and in 1967 Ann got her own show, Pistols & Petticoats, a Western that could once again showcase her straight-shooting, salty but sweet persona. But both the show and Ann were short-lived. Only 51, Ann succumbed to cancer of the esophagus and liver. Ever the unsinkable tough and tender dame, Ann’s last words were, “I’m going to be alright.”
“They always thought of me as ‘The Oomph Girl’. I could never convince them that I could act,” Ann said of her days at Warner Brothers. Perhaps Sheridan never realized the rich legacy she’s left us as the quintessential quipping tough cookie with the sleepy sloe-eyes and great big heart. Like her Warner contemporaries Ida Lupino and Joan Blondell, she is cherished today for her quick-wit and down to earth straightforwardness.
And Ann, sorry, but you did have a hell of a lot of Oomph.