Howard’s Blend

Do you recognize this woman?  She was a fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar, a famous singer at the Metropolitan Opera, and she had her jaw broken by Barbara Stanwyck.

And yet you probably don’t know her for any of those things.

The woman in this photo is Kathleen Howard (1884-1956), who is best remembered today as probably the most memorable in a string of “shrewish wives” depicted in WC Fields films.  Like Fields regular Elise Cavanna, who I wrote about last year, Howard moved seamlessly between major careers.  She was renowned in each one, but each was different enough that many people don’t realize that she was the same Kathleen Howard.

Howard’s performances in three of Fields’ films, You’re Telling Me (1934), It’s a Gift (1934), and The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) are nothing short of brilliant.  It’s easy to descend into just a bitchy, clichéd performance as a Fields wife, but Howard transcends that.  She’s given the characters a back story, and you can feel the frustrations in her life that have made her into the person she is.  That said, she is also supremely awful to Fields, in ways that have him cringing in fear.  Howard is human but still horrible.

Back in the pre-internet days, we’d look at Howard’s filmography and see that she seemed to burst on the scene in 1934 with a supporting performance in Death Takes a Holiday.  But where was she before that?  Most stage actors dabbled in silent film and had a few credits before gaining fame in talkies.

But Kathleen Howard never made a silent film.  She was busy singing.  As a child, she wanted to be a singer, but everyone told her that could never happen.  That didn’t stop her.  She worked her way to the top as a contralto at the Metropolitan Opera.

She even wrote a highly entertaining book about it.  It’s called Confessions of an Opera Singer, and you can read it here.  Interestingly, her story parallels Edie Adams’ story (which Adams also chronicled in a book).  Both were told that they couldn’t make it as singers, that almost no one really did, that women couldn’t handle their own careers, etc.  And both were determined to make it anyway, which they did.

Howard was popular enough outside the opera house to be a recording star, and it’s actually fairly easy to hear her singing in the late teens and early twenties.  Here are some.

But the best parts are for young singers, and Howard got a little old for it by the mid-1920s, so she switched gears.  She became the fashion editor for the magazine Harper’s Bazaar.  This was no third-rate magazine; it was one of the best in the business, and Howard wrote many articles while managing the other contributors.  (This also parallels Edie Adams somewhat, since Edie became her own fashion designer in the 1960s.)  You can see the cover of one of her Harper’s issues here.

Then, abruptly, in 1934, she offered her talents to Hollywood.  This may sound like a leap of faith, but as an opera performer, one is also doing a great deal of acting, so she was not without considerable experience.

Again, I don’t like to link to YouTube clips that violate copyright, and I didn’t post this one, but in this case, I really think you need to see Howard in action.  This is the porch scene from It’s a Gift (1934), which is one of the funniest scenes in one of the funniest films ever made.  If you don’t agree with me, then you’re wrong.  I’m not even going to argue with you about it.

People like Howard fascinate me because they’ve had successful careers in varied fields.  I tend to be unsuccessful at everything I attempt, and yet Kathleen Howard was at the top three different times.  I love her blend of careers and the way she just seemed to move effortlessly among them.  Sometimes performers are inactive for years at a stretch while they regroup and try something different.  Not Howard.  She was in there and working.

Howard was just another of the brilliant people who surrounded WC Fields.  Contrary to his public image, I am more and more seeing Fields a loyal friend who helped out other actors.  Howard and Elise Cavanna were both great performers who did multiple roles.

Another guy I keep spotting in Fields pictures, sometimes just in the briefest walk-on part, is Lew Kelly.  I’d love to have a whole write-up on him, but I just don’t have enough information, so I’ll hijack this posting a little for him.

Kelly (1879-1944) was a vaudeville headliner who traveled the world as Professor Dope, a character that apparently made fun of drug addicts (this was very popular in the teens.)  By the 1920s, his career had more or less dried up, but he became a popular utility player for many comedians in the 1930s.

Kelly appeared with Wheeler and Woolsey, multiple shorts with the Three Stooges, but he’s in seven films with WC Fields from 1932-35, often in uncredited bit parts.  Kelly was one of those guys who could just be pointed into the scene and would give a good performance every time.

What does all this add up to?  Not much, I suppose.  It gives a little context to history.  I see some of these films and wonder who some of those people were in their “real” life.  I keep finding that the answers are really fascinating to me, and I hope they are to some of you, too.


I had some fascinating off-line chatter on this topic.  Dr. Philip Carli sent a nice followup in a response that I’ll include in the text here.  Also, David Heighway discovered a nice picture of Howard in Götterdämmerung that I just had to post.  Here are both of these followups.


It should be mentioned that Howard was the leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera in the teens alongside the legendary Ernestine Schumann-Heink; both women were among the very few of their period to achieve popular celebrity in that voice, and indeed both singers had extremely wide ranges, reaching well up into the mezzo-soprano range as well as into the low alto register. Judging from her few Pathé and Edison recordings, she was one of the great ones, but her career was awkwardly placed on each side of WWI so her career was largely split between Germany and the US. Although contralto parts are often secondary and frequently “women of a certain age” parts, Howard’s vocal and acting range was wide enough that she sang the title roles in Saint-Saens’ Samson et Delilah and Bizet’s Carmen with great success in Europe, and she looked pretty sexy in both parts, judging from contemporary photographs. She also created at least one notable operatic role, that of the greedy and pompous aunt, Zita (originally named “La Vecchia”, or “the old lady”), in Puccini’s only outright comedy, the one-act Gianni Schicci, which had its world premiere at the Met on 14 December 1918 with the celebrated baritone Giuseppe de Luca in the title part and American soprano Florence Easton as Lauretta (who sings “O mio babbino caro”, one of Puccini’s most famous arias); music critic James Huneker praised Howard’s comic performance as “the horrid hag” in his New York Times review the next day, unwittingly predicting the way her acting career would go with Fields.

Heighway’s photo:



Our Man and Cavanna

I am frequently fascinated to discover the diversity of supporting players employed by WC Fields (“our man” in this title.)  Fields liked to portray himself as a misanthrope of the highest order, but I think this is a great facade he put on to disguise the fact that he was a softhearted sentimentalist.

There’s been a lot written on Fields, much of it by people more qualified than I am, including Fields’ grandson, Ron.  Simon Louvish has a theory that Fields became the characters he played.  I can’t say; I wasn’t there.  I can only look at some of the incidentals and comment on what they show me.

I’m not the first one to notice that Fields used some supporting performers over and over again, and he was immensely loyal to them.  Irving Bacon appears with him nine times!  Lew Kelly seven times. Bill Wolfe seven times. Elise Cavanna five times.  Jan Duggan five times.   Alison Skipworth four times.  Grady Sutton four times.  Dell Henderson four times.  Kathleen Howard three times.  Oscar Apfel three times. Clarence Wilson three times. Franklin Pangborn three times.

Some of this could easily be explained by the fact that Fields worked with contract players at studios.  They might assign who would work with Fields on a particular picture.  That doesn’t explain all of it, though.  Irving Bacon worked with Fields in nine pictures by four studios.  Elise Cavanna’s meager five appearances with Fields are in both the silent and sound era and follow Fields from the Astoria studios in NY (where his silents were shot) to the Paramount Studios in Hollywood (where his talkies were shot).

The only conclusion that I can reach is that WC considered these people great friends and he must have lobbied to get them work.  Most of them did other picture work, but many will list a Fields picture as their first work.  Ron Fields documents WC trying to get Grady Sutton for The Bank Dick when Universal complained that there were other actors who would be just as good in the part.

Some of these are brilliant, eclectic people, just as WC was himself.  He seemed to attract genius-level people to him, and they stayed in his orbit for years.

One of these geniuses was Elise Cavanna.  She was often seen hanging out in Fields pictures, but she’s probably best remembered as the “lady rassler” patient in The Dentist (1932).  As Fields attempts to pull her tooth, she recoils in pain and wraps her legs around Fields, getting her feet stuck in his pockets as he pulls her around the room.  (This scene was censored when Raymond Rohauer reissued the film in 1949, but restored in subsequent prints.)

Tall and lithe, Cavanna could never be described as beautiful, but she was certainly striking, with a memorable presence. She was one of those people who did a lot of different things in her life.  Like Fields, she was born in Philadelphia, but it’s likely they met when she was doing the Ziegfeld Follies with him. Many sources claim she studied dance with Isadora Duncan in the early 1920s.  I’ve not been able to verify that she did, although apparently she did dance in the Follies for a while.  The popular story is that Cavanna studied with Duncan in Germany, but it could also have been at Isadora’s school in Paris. We know that Cavanna spoke French, given the fact that she translated captions for a book of drawings by artist Jean Charlot.

Cavanna was a strict vegetarian, and wrote a book about low-fat cooking.  Fields laughed at her about this, saying that that healthy living was useless since you were only going to die anyway.  For those few who might not know, Fields‘ lifestyle was distinctly unhealthy.  Ironically, he lived to be 66, while Cavanna only made it to the age of 61.

Most importantly, however, Elise Cavanna was a major artist, mostly in abstracts, and she still has a large following. She illustrated other books, including a hand-signed edition of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a volume called Have We an American Art?, and a number of others.

Her work is difficult to track down, and her complex personal life makes the task even more difficult.  Married three times, she generally painted using her maiden name, Seeds, although sometimes she just used her first name.  But she also worked under her married names: Elise Cavanna (first marriage), Elise Armitage (second marriage), and Elise Welton (third marriage).

One of her most-seen paintings is not abstract at all: it is a mural at the post office in Oceanside, California.  There is an entire website dedicated California New Deal projects. I’m going to reproduce the picture here because I fear that the original website may go away.  The site is cool, so please visit it and have a look for yourself.

The photo comes from this page:

Like many of Fields’ frequent co-stars, Cavanna stopped working with Fields after his illness in 1936-7.  Most of them had regular work in other film series or had other interests.  Cavanna’s film work trickled down to almost nothing, and she focused more on her art.  She closed out her acting career in the same way she’d started it: with Ziegfeld.  She appeared in an uncredited bit (like most of her other roles) in The Ziegfeld Follies (1945).  Cavanna was one of the few original Ziegfeld people to appear in the film.  By the time it was made, the greats like Will Rogers and Bert Williams were gone.  Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn were busy on the radio.  And Fields was just plain too ill to do it.

I’m sure that there is more info out there on Cavanna waiting to be unearthed.  She deserves her own web page and a good catalogue of her artworks.   At least one more mural may still survive in Los Angeles, but I have been unable to find it.  I’d also love to see photos of her at art openings.  She apparently dyed her hair purple during the 1940s, at a time when such things were not done, even in Hollywood.

Stay tuned for more mini-bios of Fields’ co-stars.

(Thanks to Bruce Lawton and Glory-June Greiff for research help on this article.)