Singer-actress Ann Blyth loves her fans. So much so that Blyth's been personally answering her fan mail for nearly 70 years.
"I get mail from all around the world," noted Blyth, who turns 85 on Friday. "I am so thankful to read their sweet notes and letters."
Though the fans write to her about her glorious soprano in movie musicals such as 1955's "Kismet," her deft comedic timing in farces like 1949's "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid" and her credible dramatic turns in films such as 1952's "One Minute to Zero," there is one movie that dominates the letters — the 1945 film noir classic "Mildred Pierce."
Based on the novel by James M. Cain, "Mildred Pierce" stars Joan Crawford in her Oscar-winning turn as a woman who transforms herself into a business tycoon. Blyth earned an Academy Award nomination for supporting actress as her selfish, manipulative daughter, Veda, who sets her sights on her stepfather (Zachary Scott). Blyth's performance is an astonishing mixture of ferocity and venom that belies the fact she was only 16 when she made the Michael Curtiz-directed thriller.
"She just blew everybody away," said film noir historian Alan Rode, who is writing a biography on Curtiz. "It's certainly Joan Crawford's movie, but she is really the spine of the movie. She is the epitome of the film noir daughter from hell. It's just an amazing performance that stands the test of time."
Noted Blyth in something of an understatement: "The movie has taken on a life of its own."
Blyth, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe, ventured into Hollywood this year to introduce "Mildred Pierce'" and "Kismet" at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Blyth was relaxing at the TCL Chinese 6 lounge, just having chatted about "Kismet" to a sold-out audience.
TCM is celebrating Blyth's birthday Friday with a 13-film salute including, of course, "Mildred Pierce," 1947's "Brute Force," 1957's "The Helen Morgan Story" (her final feature), "Kismet," "One Minute to Zero," 1947's "Killer McCoy" and 1951's "The Great Caruso."
Still stunningly beautiful, Blyth is a diminutive, gracious and somewhat reserved mother of five and grandmother of 10. And she's dressed to the nines in black pants, a purple jacket and several strands of pearls. Though she has long retired from acting, Blyth occasionally sings in concert.
Blyth really doesn't remember a time when she wasn't in show business. She performed on children's radio shows in New York for six years and then ventured out of the radio studio to Broadway in 1941 when she was cast in Lillian Hellman's drama "Watch on the Rhine," as the daughter of Paul Lukas' character. "It was an extraordinary time and obviously a wonderful experience," she said. "I did the entire run in New York and then we were on tour."
When the tour was in L.A., Universal gave her a screen test, signed her to a contract and paired her with Donald O'Connor in peppy teen musicals, including 1944's "Chip Off the Old Block."
It was her agent, said Blyth, who knew she was capable of more substantial roles and pursued Warner Bros. for the role of Veda.
"Crawford tested with her, and Mike Curtiz directed the test," said Rode. "They tested many actresses for the role."
How did she play such a ruthless character at such a young age? Blyth herself isn't sure. "I always had a terrific imagination and the ability to be somebody else" is all she would say.
Blyth got on well with the notoriously difficult Curtiz. "He had a great confidence in me, which, in turn, helped me."
And she also became good friends with the famously volatile Crawford. "Joan Crawford didn't feel threatened by her," noted Rode.
Though Blyth says she's had a wonderful life, the actress has had more than her share of setbacks, including breaking her back after she was thrown from a toboggan while in production on 1945's "Danger Signal."
"Being so young, you think, what is going to happen?" she said.
Her mother "took wonderful care of me," Blyth said quietly. She was still recovering when tragedy struck — her mother died of cancer.
Her aunt and uncle became her guardians — Blyth's parents divorced when she was very young. She was back on screen by 1947. "I guess I am a very determined person," Blyth noted.
She credits her late husband of 54 years — Dr. James McNulty — the brother of singer and "Jack Benny" regular Dennis Day — as the rock who enabled her to juggle her career and their family.
"He loved what I did and knew how much I enjoyed it," Blyth said with affection. " When I would say I don't know about [this role], he would say, 'I think you should do it. I think you are going to enjoy it.'"
And she did.