Sunday, November 8, 2009

Underrated Performer of the Week: Florence Bates

Florence Bates, probably best known as Mrs. Van Hopper in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, played overbearing grande dames and obtuse social-climbers to perfection. She delivered withering looks and dismissive jibes with a delicious panache.

Bates began her film career in her later years...but she'd already led quite a life before she found success in Hollywood.

Born Florence Rabe in San Antonio, Texas, in 1888, she graduated from the University of Texas and pursued teaching and social work prior to marriage. As most women did in those days, she stopped working to raise a family. But her marriage failed and following her divorce she took up legal studies under the auspices of a friend who was also a judge. She passed the state bar within six months and became one of the first women attorneys in Texas. When her parents died she switched gears again and left the law to help her sister run the family antiques business. Antiques dealing provided her the opportunity to travel the world and make use of her proficiency in foreign languages. During this period she also hosted a biglingual radio program meant to foster relations between the U.S. and Mexico. In 1929, following the stock market crash and the death of her sister, she sold the antiques business. That same year she married Texas oil tycoon, William F. Jacoby. The pair initially lived in Mexico and El Paso, but when Jacoby lost his fortune they moved to Los Angeles and opened a bakery. The bakery was a success and remained so until the couple sold it in the 1940's.

Bates caught the acting bug in middle age. Not long after moving to California, she and a friend took part in an open audition at the Pasadena Playhouse. She won the role of Miss Bates in a production of Jane Austen's Emma and, because she felt the role had brought her luck, she took the character's name as her own stage name. She joined the Playhouse's acting troupe and continued with local theater work through the late 1930s.

In 1939, Bates' destiny changed once more; she met and made a screen test for Alfred Hitchcock. The director was surprised to learn that she hadn't trained on the London or New York stage and, impressed with her talent, cast her as the insufferable dowager Edythe Van Hopper in his American directorial debut, Rebecca. Her turn as Van Hopper was brief but memorable. In one scene, in a typically Hitchcockian bit of character-revealing business, she crushes out her cigarette in a near-full jar of cold cream. While the Van Hopper character was unsympathetic, it was also nuanced; she is as laughable as she is obnoxious. Rebecca was released just a few days after Bates' 52nd birthday.

Florence Bates now became a very busy character actress, playing a variety of supporting roles and making more than 60 films from 1940 - 1953. While she portrayed another patronizing snob in one of her signature roles, Mrs. Manleigh, in A Letter to Three Wives (1949), she was equally believable as the celebrated and kindly author, Florence Dana Moorhead, in I Remember Mama (1948). Over the span of her career Bates played socialites, landladies, maids, a murderer, a mother-in-law, a gypsy, a writer and more. Whether her part was villainous or comic, she brought color and distinction to each role. Some of her other notable films include Kitty Foyle, The Moon and Sixpence, Mr. Lucky, Kismet, Saratoga Trunk, Cluny Brown, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Portrait of Jennie and On the Town. Bates was featured on some of the top TV sitcoms of the early 1950s: Burns and Allen, Our Miss Brooks, My Little Margie and I Love Lucy. She also appeared on Four Star Playhouse, an anthology series.

Bates kept her ties with the Pasadena Playhouse, attending its productions and endowing scholarships. After her husband passed away in 1951, her health began to decline and she died of a heart attack in 1954 at the age of 65.

Bates' great-granddaughter, Rachel Hamilton, is an actress/comedienne who has appeared in films and on TV, most notably "30 Rock."


  1. Eve, you did it again. Excellent article about a favorite character actress. Don't you just love her voice and the way it moves up and down the scale when she plays a social snob trying to impress someone? I love this lady. And what a life! She really packed in a full 65 years. I'm sure she would be tickled to see this tribute to her so long after her career.

  2. What a lovely tribute to Ms. Bates, Eve! I didn't know anything about her life...which was a very fascinating one. I remember her best from REBECCA and I REMEMBER MAMA.

  3. Thanks Becky and Rick. I love her work, think she's wonderful and just wish she'd gotten into movies earlier. I wanted to be sure and mention one of her more likable roles, but she was unbeatable as a boorish snob, wasn't she? And an inspiration for anyone who thinks they can't start over...even late in life...

  4. Theladyeve,
    I agree, Florence Bates, Was a very colorful character. I think my favorite role she played was Rebecca. Thanks for your wonderful review.

  5. I imagine one of the reasons she's remembered most for Rebecca is that Hitchcock really showcased her character during her brief time as part of the story. I'm thinking of what Rick wrote about Hitchcock's approach to Mrs. Danvers and imagine he thought out to the smallest detail how he would present each of the characters.

  6. Eve, I really found this to be a very informative tribute. Thank you for highlighting Frances Bates's roles. I think we have the Four Star Playhouse and I look forward to rediscovering her work there. And I loved your point about how inspirational Bates was to those who need to have new beginnings, regardless of one's age. Remarkable write-up, yet again!

  7. Great background info on a character actress I try never to miss.