Published 11/01/2009 | 00:00
ANN Savage, who died on Christmas Day aged 87, was a cigarette-puffing femme fatale in Hollywood B-movies; with her knockout looks and shapely figure, she became a cult favourite, starring in Detour (1945), arguably film noir's greatest low-budget feature.
Although her Hollywood career had largely ended by the mid-Fifties, she enjoyed a comeback in 2007 with a role in Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg as his mink-coat clad mother, a part that had been tipped to bring her an Academy Award and which introduced her to a legion of new fans, including Steven Spielberg, John Travolta and Martin Scorsese.
While it took only six days to shoot, Detour has consistently been singled out as one of the best examples of surreal film noir. Critic Barry Norman said of Ann Savage: "She is sultry and sexy and a feline film noir star at its finest."
Ann Savage was born Bernice Maxine Lyon on February 19, 1921 at Columbia, South Carolina. She later moved with her widowed mother to Los Angeles.
She trained at the Max Reinhardt workshop and it was Reinhardt who changed her name. A successful screen test at Columbia led to a contract. The predatory Columbia mogul, Harry Cohn, never bothered her though, and she thought of him as "a friendly uncle type". She enjoyed her brief roles with co-stars Rosalind Russell and Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier and What a Woman (both 1943).
Most of Columbia's girls were groomed to look like its biggest star, Rita Hayworth, but Ann Savage came out looking more like Ann Sheridan. In Footlight Glamour (1943) her hair was reddened so that the star, Penny Singleton, would be the only blonde on screen. She then joined Joan Davis and Jinx Falkenberg in Two Senoritas from Chicago (1943) and turned brunette for Klondyke Kate (1944) with Tom Neal.
She and Neal did not get along: "He was like a silly kid, pinching my behind all the time and making stupid remarks. I didn't like him at all." But the pair starred together in Two Man Submarine and The Unwritten Code (both 1944) before Detour.
Savage dismissed most of her roles as "mindless": "The actresses were just scenery. The stories all revolved around the male actors; they really had the choice roles. All the actresses had to do was to look lovely, since the dialogue was ridiculous."
Detour was different, as her manager Kent Adamson acknowledged. "Neal and Savage really reversed the traditional male-female roles of the time," he said. "She's vicious and predatory. She's been called a harpy from hell, and in the film, too, she's very sexually aggressive, and he's very, very passive."
Afterwards, Ann Savage appeared in the comedy thriller Scared Stiff (1945), The Spider (also 1945), The Dark Horse (1946), the western Satan's Cradle (1949) and Women They Almost Lynched (1953). Moving into television, she found she liked the pace, but as offers of work dried up, she turned to commercials.
When Ann Savage's husband, Burt D'Armand, died in 1969, he left her broke. She took odd jobs to finance flying lessons, and in 1979 became a licensed pilot and part-owner of a small tool company. Later she took a secretarial course, became a docket clerk receptionist and then a secretary at a law firm in Los Angeles.
In 1983, Ann Savage turned up unexpectedly at a screening of Detour as part of a tribute to its director, Edgar Ulmer. There was the usual audience discussion and Shirley Ulmer, his widow, said: "We have no idea where Ann Savage is, or if indeed she is alive." Standing up, Ann Savage quickly responded: "I'm right here."
Ann Savage remained a glamorous figure about Hollywood at film festivals. Following a series of strokes, she had been a resident at the Motion Picture Home for Actors in California.