Gertrude Astor

Active - 1917 - 1962  |   Born - Nov 9, 1887   |   Died - Nov 9, 1977   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Romance, Crime

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Gertrude Astor did so much work in Hollywood in so many different acting capacities that it's not simple or easy to characterize her career. Born in Lakewood, OH, she joined a stock company at age 13, in the year 1900, and worked on showboats during that era. She played in vaudeville as well, and made her movie debut in 1914 as a contract player at Universal. She was an accomplished rider, which got her a lot of work as a stuntwoman, sometimes in conjunction with a young Maine-born actor named John Ford in pictures directed by the latter's brother, Francis Ford. But Astor soon moved into serious acting roles; a tall, statuesque, angular woman, she frequently towered over the leading men of the era, and was, thus, ideal as a foil in comedies of the 1910s and '20s, playing aristocrats, gold diggers, and the heroine's best friend (had the character of Brenda Starr existed that far back, she'd have been perfect playing Hank O'Hair, her crusty female editor). Astor was the vamp who plants stolen money on Harry Langdon in The Strong Man (1926), Laura La Plante's wisecracking traveling companion in The Cat and the Canary (1927), and the gold digger who got her hooks into Otis Harlan (as well as attracting the attention of fellow sailor Eddie Gribbon) in Dames Ahoy.

When talkies came in, Astor's deep, throaty voice assured her steady work in character parts, still mostly in comedy. Her roles weren't huge, but she worked prolifically at Hal Roach studios with such headliners as Laurel and Hardy, in the Our Gang shorts, and especially with Charley Chase, and also worked at Columbia Pictures' short subjects unit. Astor's specialty at this time was outraged dignity; she was forever declaring, "I've never been so embarrassed in all my life!" and stalking out of a slapstick situation, usually with a comedy prop (a balloon, a folding chairs, a cream puff) affixed to her posterior. Astor worked regularly into the early '60s; she was briefly glimpsed as the first murder victim in the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Scarlet Claw (1944) and was among the ranks of dress extras in Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Her longtime friend John Ford also gave her roles in his feature films right into the early '60s, culminating with her appearance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Gertrude Astor remained alert and quick-witted into her eighties, cheerfully sharing her memories of the glory days of comedy short subjects with fans and film historians. And in a town that can scarcely remember last year's studio presidents, in 1975, when she was 87 years old, Astor was given a party at Universal, where she was honored by a gathering of old friends, including the directors George Cukor, Allan Dwan, and Henry Hathaway. She passed away suddenly and peacefully on the day of her 90th birthday in 1977.

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