Cecil Cunningham

Active - 1929 - 1948  |   Born - Aug 2, 1888 in St. Louis, MO  |   Died - Apr 17, 1959 in Woodland Hills, CA  |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Romance, Musical, Comedy Drama

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Statuesque, foghorn-voiced comedienne Cecil Cunningham at one time pursued an operatic career. After extensive training, Cunningham made her stage debut in the chorus of a Fritzi Scheff musical. She played her first important role in the 1911 production Will o' the Wisp, then enjoyed her greatest success as a serious singer in the 1913 operetta Pink Lady. Alas, nervous tension robbed Cunningham of her glorious singing voice, whereupon she cut her losses and went into comedy. For many years she was a headliner in vaudeville, performing first-rate material written for her by her then-husband Jean Havez. When vaudeville went into decline in 1930, she headed to Hollywood. Signed by Paramount, she played roles of varying sizes, usually portraying a mannish society matron or show-business diva. Cunningham can be seen as a brutally frank party hostess in Paramount on Parade (1930), as supercilious opera star Madame Swempski in the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business (1932), as a outraged dowager whose beauty treatment has left her totally bald in Kiss and Make Up (1934) and as Jack Benny's dry-witted secretary in Artists and Models (1937). Comedy fans hold a special place in their hearts for two of Cunningham's 1930s appearances: in If I Had a Million, she plays the haughty ex-trapeze artist who is put down in short order by W.C. Fields; and in Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, she enjoys one of her juiciest parts as Irene Dunne's waspish Aunt Patsy. Even in her briefest appearances, Cecil Cunningham managed to draw attention to herself, usually through such simple expedients as a firmly planted tongue in cheek and a withering, all-knowing glare.

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