You may not know the name of Florence Bates (1888-1954), but she was certainly recognizable among the endless numbers of great character actors from Hollywood’s golden age. Bates, born Florence Rabe in San Antonio, Texas, earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Texas at Austin. After deciding to study law, she passed the bar exam and became Texas’s first female attorney in 1914. Besides being a lawyer, she also co-owned her family’s antique store, used her Spanish-speaking skills in a career as a radio commentator and later opened a bakery in Los Angeles. The name “Florence Bates” was in honor of the actress’s first theatrical role, portraying Miss Bates in a mid-1930s staging of Jane Austen’s Emma at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Here are but a few of this wonderful entertainer’s notable roles:
Mrs. Van Hopper in Rebecca (1940) – Joan Fontaine’s snobby employer at the beginning of the film, always haughtily commenting on her young charge’s gauche actions. Bates plays a character you love to hate.
Mrs. Edna Craig in Heaven Can Wait (1943) – uncredited, but memorable nonetheless. She pops up early in the film (and is quickly dispatched), having barged in on Don Ameche’s meeting with “His Excellency” (the devil, played by Laird Cregar). Bates makes the most of her minimal screen time, flirting with Ameche and showing him her legs.
Madame Dilyovska in On the Town (1949) – Vera-Ellen’s ballet teacher (“Keep prrracticing, prrracticing!”), secretly chugging liquor while her pupil twists and turns. Dilyovska is responsible for forcing Vera-Ellen into a side job as a burlesque dancer, a complication for the heroine and her hero (Gene Kelly).
Bates made many more film and TV appearances between 1937 and 1956, including The Mask of Dimitrios, Saratoga Trunk, San Antonio (how fitting!), The Diary of a Chambermaid (Renoir, not Buñuel), Cluny Brown, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I Remember Mama, Portrait of Jennie, A Letter to Three Wives, Lullaby of Broadway, the “I Love Lucy” episode “Pioneer Women” and the 1952 version of Les Miserables. The next time you see an American film from the 1940s or 50s, keep an eye out for Florence Bates.