Portraying a character both daffy and prone to hysteria, she brought a flighty grace to her Miss Ettie Coombes in the classic 1935 Universal monster flick Werewolf of London. But Byington, also, adds a bit of flinty menace to her characterization, as well. With calculating will, Byington/Coombes tries to drive her beloved niece (played by Bride of Frankenstein’s Valerie Hobson) away from her scientist husband (Henry Hull) by reintroducing her to a childhood beau (Lester Matthews). Of course, once Hull’s Dr. Glendon turns into a werewolf, this earns her his eternal wraith.
In the 1930s, Spring Byington (1886-1971) arrived on the screen (at the age of 44) to find herself, immediately, cast as dowager aunts and kindly mothers. This was a format she played, with much success, throughout the entirety of her cinematic career. Occasionally, though, she was able to show her range with an oddly antagonistic role or two.
Seventeen years later in 1952’s No Room for the Groom, another Universal picture, Byington, also, helps turn a cute programmer into something more sinister. As Mama Kingshead, Byington radiates with malevolent purpose. Hiding behind a seemingly innocent exterior, Byington/Kingshead tries to destroy her sweet daughter’s chances with the man of her dreams. Taking over his household, she even is willing to have him declared insane to get her way. Haunted by the specter of The House Committee on Un-American Activities (with Byington even accusing Tony Curtis’ young husband of Communist leanings), this Douglas Sirk outing doesn’t have the luxurious energy of his later works. But Byington’s sweetly evil characterization (contrasting nicely with Piper Laurie’s defensive innocence) helps make this much more than just a silly romantic romp.
On an interesting side note, despite a marriage and children, there are reports (including books such as David Tucker’s The Women Who Made Television Funny) that lay claim to the fact that Byington was one of Hollywood’s well known lesbians. There are even rumors of a long term affair with (fellow character actress) Marjorie Main. If true, this would make 1949 MGM musical In The Good Old Summertime one of the gayest ever. Featuring Byington as the loving companion of a music shop owner, Summertime also stars queer icon Judy Garland along with Van Johnson as her romantic counterpart. Johnson, known in plenty of circles as a closeted gay man, would go onto appear in such Euro exploitation terror flicks as Scorpion With Two Tails (1982) and Killer Crocodile (1989) making him an interesting figure to queer horror lovers, as well.
Until the next time – SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!