Steadfast Thaxter lit up such golden age projects as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and was a frequent guest star on such classic television anthologies as Climax!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Suspicion. But her roles in a couple of 50’s era noir films and an appearance on the Boris Karloff hosted Thriller proved just how versatile she could get.
As pregnant Patrice Harkness in No Man of Her Own (1950), Thaxter is all winning sunshine. Taking Barbara Stanwyck’s disheveled, equally pregnant Helen under her wing, Thaxter/Harkness soon meets a violent fate in a train crash. The majority of the film focuses on Stanwyck’s Helen as she reluctantly assumes Harkness’ place and becomes embroiled in murder and blackmail. An almost perfect combination of hardboiled thriller and women’s picture, No Man of Her Own is Stanwyck’s show, but Thaxter provides the film’s heart. Her beaming energy makes Stanwyck’s later guilt and confusion truly believable.
Five years later, Thaxter herself was the emotionally wracked one as the mousy Helene Jensen in Women’s Prison. Convicted for accidentally killing a child in car crash, Thaxter’s Helene works herself into a nervous frenzy over every aspect of prison life. Believably distraught, she even goes into a coma after being placed in a straitjacket. Of course, Thaxter’s character is the typical innocent type that would be the main light of many a juicy ‘women in prison’ flick to follow. But, here the focus switches back and forth between other residents and locked down employees, as well. Other main characters include a sassy pregnant prisoner (noir regular Audrey Totter) and the vicious female warden (the influential actress-director Ida Lupino) who eventually gets her comeuppance. Significantly, despite its excessive exploitation angles, this film points out how even the most prosperous women are often at the mercy of the patriarchy – a chilling denouement.
It was in the 1961 ‘The Last of the Sommervilles’ episode of Thriller that Thaxter proved how potent she could be, though. The story opens up on Thaxter’s Ursula Sommerville casually getting rid of a dead body in the backyard. Things pick up in intensity from there. Ursula has been caring for her ailing and emotionally abusive aunt, Celia, with the obvious intent of collecting the old lady’s fortune upon her death. Even the arrival of Ursula’s cunning cousin, Rutherford, does nothing to dissuade her. One moment Thaxter reacts with calculated sweetness as Ursula and then the next with eye pinching fury. It is truly a multi-layered performance and one of Thaxter’s finest moments as a performer. In a nice twist, this episode was directed by her Women’s Prison co-star Lupino and even features host Karloff, in a one of his acting appearances on the series, as Aunt Celia’s eccentric friend, Dr. Albert Farnham.
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