Last year I participated in an excellent blogathon, featuring character actresses and actors who had shined so brightly in classic movies. I enjoyed writing my piece on Eric Blore, and decided that this time around, I would focus on a female character actress and my pick is Edna May Oliver. Be sure to visit these awesome classic movie loving gals and their blog sites to read about more wonderful character actors and actresses: Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen.
Edna May Oliver was born on November 9, 1883 in Malden, Massachusetts. She could also claim being a descendent of 6th President of the United States, John Quincy Adams. The acting bug bit Edna May, but as to exactly when or how, I couldn’t find that information. However, her parents let her quit school at the age of 14 to pursue her interest. She must have taken piano lessons as a child because one of her earliest professional gigs was the piano player for an all women band that traveled the country in 1900.
The stage was her first area of acting work and in 1917, she achieved acclaim for her part of playing comic, spinster Aunt Penelope in the Jerome Kern musical hit, Oh Boy! Jumping ahead to 1927, Edna May starred in the original cast of another Kern musical, Show Boat, playing Parthy, the wife of Captain Andy Hawks. In between these stage roles, movies did beckon Edna May and her first film role was in a silent flick, 1923’s Wife in Name Only. Her last film role was in 1941’s romance drama, Lydia.
With her height of 5’7″, a long face, and a voice that could speak in low tones, Edna May often found herself cast as the grumpy or comical aunty, depending on a movie’s tone. She found a lot of fame in the 1930’s playing such a character, often speaking very witty lines and knowing how to do the perfect eye-roll at another character, and sometimes breaking that fourth wall and giving that look at the audience. Hollywood in the 1930s went on a bit of a Literature roll, making movies from famous books, and Edna May was cast in several of those films, giving superb performances, often stealing every scene she was in!
Edna May sadly died at the age of 59 in 1942, on her birthday. It’s a shame that she exited this world when she probably still had a lot of talent to put forth into future movie and stage roles. What follows is my list of her roles that I have seen; the roles are in chronological order:
1932-Ladies of the Jury-Edna May plays rich socialite Mrs. Livingston Baldwin Crane, who lands on a jury of a murder trial. A comic take on a more famous, and made much later movie, 12 Angry Men. Mrs. Crane seems a bit of an airhead at first, but she is allowed to ask questions of those testifying on the witness stand from the jury box, and her questions are quite good. She is able to convince her fellow jurors that this case isn’t as open and shut as they think it is, and it’s a fast-moving little film, with the good receiving exoneration and the bad receiving their just punishments.
1932-Penguin Pool Murder-RKO bought the rights to a popular crime/mystery book written by Stuart Palmer. The plot was about a spinster schoolteacher, Miss Hildegarde Withers, at the NYC Aquarium with her elementary school students when a murder happens and the body is found at the Penguin Pool. James Gleason(another great character actor in his own right) plays Police Inspector Oliver Piper, who is assigned to solve the murder and he reluctantly accepts the insights and help of Miss Withers. Edna May and Gleason had a great chemistry with each other and this movie was a box office success. Edna May and Gleason teamed together, reprising their roles in two more murder mystery films: 1934’s Murder on the Blackboard, and 1935’s Murder on a Honeymoon.
1933-Little Women, playing Aunt March. Hollywood gives Louisa May Alcott’s classic book the film treatment. Oliver is wealthy, grumpy, highly-opinionated Aunt March. She holds her own quite well in her scenes with Katherine Hepburn, the film’s lead, playing Jo March. If you have only seen the 1949 version or the 1994 version, you owe it to yourself to see this earlier depiction.
1933-Alice in Wonderland, playing the Red Queen. Paramount Studios decided to make a film of the classic children’s book Alice in Wonderland, and make it a show case with an all-star cast. Oliver is delightfully dippy as the Red Queen. While I wouldn’t call this a stellar presentation of Carroll’s tale, it is fun for classic film fans to view in order to pick out the all-stars in their crazy costumes and make up!
1935-David Copperfield, playing Aunt Betsey. Charles Dickens’s famous novel is turned into a very good film and Oliver is superb as Aunt Betsey, who provides a haven for young David as he runs away from his evil stepfather, Murdstone, played in an effectively creepy way by Basil Rathbone. Here’s a clip of the scene where Oliver delivers a scathing tongue lashing to Murdstone as he has dared to come to her home and try to take David away from her.
1935-A Tale of Two Cities, playing Miss Pross. Hollywood’s version of another classic work of Dickens’s. Set against the back-drop of the French Revolution, it is a film full of different characters. Oliver is Miss Pross, the devoted maid ot Dr. Manette and his daughter, Lucie. One character, Madame DeFarge, is chillingly evil, sitting on the sidelines knitting while watching enemies of the Republic die on the guillotine. She is also an informant, telling those high up in the Revolution where enemies may be hiding, awaiting their chance to escape from France. In a crucial scene, it is up to Miss Pross to deal with Madame DeFarge in order to keep Pross’s beloved Manette family protected. While the clip I found is in dubbed Italian, it is still a fun example to show that Oliver wasn’t afraid of a physically demanding scene!
1936-Romeo and Juliet, playing Juliet’s nurse. It’s Shakespeare’s turn for one of his famous plays to get the Hollywood treatment. While I think Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer were a bit old to play the star-crossed teenaged lovers, they did a commendable job. Oliver is a great nurse, having fun in some early comedic scenes and then appropriately somber in the later parts of the film as the tragedy draws closer.
1939-Drums Along the Mohawk, playing Mrs. McKlennar. John Ford directed this look at life in Colonial America pre-American Revolution, when the colonists had to deal with attacks on their new settlements from the Native Americans. Oliver plays Mrs. McKlennar, a feisty farm woman who is helpful to newlyweds Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. For this role, she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar at the 1940 Academy Awards.
1940-Pride and Prejudice, playing Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Jane Austen’s turn for one of her classic novels to get a movie depiction. Oliver is a wonderful Lady Catherine, imperious and very opinionated who doesn’t want her nephew D’Arcy(Laurence Olivier) to marry anyone but her sickly daughter. When Lady Catherine finds out D’Arcy is in love with one Elizabeth Bennet(Greer Garson), Lady Catherine storms her way to the Bennet’s home to confront Elizabeth to dissuade her from accepting any marriage proposals her nephew might make to her. This is a fast moving look at Austen’s famous book, and while not as faithful an adaptation as the 1995 version that stars Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, or the 2005 version starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, I like what the screen writer, Aldous Huxley of this 1940 version, did near the end with Lady Catherine’s character. It lessened the dragon lady image of her character in a satisfying way.
I will end my look at Edna May Oliver, extraordinary character actress with a tribute video that was made for Turner Classic Movies a couple years ago and still airs from time to time. Enjoy!