Actresses of a Certain Character

Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties


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SKU: 9780786461103 Categories: ,

About the Book

Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Mammy in Gone with the Wind, Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz —all were unforgettable characters who played an integral part in some of Hollywood’s most memorable productions. For over three decades, from the 1930s to the 1950s, character actresses who brought such roles to life were one of Hollywood’s great but little acknowledged assets. Often lured from Broadway yet billed fifth or sixth (if at all), these talented ladies received little acclaim for their roles in film industry productions. Still, what they lacked in promotion and perhaps adulation they made up for in longevity. While a screen star’s career was generally limited by age and physical appearance, character actresses often worked well into their seventies, eighties or even nineties. Signed to contracts by major studios just like the stars they supported on screen, character actresses made hundreds of films over their careers.
From the early days of sound film through the end of the studio era, this volume documents in detail the lives and careers of two score of Hollywood’s most talented character actresses. It presents information regarding birth, death, film credits and prizes and analyzes each player’s unique talents, signature roles and overall career development. Forty individual profiles are provided from a representative range of backgrounds, character types and career experiences. These include actresses such as Marjorie Main, Agnes Moorehead, Thelma Ritter, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Lucile Watson, Sara Allgood, Lee Patrick and Jessie Ralph, among others. A fascinating tour through Hollywood’s big studio era and the lives of its characters.

About the Author(s)

Axel Nissen is a professor of American literature in the Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages at the University of Oslo in Oslo, Norway.

Bibliographic Details

Axel Nissen
Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 256
Bibliographic Info: 90 photos, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2011 [2006]
pISBN: 978-0-7864-6110-3
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments      vi
Foreword by Olivia de Havilland      1
Introduction: A Character Actress Is Born      3

The Actresses

That Morgan Woman
SARA ALLGOOD (1879–1950)      9
Classic Dame
JUDITH ANDERSON (1897–1992)      13
Mother of the Year
FAY BAINTER (1893–1968)      19
How the Mighty Have Fallen
ETHEL BARRYMORE (1879–1959)      23
Not So Nice to Come Home To
FLORENCE BATES (1888–1954)      29
Leave It to Beavers
LOUISE BEAVERS (1902–1962)      33
Glamour and L’Amour
MARY BOLAND (1882–1965)      38
Miss Bondi Goes to Hollywood
BEULAH BONDI (1888–1981)      43
The Gay Divorcée
ALICE BRADY (1892–1939)      49
The Professional Tweetybird
BILLIE BURKE (1884–1970)      54
Mother for Metro
SPRING BYINGTON (1886–1971)      61
Doyenne of Dowagers
GLADYS COOPER (1888–1971)      66
Aunt Pittypat
LAURA HOPE CREWS (1879–1942)      72
Earth Mother
JANE DARWELL (1879–1967)      76
Not So Big Mama
MILDRED DUNNOCK (1901–1991)      80
The Star That Wasn’t
GLADYS GEORGE (1900–1954)      84
Bride of Laughton
ELSA LANCHESTER (1902–1986)      88
Mother Hen
JESSIE ROYCE LANDIS (1904–1972)      95
The Magnificent Mammy
HATTIE MCDANIEL (1893–1952)      100
Butterflies Are Free
BUTTERFLY MCQUEEN (1911–1995)      106
Ma Kettle
MARJORIE MAIN (1890–1975)      110
Lavender Lady
AGNES MOOREHEAD (1900–1974)      117
Blithe Spirit
MILDRED NATWICK (1905–1994)      128
A Real Scream
UNA O’CONNOR (1880–1959)      132
A Real Nutter
EDNA MAY OLIVER (1883–1942)      137
Russian Gargoyle
MARIA OUSPENSKAYA (1876–1949)      141
What a Pal
LEE PATRICK (1901–1982)      146
The Eternal Aunt
ELIZABETH PATTERSON (1875–1966)      152
Chinless Wonder
ALICE PEARCE (1917–1966)      156
Duchesses and Domestics
JESSIE RALPH (1864–1944)      159
Mother Courage
ANNE REVERE (1903–1990)      163
The Forgotten Woman
ELISABETH RISDON (1887–1958)      167
The Last Character Actress
THELMA RITTER (1905–1969)      170
La Belle Laide
FLORA ROBSON (1902–1984)      178
Star for a Day, Grandmother for a Decade
MAY ROBSON (1858–1942)      184
The Duchess
ALISON SKIPWORTH (1863–1952)      189
Cat Woman
GALE SONDERGAARD (1899–1985)      196
Grand Dame
LUCILE WATSON (1879–1962)      202
A Real Dame
MAY WHITTY (1865–1948)      208
Libeled Lady
CORA WITHERSPOON (1890–1957)      212

Notes      217
Bibliography      231
Index      235

Book Reviews & Awards

“reviews the lives and careers of 40 character actresses from Hollywood’s ‘golden age’”—Communication Booknotes Quarterly; well researched…writing..nicely mixes the factual, the critical, and the descriptive, striking a happy medium between the scholarly and the popular…writing at its best is delightful. Film fans will find this book both informative and desirable…a speciality book”—Pasatiempo.