Actresses of a Certain Character

Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties


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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.