Thursday, October 2, 2008
Edna May Oliver
Ah, Edna May Oliver. If there was any actress in the 1930s that better trafficked in nosy, pushy, New England aunts and busybodies, I'd like to see her. Often unkindly referred to as "horse-faced," Oliver has a charming onscreen presence that hints at a great warmth behind her often sarcastic exterior.
Oliver was born a Massachusetts woman (and a descendent of John Quincy Adams, if the interwebs are to be believed) and got her start on the Broadway stage. Moving to Hollywood in the 1920s, she did some character work in the 20s, but was one of those great number who didn't hit their stride until sound came in. Oliver had a fantastic voice, with the tones of a puritan and a little bit of tartness mixed in. One of her great successes in the 1930s was playing female sleuth Hildegarde Withers, much in the Agatha Christie Miss Marple vein.
But Oliver could play in almost anything, appearing in "A Tale of Two Cities," "Little Women," and even the bizarre live action "Alice in Wonderland," playing The Red Queen. Watch the clip below and marvel at the insanity of the film, and Oliver's willingness to wear a costume and squeal in falsetto:
Her character in "A Tale of Two Cities", Miss Pross, is typical of her mastery of the long-faced disdain. But Oliver also excelled at comedy, as John Ford found out when he cast her in "Drums Along the Mohawk." Oliver played a New England widow who takes in Henry Fonda and an embarrassingly miscast Claudette Colbert, whose farm was destroyed by rampaging Mohawk indians. The film is good-but-not-great John Ford, which means that it's still miles better than most others. Edna May Oliver brings the full combination of her talents to bear in the film, which combines comedy and drama seamlessly. She enjoys a semi-ironic flirtation with Ward Bond, whom she refers to as a "great big good for nothing loudmouth fool!" and at the same time she is memorably determined while tending to wounded soldiers. I could only find the trailer for "Drums" but she shows up in a choice scene at 58 sec in. And the film itself is in gorgeous technicolor, so don't let this b/w trailer fool you. Oliver was so good she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to, you guessed it, Hattie McDaniel.
Rumor has it that Edna was originally up for the role of Ma Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath" and that would have been a fascinating choice. On the one hand, I can't imagine anyone other than Jane Darwell, especially in the first scene of her burning family heirlooms. Then again, Oliver would have matched the physical description better, and if she could tone down the hi-hat in her voice, she might have worked wonders with the final "We're the people" speech.
Alas, it was never meant to be. Still, Edna May Oliver left a brief but remarkable filmography that I urge you all to investigate, or else feel the wrath of Edna herself!
-A Tale of Two Cities
-Drums Along the Mohawk