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!

Suggested Viewing:
-A Tale of Two Cities
-Little Women
-Drums Along the Mohawk

1 comment:

Harriet Myles said...

I too am a fan of Edna Mae Oliver. Although I have seen her in numerous movies throughout the years, I have most recently seen her portray the character of Hildegarde Withers, a spinster, schoolmarm sleuth. I started to look forward to watching the Saturday morning mysteries on TCM being solved by Hildegarde and her special brand of humor as only Edna Mae Oliver could convey to her audience. For the last few Saturday mornings I was greatly disappointed when I saw that there were other actresses playing the role of the spinster sleuth. Today, 3/22/14, I was taken aback when I saw Zasu Pitts playing the crime solver role. I am a fan of old movies and love Zasu Pitts, but the role of Hildegarde Withers was not for her.

I decided that I wanted to know how many actress had played the rold of Hildegarde Withers, so I went to the internet. I found an article about Stuart Palmer, the writer who created the character of Hildegarde Withers. In the article I learned that Miss Oliver left RKO after only three features, just before RKO decided to commit to the series. The article cites only two other actress as having played the role; Helen Broderick and Zasu Pitts.

As I read further, I found that there was a TV pilot called "A Very Missing Person", starring Eve Arden as the spinster sleuth. I don't remember the pilot or ever hearing about it. I am an Eve Arden fan and will watch anything with in in it. I love her quick wit, and sarcastic humor. If there is any actress that could have successfully play the role of Hildegarde Withers, other than Edna May Oliver, it would have been Eve Arden.

I you like the old black and white mystery/murder movies, with a splash of humor, watch the following movies: "The Penguin Pool Murder", "Murder on Wheels", and "Murder on the Blackboard", all starring Edna Mae Oliver, and James Gleason as the bumbling detective.

In a direct quote from the article written by Steven Saylor it says; “Ask any knowledgeable mystery reader to name the quintessential little old lady sleuth, and the response will invariably be either Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple or Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers.”