Special guest post by Pamela Fallon Thornley. You can follow Pam on Twitter at @fallonthornley .
The world of Hollywood has many artists. First there are the leading actors and actresses that are the ones that get the starring roles in movies, and have the household names. Beside those famous names stand those actors and actress who take the supporting roles. Their names might not always make it on the poster, but that doesn’t mean they are not important. They often steal a scene and make you stop and take notice with a clever comment, a memorable facial expression or by a comedic or sexy walk. They are referred to as character actors because they are very good at becoming a character. Unlike the lead who often seem larger than life these actors and actresses seem more like someone you might actually know. They remind you of a relative,a teacher, or a neighbor. They are so good at their craft that you don’t even realize you don’t know their name. To you, they are the character they are playing, and if asked their name you would most likely refer to them by, one of their character’s name. They might often be nameless, but they are certainly not faceless. When the movie is over that face and that character is still with you as part of that movie watching experience. A perfect example of this is actress Jane Darwell.
I first became aware of Jane Darwell back when I was fourteen and deeply into my Gone With The Wind obsession. I remembered what she looked like, but what I really took away from her being in Gone With The Wind was her voice. One thing that I need to explain is that at this time I didn’t have a VCR in my house, which means I didn’t have the option of watching the movie over and over again. I know in this age of the PVR and such devices, not being able to record video might seem like a foreign concept, but believe me there was a time when it wasn’t possible to record from the television. Since I wasn’t able to tape the video I did the only other thing I could think of, and that was to record the audio on my little tape recorder. It might seem like an odd thing to do, but I did mention I was deeply into my Gone With The Wind obsession. I loved listening over and over to the movie. As a result, I got very good at reciting the dialogue, and noticing the music cues. That is why when I thought of Jane Darwell in Gone With The Wind as Mrs. Merriwether, I remember her as “The Voice”. I can practically recite her dialogue about how “quinine” would work to keep Bonnie from sucking her thumb, and about how her grand baby was hosting a party in Bonnie’s honour. I remember this booming and powerful voice that projected such confidence. Here was a character that had Aunt Pittypat searching for her smelling salts in fear of her wrath. She had survived the Civil War, and lost family and wealth, but still held herself high with great presence. When researching for this piece, I read that in her youth Jane had wanted to be an Opera singer and you could hear from her speaking voice in Gone With The Wind, that she possessed the ability to project her voice quite successfully.
I have always been big on reading and researching film history. A while back when I was reading about the different people whom have won an academy award that is when I first learned the actual name Jane Darwell. I didn’t connect it to be the same person who was in Gone With The Wind at first. It wasn’t until I saw a picture of her in her award-winning role in The Grapes of Wrath that I realized she was the same actress. When I finally watched The Grapes of Wrath I started to think that I might be mistaken about her being the same actress. Really, I even checked her bio, and everything. The reason I questioned it was that when she played Ma Joad, she was no longer “The Voice”. The confidence that she projected as Mrs. Merriwether was gone. This time it was her eyes that drew my attention. She still played a proud character, but this character had a quiet pride. She was a broken person, and you could hear it in her shaky voice when she talked about getting the family all to California. She was a quiet woman, but her quiet strength and her heart was what kept the family together. She was always thinking and worrying about her family, and this worrying could be seen in her eyes. Sometimes her family extended out to the different needy people the family encountered during their trip to California. I remember a scene in one of the camps they stayed in when all of the children from the park came to her family’s site looking for food. She barely had enough food for her own family, but you could see her trying to think of a way to help these children too, and she did manage to give what she could to these children. Despite all the hardship that she had dealt with her heart was still open to others. I know this is only a character in a movie, but Jane Darwell portrayed it with such believability that you could think she was a real person.
While watching The Grapes of Wrath I looked into learning more about Jane, it is one of those things I do. I have an app on my phone, and every time I watch a movie or a TV show, and I have a question I check it on my phone. It is very helpful when you are trying to remember a face. Well, this time when I was checking on Jane Darwell, I noticed that under her movie credits it showed Mary Poppins. Well, Mary Poppins is a movie that I have watched countless times since childhood, and I couldn’t place her being in the film. This is when I found out that she played “The Bird Lady” who sits all day feeding the birds. For goodness sakes, Mary Poppins even sang a song about her, and I never realized that all this time it was Jane Darwell playing the part. Apparently she came out of retirement, and was asked particularly to play this part. Here again, this woman who I will consider forever as “The Voice’ was playing a very quiet character, and she again almost disappeared into her part. You really couldn’t see her most of the time due to all of the birds. It wasn’t a big part, but it was important to the storyline, and the few times they did show her on the screen she was able project great warmth just from the little smile on her face. That little smile spoke volumes about this person, and told you that she loves spending time with these birds. Here was Jane’s last movie, but for me it was actually the first one that I ever saw her in. It started my love for her, and I didn’t even know it.
Jane Darwell’s career spanned several decades,she had many films to her credit, and played many memorable characters. I have only discussed the three movies that hold a special place in my heart, but in no way am I saying these are the only movies of hers that are worth watching. I would love to hear about any other of her movies that my fellow classic movie buffs can recommended.
Many Thanks to Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen for hosting this event! Please visit their blogs for more posts and info about this Blogathon.