The Many Faces of Jane Darwell, WHAT A CHARACTER!

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.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940, director John Ford)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940, director John Ford)

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.

Mary Poppins (1964, director Robert Stevenson)
Mary Poppins (1964, director Robert Stevenson)

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.


Extra special thanks to Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen for letting me park my post on her site.

24 thoughts

  1. A marvelous choice for this blogathon. Jane Darwell added value to every film she was in–but her naturalistic performance in THE GRAPES OF WRATH is what I will always remember her for.

    1. Thank you, I agree she greatly deserves to be part of this Blogathon. I am glad that I am the one that got the chance to write about her.


  2. What a great post! Mrs. Merriwether is one of my favorite characters in the screen version of GWTW. I love her voice and even the tempo of her words. I also didn’t know about her Oscar win. Enjoyed learning more about her. Thanks, Pam!

    1. Thank you for leaving a comment. I am glad that you were able to take something away from the post.


  3. This is perfect: “…these actors and actresses seem more like someone you might actually know.” So true! And Jane Darwell was exceptional at playing people we all know or have met. So glad you included her in the blogathon. 🙂

  4. Wonderful post! I agree on the issue of mistaken identities. I didn’t make those connections as being the same actress (from Gone With The Wind to Grapes Of Wrath and certainly to Mary Poppins?!) for the LONGEST time. Sign of an excellent actress! But it’s her role in Grapes Of Wrath that really showcased her craft, if you ask me. Thanks for contributing to our blogathon!

  5. I loved your sharing of your journey with Jane Darwell and her career.

    In many of Jane’s 30s films she played loud-mouthed caricatures, fun to watch, but knowing that there lurked beneath those overly hearty women the soul of Ma Joad was a great revelation for me. She always makes me tear up as the Bird Woman in “Mary Poppins” and add to that what I have read about the respect with which she was treated by Mr. Disney, makes it difficulty to keep those floodgates shut.

  6. JUST getting to start reading posts, Pam with the hosting gig and all. Great stuff you have here and a wonderful choice! Darwell blows me away in WRATH and she’s SOO good in GWTW that one focuses on her voice, as you say, and can actually ignore Pitty Pat’s curls!

    Thanks so much for submitting this post – LOVE IT!! Amazing actress!


    1. Thank you for leaving a comment, Aurora!! Also thank you for hosting and letting me taking part in this weekend. It was fun.

      It is a major feet to keep focus away from Pitty Pat’s curls, but she does it. 🙂


  7. Just watched a little “B” noir flick called “A Life At Stake”. Fairly unremarkable, except for the part of the Landlady played by none other than Jane Darwell. I was compelled to look her up because her short time on screen was so great. I thought I recognized her from Grapes of Wrath, but had not realized she was in Gone With the Wind and Mary Poppins as well! That’s how I stumbled upon this blog. Thanks for writing it, and it’s nice to encounter fellow “character actor” afficionados!

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