Edna May Oliver: She Had a Long Face and She Stuck It Where She Wanted

No one would have ever accused Katharine Hepburn of modesty when it came to her acting. All indications are that Hepburn thought she was the cat’s meow on screen and her storied career indicates she was right. Yet, when Hepburn was asked to reprise the role of Aunt March in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version of Little Women she replied, “Please tell them, I would never even think of competing with Edna May Oliver.”

Katharine Hepburn knew that Edna May Oliver was inimitable. She worked with Oliver in George Cukor’s Little Women, one of eight pictures featuring Edna May Oliver in 1933, her most prolific year in movies in her most prolific decade. Thanks to her long, angular face Edna May was also one of the most recognizable screen actors in Hollywood. But it wasn’t just the face, it was the fact that she made full use of it. She certainly does as Aunt March, the rich, stingy, ill-tempered, judgmental, in everyone’s business, aunt of the March sisters in the popular story by Louisa May Alcott. Aunt March is typical Edna May Oliver, and she is the kind of woman she would play throughout her career. The stern aunt with a heavy gait whose energy you feel well before she turns a corner or enters a room. The parts may be relatively small, but Edna May’s aunts permeate the entire story of the movies she appears in.

Among the other notable aunts in Edna May Oliver’s repertoire is a hilarious turn as Aunt Betsey in Cukor’s David Copperfield (1935). Oliver opens the movie with determination and ends up beating up the doctor who tells her her nephew’s new baby is a boy. It is impossible to look away from this entertaining tale after that moment. Of Edna May Oliver in Copperfield the Variety reviewer said, “…(she) does low comedy in the high comedy manner and shows flashes of the underlying tenderness of Aunt Betsey.” All true and reasons why you cannot take your eyes off Edna May Oliver.

Edna May shows similar tendencies as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Robert Z. Leonard’s Pride and Prejudice (1940), starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Pride and Prejudice has a terrific cast, but it is Lady Catherine who I most look forward to meeting as she, like Aunt March, is talked about throughout the picture. And when you finally meet her, she does not disappoint. Lady Catherine has reign over all in her world and her opinions matter to everyone, especially to herself. People marry when she says they can, they are in society when she accepts them, and she waves people off with the flick of her hand. Outwardly cold and domineering, like many of Edna May Oliver’s characters, Lady Catherine has a soft center underneath the tough, spiky edge. To get get to that center, however, you must endure a sharp tongue, heavy judgment, and many dirty looks.

I came across this article in Psychology Today in which Dr. Scott G. Eberle discusses the “geezer,” a stock character that shapes attitudes toward aging and his possible female counterpart, the “biddy” and her portrayals in fiction and film. As the perfect example of the sharp-tongued biddy at her best, Dr. Eberle offers Edna May Oliver in Pride and Prejudice. Although one could say it is Oliver in most of her films.

If she was not playing a spinster aunt, Edna May Oliver was likely called upon to appear in film versions of classic literature. She played Miss Pross, companion to Lucie Manette in Jack Conway’s A Tale of Two Cities (1935) and the nurse to Norma Shearer’s Juliet in George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet (1936). Oliver is also memorable as the Red Queen in Norma Z. McLeod’s Alice in Wonderland (1933).

The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland

Ms. Oliver could also be depended on to play aristocrats in several films and varied genre. No matter the story, rest assured Edna May was prying into other people’s affairs and, in many cases, trying to control their lives. There are many examples of this from her filmography. You have the Shirley Temple vehicle, Little Miss Broadway (1938) directed by Irving Cummings. This is not a great movie by any means, but Edna May makes the most of it as is her style. As Sarah Wendling she tries to control her nephew’s life and loves, is judgmental about the show business people that live in her hotel, walks around seeing if stuff is dusty, and has her brother (Donald Meeks) scared senseless of her. In short, Cruella de Vil has nothing on Miss Wendling and it is no wonder Edna May Oliver was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s first choice to play the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Read more about that casting choice here.

In Edward Sedgwick’s The Poor Rich (1934), which has as funny a premise as you can find, Edna May plays Harriet Spottiswood, a high society woman from old money who finds herself penniless living in her dilapidated ancestral home. Lucky for Harriet she’s not alone. Living with her under the same circumstances is her cousin, Albert Stuyvesant Spottiswood, played by Edward Everett Horton. How is that for a pair? As soon as they arrive to their mansion Harriet plans out who and how Albert will marry so that they can get back on their feet.

In full bloom in all of Edna May Oliver’s performances is her imposing highbrow English accent, which often results in a high pitch ending to her oft demanding statements. There is very little grey about Edna May Oliver, not the face, not the body language, and certainly not her words. The accent had a lot to do with the kinds of pictures she appeared in and it is one of her distinguishing features although Edna May was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Of Oliver co-star Myrna Loy said, “she wasn’t English, but she might as well have been.” Most people think she was.

It was on November 9, 1883, that Edna May was born to Ida May and Charles Edward Nutter, a plumber and descendent of John Quincy Adams. Charles died when Edna May was fourteen forcing her to give up her formal education. After working at a milliner’s shop, Edna May used her musical talents to sing opera and play piano. She toured with an all-female orchestra through the turn of the century. The acting bug bit when Oliver joined a stock company for $25 a week, which kicked off fourteen years of stage work before she got her break as Aunt Penelope Budd in the hit 1917 Broadway production of Oh, Boy! with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. 

Edna May acted on stage throughout the 1920s with major successes in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Icebound in 1923 and the comedy, Cradle Snatchers in 1925. Her stage work culminated with the role of Parthy Ann Hawks in the original production of the Jerome Kern – Oscar Hammerstein long-running musical, Showboat in 1927. Although Oliver made her film debut in Wife in Name Only in 1923, a drama directed by George Terwilliger and starring Mary Thurman, Arthur Housman, and Edmund Lowe, it was her performance in Show Boat that got her the lasting attention of Hollywood. Oliver moved to Beverly Hills after Show Boat and a short-lived marriage to stockbroker David Welford Pratt and never looked back on New York or the Broadway lights.

Florenz Ziegfeld with the original cast os Show Boat in 1928. Edna May Oliver is fourth from the right.

Edna May Oliver made several silent pictures before appearing in The Saturday Night Kid (1929), her first talkie. Directed by A. Edward Sutherland, The Saturday Night Kid stars Clara Bow, Jean Arthur, and James Hall. Here Edna May plays Miss Streeter, the oldest member of a club who puts on a play with her as the director. The movie is rather silly, but the moments when Oliver is on screen are enjoyable, especially during the play’s production. Her facial expressions, the exasperation, and the delivery we all come to know and love in later movies are evident here. These probably came from her stage work, and she never seemed to adjust them for the screen, yet it all worked.

There are a few character actors of a certain generation that were featured as starring players. Edna May Oliver was one of them. She starred in the now lost Fanny Foley Herself in 1931, directed by Melville W. Brown, her first color film as it was made in Technicolor. She followed that with one of my favorites, Lowell Sherman’s Ladies of the Jury (1932) in which Edna May plays Mrs. Livingston Baldwin Crane who, unlucky for all involved, is chosen as a jury member in the infamous trial of Yvette Gordon, an ex-chorus girl accused of killing her husband. If you want to see Edna May Oliver use her famous face to full capacity this is a good place to start. Her eye rolls are grand and numerous, the double-takes plentiful, her huffing and puffing audible, and her overall mugging at its height. The story of this jury member convincing the other eleven to change their votes is decades before Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men and much more implausible, but it is worth your while if you’re in the mood to laugh. Why the judge continuously allows Mrs. Crane to interrupt the proceedings to ask questions of the witnesses herself is beyond me, but thank you judge.

Edna May Oliver is probably best remembered for playing spinster schoolteacher, amateur sleuth Hildegard Withers in three films: George Archainbaud’s Penguin Pool Murder (1932) and Murder on the Blackboard (1934), and Lloyd Corrigan’s Murder on a Honeymoon (1935). The series was successful thanks to Edna May’s stingers and her chemistry with James Gleason who plays Inspector Oscar Piper in the series. The contrast between Edna May’s perfect English accent and Gleason’s New York “tanks” and “moidah” is supremely entertaining as are the flirtations between them. Edna May Oliver was replaced by Helen Broderick and ZaSu Pitts in the last three outings in the series. Broderick and Pitts are both terrific actors, but according to a NY Post article by Lou Lumenick in 2013, creator of Hildegarde Withers, mystery writer Stuart Palmer, thought Edna May Oliver so perfectly interpreted the role of the “Boston-born, crime-solving New York City spinster schoolteacher in Penguin Pool Murder, that Palmer used the actress as an inspiration for the rest of series.”

In Penguin Pool Murder (1932) Hildegarde Withers takes her class on an aquarium field trip and finds a body floating in the penguin pool. Inspector Piper, who is always eager to narrow in on the wrong suspect, zeroes in on several potentials including Hildegarde almost as soon as he arrives. It turns out that Hildegarde’s lost hatpin is found embedded in the dead man’s head. Nevertheless, the astute Miss Withers guides the Inspector toward the correct outcome. Her instincts to find clues are far superior to Piper’s and, although he always takes credit for solving the crimes, he could not do so efficiently without her. Part of the running gag in the series is Hildegard’s contempt for the police’s lack of smarts, which gives Edna May lots of opportunities for zingers although no one is spared from the Oliver insult. In one hilarious scene Hildegard goes to see the dead man’s secretary, a woman who has on too much make-up as we can tell from Miss Withers’ reaction. “Whatta you trying to do put the bee in me,” says the young woman as she is questioned, “I’m not trying to put nothing on you, you have enough on already,” replies Hildegarde. Penguin Pool Murder also features Robert Armstrong, Mae Clark, Donald Cook, and Edgar Kennedy.

Murder on the Blackboard (1934) brings the crime to Hildegarde Withers’ own school when one of the other teachers is found bludgeoned to death. This time Bruce Cabot, Gertrude Michaels, Regis Toomey, and Edgar Kennedy (again as dim-witted Detective Donahue) join Oliver and Gleason in the mystery. This outing may be the best of the three because of how Edna May Oliver’s demonstrates her physical comedy prowess. In one scene Hildegarde visits Mr. McFarland the school principal. She asks him for a drink to calm her nerves as pretext to get him out of the room so she can snoop around. She circles the room and ends up in front of the fireplace, which she notices when she feels her butt get hot. She then turns around and fans the front of her dress in hilarious fashion and is doing so when the principal reenters the room. Oliver really gets the opportunity to strut her stuff in these movies and she is a delight. True to her usual character, she also gets to use her ability to stick her face where it isn’t wanted, “For nothing do they call me Snoopy Withers,” though in more purposeful a fashion than when she played aunts getting into her relatives’ private affairs.

Edna May’s final appearance as Hildegarde Withers has her going on vacation to Catalina Island. Just after the seaplane taking Hildegarde to the island lands, one of the other passengers is discovered dead. Forgetting to relax, Hildegarde starts investigating the murder immediately and wires Oscar Piper for assistance. As usual, this mystery offers lots of false alarms as Inspector Piper tries to label almost everyone on the island a suspect. In the end they get their killer in dramatic fashion. Murder on a Honeymoon features Lola Lane, George Meeker, and Leo G. Carroll among the suspects.

The third outing of Hildegarde Withers keeps the same brisk pace of its predecessors and retains the sense of humor. It is particularly enjoyable to see Hildegarde in relaxation mode without the usual conservative, stern-looking uniform of suit, hat, and tight hair bun. The exchanges between Hildegarde and Oscar are as enjoyable as in the earlier movies too. Oliver’s reactions, including the shoulder adjustment and body shift she does whenever she says something clever, are all used to capacity. She also never ceases to give people the disapproving once over/eye roll, another Oliver signature.

If you want to enjoy yourself with witty exchanges and watch master actors run circles around the run of the mill murder mystery, you simply must watch Hildegarde Withers and her foil in action. A talented busybody and a simple-minded cop is all you need.

with James Gleason for Penguin Pool Murder

In 1939, Edna May Oliver got one of her best roles, as the widow McKlennar in John Ford’s beautifully photographed Drums Along the Mohawk. Mrs. McKlennar, who is still impressed with her captain husband years after he died, is the salt of the Earth type. A true frontierswoman with no pretense, a survivor in a tough world, McKlennar is strong and capable and, most importantly for this story, loyal.

Drums Along the Mohawk stars Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert as newlyweds Gilbert and Lana Martin who build a home on a farm in the Mohawk Valley. Gilbert, or Gil as most call him, is used to life on the frontier but Lana comes from privilege, which means she must learn to navigate a new husband and a new home under extremely difficult circumstances in 1776. Things do not go easily for Gil and Lana and after they lose their farm in a raid, they go to live and work at the farm of the widow McKlennar, who treats them like family.

There is lots of action in Drums Along the Mohawk but relationships are what really matter, as is the case in most John Ford movies and like most of his movies this one is a favorite of this fan. There are several familiar Ford faces in this: Ward Bond, John Carradine, Arthur Shields, and Jessie Ralph to name a few and both Fonda and Colbert deliver in an emotional story. But once again, it is Edna May Oliver who makes all the difference playing Mrs. McKennar with a lot of heart and the ever-present humor. In one scene, two Indians (as they were called in the film) attack McKennar’s house and set fire to her bed – with her in it. She refuses to leave the house and lose the bed she shared with her husband. It takes several men to pry her off it to save her life.

For her efforts in Drums Along the Mohawk, Edna May Oliver received her only Academy Award nomination. She is wonderful as Mrs. McKennar, and it would have been great if she’d taken home the Academy Award. The main problem was that among her competitors that year was Hattie McDaniel, nominated for her memorable work in Gone With the Wind (1939).

Edna May Oliver’s final film was Julien Duvivier’s Lydia (1941) starring Merle Oberon as the titular character. The story is that an old Lydia MacMillan reunites with men who at one time were potential loves of her life. Lydia, a self-described spinster, relates her relationships with Joseph Cotton, Hans Jaray, Alan Marshall, and George Reeves in flashbacks as she explains why she did not end up with any of them. Lydia dedicated her life instead to blind and orphaned children.

Lydia is not my cup of tea. I agree with the New York Times reviewer who wrote it is, “too sticky with romance and pathos to go down well.” That said, as Lydia recounts her youth, we get to meet her guardian and grandmother, Sarah MacMillan played enthusiastically by Edna May Oliver. Sarah is a hypochondriac from a less than desirable background, but she raises Lydia with a firm hand ensuring the young woman conforms to Boston society. The widow of a sea captain, Sarah is aware of what and who Lydia should avoid.

As Sarah, Edna May is salty and fun, an old woman who has lived and earned a great big heart along the way. Sarah’s repertoire in pieces is by far the most enjoyable parts of Lydia. It is a lucky thing that Lux Radio Theater broadcast a 60-minute radio adaptation of Lydia in September 1941, which you can listen to below. That was Edna May Oliver’s last performance. She, Merle Oberon, Alan Marshall, Joseph Cotton, and George Reeves reprised their film roles.

The consummate professional, Edna May Oliver took her job seriously and brightened every single production with her talent – the exaggerated expressions, the sardonic remarks, the face that screamed sarcasm at every turn, the comedic timing, and enduring presence. Watching Edna May is a cure for the blues and those of us lucky to know her work cannot do without her. When Edna May Oliver’s name appears in a picture’s credits you know you’re in for fun. This actor demanded attention, stole numerous movies, and was a star in her own right.

Edna May Oliver died on her birthday in 1942. At fifty-nine years old she could have given audiences many more laughs. But we must be satisfied with the treasures she did leave us, nearly fifty movies over two decades. In almost every single one of them everyone her characters encountered was at her mercy either because they are victims of her slight, or she held the purse strings, or she was just plain bossy. These things are true of her aunts, her sleuths, and her high society dames. As Edna May so aptly put it as the widow McKennar, she had a long face and she stuck it where she wanted. Thank goodness. Edna May Oliver, What a Character!

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Be sure to visit this blog along with those of my co-hosts, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club for more What a Character! entries. Edna May Oliver was my choice.

Extra!

Edna May Oliver making a familiar face at a movie premiere.

6 thoughts

  1. Wonderful article on a one-of-a-kind actress. Norma Desmond might have said they had faces back in the silent days, but Edna May proved that in the sound era you needed a face and a vocal presence. I can hear her voice in my head every time I see her face. This biddy thinks that biddy is just swell.

  2. I truly adore Edna May Oliver! What a thorough and delightful article! She’s outstanding in everything she touches. But I must admit her sleuthing Hildegard Withers id likely my favorite. Thanks for a fab post- and fab co-hosting!!

  3. Edna May Oliver is always fun to watch on screen! She certainly seemed born to play spinster aunts, upper crust types, and, of course, Hildegarde Withers. No one could deliver a line like she could!

  4. Edna May Olver has always been one of my faves, and I’m always a little miffed she never gets enough screen time.

    I didn’t realize she was in three Hildegarde Withers films. I saw her in Penguin Pool Murder and, like you said, she had really great chemistry with James Gleason. Now I’m off to find & bookmark the other two films.

  5. Edna May Oliver was awesome. It was always nice to see under her seemingly prickly exterior how nice she really was. And on a side note, she and I were both born on November 9th. 🙂

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