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"In the Spotlight"


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In the Spotlight: JANE DARWELL




Essential character actress Jane Darwell was born Patti Woodard in Palmyra, Missouri on October 15, 1879. Darwell was the daughter of a railroad president who claimed to be a direct descendant of President Andrew Jackson.


She grew up on a ranch and originally intended to become a circus performer, and nursed ambitions to be an opera singer, but put it off because of her father's disapproval (she eventually changed her name to Darwell from the family name of Woodward so as not to mar the family name). However her family objected and she compromised by becoming an actress.


She began her acting career in theater productions in Chicago.

she was almost 40 when she made her first film, a silent, in 1913. She easily made the transition from silents to talkies, and specialized in playing kindly, grandmotherly types.

She appeared in almost twenty films over the next two years before returning to the stage. After a 15 year absence she resumed her film career wih her first notable performances in talking pictures in 1930 and 1931 when she played the part of the Widow Douglas in the films "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn.", and her career as a Hollywood character actress began.

Short, stout and plain faced she was quickly cast in a succession of films usually as the mother of one of the major characters.


A contract player with 20th Century Fox, Darwell occasionally starred in "B" movies and played featured parts in scores of major films.

She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her sterling portrayal as "Ma Joad" in "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), a role she was given at the insistence of the film's star, Henry Fonda. And a role that Beulah Bondi wanted desperately, and was promised and eventually denied.

Darwell was also memorably cast against type in "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), as the shrewish, cackling Ma Grier, one of the leaders of the lynch mob.


By the end of her career she had appeared in more than 170 films, including "Huckleberry Finn" (1931), "Roman Scandals" (1933), "Once to Every Woman" (1934), "Little Miss Broadway" (1938), "Jesse James", "The Rains Came", "Gone with the Wind" as gossip Mrs. Dolly Meriwether, (all 1939), "My Darling Clementine" (1946), and "3 Godfathers" (1948).

Other films included, "Ladies of the Big House", "Back Street", "Bondage", "One Night of Love", "White Fang", "Ramona", "Craig's Wife","Brigham Young", "Chad Hanna" as the Fat Lady, "Tender Comrade", "Captain Tugboat Annie", "Caged", "The Lemon Drop Kid" as Nellie Thursday, "Hit the Deck", "Girls in Prison", "The Last Hurrah", and her final movie Disney's "Mary Poppins".


She continued playing character parts into the late 1950s including television guest appearances on shows such as "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," "My Friend Flicka," "Maverick," "Wagon Train," and "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." By the late 1950s illness had forced her to leave the screen.


She had retired in 1959 and was living at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, when she was approached by Walt Disney Pictures to play the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins (1964). She at first refused, but Walt Disney was so set on having her in his film that he personally visited her at the MPCH and eventually persuaded her to take the part.

Despite her advanced age of 87, she kept active and was about to begin work on another film at the time of her death.

There is no record that the lady ever married.


In 1967 Darwell died from a heart attack in Woodland Hills, California at the age of 87, and was interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.


The grand character actress has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contribution to Motion Pictures.


Quoted: "I've played Henry Fonda's mother so often that, whenever we run into each other, I call him 'Son' and he calls me 'Ma', just to save time".

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