Edna May Oliver: A Dame with Dignity


Today is the birthday of Edna May Oliver (Edna May Nutter, 1883-1942).

Throughout the 1930s, Oliver was an indispensable ensemble player in some of the greatest films of the decade. She was usually cast as a comically stern dowager — but beneath the facade of iron, a heart inevitably emerged so that you wound up loving her despite her forbidding character.

It’s hard to believe she was ever young, but she was when she first made a name for herself on Broadway, in the KernBoltonWodehouse show Oh, Boy (1917). Her greatest stage creation was the original Parthy in Show Boat (1927-1929 and in the 1932 revival).

Oliver was in films as early as 1923, but it was really only during the talking era that she found in her niche. There always seemed to be roles for her type, especially in adaptations of Victorian fiction. First she was a rough Margaret Dumont equivalent as foil to Wheeler and Woolsey in Half Shot at Sunrise (1930), Cracked Nuts (1930) and Hold ‘Em Jail (1932), and she played a similar function in Jack Pearl’s Meet the Baron (1933). She was Aunt March in Little Women (1933), the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland (1933), Aunt Betsy in David Copperfield (1935), the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (1936), a fun-loving benefactor in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), and Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice (1940)…and much more, but I don’t want to sit here and make a list all day.



  1. You forgot her animated turn in the Loony Toons retread of “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” in which she [or Mel Blanc, in his usual spot-on impersonation] played Priscilla to Elmer Fudd’s John Alden; my favorite line: “Ha, ha, ha-HA! You didn’t even TOUCH me!”


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