Fay Holderness: Fred MacMurray’s Aunt on Stage and Screen

Screen comedienne Fay Holderness (nee MacMurray, 1881-1963) came into the world on April 16. Her brother, musician Frederick MacMurray, Sr. was the father of movie and tv star Fred MacMurray. Fay’s father was a theatre organist. The family moved around according to his job, from Wisconsin to Ohio to Michigan to Illinois.

Little is known of the early years. At the age of 15 (1896) she earned a teachers diploma at Wesleyan College of Music in Bloomington, Ill. Presumably she plied this trade for a time. In 1912, she was living in Detroit, where she married Francis C. Holderness. 

Then in 1917, pretty much out of the blue, she appears in Hollywood in her first film credits. It is often erroneously given out that she started out with D.W. Griffith, but actually she started out in the slapstick comedies of L-KO, appearing in shorts like Prairie Chicken (1917, her first credit), and Ambrose the Lion Hearted (1917, with Mack Swain). Not until 1919 did she work with Griffith, in the melodrama Hearts of the World, with the Gish Sisters. Holderness was a good physical type for silent comedy, a large, un-pretty woman, highly castable as nagging wives, bossy nurses, and the like. In 1918, Charlie Chaplin cast her in A Dog’s Life. That same year she appeared in the King Bee comedy Playmates with Oliver Hardy and Billy West.

In the wake of the Griffith feature, Fay worked on the vaudeville stage for a time, performing comedy sketches and harmony singing with a group called the Village Four. In 1923, she married Edmund Leeds, returning to films the following year. By the mid ’20s she is working for Hal Roach in comedies such as Should Sailors Marry? with Clyde Cook and Noah Young, directed by James Parrott. She appears in the Laurel and Hardy comedies Their Purple Moment (1928) and Hog Wild (1930). In 1929 she’s in Good Night Nurse with Lupino Lane and Wallace Lupino. 

Notable comedy classics from the sound era in which she is featured in small roles include two starring W.C. Fields, The Barber Shop (1933) and The Bank Dick (1940), and Zenobia (1936) with Oliver Hardy and Harry Langdon. She also has bit parts in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and the Cecil B. DeMille classic The Greatest Show on Earth (1952 — she’s one of the hundreds of people in the circus audience). Her last film was the Bob Hope comedy Here Come the Girls (1953).