Marion Lorne: More Than Aunt Clara

A tribute today to Marion Lorne (Marion Lorne MacDougal, 1883-1968), best known to American audiences as the adorable, doddering character “Aunt Clara” on the sitcom Bewitched for roughly the first half of its run.

Much like fellow cast members Maurice Evans and Agnes Moorehead, Lorne was a veteran stage thespian with credits stretching back for decades. Originally from Western Pennsylvania, she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and made her Broadway debut in 1905 in Mrs. Temple’s Telegram, along with Margaret Drew and William Morris. Then came The Devil (1908), and The Florist Shop (1909) with Louisa Drew. In 1911 she married playwright Walter C. Hackett. From the early 1920s through the late 1930s the pair lived and worked primarily in London, including a four years stint running the brand new Whitehall Theatre (now known as Trafalgar Studios) from 1930 through 1934. In 1931 she appeared in the Vitaphone short Success with Jack Haley.

In the late 1940s Lorne returned to the States was in the original Broadway production of Harvey, and in 1950 she appeared in the revue Dance Me a Song, her last Broadway credit. After this, Hollywood. She was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), then was a regular on the Wally Cox sitcom Mr. Peepers (1952-53), then had a role in the 1955 Rosalind Russell comedy The Girl Rush (in a role also called Aunt Clara), then was a regular on the sitcom Sally (1957-58).

She began playing Aunt Clara on Bewitched in 1964. Nowadays you might call her part somewhat politically incorrect, in that the comedy sprang from the fact that she was what we used to call “senile” — her memory and skills were failing, and she got easily confused. But for the most part it was done with affection and not cruelty, and was often touching and moving rather than an exercise in boorishness. Still, from the perspective of modern mores, much like Mr. Magoo cartoons, I find my laughter selective and guarded during her scenes. I’m more worried about her. And furthermore I’m liable to be Aunt Clara sooner than I care to admit! That’s not too funny! At any rate, Lorne won a posthumous Emmy for her work in this role, and it was well deserved.

Aunt Clara was replaced on the series by the character of Esmerelda, played by Alice Ghostley, with whom Lorne had appeared in a bit part in The Graduate (1967). Ghostly’s birthday, funnily enough, is tomorrow, so look for a post on her then!