Josephine Crowell: Mother in Melodramas, Crone in Comedies

Today Josephine Crowell (1859-1932) is remembered chiefly for several memorable late supporting performances (her last three in fact): as a lady on a street car in Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), as Queen Anne in The Man Who Laughs (1928), and as the painting owner’s mother in Laurel and Hardy’s Wrong Again (1929). Crowell’s stocky physiognomy and dowager-like mien had her cast as mothers and queens pretty much through the entirety of her movie career. This was especially appropriate since she was named after Josephine Bonaparte. 

Born in Nova Scotia, Crowell’s theatrical career began circa 1879; she appeared for years in vaudeville and regional stock companies. Her single Broadway credit was as Molly Pitcher’s mother in Captain Molly (1902). She began appearing in films at age 52 in a series of melodramas, the first of which was Her Mother’s Sins (1911). D.W. Griffith gave her good roles in both The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Other notable pictures included Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), the 1923 screen adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1923), Harold Lloyd’s Hot Water (1924), The Merry Widow (1925), Charley Chase’s Dog Shy (1926), Mantrap (1926), and The King of Kings (1927). Among dozens of others.

In her 70s when sound took over completely, Crowell opted to retire rather relearn screen acting entirely. She was living in Amityville, New York when she died in 1932.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,