Lucile Watson: From Clyde Fitch to the Video Age

Lucile Watson (1879-1962) was one of those actresses we think of as only having ever been old, for almost the entirety of her screen career took place during the 20 year period 1934-1954, when she was between the ages of 55 and 75. She specialized in playing scowling, non-nonsense old dowagers with twisted mouths in well known films like The Women (1939), Waterloo Bridge (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine (1943, probably her biggest screen role, one which she had also played in the in the original Broadway production), Song of the South (1946), The Razor’s Edge (1946), Little Women (1949, in which she naturally played Aunt March), and Harriet Craig (1950, based on George Kelly’s play Craig’s Wife).

But Watson was young once, of course, with a three decade history of playing very different sorts of characters. The daughter of a British army officer, she was raised in Canada, and came to New York to break into theatre around the turn of the century against her family’s wishes, initially studying at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. Hearts Aflame (1902) was the first of the nearly 50 Broadway plays she appeared in, followed by the Clyde Fitch plays The Girl with the Green Eyes (1902-03), Glad of It (1903), Captain JInks of the Horse Marines (1907), Her Sister (1907-08), and The City (1909-10). Others included Richard Harding Davis’ The Dictator (1904), the American premiere of Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1920-21), revivals of Ghosts and The Importance of Being Earnest (both 1926), an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1935-36), Watch on the Rhine (1941-42), and a 1953 revival of The Bat. 

A 1909 silent version of Fitch’s The Girl With Green Eyes had been her first film although she wouldn’t return to the screen again until 1930, when she was stunt cast as a stage actress in The Royal Family of Broadway. We are delighted to note that some of her earliest film work was in comedy shorts, such as The Inventors (1934) with Stoopnagle and Budd), Men in Black (1934) with The Three Stooges, and Little Me (1938) with Wini Shaw. Her final credit was on the television show Studio One in Hollywood in 1954.

From 1906 to 1922 she was married to actor Rockliffe Fellowes. Her second husband (1928-1933) was playwright and Life Magazine editor Louis Evan Shipman. It was following Shipman’s death that Watson moved to Hollywood to begin her screen career in earnest, much to the benefit of audiences.

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.