Jane Darwell: Ma Joad and “Mary Poppins”

Some props this morning for Oscar winning character actress Jane Darwell (Patti Woodard or Woodward, 1879-1967). Stout, sturdy Darwell was a familiar face on screens for a half century in roles ranging from frontier mothers to nurturing nursemaids to cross landladies. The daughter of a railroad magnate, Darwell considered becoming a circus equestienne, an opera singer, and a nun, before settling on the stage. She began her theatre career in Chicago, appearing on Broadway for the first time in 1909 in The Wedding Day.

Darwell’s first film was Bison’s The Capture of Aguinaldo (1913), directed by Francis Ford. She appeared in 18 films through 1915, including the 1914 version of Brewster’s Millions and Cecil B. De Mille’s 1914 adaptation of Belasco’s Rose of the Rancho. She then returned to the stage for 15 years, including two Broadway productions, Merchants of Venus (1920) and Sidney Howard’s Swords (1921).

When sound came in, Darwell returned to the screen as quite a mature woman, and that made her supremely castable. She worked constantly over the next three decades, in roles ranging from major supporting parts to walk-ons. She was the Widow Douglas in Tom Sawyer (1930, her screen return) and Huckleberry Finn (1931), is an extra in Murders in the Zoo (1933), and can be seen in Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals (1933) and Al Jolson’s Wonder Bar (1934). She is in five Shirley Temple films: Bright Eyes (1934), Curly Top (1935), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), Captain January (1936) and Little Miss Broadway (1938) and the Jane Withers film Little Miss Nobody (1936). She had wonderful ensemble roles in McFadden’s Flats (1935) with Walter C. Kelly, Andy Clyde, and Richard Cromwell and Life Begins at 40 (1936) with Cromwell, Will Rogers, Slim Summerville, and Sterling Holloway. She’s in the 1936 version of Ramona, Craig’s Wife (1936, based on the George Kelly play), the western classic Jesse James (1939), and had a small supporting role in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Darwell’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar was for her moving portrayal as Ma Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and was also in Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), 3 Godfathers (1948), and Wagon Master (1950). She also appeared in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), a couple of The Great Gildersleeve comedies, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), Caged (1950). The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), Excuse My Dust (1951), and Hound Dog Man (1959) with Fabian.

Throughout the 1950s Darwell worked primarily on television, on such shows as Ford Television Theatre, Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, Playhouse 90, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Real McCoys (on which she played Grandma McCoy).

Darwell’s last role had no lines, yet one of her best known: she is the little old lady in the “Feed the Birds” number in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964).

For more on silent and early film history, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.