Maude Eburne: A Hilarious Holy Terror

Today we celebrate the hilarious Holy terror Maude Eburne (Maud Eburne Riggs, 1875-1960).

As a comical Canadian character actress who started out in stock companies, and got a lot of mileage out of a less than fortunate pie-pan, Eburne shared a lot in common with Marie Dressler, I think. The list of films in which Eburne gave memorable and hilarious turns (out of 120 screen credits) includes The Bat Whispers (1930, her first talkie), The Guardsman (1931, with Lunt and Fontanne), Blonde Crazy (1931, with Cagney and Joan Blondell), Her Majesty Love (1931, with Marilyn Miller, Ben Lyon and W.C. Fields), The Passionate Plumber (1932, with Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante and Polly Moran), Polly of the Circus (1932, with Marion Davies and Clark Gable), The Vampire Bat (1933), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), Doughnuts and Society (1936, a rare co-starring role, opposite Louise Fazenda), Poppy (1936, with W.C. Fields), Every Day’s a Holiday (1937, with Mae West), Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1939), the all-star Li’l Abner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942) with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, The Princess and the Pirate (1944, with Bob Hope and Virginia Mayo), Leave it to Blondie (1945), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947 with Danny Kaye), et al. Towards the end her parts grew smaller, but you couldn’t miss that mug with its blazing eyes and large, pouting mouth or that voice! How she ever escaped playing the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, I’ll never know.

Eburne had played regional stock theatres for decades before ascending to Broadway in 1913 with The Old Firm (in a cast that also included the very similar Alison Skipworth). Onstage, Eburne specialized in comical servants but she also played grand dames. Her second Broadway play A Pair of Sixes (1914) with Hale Hamilton was made into a silent film in 1918, with Eburne reprising her role as Coddles in her first screen appaearance. Hamilton was replaced by Taylor Holmes in the movie version. Eburne also appeared with Holmes in the 1919 screen comedy Taxi. She returned to Broadway where she was a mainstay throughout the entirety of the 1920s, returning to films only when talkies came in. Her final screen credit was a bit part in Republic’s Belle Le Grand (1951) starring Vera Ralston, directed by Allan Dwan. Over 75 years old by this point, Eburne spent her remaining near-decade in retirement.

To learn more about show biz please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.