Esther Dale: Of “Carry Nation” and The Kettles

I am amused to learn that character actress Esther Dale (1885-1961) shares a birthday with Maude Eburne, for they played the same kinds of roles: grand dames, dowagers, busybodies, matrons of one kind or another. In addition to competing for roles, I picture them competing for birthday attention!

Dale was from South Carolina. Music was the original focus of her life. She studied at a Christian college in Vermont, and in Berlin, where she began to sing in professional concerts.When she returned to the U.S. she sang with major orchestras and ran the vocal program at Smith College. Work as an actress with stock companies prepared her for her first Broadway role, the title character in Carry Nation (1932). The play was short lived, but she was on her way at the age of 47. She went on to over 100 screen credits, mostly in supporting ior bit parts, including Curly Top (1935) with Shirley Temple; In Old Kentucky (1935) with Will Rogers; The Farmer in the Dell (1936) with Fred Stone; Fury (1936) with Spencer Tracy; Easy Living (1937); Dead End (1937); The Awful Truth (1937) with Cary Grant and Irene Dunn; The Women (1939); Swannee River (1939); Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940); 40 Little Mothers (1940) with Eddie Cantor; Mr and Mrs. Smith (1941) with Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard; several Blondie movies; several Ma and Pa Kettle movies (as the snobbish Birdie Hicks); Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952) and many others. Throughout the ’50s, she worked more in television, her final credit being a 1961 episode of The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, as Dobie’s grandmother.

To learn more about the history of American entertainment, 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.