May Robson: Grand Old Lady of the American Stage

Today, May Robison (Mary Robison, 1858-1942) is best remembered for starring as the original Apple Annie in Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (1933). The film was released during the 50th year of Robson’s professional career as an actress, with nearly another decade left to go. That’s astounding enough, but even more surprising is that she went on stage relatively late in life at the age of 25 (in a time in history when many actors started in the theatre as children or teenagers). And a lot of life and experience had been crammed into that quarter century.

Robson spent her first dozen years in New South Wales, Australia. Her biological father, who died when she was a toddler, was a hotelier and operator of a stage coach line. Her stepfather was the mayor of Albury, a town in that colony. When she was 12 the family moved to London. She was educated in private schools, studied French, and spent time in Paris. At the tender age of 17, she married 18 year old Charles Gore. The pair moved to the U.S., operating a cattle ranch in Texas for a couple of years, moving to New York City when their scheme proved discouraging. Gore died soon thereafter, leaving her to raise their three children, two of whom perished when they were young. Prior to becoming an actress she taught painting (one of her attainments from her expensive education), did calligraphy for social events, and created and sold fancy embroidery.

Robson’s stage debut at age 25 was in a play called Hoop of Gold at the Brooklyn Grand Opera House. Her professional surname originated when a printer left the “i” out by accident; she is said to have retained it for “good luck”. Between 1888 and 1911 Robson appeared in 20 Broadway plays, mostly for Charles Frohman, including things like the American premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest (1895); Are You a Mason? (1901) with John and Sally Rice, Arnold Daly and Cecil B. DeMille; Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1903), with Jane Cowl; and It Happened in Nordland (1904) with Lew Fields, Marie Cahill, Harry Davenport, and Bessie Clayton. After The Three Lights (1911), which she co-wrote, she toured America with her own stock company through 1926.

Then began her screen career, which started in earnest during the final days of silents and continued to the end of Robson’s life. Naturally, in this last leg of her career, she generally portrayed mature, and then downright old ladies, often ones of a haughty and judgmental character. In addition to her Oscar nominated role in Lady for a Day, her 66 films include King of Kings (1927), The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary (1927, having also starred in the Broadway version 20 years earlier), Chicago (1927), The She-Wolf (1931), Red Headed Woman (1932), Strange Interlude (1932), Little Orphan Annie (1932), If I Had a Million (1933), Dinner at Eight (1933), Alice in Wonderland (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), A Star is Born (1937), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), Bringing Up Baby (1938), They Made Me a Criminal (1939), Irene (1940), Million Dollar Baby (1941), and Joan of Paris (1942), her last.

Robson, by the way, Robson is a twice-over Academy trivia question: first Australian to be nominated and earliest born to be nominated!

For more on show business history, including radio and TV variety shows, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; for more on early film, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.