So authentic did Beulah Bondi (1889-1981) seem in her often unsophisticated, homely, and rustic characters that it might surprise you to learn that she possessed a master’s degree! Granted, it was from Valparaiso University, located in the Indiana town where she grew up, about an hour from Chicago. Not Yale by a long sight: she was a middle-class woman from the middlest of the mid-west. But she had that wonderful face which would not be out of place on any farm (she was most disappointed when the role of Ma Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath went to Jane Darwell). And she had range and could play society women as well; she played the wife of an English Lord in The Invisible Ray (1936). Modern audiences probably know her best as Jimmy Stewart’s mother in It’s a A Wonderful Life (1946).
Bondi worked with stock companies throughout the midwest for several years following college, finally arriving at Broadway in 1925 in a play called One of the Family with Louise Closser Hale. This was followed up by the early Maxwell Anderson play Saturday’s Children (1927), which ran for ten months. It was her role in the original stage production of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene (1929) which brought her to Hollywood as she reprised the part in the 1931 screen version. Some of her other notable films include Arrowsmith (1931), Rain (1932), The Good Fairy (1935), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Buccaneer (1938), On Borrowed Time (1939, she reprised this role later on Broadway), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, as Smith’s mother), Remember the Night (1940), Our Town (1940), Penny Serenade (1941), The Shepherd of the Hills (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943), The Southerner (1945), The Snake Pit (1948), The Life of Riley (1949), The Baron of Arizona (1950), The Furies (1950), A Summer Place (1959), and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962).
After nearly a decade of retirement, Bondi returned to play Jimmy Stewart’s mother for the fifth time on the actor’s sit com The Jimmy Stewart Show in 1971. There followed one last spurt of activity on television: a 1972 made-for-TV horror movie starring Patty Duke called She Waits; a 1974 episode of the Gunsmoke spin-off Dirty Sally starring Jeanette Nolan; a role on the 1976 mini-series Lincoln starring Hal Holbrook; and two episodes of The Waltons in 1974 and 1976. That last appearance, her final one, earned her an Emmy at the age of 87! She was also twice nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars.
There was so much life in the old gal that — at the age of 91 — she did not die of natural causes! She tripped and fell, breaking several ribs, which punctured her lungs.
For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.