5/6/20: Mothers in the Movies

by Fred Muenz

To celebrate Mother’s Day, it is only appropriate that we honor several memorable actresses whose performances as movie mothers contributed to some of our most beloved and classic films.

Jane Darwell is best remembered for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Ma Joad, the woman who holds her family together in the classic film THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940). Born Patti Mary Woodard in Missouri in October, 1879, her father was president of a railroad and a direct descendant of Andrew Jackson. When young Patti voiced a desire to become an opera singer or performer, her father objected, claiming that her appearing on stage would “sully” the family name. Despite his objection, she took Jane Darwell as her stage name, moved to Chicago, and began performing with stock companies, opera troupes and even a circus, before making her silent film debut in 1913. Two years later, after twenty films, she returned to the stage, not to appear in another movie until 1930. Because of her matronly appearance and mannerism, she was quickly type-cast as a mother or grandmother. She once joked that she had played Henry Fonda’s mother so many times that they called each other “ma” and “son”. She retired in 1959, after more than 170 films, and took up residence in the Motion Picture Country Home. Offered a role in MARY POPPINS (1964), she initially refused, until Walt Disney personally visited and convinced her to take accept the role, despite the fact that she was frail and in ill health. Returning to retirement, she died in August, 1967, at age 87.

Although her name is rarely recognized, English-born actress Margaret Wycherly is best remembered for playing two vastly different mothers in two classic films, SERGEANT YORK (1941), and WHITE HEAT (1949). Her roles in these two films ranged from the quiet, long-suffering rural Mother York, mother of war hero Alvin York (Gary Cooper), to the ruthless Ma Jarrett, mother of the deranged psychopathic killer Cody Jarrett (James Cagney). Born Margaret De Wolfe in London, England in October, 1881, she was the daughter of a Canadian doctor father and an American mother. Primarily a stage actress, first in London and finally in the U.S., she made her first film appearance in 1915, after which she returned to the stage, until making her second film in 1929. While her career included only 22 films, she was nominated for an Academy Award for SERGEANT YORK and gave critically acclaimed performances in such outstanding films as RANDOM HARVEST (1942), THE YEARLING (1946) and FOREVER AMBER (1947). She retired in 1953 and died at age 74 in June, 1956.

By age nine, Beulah Bondi had already been bitten by the “acting bug” and appeared in the title role of Little Lord Fauntleroy in a local production. Born Beulah Bondy in Chicago in May, 1889, her mother, Eva, was an author, while her father Abraham, worked in real estate. After receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Valparaiso University, she joined a stock company and made her professional stage debut. She finally made her Broadway debut in December, 1925, playing a 70-year old servant. At age 36, she was already type-cast as an older woman. She changed the spelling of her name from Bondy to Bondi because part of the letter “y” would fall below the other letters when her name appeared on the Broadway marquees, while the letter “i” remained on an even level with the other letters. After appearing in a series of Broadway hits, the now 43-year old actress made her film debut in STREET SCENE (1931), recreating a role she had originated on Broadway. Although nominated twice for an Academy Award, in films, as on Broadway, she was type-cast as a mother or grandmother figure. She played James Stewart’s mother four times, including MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), and most famously as Ma Bailey, in the classic film, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). In the 1960’s, she turned to television, making guest star appearances in many of the popular shows of the time. Beulah Bondi died of pulmonary complications caused by broken ribs suffered when she tripped over her cat. She was 91. One of her greatest regrets was that she was passed over for the role of Ma Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), a role which went to Jane Darwell.

Although primarily known for her TV work on The Bob Cummings Show and as Marlo Thomas’ mother on That Girl, film fans will always remember Rosemary DeCamp in the role of Nellie Cohan, mother of George M. Cohan in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942). Interestingly, she was eleven years younger than Cagney, who was playing her son. Born in Arizona in December, 1910, Rosemary DeCamp began her show business career in 1937, in the role of secretary/nurse to Dr. Christian on the long-running radio show of the same name. Her first film role came in 1941, before being cast in her most famous role as Nellie Cohan the following year. During her busy film career, she played mother to George and Ira Gershwin in RHAPSODY IN BLUE (1945) and Doris Day’s mother in two films. During her many TV appearances, she also filled in as mother figure on Petticoat Junction and as mother of Shirley Partridge on The Partridge Family. In 1946, her home was damaged when a plane piloted by Howard Hughes crashed into her bedroom while she and her husband, a municipal court judge, were home. She and her husband were uninjured, while Hughes suffered several broken bones and cuts and bruises. Hughes paid for the repairs to both her home and a neighbor’s home which was also damaged. After a long career in movies, radio, and television, Rosemary DeCamp died in February, 2001, at age 90.

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