Edna May Oliver died in 1942,aged 59. She had been very successful in Hollywood in the 30s and would no doubt have had the same success in the 40s.
Edna May perfected disdain – that distinctive face,pursed lips,that lifting of the shoulders and folding of the arms,that haughtiness.
When she tells Greer Garson in Pride and Prejudice, “ I am seriously displeased.”, you feel nobody else could deliver the line like Edna May.
And yet, when you see her as the amateur detective, Hildegarde Withers,there’s a warmth and a twinkle in the eye,you know it’s more bark than bite.
Born in Massachusetts ( she always sounded English), it’s not clear how Edna May Nutter ended up in show business,but she did – around the turn of the 20th century she was playing piano in an all girl orchestra. By the early 1920s, she was on Broadway and in silent films.
Edna May played ‘Parthy’ in the original 1927 Broadway production of Show Boat. Sadly, she didn’t repeat her role in the 1936 film version.
By 1930 Hollywood was her home. She was married in 1928 and divorced in 1933.
She was in CIMARRON in 1931. Well suited to period films, she was the severe ‘Aunt March’ in Little Women: the red queen in Alice in Wonderland: the warm ‘Aunt Betsey’ in David Copperfield: and the nurse to Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet.
She was a good friend (with the wonderful name,’Malvina Wormser’, to Irene Dunne in Ann Vickers.
And she was popular in 3 light thrillers as the teacher Hildegarde Withers who teams up with James Gleason to solve a few murders.
I’ve seen Penguin Pool Murders and Murder on the Blackboard, and Edna May and James Gleason are a great team.
She left the RKO Withers series when she signed for MGM in 1935. (Zasu Pitts then played Hildegarde twice, and Helen Broderick once.)
An Oscar nomination came her way in 1939 for Drums Along the Mohawk. Her last film was Lydia in 1941.
I’d love to see some of her early 30s films – Laugh and Get Rich,Let’s Get Married and Ladies of the Jury.
Edna May Oliver was one of that great band of character actors so beloved in classic Hollywood, always excellent in support of the stars, and very often scene stealing!
I look forward to filling in the gaps in my viewing of her films.
Here are a couple of her funny scenes from the Hildegarde Withers series:
Penguin Pool Murder:
I’d never trust a man who is a penguin fancier.”
James Gleason: “I’m convinced that you and me should incorporate.”
Edna May: “Are you proposing that we should start a detective bureau?”
James: No,I’m just proposing.What are you doing?”
Edna May: “I’m just accepting.”
James:”OK, the license bureau closes in 15 minutes.”
Murder on the Blackboard:
To James Gleason (as Oscar Piper):
“Stop acting like a movie detective.”
and in the final scene:
James: “A fella could come up and see you sometime.”
Edna May: “Why,Oscar Piper, you dreadful man!”