A Biography of Edna May Oliver

Edna was one of the best known and most popular character actresses in the 1930's. Born Edna Mae Nutter in Malden, Massachusetts, she was (on her father's side) a descendant of John Quincy Adams.

Because of her marvelous voice, Edna's father wanted her to be a singer. However, besides being tall and awkward, to Edna's dismay, her father compelled her to wear braids.

He died when Edna was only 14. She was forced to quit school and take a job as a dressmaker's and milliner's assistant.

Two years later, one of her uncles helped her to get a job in a light opera company and, later on, versatile Edna played piano in an all-ladies orchestra.

In 1911, when she was 28 years old, Edna starred in the Boston Stock Company's production of, "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch".

In 1916, five years and several companies later, Edna decided she could now take on Broadway, but sadly she wasn't readily received. By December of that year, she was down to "beans and bread". She then landed a part in The Master (starring Arnold Daly) and received a grand total of $75 a week. The drawback was that she provide her own costumes. She was quoted as saying that that left her with "about two cents a week."

Two months later, Edna quit and got a role in "Oh, Boy!". For those who are interested, this eventually brought her salary up to $125 a week.

Much later, and after a series of flops, Edna's agent had a difficult time getting her any parts at all.

In 1923, she eventually got a part as a servant in the Broadway play "Icebound". (which won the Pulitzer prise in drama that year) Due to the great revues she received from just this small part, Edna became an established and respected actress.

"Icebound" was afterwards made into a movie and Edna was again cast in the servant's role. A New York Times critic liked Edna so well that he wrote: "(Miss Oliver) is a capital actress and makes every little situation tell, especially when she is sulky and disgruntled."

Edna appeared in many films after this. One that I would LOVE to see (anyone know where I can get a copy?) is "Let's Get Married" where Edna plays an intoxicated hymn-book buyer. Again, the NY Times critics raved: "Edna May Oliver gives a decidedly capable performance in a relatively unimportant part. One only regrets that she is not beheld in more sequences of this effort."

That was Edna's last silent film and, until she got her first "talky", she appeared in several Broadway plays: In His Arms (October, 1924) and Isabel (January, 1925).

In September, 1925, she appeared with Mary Boland (terrific in "Pride and Prejudice") in "The Cradle Snatchers". This turned out to be one of the biggest comedy hits of the season. Leslie Howard (who had acted with Edna in "Isabel") attended the play and was quoted as saying: "Very amusing in spots. I think Mary Boland could have been good but is pretty terrible now. She kept spitting and exploding like a fiery tomcat. I could hardly sit still. Edna May Oliver was quite the reverse. Beautifully restrained. She spotted me in the third row and made a face at me." (ha!)

In 1927 Edna took a trip to Europe for a few months. After her return in July she told a reporter that the gossip regarding her return to movies was not true. She preferred the theater to movies even though it paid less.

On January 24th, 1928, Edna took the plunge and married Newark broker, David Pratt. He was 37. Five years younger than Edna. The New York Times announced that the couple would "maintain separate residences." Whether that also meant separate beds is anybody's guess.

According to Edna's later report, their marriage only lasted 2 months. Edna didn't obtain a legal divorce until four years later on the grounds of desertion.

"The Saturday Night Kid" was Edna's first "talkie", a comedy co-starring such great contemporaries as Clara Bow and Jean Arthur.

In the spring of 1930, Edna received a call from RKO production chief William LeBaron: "All right. button up your overcoat, come out and join the family!" That's when Edna moved to Hollywood.

Her first movie for RKO was "Half Shot at Sunrise (1930) starring BertWheeler and Robert Wollsey (a popular comedy team at that time). She appeared in two more films with them (Cracekd Nuts, Hold 'em Jail), becoming a sort of "Margaret Dumont" to the pair.

"Cimarron", 1931, an epic western about the settelment of Oklahoma, won the Academy Award as "Best Picture of the Year".

The first time she received "top billing", Edna starred in Fanny Foley herself (1931), the sentimental story of a vaudeville performer & her family problems. Though New York critics called the film "tedious", for Edna there was only praise. "Miss Oliver makes the most of her part...with her commendable acting..."

Her next film was better, Ladies of the Jury. Edna portrays a society woman in the jury for a murder trial. As "Mrs. Livingston Baldwin Crane" she convinces the jury that the defendant is in fact innocent. Do you get the feeling that Edna played characters who reflected her own soul?

Stewart Palmer wrote the "Penguin Pool Murder" (1932), Edna's best starring role. His colleague, Ellery Queen, once enthusiastically commented, "Wasn't she magnificent in the role? Hildy to a T!"

So "magnificent" that they cast Edna two more times as Miss Withers in "Murder on the Blackboard" and "Murder on a Honeymoon" When Edna left RKO, attempts by others actresses to fill her role just didn't work out.

In 1933, in one of her better supporting roles, Edna starred in It's Great to be Alive. With the humorous plot that all the men in the world, except for one(!), die of a disease called "masculitis". Edna plays a scientist who invents a synthestic male...somewhat like Frankestein. However her "creation" goes on the fritz when she turns on the juice. Said a NY film critic, "Some of the episodes are highly amusing, generally because of Miss Oliver's presence." That's our Edna.

George Arliss once said, "Edna can make me laugh longer and more spontaneously than any other actress on the stage." She played opposite Arliss in the the 1934 film "The Last Generation"

"David Coperfield" displays one of Edna's great performances as she denounces the evil Mr. Murdstone.

Joan Crawford wrote of Edna in her autobiography, "'No More Ladies' wasn't my picture. It went strictly to Edna May Oliver as a highball-drinking grandmother, a grand-dam who wore trains and said, 'Scram!'"

Whether a small obscure role or as a supporting actress, Edna put everything she had into it. In a "A Tale of Two Cities" there is a scene where Edna's character kills Madame Defarge (played by Blanche Yurka). In Miss Yurka's autobiography she stated that the fight scene took two days to film, "When it was all over, both Miss Oliver and I took to our beds for several days to recuperate and she swore she would never do another such scene."

As the nurse in Romeo and Juliet (1936), Edna said that the costume she wore was more difficult than doing a Shakespearean play! "Wait'll you see the thing! It weighs something like 30 pounds. It's made of sort of a red burlap. Very elegant and heavy as all get out! After 8 hours of that you stop worrying about the Shakespearean addicts who will write in to say that they saw Sadie Glutz play the nurse...in 1812 and are surprised that a person like you would have the NER-R-RVE."

The reviews that Edna actually received for that part were mixed. Frank S. Nugent of the NY Times said, "...the very nurse of the Bard's imagination; droll, wise, impish in her humor and such a practical romanticist at that. She is grand." Newsweek was less flattering, "Edna May Liver barks and squeaks in her finest hoity-toity way throughout the part of the Nurse." Otis Ferguson of The New Republic "Edna May Oliver as a good Nurse, but occassionally as an old war-horse smelling the sawdust."

Did you know that Edna played alongside Clark Gable? That was in the film "Parnell" (1937). Unfortunately, the film was a "disaster". But, thank God, her next film, My Dear Mis Aldrich (same year), got great reviews. "Metro has concocted a delightfully humorous vehicle for the comedy talents of Edna May Oliver and she doesn't miss a chance to wring every possible chuckle out of the film. Not a big produciton, the picture has, however, a wide audience appeal, particularly in the family spots." (quoted from Boxoffice)

In that same year, poor Edna ended up in another "turkey" called Rosalie which starred other well known actors: Nelson Eddy, Eleanor Powell and Frank Morgan. Oh, well.

In "Drums Along the Mohawk" (1939), just two years before Edna's death, she received her first and last Oscar nomination*: Best performance by a supporting actress. New York Times' critic, Frank Nugent, had this to say: "Miss Oliver could not have been bettered as the warlike Widow McKlennar, with a tongue sharper than a tomahawk and a soft spot in her heart for a handsome man." The New Republic's Otis Ferguson commended director John Ford for "restraining" Miss Oliver. "Restraint is not brought to Miss Oliver until you sit on her head."

Oddly, today, the film Edna was nominated for isn't one of the ones she's remembered for. (*The actual award went to a well-deserving Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind.)

Edna and Mary Boland were reunited in "Pride and Prejudice" (1940). Edna plays the part of the snobby Lady Catherine deBourgh, or as Edna called her, "Lady Pushface." Otis Ferguson (The New Republic) now complimented Edna saying that he thought her performance was "just the right mixture of the infuriating and the funny." Indeed it was seeing Edna in this film that first inspired me to create this website. What a marvelous lady she was.

After making her last film, Lydia (1941) Edna only lived one more year. She died at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood after a long illness of intestinal disorder. Her close friend Virginia Hammond was at her bedside. Miss Hammond's comment afterwards was, "She died without ever being aware of the gravity of her situation. She just peacefully went to sleep." It was November 9, 1942, Edna's 59th birthday.

One obituary of the time remarked: "Her life had been a study of contrasts, but throughout it she had remained steadfast to her own motto: "Be yourself!"

In an interview in 1931, Edna revealed a deeper side to her otherwise "comic" air. Recalled her shock regarding what a critic had written: "Edna May Oliver looked her usual self - as though she'd just been taken out of harness." As usual, she tried to see the positive side, "Oh yes, I'm grateful in a way for this face, now that I've gotten used to it. I know it's brought me this success. I know it's given me the chance to make and save enough money so I won't spend the end of my days in an old ladies's home somewhere. But all the same I'm awoman, and what woman doesn't long to be beautiful?" I think Edna knows now that she had the kind of beauty that leaves a legacy of happiness. Thanks Edna for all the joy.