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Darwell, Jane (1879–1967)

Darwell, Jane (1879–1967)

American actress who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her characterization of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Born Patti Woodward in Palmyra, Missouri, on October 15, 1879; died of a heart attack at the Motion Picture Country Home on August 13, 1967; daughter of W.R. Woodward (a railroad tycoon and president of the Louisville Southern Railroad); attended Miss Loring's private school, Chicago, a girls' school in Louisville, Kentucky, and Dana Hall, Boston; apprenticed with the Chicago Opera House.

Selected films:

Rose of the Rancho (1914); Brewster's Millions (1920); Tom Sawyer (1930); Back Street (1932); Design for Living (1934); Life Begins at 40 (1935); Captain January (1936); Slave Ship (1937); Three Blind Mice (1938); Jesse James (1939); The Rains Came (1939); Gone with the Wind (1939); The Grapes of Wrath (1940); All That Money Can Buy (1941); Private Nurse (1941); The Ox-Bow Incident (1942); The Impatient Years (1944); Captain Tugboat Annie (1946); My Darling Clementine (1946); Three Godfathers (1948); Wagonmaster (1950); Caged (1950); The Lemon Drop Kid (1951); Fourteen Hours (1951); We're Not Married (1952); The Sun Shines Bright (1952); Hit the Deck (1955); The Last Hurrah (1958); Mary Poppins (1964).

In 1940, a plump, middle-aged actress named Jane Darwell received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her characterization of Ma Joad in the film version of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, a performance that is still considered one of the best character portrayals to ever come out of Hollywood. For Darwell, the award marked a quarter-century in films, but she still had another 20 years of work ahead of her. Recognized more by her peers than the public, Darwell's name is associated with the cadre of actors whose outstanding performances hold films together by providing support for the more richly rewarded stars with whom they share the screen.

Darwell was raised at the family ranch near Iron Mountain, Missouri, and in the cities where her father had business interests—Chicago, St. Louis, and Louisville. Her early ambition was to become a bareback rider. After a prestigious education at some of the finest schools in the country, she decided to become an actress. Compromising with her parents who wanted her to pursue a more respectable career in light opera, Darwell spent two years apprenticing at the Chicago Opera House, after which she took up acting studies in London and Paris, where she also played some minor roles.

From 1913 to 1915, Darwell was a member of the pioneering Lasky Film Company, appearing in the early silent films Rose of the Rancho, The Master Mind, and Brewster's Millions. Most of her early career was spent alternating between stage and film work, and the resulting wide range of experience eased her later transition into talkies. During a two-season stint on Broadway, Darwell had a role in Sidney Howard's first play, Swords (1921). She also appeared with Henry Duffy's company in San Francisco and on tour in Portland, Seattle, and other cities along the West Coast. From 1930 on, however, most of her work would be in film.

Darwell started and ended her career in character roles. She appeared in countless films throughout the 1930s, usually cast as domineering motherly types that she came to despise. "Those mealy-mouthed women," she called them, "how I hated them. I played so many of them—those genial small-town wives. I was getting awfully tired of them, and the studio didn't have anything else for me, so we were preparing regretfully to part." As she faced this juncture, 20th Century-Fox tested her for the part of Ma Joad only out of politeness. With 53 actresses in contention, Darwell's test was viewed after the studio executives had decided on someone else. Director John Ford requested that they see Darwell before finalizing their decision, and her characterization turned out to be so outstanding that they cast her. Darwell found much to admire in Ma Joad. "She is such a fine strong character," she said, "able to endure anything. All these terrible things happen to her. She still manages to go on…. Oh, it's a grand part."

In 1940 when she received the Academy Award, Darwell lived on an estate outside Hollywood with her brother's grandnieces, 14 dogs, and 17 cats. Comfortable with middle age because it allowed her to forget about her figure and the vagaries of love, she looked forward to years of acting. Darwell continued to grace the screen until 1964, three years before her death.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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