Robson, May (1858–1942)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Robson, May (1858–1942)

Australian-born actress. Name variations: Mary Robison. Born Mary Jeannette Robison on April 19, 1858, in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia; died on October 20, 1942, in Los Angeles, California; one of four children of Henry Robison (a retired sea captain) and Julia Robison; attended convent schools in England, Brussels, and Paris; married Charles Livingston Gore (a rancher), in 1874 (died 1884); married Augustus Homer Brown (a police surgeon), on May 29, 1889 (died 1920); children: (first marriage) three.

Selected filmography:

The Trial of the Lonesome Pine (1914); How Molly Malone Made Good (1915); A Night Out (1916); The Prodigal Wife (1918); A Broadway Saint (1919); The Lost Battalion (1919); Paradise (1926); The King of Kings (1927); The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary (1927); The Angel of Broadway (1927); A Harp in Hawk (1927); Chicago (1927); The Blue Danube (1928); Mother's Millions (1931); Letty Lynton (1932); Red-Headed Woman (1932); Strange Interlude (1932); Little Orphan Annie (1932); The White Sister (1933); Reunion in Vienna (1933); Dinner at Eight (1933); Lady for a Day (1933); Dancing Lady (1933); Alice in Wonderland (1933); You Can't Buy Everything (1934); Straight Is the Way (1934); Lady by Choice (1934); Grand Old Girl (1935); Vanessa (1935); Her Love Story (1935); Reckless (1935); Anna Karenina (1935); Wife vs. Secretary (1936); Rainbow on the River (1936); A Star Is Born (1937); The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938); Bringing Up Baby (1938); The Texans (1938); Four Daughters (1938); They Made Me a Criminal (1939); Daughters Courageous (1939); Nurse Edith Cavell (1939); Four Wives (1939); Granny Get Your Gun (1940); Irene (1940); Four Mothers (1941); Playmates (1941); Joan of Paris (1942).

Described as the "grand old lady" of stage and screen, May Robson stumbled into acting out of necessity and became one of America's most enduring and beloved character actresses. Robson's career, spanning 60 years, encompassed the gas-lit theaters of New York's Bowery as well as the modern Technicolor cameras of the Hollywood studio.

Robson was born Mary Jeannette Robison in 1858 in New South Wales, Australia, where her father Henry, a sea captain, had retired for his health. Following his death, her mother Julia Robison took her four young children to London, where Robson attended Sacred Heart Convent. She later spent time at convent schools in Brussels and Paris, before abandoning her education at the age of 16 to elope with Charles Livingston Gore, who was just two years her senior. After several years in Fort Worth, Texas, the couple moved to New York, where Gore died in 1884, leaving Robson a widow with three small children to support. Over the next few years, Robson earned a paltry living by painting china and menus for Tiffany's and by teaching painting to children. Two of her own children, a girl and a boy, died during this period, one of diphtheria and the other of scarlet fever.

Robson was passing a theatrical agency when, on a whim, she decided to audition for a role in the melodrama Hoop of Gold. She was cast as both the ingenue and the cockney servant, Tilly. It was the latter role which gained the most attention when Robson made her debut at the Brooklyn Grand Opera House on September 17, 1883. From that time on, she made an effort to develop her talent for more eccentric parts, disguising her face behind layers of greasepaint to take on the often grotesque appearance of the stock comic characters. "I can't act unless I'm a fright," she once admitted. "If I appear as May Robson unmolested, I'm so self-conscious that I'm a dead failure."

Robson performed with a number of different theater companies during her early career, including the A.M. Palmer Company at the Madison Square Theater, Daniel Frohman's company at the Lyceum, and Charles Frohman's at the Empire. Not long after her second marriage to Augustus Homer Brown, a New York police surgeon, in 1889, Robson began acting under her own management. Over the next several years, she was able to obtain a greater variety of roles, notably in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1904), in which she played Queen Elizabeth I , her first serious role, and Cousin Billy (1905), in which she appeared undisguised for the first time in 18 years. She received particular acclaim for her roles in The Mountain Climber (1906) and The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary (1907), her first starring role and one she would reprise on tour for a decade. In 1911, Robson tried her hand at writing, thinking she could create her own starring vehicle. Her first effort, The Three Lights (later changed to A Night Out), written in collaboration with Charles T. Dazey, failed in production. She never put pen to paper again.

As early as 1914, Robson began appearing in silent films for Vitagraph and other companies, but it was not until the death of her second husband, in 1920, that she began to break her ties to New York and concentrate more on her movie career. Already into her 60s when she moved to Hollywood in 1927, she made the film version of The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary that year, then went on to play a series of character roles that endeared her to movie audiences throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. Usually cast as the domineering society matron or the crusty old sidekick, she is best remembered for her remarkable portrayal of the Damon Runyon character Apple Annie in Frank Capra's Lady for a Day (1933), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. Also notable were her performances in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Robson also won the love and respect of her Hollywood colleagues, who affectionately called her "Muzzey" and marveled at her dedication and stamina. She continued to work until shortly before her death, even though cataracts in both eyes rendered her nearly blind. The actress died shortly after completing Joan of Paris (1942), at age 84.


Block, Maxine, ed. Current Biography 1942. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts