Sunday, September 23, 2012

What a Character! Blogathon: Canadian Edition, Miss Lucile Watson and Miss Maude Eburne

Lucile Watson
May 27, 1879 - June 24, 1962

Quebec City, the historic French settlement, trading post and sometime capitol of New France and Lower Canada, was the birthplace of Rosine Mary Lucile Watson on May 27, 1879.  Educated in one of the predominantly Catholic province's many convent schools, Lucile would retain the strong conservative values of her upbringing throughout her life.  However, the glamorous and quick-witted young lady would demand more from life than Quebec could offer.  She wanted a life on the stage so the teenaged Lucile left her old world  behind to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.  Lucile was 23 years old when she made her Broadway debut in the 1902 production of Hearts Aflame.  For the next 20 years Broadway was her home.  Lucile could play anything, but was most popular in the chic comedies of the day.  She was a particular favourite of Brooklyn born playwright Clyde Fitch after starring in the 1909 production of his The City.
Lucile Watson, young actress

Sometime during the ragtime period Lucile was briefly married to fellow Canadian actor Rockliffe Fellowes, star of Raoul Walsh's 1915 film Regeneration, whose film career lasted through the 1930s.

Lucile appeared in two plays by Louis Evan Shipman, 1918s The Fountain of Youth and 1922s Fools Errant.  In 1928 at the age of 50, Lucile married the playwright but was sadly widowed five years later when Shipman died in France on his 64th birthday.

During her widowhood Lucile made the most of her acting career continuing to shine on Broadway in such classic roles as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.  While a starring comedienne on The Great White Way, the movies generally gave Lucile heavier fare.  The overall impression of her cinematic career is one of the dominating, patrician mother.  If we look closely at some of these women we find, here and there, a kind heart and a twinkle in the eye.  These qualities are abundant in her first credited film role as La Contessa la Brierra in 1934s What Every Woman Knows from the J.M. Barrie play.  Helen Hayes as the woman behind the successful politician Brian Aherne would be lost without Lucile's kindness and mentorship.

It is difficult to find something nice to say about Harriet Mason in 1939s Made for Each Other.  Perhaps we can feel sorry for the foolishness that causes so much heartbreak in her refusal to accept surprise daughter-in-law Carole Lombard into son James Stewart's life.

Audiences in the 30s and today, like the character Mary Haines in The Women, are shocked  by Mrs. Morehead's advice to her daughter to overlook her husband's affair.  Yet, she doesn't demand, she offers support.  Certainly the advice to watch out for her "friends" was right on the money.

I find no malice in Lady Cronin's treatment of Myra in Waterloo Bridge.  She is merely a tool of Fate.  A glorious, tear-soaked, heartbreaking Fate.

 
 Watch on the Rhine
George Colouris, Donald Woods (another Canuck), Lucile Watson
Bette Davis, Paul Lukas 

In addition to a busy Hollywood career, Broadway still had a firm claim on Lucile Watson.  In 1941 she played Fanny Farrelly in the hugely successful Watch on the Rhine by Lillian Hellman.  the 1943 Warner Brothers production would bring Lucile and leading man Paul Lukas west to recreate their stage roles.  Lukas would win a most well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for his moving performance.  Lucile Watson was nominated in the Supporting Actress category as the Washington society maton whose family is intimately impacted by world events.  The award that year was given to Katina Paxinou for For Whom the Bell Tolls.  The other nominees were Paulette Goddard for So Proudly We Hail and Gladys Cooper and Anne Revere for The Song of Bernadette.

We can add Barbara Stanwyck to the list of Lucile's big-name Hollywood children in 1946s My Reputation.  Here we have a genuine generation gap as young widow Jessica Drummond not only has to face small-minded gossips and her disapproving children, but her imperious mother, a woman who has always gotten her way.

 
The Thin Man Goes Home
Harry Davenport, Lucile Watson
Myrna Loy, William Powell
 
Lucile continued to be a busy actress.  Aunt March in Little Women, the gossipy and very funny aristocrat Princess Bitotska in The Emperor Waltz and facing off against Joan Crawford in Harriet Craig.  Would you want anyone else as Nick Charles' mother in The Thin Man Goes Home?   Radio anthology programs and talk shows where Lucile Watson could speak her mind.  Broadway again as Cornelia Van Gorder in a 1953 revival of Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Bat.  Lucile Watson would retire in her 70s remaining in her beloved NYC, passing from this life from a heart attack at age 83.

Some other movies to enjoy with Lucile include Three Smart Girls, Sweethearts, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Rage in Heaven, The Great Lie, Tomorrow is Forever, The Razor's Edge and Julia Misbehaves.

 Maude Eburne
November 10, 1875 - October 15, 1960

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players...".  We may be the leading lady in our own dramas and comedies, but miss the mark when it comes to public consumption.  With her low centre of gravity and non-glamorous features Ontario's Maude Eburne was a born character actress.  Now part of the City of Oakville, Bronte-on-the-Lake was a fishing village when Maude was born there in 1875.  Currently it is a quick commuter train ride between that spot and Toronto, but it wasn't so convenient in the days of steam and stagecoach.  However, Toronto was always a good theatre town and it was the place a determined young woman with an alternately wry and bawdy sense of humour, and elocution lessons under her belt had to go if she wanted to be an actress.

Determination and talent can take you a long way.  It can take you from a fishing village in Ontario to the lights of Broadway.  Mind you, it was a winding path of stock companies and touring every place in between, but when Maude Eburne hit the big town in 1913 at age 38, she knew how to make 'em laugh and make 'em cry.  She would appear in 14 Broadway shows between 1913 and 1930.  After all, most plays at that time would call for a maid.  One of her successes as Coddles in 1914s A Pair of Sixes would be filmed in 1918.

Along with the jobs and the applause, Maude found time to marry a stage producer named Gene Hill.  She was widowed in 1932 as her Hollywood career was beginning and Maude would stay on the west coast the rest of her days.

Maude Eburne's career in pictures was a full and busy time with bona fide film classics interspersed with cult classics, B programmers and uncredited bits.  Featured player or bit player, Maude always gave one hundred percent.  In 1944s Henry Aldrich Plays Cupid she is billed as "homely woman".  Did it rankle or was Maude of the "if you can't fix it, feature it" mind?  I prefer her billing in the 1948 western The Plunderers as "Old Dame at Wedding".

 
 The Bat Whispers
Maude Eburne, Grayce Hampton

Lizzie Allen: "I stuck by you when you was a theosophist and a suffragetist.  I've seen you through socialism, Fletcherism and rheumatism.  But when it comes to spookism I'm through!"

One of Maude's early talkies is 1930s The Bat Whispers, director Roland West's re-do of his 1926 version of Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Bat.  As domestic Lizzie Allen to the intrepid Cornelia Van Gorder, who is not afraid of things that go bump in the night, Maude gets to spout sass to Grayce Hampton.  She also gets to run around an old dark house in a nightgown with her hair in curl papers making the most ungodly shrieks this side of Una O'Connor. 

Classic movie fans can find Maude, along with Lunt and Fontanne, in The Guardsman.  She's an incarcerated Madame with a raucous sense of humour in Ladies They Talk About.  She's Frank McHugh's chorister mother in the funny ending to Here Comes the Navy.  She positively steals the show as Gussie Schnappmann in 1933s The Vampire Bat.


 Ruggles of Red Gap
Zazu Pitts, Charles Laughton, Charles Ruggles, Maude Eburne
Just what was it Lincoln said at Gettysburg?

My favourite of Maude Eburne's roles is Ma Pettingill in Leo McCarey's 1935 version of Ruggles of Red Gap.  In this story of a third generation valet who has independence thrust upon him Maude's "Ma" is the salt of the earth.  Unimaginably wealthy from oil, Ma  indulges the snobbish whims of her daughters, but democratically treats all men the same.  It is primarily Ma Pettingill's attitude and example that guides Ruggles.  She is a dear.

Maude is the housekeeper Mrs. Hastings in the Dr. Christian series starring Jean Hersholt as the fictionalized doctor who delivered the Dionne quintuplet.

The Border Legion
Maude Eburne, "Gabby" Hayes

Honest John Whittaker:  "Miss Hurricane, where I come from chivalry is not dead."
Hurricane Hattie McGuire:  "Well, in this territory they got it gaspin' for breath!"

Maude had nice roles in three Roy Rogers movies, Colorado, Man from Oklahoma and The Border Legion.  These delightfully paired her with George "Gabby" Hayes with whom she could alternately spar or coyly flirt.  Talk about two old pros!

1942s The Boogie Man Will Get You is one of the goofiest movies you'll ever see, and you must see this screwy mash-up of Arsenic and Old Lace meets George Washington Slept Here plus a healthy heaping of wartime propaganda.  Impulse shopper Jeff Donnell buys a run-down farm/inn that comes complete with mad scientist Boris Karloff trying to create a Nazi fighting superman.  There's also Peter Lorre as a rival doctor with more than a few quirks of his own.  Don Beddoe is a flighty choreographer who may be a government agent.  Boxer "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom is a powder puff salesman and Frank Puglia a bomb throwing anarchist.  In the middle of all this is solicitous landlady Maude Eburne who periodically slips into the belief that she is a chicken about to lay an egg.  Cluck.  Cluck.  I get a great kick out of The Boogie Man Will Get You.  I get a kick out of watching some of these really fine actors going for the gold of goofy.  I also get a kick out of imagining Maude at the first read-through.  "Amelia flaps her arms and clucks like a chicken about to lay an egg.  If my elocution teacher could see me now!"  Watch her - she's perfect and she's funny.  Maude Eburne was always a hundred-percenter.  Maude Eburne was a month shy of her 80th birthday when she passed away in 1960.

Some titles to keep on your "look for Maude Eburne list" are Hollywood Cowboy starring George O'Brien, The Amazing Mr. Williams with Melvyn Douglas and Joan Blondell, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be and The Princess and the Pirate with Bob Hope. 

All hail Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula's Cinema Club for hosting this wonderful tribute to character actor greats.

14 comments:

  1. Thank you for this superbly written piece. So many wonderful asides, and just "With her low centre of gravity and non-glamorous features Ontario's Maude Eburne was a born character actress"...makes me cherish both your sense and your sense of humor.

    Some wonderful information here on the stage career, especially, of Lucille Watson. She had a really impressive stage career and I would love more classic film fans to learn about the theatrical experience that gave us so many great screen actors. And that the stage became a haven for so many of them when Hollywood was either not giving them the roles they wanted, or else had done with them. Great job, as always.

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  2. Wonderful write-up, CW! I'm a huge fan of Lucille Watson for all the reasons you mention. She was one of our premier character actors with too many memorables to mention yet you did a wonderful job illustrating how she so enhanced films throughout her career. A very impressive career!

    As for Maude Eburne, I have to admit I am less familiar with her. Much less. It wasn't until your mention of "Ruggles of Reg Gap" that I knew exactly the extent of how great she was. My failing. I have a terrible memory.

    Two wonderful tributes!

    REALLY a great entry to our blogathon thanks so much for taking part.

    Aurora

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  3. I didn't realize that both these women were Canadian. This was a nice tribute to both.

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  4. Thanks for these excellent portraits of Lucile Watson and Maude Erburne, both of whom played matrons with deft helpings of saltiness and strength as well as humor.

    I am particularly fond of Lucile Watson, since her musical voice always reminds me of my own Nana (who was exactly the same age as Watson and had the similar convent school education). One role that impressed me with Lucile Watson's abilities was as the powerful, fairly ruthless French matriarch she played in "Uncertain Glory" (1944). Thanks for writing this for the character actor blogathon, Patricia!

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  5. Thank you all so much for your lovely compliments on this article, which was a labour of love. I think the subject of character actors is a great choice for a blogathon and appreciate the opportunity to participate.

    I especially love having you share your affection for the hard-working actresses of another era.

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  6. Thank you for another excellent blog. I loved those women and didn't realize it!

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  7. My favorite Maude Eburne performance is also in Ruggles of Red Gap - she and Charlie Ruggles have a great chemistry onscreen; and I love her loud, cackling laugh. I also get a kick out of her wry, know-it-all maid who's wise to Carole Lombard's backstage shenanigans in To Be Or Not To Be. They don't make 'em like Maude anymore! Thanks for your terrific post.

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  8. Thank you both, Miss McC and Grand Old Movies. I just knew you guys would be Maude fans!

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  9. Lucille Watson was such a wonderful character actress that at first, when I saw her photo, I didn't recognize her. Then, as I went through your highly readable career recap, I found that I had seen many, many of her movies ... multiple times! Thank you for highlighting an actress who had a gift for completely disappearing into her role. (I'm less familiar w/Ms. E. But that's a reflection on a hole in my film knowledge, not your blogathon contribution.)

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  10. Great piece. Frankly I'm not very familiar with either woman beyond seeing a handful of their film appearances, so I enjoyed learning more about both. I've always liked Lucille Watson in "Watch on the Rhine." Thanks for the piece!

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  11. So happy "The Gal" and "The Boy" enjoyed my look at Lucile and Maude. I expect that for the next few months both ladies will be popping up with alarming regularity in your classic movie viewing.

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  12. I wasn't familiar with Lucille Watson except that I probably saw her work over and over and just didn't know her name. So thanks for the wonderful intro, C.W.

    I do enjoy watching these types of actresses no longer so common in today's movies. They played gently bred society mamas and grandmamas with a certain sort of style and warmth - at least most of the time.

    I loved when they were dithery, i.e. Billie Burke. Usually they were the sorts of women I might have wanted in my own family. :)

    I love Maude Eburne. She was a hoot. She had terrific screen presence. 'Low center of gravity...' Love it.

    Oh how I wish there were still people like this in movies. I'm definitely going to try and see if I can find Maude's 'Bat' film since I am also a big fan of Mary Roberts Rinehart.

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  13. Wonderful tribute, for a couple of my favorite character actress. I enjoyed reading that they were both Canadian.

    Now, I'm in the mood to watch one of their films..

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  14. Yvette and Dawn, I'm so pleased you enjoyed the article and that you are both fans of the gals. Maybe I just don't see enough contemporary films, but it seems to me we just don't have as many of these grand old gals as we used to.

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