October 15, 1879 – Jane Darwell:
“I’ve played Henry Fonda’s mother so often that, whenever we run into each other, I call him ‘son’ and he calls me ‘Ma’, just to save time.”
Jane Darwell enjoyed a long career, admirable, especially in the film industry. She did what she loved, and she did it for as long as she could. I admire that in a person. She is featured in some genuinely great films; films where you notice brilliant character actors like Darwell.
With appearances in more than 100 films spanning half a century, Darwell is now mostly remembered playing the matriarch of the Joad family in the 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes Of Wrath, for which she received an Academy Award.
The great bisexual John Ford directed The Grapes Of Wrath as a left-wing parable about how a sharecropper’s son, a barroom brawler, is moved to become a union organizer. The film is told with characters of such sympathy and Gregg Toland‘s cinematography has such beauty that the audiences left the theatres feeling little anger or resolve. It’s a message movie, but it is not propaganda.
The film is bookended by two killings. After serving four years in prison for killing a man in a bar fight, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is paroled and returns to his family’s farm in Oklahoma to learn the family have been “tractored off the land” and are joining the desperate migration from the Dust Bowl to California. Near the end of the film, after seeing the police beat and shoot at strikers, he is once again attacked, this time by a “tin badge with a club”. Joad snatches away the club and kills him.
Steinbeck’s novel is one the most effective social documents of the 1930s, and the film was directed by the man who did more than any other to portray the West. Ford directed The Iron Horse (1924), about the building of a railroad to the West, and made many other films about the white migration into Native Americans lands. The Grapes Of Wrath tells the sad tale of small shareholders who staked their claims to land 50 years earlier and are the forced off that land by bankers and rich landowners.
The film finds a large Socialist lesson in this. Tom tells Ma Joad:
“One guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’.”
When Steinbeck published his novel in 1939, it was acclaimed as a masterpiece, won the Pulitzer Prize, was snatched up by Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox who gave it to his top director.
The Grapes Of Wrath won Oscars for Best Director and one for Darwell’s performance, and it was nominated for five others, including for Fonda and Best Picture (it lost to Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rebecca). Ford was nominated twice, also for directing The Long Voyage Home. The Grapes Of Wrath was often named the Top Ten greatest American films. But do many people watch it anymore? It’s streaming on Amazon.
Fonda’s Tom Joad is one of the great American film characters. He was an actor with the rare ability to exist on the screen without seeming to reach or try. It is transcendentalism meets Marxism when his Tom says:
“A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul. The one big soul that belongs to everybody.”
Ford’s work was rooted in strong stories, classical technique and direct expression. His films forgo unnecessary set-ups and fancy camera work. The Grapes Of Wrath contains not a single shot that seems careless or routine.
Fonda and Darwell give performances that everyone remembers after seeing this film (John Carradine is pretty amazing as well). Darwell worked in films for 50 years, and she is never more memorable than here, where she has the final word:
“We’ll go on forever, Pa. ‘Cause … we’re the people!”.
I wonder if people in 2020 can understand the original impact of this material, on the page and on the screen. My parents were scarred by the Depression and The Grapes Of Wrath shows what happens when half the nation has their income and way of life taken from them. The book and film may be seen as being about the resiliency and courage of Americans, but it is really about fear: Fear of losing jobs, land, and self-respect. For those who have gone hungry or been homeless, the story never becomes dated. And its sense of injustice, I believe, is still relevant.
Born Patti Woodard in northeastern Missouri, Darwell originally wanted to become a circus performer or an opera singer. Her father objected, however, and she compromised by becoming an actor, but she changed her name to Darwell to avoid sullying the family name.
Darwell began her career in theatre productions in Chicago and made her first film in 1913. She appeared in 25 films in two years before returning to the stage. After a 15-year absence, she returned to Hollywood in 1930 with a role in Tom Sawyer with Jackie Coogan and her career as a Hollywood character actor began. Short, stout and plain she was quickly cast in a succession of films as the mother of one of the major characters. She appeared in five films with Shirley Temple as the housekeeper or grandmother.
She was cast in Grapes Of Wrath at the insistence of Fonda. A contract player with 20th Century Fox, Darwell is also memorable in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) with Fonda. She occasionally starred in “B” movies and played featured parts in more than 170 films, including Jesse James (1939), Gone With The Wind (1939), The Devil And Daniel Webster (1941), and My Darling Clementine (1946), again with Fonda and Ford.
Darwell did a lot of television in the 1950s and 1960s. She was on Wagon Train from 1959- 1961. She played Grandmother McCoy on the ABC sitcom The Real McCoys (1957-1963), where the characters played by Walter Brennan, Richard Crenna, and Kathleen Nolan return to the fictitious hillbilly town of Smokey Corners for Grandmother McCoy’s 100th birthday. Darwell was 15 years older than Brennan who plays her son.
Darwell’s final role as the old woman who is feeding the birds in Mary Poppins (1964), a part that was personally assigned to her by Walt Disney. The Bird Woman sits on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral as she sells her wares, and the character and Darwell’s performance are one of the most memorable scenes of Mary Poppins, even though the character only utters a single line in the film. Darwell retired from showbiz just as the film began pre-production. Disney personally called Darwell to persuade her to take the part. He promised her that she could do it in a single day of shooting and that it was going to be worth the effort. He also promised her, that as a legendary Hollywood star, the Studio provide a limo from her home to the set and back. She was flattered by the offer and the fuss Disney was making. The Disney production team then stepped up to make her comfortable. Even going so far as to cut a hole in the steps of the set of Saint Paul’s so that they could hide a pillow for the 83-year-old Darwell to sit upon. Feed The Birds was Disney’s favorite Disney song.
In her later years Darwell lived at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. Her final credits rolled there, taken by a heart attack in 1967 at 87 years old. She was never married and was never known to have had any sort of a romance. Maybe because Darwell was of the Sapphic persuasion?