Thursday, January 31, 2008

May Robson

May Robson was another one of those remarkable character actresses whose work in film increased as they grew older, and when they eventually died, they died with their boots on.

Miss Robson was from a different world. Born n 1858 in Melbourne, Australia long before the separate Australian colonies became the Commonwealth, she married young, and when widowed young, took up any work she could find to support her three children. The job that stuck was acting. She had never intended to become an actress, but that was the road that life presented her, and she took it.

She appeared in stock and Broadway, and came to Hollywood for silent films, but it was the sound era of the 1930s where her career flourished. In 1933 she was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for Frank Capra’s “Lady for a Day”, the earliest-born person ever to be nominated for an Oscar. She lost out to Katharine Hepburn.

As noted in the previous post, playing Aunt Etta she had some of the best lines in “Four Daughters” and the other succeeding Lemp family films, which she delivered with wry humor and charming spirit. She was the quintessential old lady, with the cameo broach pinned at the throat of the high-necked ruffled blouse. Hollywood had a curious habit of depicting elderly women as if they had never left the Victorian era of their girlhood. From Maria Ouspenskaya to the character of Granny in the Tweety Bird cartoons, these old girls eschewed modern dress for the look of the 19th century. Since most elderly women of the late 1930s dressed in the manner of the late 1930s and not the 1890s, we could take this as further evidence of the studios’ reliance on the convenience of stereotyped caricature to establish minor characters. It was done so often with race, ethnicity, with physical impairment. Giving an elderly woman the look of another time and place somehow sets her apart from the other actors, as if she is from another world.

May Robson handled the modern world with smart-mouthed panache as Aunt Etta in the “Four Daughters” series. But she really was from another world different to the one of the young actresses playing her nieces. She was 83 years old when the final film in the series, “Four Mothers” was released in 1941. She died the following year.

For a bit more on May Robson, have a look at this website.

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