Dame May Whitty was one of those old school, old guard character actresses without whom the Hollywood movie machine could ever do without. Born in England just after the American Civil War ended in 1865, she started life on the boards at 17 years old in London in the 1880s, just about the time period covered by “Gaslight” (1944) which will be subject of Thursday’s blog.
One wonders what Dame May thought as she worked on the set of that movie. A set of real-looking, but fake props and manufactured furniture, and walls that were only flats, she was the most genuine article in the film, someone who had actually walked the misty streets of London under the dim glow of gaslight.
She had performed in only a few silent films in the UK, but toured the US and performed on Broadway, hitting Hollywood in the 1930s just in time for sound film and just in time for her 70s. Playing dowagers, nannies, inquisitive busybodies and stern matriarchs, Dame May Whitty was granted her knighthood for charity hospital work during World War I, and the grand moniker fit her. When she died in 1948, she was still working.