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Beulah Bondi

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Beulah Bondi: Her Career is Proof that "Character Work" is Also an Art

By John Springer

Films in Review, May 1963 pages 282-291

To a more-than casual moviegoer, the initials "BB" do not necessarily mean Brigitte Bardot. They might also stand for Beulah Bondi, a character actress who has been on the screen for more than thirty years, and on the stage for a decade before that. Most American character actresses of any distinction were once stars and their character work reflects the star personality they had established-- e.g., Ethel Barrymore, Shirley Booth, Fay Bainter, Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Marjorie Rambeau, Alice Brady. Marie Dressler, one of the all-time greats, was always Dressler, whether they role was Tugboat Annie or Carlotta Vance. The same can be said of Thelma Ritter, Marjorie Main, Gale Sondergaard, Agnes Moorehead, Aline MacMahon, Anne Revere, May Robson.

Bondi, on the other hand, has played the most hateful of harridans and the tenderest of mothers, and will play a bit part with as much individuality as she will a major one. It is difficult to think of another actress who has played with equal distinction so many different roles, but it is easy to imagine Bondi in most of the roles other character actresses of importance have essayed. Perhaps not a Mary Boland or a Billie Burke part, although Bondi's addled dowager in Snake Pit had something of their quality.

Beulah Bondi, born Bondy in Chicago on May 3, 1892, was a shy but imaginative little girl who very early became enchanted by the idea of becoming someone completely different-- of completely masking the identity of Beulah Bondi not merely with clothes, but by assuming the personality of another woman. Many of our finest actors are shy, and lose their self-consciousness only when they "become" someone outside their own selves.

Her first public appearance, at the age of seven, was in the title role in Little Lord Fauntleroy in Valparaiso, Indiana, where her father had established a real estate business three years after her birth in Chicago. To encourage her to rehearse her mother dwelt on the delights of "make believe," and the child memorized the more than forty sides in a week. When she was ten she won a gold medal for her performance in a local presentation of Editha's Burglar.

After attending Hyde Park High School in Chicago, the Frances Shimmer Academy in Mt. Carroll, Ill., and the Convent of the Holy Name of Jesus and Mary in Montreal, she received her master's degree in oratory from Valparaiso University. She then directed school and club dramatics in Valparaiso and did not make her debut on the professional stage until 1919-- in Indianapolis with the Stuart Walker stock company, which at that time included Ilka Chase, Spring Byington, Walter Connolly, and Nedda Harrigan. The only uncast part available to her was that of a very old lady, and in the next fourteen weeks she played twelve more such roles. She stayed with the Walker company two seasons, during which her most popular performance was probably as Mrs. Midget in Outward Bound.

She then played stock in Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton and Baltimore and a season at Denver's famous Elitch's Gardens, one of the country's principal stock companies.

It was during her career in stock that the "y" in her surname gave way to an "i." A critic who saw it misprinted on a theatre program told her it looked better that way.

New York saw Beulah Bondi first in an off-Broadway production of Dan Totheroh's Wild Birds, and she arrived on Broadway in 25 as Maggie, the seventy-year old servant in One in the Family, a comedy.

She then appeared in character roles in Saturday's Children, Cock Robin, Distant Drums and Street Scene, and first went to Hollywood to repeat her role of Emma Jones, the slovenly, adder-tongued landlady in King Vidor's film version of Street Scene for Samuel Goldwyn. The latter not only paid her stage price-- $500 per week-- but joined with Irving Thalberg in offering her a contract that would be shared between them. Miss Bondi declined, but never lacked for film work thereafter.

Two of her films are especially good examples of her acting range and depth. In one she played the lead, and in the other a very small part.

The lead was Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow, a motion picture classic of old age, which Paramount released in 37.

McCarey, at that time best known for such screwball comedies as The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife, was moved and excited when he read Josephine Lawrence's sad, bitter novel, The Years are So Long, and, against Paramount opposition, insisted on bringing it to the screen. His picture was praised by critics everywhere, but audiences did not wish to see "a movie without glamour or sex-- just a picture about old folks." It was a total failure at the boxoffice, and although it has been available to television for many years, it has not been shown-- at least not in New York. An inquiry to CBS brought the reply that there were no plans to show it because "it wouldn't be liked."

McCarey cast Make Way for Tomorrow with some of the best actors in the business-- Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell, Porter Hall, Elisabeth Risdon, Louise Beavers, Maurice Moscovich, Minna Gombell, and, as the old man and woman who have become a trial and problem to their grown-up children, Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. Of course Moore was a delight, even though he tricked up his characterization with touches that were pure Victor Moore.

Miss Bondi, on the other hand, never made a false move. As the very old lady who becomes aware of the facts of their life and protects her optimistic husband from realizing them, she was terribly touching. Her Lucy Cooper could be a nuisance-- a little meddlesome, a little over-conversational on the wrong occasions, even exasperating, but very poignant.

Cecilia Ager, one of the more acidulous screen critics of the 30s and 40s, called her performance "inspired... acting that rings with truth and with sensitive observation, that reverberates with understanding."

The bit part which best exemplifies Bondi's acting ability is in A Summer Place (59). This popular soap opera had one impressive sequence-- when Dorothy McGuire receives some counsel from the wise and witty aunt, played by Miss Bondi. Richard Lemmon, in reviewing the picture in "Newsweek," described Bondi's ability to do much with little by saying: "She plays Sylvia's mettlesome old aunt, bothered not only by her niece's love affair but by a break in her bathroom ceiling, and gets to the heart of both matters in about two steps... She is a joy to behold every inch of the way."

Although films have been her life since the early 30s, Beulah Bondi has periodically returned to the stage. In the early 30s she appeared on Broadway in The Late Christopher Bean, in a role she later repeated on the screen, and in Mother Lode. In 40 she accepted the invitation of the director of the Mohawk Drama Festival-- her old friend and co-star, Charles Coburn-- to play Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. Later, at the University of Denver, she tried out a play written especially for her by another old friend, Dan Totheroh, called Traipsin' Woman, a musical drama about the descendants of the Elizabethan English in the Kentucky mountains. In 50 she returned to Broadway for a co-starring role with Jessica Tandy in Samson Raphaelson's Hilda Crane. And in 53 she played a role on Broadway she had already done beautifully on the screen-- Granny, in a revival of Paul Osborne's On Borrowed Time.

She has done occasional television work, most notably in George Schaefer's distinguished production of On Borrowed Time, and in Lewis Freedman's production of Osborne's Morning's at Seven, in which she was the lively sister, while Ann Harding, Eileen Heckart and Dorothy Gish were the drearier ladies. She has also worked in "Route 66," "Climax," "Playhouse 90," and "Alcoa," and has co-starred with James Stewart in one of the better "General Electric Theatre" presentations.

Several years ago an advertising agency asked her to do a running character in a series of commercials-- an old-fashioned grandmother who knows all the virtues of Oxydol. An entire season's worth can be made in a few days, the agency explained, and the money is excellent. Miss Bondi stipulated that she should be a very modern granny who solves laundry problems easily before dashing off on some adventure. These tv commercials may have made her known to more people than all her films put together.

In recent years she has indulged her taste for travel and has gone to some remote parts of the earth. Even so, she has yet to visit a community in which she is not recognized.

She has had a serene and happy life and has no regrets that she chose a career instead of marriage. There were, however, two great disappointments.

She was tested for Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and both John Ford and Darryl Zanuck were lavish with praise and indicated she had the role. So she acquired a rickety old car, dressed appropriately, and went off to an "Okie" camp in Bakersfield, where she lived for several weeks among people like the Joads. She was still there when she learned that Jane Darwell, because she was a contract player at 20th, had been given the role.

The second major disappointment occurred after David O. Selznick and Norman Taurog asked her to replace an ill May Robson as Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She had worked for some days when Miss Robson recovered and was put back into the part.

At the moment she is hopeful there will be a role for her in The Greatest Story Ever Told. She feels that George Stevens is one of our greatest directors and treasures a comment he made when he was directing her: "I'm so interested in your technique, Beulah. When you get a character you can do the same scene over and over again and never vary by a hair."

"That was so long ago," Miss Bondi says with a smile. "I haven't seen Stevens in years. He must think I'm a decrepit old lady by now. But if there's a decrepit old lady in his picture, I hope he will think of me."

She has just completed Tammy and the Doctor, the second of her appearances in Ross Hunter's critically-chastised but popular series. This commitment prevented her from accepting a lead with Henry Fonda in Spencer's Mountain. Hunter has asked her to appear in this up-coming re-make of Madame X, starring Lana Turner.

Her most satisfying accomplishment in the past year, however, has been the publication of a slim book of poetry by Eva Marble Bondy, her mother. The collection is called Woldkins, from Carlyle's "If you can't be a world be a worldkin," and was published by the Ward Ritchie Press of Los Angeles.

Miss Bondi was particularly close to her mother, who lived with her for the six years preceding her death in 41, and in her introduction to Worldkins Miss Bondi says her mother "was a vivid, progressive spirit, and her poems express her deep-rooted appreciation of life in all its forms-- and her universal love for mankind."

Miss Bondi believes it is because her mother taught her to be "a lover of life and a student of human nature" that she has been able to act convincingly.

"It is the passionate desire to know what is going on inside the hearts and minds of people," Miss Bondi adds, "that distinguishes the real actor and actress from the pseudo."

© 1963 Films in Review

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