Sunday, April 19, 2009

An 1858 Birthday Remembered

May Robson
April 19, 1858 - October 20, 1942

Mary Jeanette Robison was born in Melbourne, Australia. Her father, Capt. Henry Robison of the Royal Navy, died when May was six, and her mother decided to take the children to Europe. After attending schools in Paris and Brussels, May eloped to Texas in 1880 with a young American inventor named Edward Gore. He died suddenly in 1883, leaving May a widowed mother of three. Moving to New York, she struggled to support herself painting china, but it was not enough and two of her children died during this terrible period. Her surviving son, Edward Jr., eventually made her a grandmother and "the only great-grandmother in the movies", a tag of which she was especially proud.

In desperation May turned to acting, making her debut at the Madison Square Theatre, September 17, 1883, with a small part in a drama called The Hoop of Gold. By 1889, when she married New York physician Dr. Augustus Brown the tall golden-haired actress was firmly established as one of the busiest and best-loved character players on the stage. Dr. Brown passed away in 1922. The marriage was childless.

May had the hit of her career in the title role of a 1907 comedy called The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary. Forming her own stock company, she toured with it and other plays for years, eventually logging some 500,000 miles and boasting that there was "not a town in the US or Canada with a theatre, in which I have not appeared". Tours in that show would bring her to Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre many times between 1908 - 1922. An 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest found her in the delightful role of Miss Prism. Can't you just picture her?

It is said that when May ran her own company salaries were paid on the dot, stagehands got overtime, extra meals and "sleepers" on overnight jumps. Such treatment was unheard of in those days but paid great dividends during the actors' strike of 1919 when Robson's company was the only one that could play any theatre without picketing and trouble.

She appeared in a silent picture in 1916, but really hit her Hollywood stride in 1926 appearing in 63 movies. 1927 even saw a version of The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary. I'd like to highlight some of my favourite May Robson pictures and roles. Perhaps they are yours as well.

Jean Parker, Warren William, Glenda Farrell, May Robson, Guy Kibbee

Who can't relate to 1932's If I Had a Million? May won the audience over in that film's final segment as a nursing home resident given a new lease on life. She was busy in 1933 with George Cukor's Dinner at Eight as the harassed cook Mrs. Wendel and received an Academy Award nomination as Apple Annie in Frank Capra's Lady for a Day. The other ladies nominated that year were Diana Wynyard for Cavalcade and, the winner, Katharine Hepburn for Morning Glory.

She's the moral center of William Wellman's 1937 classic A Star is Born as Janet Gaynor's understanding grandmother. May is a genuine hoot as Katharine Hepburn's leopard loving Aunt Elizabeth in Howard Hawks' 1938 Bringing Up Baby!

May as movie fans remember her.

In Michael Curtiz's 1938 feature Four Daughters, May portrays Aunt Etta to the Lane sisters and Gale Page in the first of a popular series that included Four Wives (1939), Four Mothers (1941) and Daughters Couragous (1939). Four Daughters was the film debut of the movies' original rebel, John Garfield, and his scenes with May are a highlight of this well-remembered film. Warner's would reteam the pair in the following year's They Made Me a Criminal.

I'm particularly fond of a goofy little movie from 1940 called Granny Get Your Gun written by Erle Stanley Gardner. At 82, May is a feisty frontierswoman taking on the bad guys the local law can't handle. Her co-star is the wonderful Harry Davenport (Gone With the Wind, Meet Me in St. Louis), a debonair 70. What a pair! Between the two of them, there is a century's worth of theatrical experience.

May Robson, Alec B. Francis
Alice in Wonderland

Who but May would be cast as Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina, and the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland?

May passed away from natural causes in 1942 still in demand for movies. May had been blind for two years before her death, but that hadn't stopped her acting - she had simply learned her last roles in movies and on the radio from having them read to her until she knew the scripts by heart. This lady from the 19th century and a far-flung continent still entertains and delights movie fans in the 21st century.


  1. Wonderful post, CW. I did not realize that Ms. Robson had been born that long ago. She always seemed to be the matron, but 1858? Wow!!

    Nice job as always.

  2. I just finished watching Lady for a Day, and I thought I recognized May Robson as Aunt Polly in Tom Sawyer. I found this blog post about her while looking on the internet. You have a nice blog; I'm going to look around longer.

  3. Thanks, Pallas. It's been a while since I checked back to this post. I hope I was able to share something new about May with you.



Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon . The popular blogathon is runn...