Monday, November 17, 2014

What a Character! blogathon: Esther Dale

November 10, 1885 - July 23, 1961

Esther Dale was born in the smallish city of Beaufort, South Carolina in 1885, but it seems her heart was in her father's New England birthplace. As a young woman, Esther studied at the Baptist institution, The Leland Gray Seminary in Townshend, Vermont. Adventurous and determined to succeed in a musical career, Esther pursued vocal training in Berlin, Germany. She enjoyed success as a concert singer specializing in lieder, as well as an educator as the head of the vocal department at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Esther's show business career was managed by her husband Arthur J. Beckhard, 14 years her junior, who was also a producer/director/writer. Arthur enjoyed success as a Broadway producer (Goodbye Again), summer stock in Woodstock, New York and the University Players in Falmouth, Massachusetts (incubator for Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Margaret Sullavan). While none of the eight Broadway shows Arthur and Esther collaborated on proved to be hits, the starring role in 1932s Carry Nation established Esther as a dramatic performer with a new lease on her show business career.

Esther Dale

In Axel Nissen's Mothers, Mammies and Old Maids - Twenty-five Character Actresses of Golden Age Hollywood, published in 2012, actress Blanche Yurka is quoted: "One source of warm comfort to me was the growing friendship and devotion of producer Arthur Beckhard and his wife, the singer Esther Dale. These two sturdy, courageous human beings pulled me through many a trying time in the ensuing years. They had the gift of laughter and an abundance of patience and understanding."  Esther and Arthur sound like people worth knowing.

Esther Dale's Hollywood career began in 1934 with an uncredited role (secretary) in 1934 with Hecht and MacArthur's Crime Without Passion. Her final film role was uncredited (woman at picnic) in 1961s John Wayne hit North to Alaska. In between there were far too many uncredited bits, although Esther had the ability to take even a few seconds of screen time as a housekeeper or prison matron and turn it into something memorable. I feel her acting prowess is directly related to her musicianship. She could take the notes on the page and imbue them with all the emotion intended, plus that indefinable something extra which draws us to certain performers. Let's remember a mix of these roles, the ensemble pieces, and the solos, that have made Esther Dale such a favourite with classic movie fans.

Esther Dale, Shirley Temple, John Boles, Rochelle Hudson

The Shirley Temple vehicle 1935s Curly Top features Esther Dale as wealthy John Bole's warm and dignified Aunt Genevieve. Perhaps this is how Esther's husband Arthur, co-screenwriter of the film, saw her.

Some of those indispensable movie housekeepers, played with aplomb by Esther, include Lilian in the wacky household in Easy Living, Marta in the heartbreaking The Mortal Storm, sympathetic Anna in My Reputation and exasperated Miss Bragg in the Ball of Fire remake, A Song is Born.

James Burke, Esther Dale

Mrs. Fenner in William Wyler's Dead End from 1937 is blowsy, careworn and defiant. She'll steal candy from a baby and talk back to cops. She typifies life in the poor part of town and transcends it with personality. 

Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Esther Dale

When exes Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) rekindle their romance, shutting out Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy) in 1937s The Awful Truth, poor Dan is left with only one conclusion, "Well, I guess a man's best friend is his mother." Esther Dale plays Mrs. Leeson, dressed to the nines and over-protective of her baby boy. She doesn't trust that Warriner character as far as she can throw him, and she could see right through Lucy from the beginning.

Esther Dale, Jeanne Crain

The 1940s and 1950s bring some of my favourite Esther Dale appearances. Henry King's ever-popular 1946 film Margie is a delightful nostalgic story of high school life in the 1920s. Jeanne Crain stars as Margie MacDuff. Her widowed father (Hobart Cavanaugh) has left Margie in the care of his mother-in-law, Grandma McSweeney. Grandma is a suffragette! And proud of it! Displayed on her mantelpiece is the length of chain she used to chain herself to politician's carriage in protest. Margie is horrified at such unladylike behavior and more than a little taken aback that Grandma's plans for Margie include her becoming the first woman president. Someday Margie will learn what a privilege it is that her grandmother was such a pioneer. During her school days, Margie does appreciate Grandma Sweeney's understanding and tact. A girl needs support as well as inspiration.

Esther Dale

The quietly charming Holiday Affair from 1949 is the story of a young widowed mother played by Janet Leigh deciding between two beaus (Robert Mitchum and Wendall Corey) at Christmastime. Isobel Lennert's screenplay features many truths about relationships, grieving and moving on. The relationship between Connie and her in-laws, played by Griff Barnett and Esther Dale, is heartwarming. Both Mrs. Ennis's are coping with loss and are devoted to their sons, one deceased and one a youngster. Both look to their present and future with the best that it is in them and learn to live with and beyond the past.  

Warner Brothers finest entry in Hollywood's nostalgia sweepstakes were two movies based on Booth Tarkington stories that featured Doris Day, Billy Gray, Leon Ames, and Rosemary DeCamp as the Winfield family in 1951s On Moonlight Bay and 1953s By the Light of the Silvery Moon. Uncredited in On Moonlight Bay, Esther Dale has a delightful "cameo" as Aunt Martha Robertson, whose surprise visit and front porch talk with young Wesley (Gray) smooths troubled waters between father and son.

Isabel O'Magden, Esther Dale, Claudette Colbert

Betty MacDonald's extremely popular novel The Egg and I was brought to the screen in 1947 starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. The breakout characters from the movie were Ma and Pa Kettle played by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. Frowzy Ma and lazy Pa were comedic gold and spun off into their own popular series of films. Naturally, every hero needs their archenemy and in Ma's case, her opposite number is Birdie Hicks played by Esther Dale. Where Ma was the epitome of easy-going, Birdie set certain standards as to cleanliness and proper conduct. In order to really enjoy Ma, the series needed Birdie Hicks and you'll find both formidable ladies in 1949s Ma and Pa Kettle, 1952s Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair and 1955s Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki.

Classic TV fans may spot Esther Dale on anthology series of the 1950s as well as episodes of Maverick, Wagon Train, M Squad, The Donna Reed Show, Thriller, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Checkmate.

Esther and Arthur died within months of each other in 1961. Esther Dale's remains were interred in Townshend, Vermont. Esther Dale's acting career is available for us to enjoy through the magic of film.

It's my favourite time of year, the time of the What a Character! blogathon hosted by Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, Paula of Paula's Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen.  Join in the fun, the memories, the admiration.


  1. Wonderful entry about Esther Dale!

    1. Sweet of you to say. I truly think it is time for the world to appreciate Esther, and all she added to such memorable films.

  2. I've seen just about all of the Esther Dale films you covered but, in all honestly, it was only with "The Awful Truth," which I seem to watch once or twice a year, that I had a crystal clear recollection of her - ah yes, Ralph Bellamy's mother (and best friend)!

    Great piece, I'll be watching more carefully for Esther from now on.

    1. Aha! You had one of those "it's the same gal" moments. Esther's look changes for each role, but that voice will start to ring in your ears.

      So pleased you stopped by.

  3. Wonderful post! The only Dale film I think I've seen is The Egg and I, but I remember her warmth an humour so perhaps it's time to catch some of the others. I love reading all the blogathon entries and catching up on the 'forgotten' stars - and discovering so many films to watch in the process!

    1. I'm pleased you had an Esther Dale connection.

      I know what you mean about the blogathon. My "must see" list is really getting out of hand.

  4. What a charming portrait of this great character actress. I had little knowledge of her background, and am particularly pleased at her training in New England stock theatre -- a particular love of mine. Love this: "I feel her acting prowess is directly related to her musicianship. She could take the notes on the page and imbue them with all the emotion intended, plus that indefinable something extra which draws us to certain performers."

    1. Thank you so much, JTL. Esther is no longer simply an actress I look for and admire, she now feels like my pal.

      PS: I'm sure you recognized that screen captures from "Holiday Affair". Thanks for that as well.

  5. The name didn't ring a bell at first, but the face, oh the face! Curly Top and The Awful Truth are the two films I remember her better. A wonderful piece about Esther!
    Thanks for your always kind comments!

    1. It makes me happy that enjoyed reading about Esther.

  6. Lovely, delightful read about a wonderful actress! I do love her overprotective mamma role in The Awful Truth! Thanks for such a great, informative post; I really enjoyed reading it!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. It's time to start the Cult of Esther.

  7. I learned about this wonderful woman relatively recently, but the more I learn about her, the more I admire her. I hope there is such a person who will collect all the information about her, all the memories and quotes that will help us understand her even more. I thought to do it with the help of writing services, but then I realized that I knew too little about her to take up such work. In the meantime, I will wait and review films with her participation.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I enjoyed learning more about Esther Dale for this article.


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