Note: Classic movies are among the greatest joys in my life (if I get some more time, I'll do a page about it). One of the most appealling aspects of old movies is the great collection of character actors. These are performers who keep showing up again and again and who often play the same kinds of roles. Along with the really big stars, an entire "extended family" of character players populates the silver screen. It's such great fun. I was contracted to write a series on character actors. I chose Beulah Bondi for my first because she's one of my favorites. Unfortunately, the project was cancelled, and all I ended up with is one article. So let's not waste it. Here it is!
"Perhaps the Most Consummate
of Character Players"
Many people know Beulah Bondi from her portrayal of Ma Baily, Jimmy Stewart's mother in "It's a Wonderful Life." Fewer people know that she played Stewart's mother on four other occasions. Soft-hearted or hard-nosed, serious or comic, she specialized in the portrayal of older women, and for much of her life played characters who were further along in years then she was in real life.
Her first role, however, was as curly-headed "Little Lord Fauntleroy". This was in her hometown, Valparaiso, Indiana. The seven-year-old child was chosen for the part when a touring company needed a replacement for the lead. Until then, Beulah's only acting experience had been Delsarte mime exercises -- similar to charades -- that her mother had taught her to perform for the entertainment of friends. Despite this "silent" background, she learned her "Little Lord Fauntleroy" part so well that she did not have to rely on cue cards. In fact, it is said that she prompted any actor who wasn't up on his lines.
Beulah's father and mother took an interest in the theater and brought their daughter with them to performances. But when in her teens she began to express interest in acting as a profession, her father tried to dissuade her from this course. Her mother, on the other hand, constantly encouraged her. Eva Marble Bondy was a progressive woman who was graduated from college and gained a reputation as a poet.
("Bondy" is the actual spelling of the family name. One account claims that Beulah changed the "y" to an "i" because she thought it looked more theatrical, possibly because the "i" did not drop below the line on a marquee. Another version states that she changed it out of respect for her family, since acting was not seen as a respectable profession.)
Beulah did not leap onto the stage. She, too, went to college. She received her first degree from Frances Shimer Academy and then earned a Masters in oratory from Valparaiso University. (Many years later she would receive an honorary doctorate from this institution.) In 1916, twenty-eight-year-old Bondi played her first role as an amateur member of Chicago's Little Theater. The part was that of a sixty-year-old woman in a play titled "Cranford." "When we tried out for parts," Bondi stated, "I had expected to be given one of the young girl roles. Until I was handed the part of Miss Matilda Jenkins, a woman of sixty-odd years, it never occurred to me that I, being a young girl, could play anything else. Up till that time my idea of the stage had been romantic. I had thought of it chiefly as a place where I could wear sumptuous clothes."
Nevertheless, she threw all her energy into the part. She studied the movements of older people and probed the soul of her character, imagining a life's story for her. Of course, she also learned about the proper use of greasepaint. Her performance made a big impression. Even back then BondiÕs narrow features and creaky voice must have suggested mothers, grandmothers, farm-wives, dowagers and other character roles.
Though many of her roles belonged to a relatively small category, Bondi's great achievement was to endow each character with a soul of its own. "Perhaps some day I shall play heroines and attractive young women -- I hope to add that experience to my career -- but for the present I am well satisfied with doing old women and eccentrics. And I live entirely in the present."
After two years with the Little Theater, Bondi joined the Stewart Walker stock company in Indianapolis and Cincinnati. In her own words, the director put an "elephant's hide" on the her. Walker's criticism came in powerful doses. His tutelage was so fiercely direct that she decided to take a year off. "He was a very good director," Bondi would state many years later, "a fine director." After working with him, "I could meet any director, I could meet any producer, in New York or anyplace else, with a very calm interior and exterior." (DB)
In 1925 the thirty-seven-year old unmarried actress made it to Broadway. Her first years in New York were financially trying, and sometimes discouraging, but after awhile she could claim appearances in over a half dozen productions. On one occasion, she acted in two plays that were running at the same time. After her first-act role as pleasant choir-singer in "Mariners", she would dash next door to play the unpleasant landlady in "Saturday's Children," which featured Ruth Gordon.
Bondi finally came to prominence in 1929 when, with some finagling, she landed the part of the hard-bitten neighborhood gossip in Elmer Rice's Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Street Scene." It is a tale of love, hatred and desperation in a squalid New York tenement. The play ran for more than 600 performances and caught the eye of movie director King Vidor. He brought forty-one-year-old Bondi to Hollywood to recreate her role as bitter-tongued Emma Jones.
"When I came to Hollywood," Bondi said, "the microphone was completely new to me. I didn't know anything about the lenses; I didnÕt know what a medium close-up or long shot was. But I was interested enough to learn quickly." "Street Scene" was the perfect vehicle for Bondi's extraordinary talent for character. Adding to the heart of conflicting passions, her shabby Emma Jones spikes the sidewalk with tacks of malice; her acerbic one-liners carry the undertones of a woman made rough by her past. For all that, it is Emma Jones who we look to for humor. Her barbs and attitudes make us chuckle even as we wish to deplore. Bondi's presentation of reality seduces us.
Following "Street Scene", MGM tried to put her under a seven-year contract, a coveted opportunity for many actors. Bondi, however, refused. She wanted to remain free to choose her own roles. Her distrust of contracts stayed with her throughout her life. (During her long career she was under contract for only one year, with Paramount). It is a testament to her skill and professionalism that despite her "maverick" nature she was always in demand for roles.
After a one-scene part as Helen Hayes' mother in "Arrowsmith", Bondi played Mrs. Davison in "Rain," the steamy and cynical Somerset Maugham story set on a South Sea Island. In this film (which starred Joan Crawford as Sadie Thomson), she played the wife of the emotionally twisted religious reformer, played by John Huston. Her character is as annoyingly meddlesome in a straight-laced way as Emma Jones of "Street Scene" is in draggle-tailed way.
In 1933 Bondi made two more films, both with Lionel Barrymore -- "Christopher Bean", directed by Sam Wood, and "The StrangerÕs Return," directed by King Vidor. In the latter film she and Barrymore played elderly siblings. She found Barrymore grouchy, difficult to get along with. She understood that his arthritis and the drugs he took for this ailment were probably the cause of his short temper. But she knew how to deal with his irascible moods -- she flung his bad humor right back at him. Later when Barrymore was off drugs, she found him to be a changed man. The two became good friends. They would do five films together.
In 1934 the actress worked in five movies. Perhaps the most significant of these was "the Painted Veil," starring Greta Garbo. But last minute revisions in the film found her small part on the cutting room floor. Inexplicably, her scenes were re-done by another actress. Many filmographies of Bondi incorrectly credit her with an appearance in this movie.
1936 was a good year for Bondi. She appeared in six films, including "The Gorgeous Hussy," starring Joan Crawford. This film is about romantic and political ambitions in Washington of the 1820s. Bondi played the pipe-puffing wife of Andrew Jackson, again opposite Lionel Barrymore. Among her several strong scenes with the actor is the one in which she regrets that her "back-woods" identity has provided malicious material for her husband's political opponents. "For months now," she laments, "they've been pokin' fun at me just to make you look ridiculous. They've been usin' all the filth they could make up about me just to make you look dirty. They been usin' me to drag you downÉ" When her husband tells her how important she is to his well-being, she admits to a bit of shrewdness: "That's what I wanted you to say," she tenderly replies, stroking his cheek. This role brought Bondi her first of two Academy Award nominations. (She lost to Gale Sondergaard of "Anthony Adverse.")
In a 1975 article, Bondi told an amusing anecdote about an experience in "The Gorgeous Hussy." "[My] mother arrived to visit her first Hollywood set,"Bondi explained. "She found me getting into a huge double bed with Lionel. She didn't say anything but she was surprised, I think. ... That was 1936 and the last time a double bed was allowed in a film for many years. We laughed at the rule during the years I played an old woman getting into a single bed. Now in films they can do anything in any kind of bed." (LAHE)
In 1937 Bondi played her first and only starring role. The film is "Make Way for Tomorrow," directed by Leo McCarey. It is a drama about Bark and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi), an elderly husband and wife who no longer fit into the lives of their children. When the couple is unable to keep possession of their house, their married children reluctantly take them in, with Moore going with one family and Bondi with another, three hundred miles apart. The two accept their situation with stoicism all the more poignant for their being very much in love after fifty years of marriage. The film follows their separate lives and dramatizes the disruption of their children's world. It details their unrealistic hopes, their regrets and, most of all, the loneliness they experience in the latter portion of life. Having worn out their welcome, Lucy and Bark (without admitting it to each other) accept the fact that now they will be separated even further -- and for good. Bark will be sent to live with a daughter in California (ostensibly for his health) and Lucy will go to an old age home. Before sending them off, and as a final reunion, their children invite their parents to dinner at one of their homes. Lucy and Bark never get there, however. They meet on their way and go off on one last adventure in the city. They visit the hotel they stayed at on their honeymoon; they drink (appropriately) old fashioneds and dance and recall their life together. Their children become concerned about their whereabouts, but Lucy and Bark care little about their childrenÕs worries on this evening of renewed independence.
With the passage of time this highly rated, enjoyable film has lost none of its power to rend the heart and capivate. It may well be even more affecting with the passing of years. It was a remarkable oversight that the film did not receive even one academy award nomination. (Victor Moore won an Oscar that year for his performance in the comedy "The Awful Truth".) Without hyperbole, it can be said that Bondi's performance is as close to flawless as any can be; and anyone who wants an instant appreciation of this actress' talent and commitment to her roles could do no better than to see this film. It is the more impressive for having been sustained by for woman in her late forties. "I felt it was quite a challenge, "Bondi stated, "I think that Lucy Cooper is perhaps the oldest character I had ever played. I supposed her to be in her late seventies or early eighties. I thought it was a challenge, but I loved the story." (DB)
"To be a convincing old woman," Bondi emphasized, "you must be a lover of life and a student of human nature. You must have a passionate desire to know what's going on in the heart and head of the character you are portraying. When you really care more about the character you are portraying than you care about yourself or how you look you are no longer just a person who earns a living by actingÉ" (NYTRIB) Nevertheless, regarding her lead in "Make Way for Tomorrow," Bondi declared, "Give me a good supporting role and that's all I ask. I never want to be a star again. The life of a star, with few exceptions, is brief. It's like a merry-go-round, only suddenly the music stops playing." (CDN)
In 1938 the actress portrayed Jimmy Stewart's upper-class mother in a comedy titled "Vivacious Lady." Ginger Rogers plays Stewart's less-than-upper-class love interest, and the great character actor Charles Coburn plays Stewart's staunch father. Bondi occasionally (and comically) feigns heart trouble to get the upper hand in troublesome situations. One scene finds her about to accept Rogers as her daughter-in-law. The younger woman gives her an impromptu dancing lesson to seal their new friendship. It is a memorable "screwball" scene -- especially when Coburn enters and sees his "frail" wife "cutting the rug" with his sonÕs forbidden sweetheart.
In that same year Bondi played Jimmy Stewart's mother for the second time. The film is "Of Human Hearts," a touching drama about the hardships of pioneer life. Mary Wilkins (Bondi) is caught between her son's rebelliousness and her preacher-husband's dedication to a life of communal lowliness. (As in "Rain," John Huston plays her husband.) In the course of the story her character ages a number of years, with Stewart playing her son as an adult. As the young and gentle Mary, Bondi exhibits a youthful, comely beauty that diverges from her appearance as the "older mother" she is noted for. At one with every character she has ever portrayed, Bondi's performance as the older, widowed Mary locks in the character's wisdom, patience fortitude as she waits for word of her son, who became a surgeon in Grant's cavalry. This performance brought her a second Academy Award nomination. (Fay Bainter won for her role in "Jezebel.")
In 1939 Bondi again played Stewart's mother, albeit in a very small role. This was in Frank Capra's popular "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
John Ford, who directed Bondi in "Arrowsmith," made her his first choice for Ma Joad in Twentieth Century-Fox's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940). She did two impressive screen tests for the part. "Well, I canÕt ask for anything better than that," Ford told her when she finished. Those present at her test gave her a round of applause. To prepare for the role, she spent two days in Bakersfield, CA where she mingled with the "Okies." Bondi had been told that she was the only actor under consideration for the role, but this claim turned out to be false. The part was given to Jane Darwell, who was under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox. "I can't say it was a tremendous disappointment because it was such an experience meeting those poor, bewildered, downtrodden Okies..." (DB) Still, Bondi was hurt that she had been lied to. Darwell won an Academy Award for her performance.
The 1940s saw Bondi in a variety of films, "Our Town" (directed by King Vidor), "Penny Serenade" (George Stevens), "Watch on the Rhine" (Herman Shumlim)," "The Very Thought of You" (Delmer Daves), and at least twenty other movies. She was Jimmy Stewart's mother for the fourth time in the Capra favorite "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).
"I knew the stars as the characters they played. I didn't feel that he was Jimmy Stewart -- he was my son. And they were all different sons." ... "Working with the different stars, I've enjoyed each and every one, and have always had this great empathy and feeling for them. But I couldn't socialize with them. Between scenes, I have to be by myself. That way the character stays with me." (RC)
One of Bondi's most entertaining short performances was in "Snake Pit" (1948). She plays Mrs. Greer, a mentally (though humorously) disturbed resident of the insane asylum. Her first appearance in this film is played with microscopic precision and is a delightful treat for any Bondi fan.
In the 1950s, Bondi appeared in only nine films. In 1950, she returned to Broadway in "Hilda Crane," with Jessica Tandy. In 1953 she brought her film role in "On Borrowed Time" (1939) to the Great White Way. In 1954 she played one of her favorite parts, that of Ma Bridges in "Track of the Cat" with Robert Mitchem as her son. In this William Wellman film, Bondi's selfish, ever-suffering character endures family jealousy and tragedy, with the hunt for a killer panther providing the symbolic backdrop. This slow-moving western was not well received, but Bondi's performance was. The "New York Times" reviewer, Bosley Crowther, wrote, "Miss Bondi as the pinched-lipped mother takes command and browbeats her brood of frightened weaklings by the very force of her hard demanding will. Then a feeling of tragic frustration seeps out of the Cinemascope screen, and the shadow of an O'Neill character flickers on the fringe." (12-2-54, cited in DB, Part 2). The film is worth seeing even if only to enjoy Bondi's performance.
Among her nine other films of the 1950s are "Lone Star," "Latin Lovers," and "A Summer Place." Her final movie was "Tammy and the Doctor," 1963, again with Sandra Dee (who worked with her in "A Summer Place"). Dee also played with Bondi in "Tammy Tell Me True," in 1961.
In her sixties and seventies, Bondi continued to pursue her love of travel, taking a major trip and several shorter ones each year. Now the actress was in demand for television appearances (her first TV role was in 1948 in the "Public Protector" series). She appeared in "Wagon Train," "Zane Grey Theater," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Goodyear Playhouse," "G.E. Theater," and other shows.
Still full of energy in her eighties, she visited China for the second time, went to see the pipeline country in Alaska, hopped a freighter to Australia, and even took part in a safari in Africa. She found very few worthwhile roles, but the ones she did find were notable. She played Jimmy Stewart's mother for the final time on "The Jimmy Stewart Show," in 1971. In 1975 she played Abraham Lincoln's mother in "Crossing Fox River." Her final dramatic role was in "The Pony Cart" episode of "The Waltons," in 1977. For this performance the 89-year-old actress received an Emmy Award
On January 2, 1981, Bondi fell and broke her ribs in her home in Whitley Heights neighborhood of the Hollywood Hills (where she had lived quietly for almost 40 years). She was admitted to the Motion Picture Country Hospital and died of pulmonary complications on January 11. She was 92 years old.
Bondi attributed her long life and good health to her mother's early interest in vitamins and healthful meal-planning. She joked that living in a four-story home provided her wih a lot of exercise.
She was affiliated with several philanthropic organizations, including the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital (where she passed away) and the Merremblum Junior Symphony Orchestra. She never married. "I am fortunate that I love my work," she said. "I made a choice against marriage before I really became immersed in the theater. It was the hardest choice I ever made." (LAHE) "Make up your mind before you take the jump. If you choose a vocation, then set an objective -- a high objective, and don't deviate." (NOS)
She was not keen on some of the attitudes in modern movies. (She once turned down a role because she did not approve of the language in it.) "We all know what life is, but it is too awful to advertise it in that way. ... It isn't just the nudity in pictures I abhor, but the action that is suggested. I went to two controversial films, 'Last Tango in Paris' and 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday.' I found them offensive. On the other hand, I loved the underrated 'Jeremiah Johnson.' I go to films to learn." (LAHE)
Beulah Bondi was a performer who will forever hold a favored place in the great "family" of classic Hollywood.
Aversano, Frank. "Dear Beulah," in "American Classic Screen," Vol. 3 No. 4, March/April, 1979. Part two is in Vol. 3 No. 5, May/June, 1979. (DB)
Heffernan, Harold. "Shun Stardom Says Beulah Bondi," in "The Chicago Daily News," February 14, 1940. (CDN)
New Orleans States, January 9, 1946. "She Chose a Career and Stuck to It." (NOS)
"New York Tribune," June 8, 1941. "Lord Fauntleroy at Seven and Granny Roles Ever Since." Snyder, Camilla. "Beulah Bondi: Behind the Scenes With a Trooper," in "Los Angeles Herald Examiner," Dec. 21, 1975. (LAHE)
Parish, Robert James. Hollywood Character Actors, Carlstadt New Jersey: Rainbow Books, 1970.
Thackrey, Ted jr. Beulah Bondi Obituary, Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1981.
"Variety," Beulah Bondi Obituary, January 21, 1981. Young, Jordan R.
Young, Jordan R. Reel Characters. Beverly Hills: Moonstone Press, 1975.
The Margaret Herrick Library at the Center for Motion Picture Study, Los Angeles, contains a very large collection of Beulah Bondi materials. The photograph of Bondi is a photocopy from one in that collection. The Bondi collection was a gift of Mrs. Philip Market.