|May Robson roles as of 1905|
REMEMBERING MAY ROBSON
April 19, 1858 - October 20, 1942
"I was born in the Australian bush. I remember when I was a young girl fishing from the St. Kilda Pier in Melbourne. At 13 my family moved from Melbourne to England across the Pacific. We sailed in a vessel modeled after my grandmother's rocking chair in movement and it was dubbed the "Rolling Moses."
She attended La Sainte Union Catholic School on Highgate Road. "From the Sacred Heart Convent, Highgate, I was sent to school at Brussels, and there I studied the languages. I went to Paris for my examinations in French and returned home for a vacation. I ran away from home to marry a boy of eighteen and we went to Fort Worth, Texas and tried to live up to our dignified name as inscribed on our cards, 'Mr. and Mrs. Charles Livingston Gore'."
From an article that appeared in Theatre (1907)
She arrived in New York in 1880 with her young husband and three children and had to begin life anew after severe financial losses. Her husband preferred to return to London to recoup some of his finances; May decided to stay in New York. To survive she produced crocheted hoods and embroidery, designed dinner cards and taught painting to support her three children. Her youngest son and daughter died in 1882.
A LIFE ON THE STAGE
She debuted as an actress on September 17, 1883 as Tilly in Hoop of Gold at the
Brooklyn Grand Opera House. Heretofore her maiden name was Robison, now an
incorrect spelling on the playbill as Robson became her chosen last name for "good luck".
Her success was partly due to her affiliation with Charles Frohman and the Theatrical Syndicate. By 1911 she established her own touring theatrical company.
Jim the Penman, Mrs.Van Buren in The Charity Ball, Audrey in As You Like It.
Between 1893-1896 she was engaged at the
Empire Theatre under the management of Charles Frohman in the following productions: Liberty Hall, The Councillor's Wife,
Sowing the Wind, Gudgeons, The Luck of Roaring Camp,
The Importance of Being Earnest, Bohemia, among others.
Theatres who engaged her included Palmer's, Miner's Fifth Avenue, Hoyt's, the Lyceum, Daly's and Wallack's and the
New York. She also appeared in a vaudeville sketch entitled "Cinders" at Lew Fields' Theatre in 1904.
DEBUT AS A STAR
She originated the role of Aunt Mary Watkins in
The Rejuvenation of Mary appearing in New York after a tryout at the Garden Theatre in 1907. She debuted in London with the same role at Terry's Theatre in 1910. There would be at least ten more character roles by the end of 1922. For a woman with no apparent training, except for life experience, she had phenomenal luck as a working actress and so many roles that were just right for her comedic timing and instinctive characterizations.
She performed a cameo in the 1915 silent film, How Molly Made Good and in 1916 starred in the film A Night Out, an adaptation of a play she co-wrote The Three Lights. Other silents included roles in the King of Kings (1927), The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary (1927) and Chicago (1927).
HOLLYWOOD TALKIES COME A CALLING
With her distinctive speaking voice and extensive stage experience, it is no wonder that Hollywood moguls and directors would request her for her brilliance as a solid character woman and comedienne. In The She Wolf (1931) she was a miserly millionaire businesswoman; in the final segment of If I Had A Million (1932) she was a rest home resident who gets a new lease on life when she is given a million dollar check by a dying business tycoon. She played the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (1933), Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1936), Aunt Elizabeth in
Bringing Up Baby (1938), Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and a sharp-tongued Granny in A Star is Born. (1937)
Lady for a Day but lost to Katharine Hepburn. She was the first Australian-born actress to be nominated for an acting Oscar, and for many years she held the record as the oldest performer nominated for an Oscar.
She wrote an article entitled "Make-Up--A Paradox"
for Making Up A Practical and Effective Treatise on this Art for Professional and Amateur by Actor James Young (1905)
"Let me say that I do not think that I have ever met two faces that should be made up exactly alike. I am talking about "straight make-up." You often see a girl who looks remarkably pretty on the street and who is comparatively a fright when she gets on the stage; and a girl really plain who seems pretty behind the footlights. Make-up can be very cruel or very kind........
"As to costumes, my advice is to get the real thing when you can. The old coat I wore some years ago in Lady Bountiful (1892)I remember I bought from a woman in Newark, who was very glad to exchange it for a new one. When I cannot get the real thing I reproduce it as closely as I possibly can."
After her death at age 84 the New York Times obituary called her "the dowager queen of the American screen and stage."
Resources: Watch as many of the 34 motion pictures which starred or featured this iconic and brilliant woman. My favorites are Lady For A Day, Bringing Up Baby, Four Daughters, Irene,
Wife vs. Secretary and Reckless.
Reference: May Robson Wikipedia