Dame May Whitty was a delightful character actress of numerous first-class productions of the late 1930s and 1940s. Typically playing a distinguished aunt, mother, grandmother, or dowager, her presence brought an authentic English air to any film....possibly even more so than Gladys Cooper. Proud, gentle, kindly, and altogether charming, she was indeed the ideal symbol of British dignity.
Dame May Whitty was born on June 19, 1865 in Liverpool, England, the daughter of a newspaper journalist/editor. Her first encounter with the world of acting was in a stage production of The Mountain Sylph at the court theatre in Liverpool. She was sixteen years old and danced in the chorus. Within a year, she made her London stage debut and quickly became a seasoned performer. By the turn of the century she was well-known on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1918, she was created a Dame Commander of the British Empire ( being the first actress to receive that honor ) for her philanthropic services with the Red Cross during The Great War. Always willing to serve a good cause, she displayed her selfless service again by helping out for the war effort during World War II. She also appeared in Forever and a Day and Stage Door Canteen, both made to boost morale and the sales of war bonds. Even upon her death her will requested that rather then giving flowers at her funeral the money should be used to send CARE packages to England.
Whitty was busy across the pond and on Broadway during the 1920s and 30s, and it was in 1932 that she was offered the co-starring role in Emlyn William's new play, "Night Must Fall." Reluctant at first to accept the role of the wheel-chair bound, chocolate-loving old lady who is beguiled by a psychopathic killer, it was to become one of her best performances. The show was a great success in England, and she reprised the role on Broadway and once again in 1937 for the MGM film of the same name opposite Robert Montgomery. At the tender age of 72 she made her Hollywood film debut. Her first experience in front of the cameras was a happy one, one which she enjoyed immensely. However, there was one sequence she had trepidation over - toward the end of the film, Whitty had to play a two-and-a-half-minute scene of rising tension, culminating in hysteria. She suggested to director Richard Thorpe that she do a run-through, just to show him what she had done in the play and then he could tell her what to do for the camera. But he didn't...he simply shot the scene as it was, unbroken and unaltered, in a single take. This earned her the title of "One-take Whitty".
It was a magnificent performance altogether and she received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Thus began a wonderful career as a supporting actress in many fine productions for MGM and other studios.
In 1937, she played the medium in MGM's The Thirteenth Chair and the next year starred in her most memorable role, that of charming old Miss Froy, an espionage agent who mysteriously disappears onboard a train while returning home to England, in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes.
In 1940, Dame May was asked if she thought of retiring,
"Quit? Only the aged and infirm quit, and I am neither. So long as I can do my bit, I'll keep right on doing it."
In this film Whitty demonstrated her flair for portraying characters with multiple facets of emotion. In the beginning of Mrs. Miniver we see Lady Beldon engaging with various characters in conversation and freely donating her blunt opinions to each of them. Whitty had a masterful way of unloading carefully timed barbs in such a direct manner while retaining her cuddly lovable cantankerous self. It is as the film progresses however that her depth of character is revealed. Lady Beldon is a crusty coconut, hard and bristly on the outside and sweet and milky within, and one by one the layers of her shell are peeled away to reveal this inner nature...first, by the kindly Mrs. Miniver, and then by the brutal circumstances of war. This performance earned May Whitty her second Academy Award nomination.
For a change from her more usual high-society roles, she played the down-to-earth Dolly ( her real-life husband Ben Webster played her spouse in the film ) in Lassie Come Home; she was the elderly villager of Penny Green in If Winter Comes ; and in The White Cliffs of Dover ( 1944 ) she played the lovable governess Nanny. Gaslight saw her returning to her prestigious roles, this time as Ingrid Bergman's garrulous neighbor on Thorton Square.
In the thriller My Name is Julia Ross Whitty had an usually biting role as the wealthy mother who tries to convince secretary Nina Foch that she was her son's wife, and in Green Dolphin Street she did a complete reversal and magically transformed herself in the wise Mother Superior for Donna Reed.
In 1947 her husband of 55 years, Ben Webster, passed away. Dame May Whitty made the films The Sign of the Ram ( with Susan Peters ) and The Return of October that year but had to be replaced by Lucille Watson in Julia Misbehaves due to illness.
On May 29, 1948 she died at the age of 82. Many of Hollywood's British colony friends attended the funeral including C.Aubrey Smith, Edmund Gwenn, Herbert Marshall, Brian Aherne and Boris Karloff.
Her daughter Margaret Webster was a famous actress herself as well as a notable stage producer and director and in 1969 she wrote an autobiography, "The Same Only Different", covering both her and her mother's careers.
This post is our contribution to the What a Character! blogathon, a celebration of some of the most talented actors in Hollywood, the beloved "character actors". Don't miss visiting Once Upon a Screen or Paula's Cinema Club to view a complete schedule and find links to great posts on nearly fifty other great character actors.