Jane Wyatt was a true lady in every sense of the word. Though she gained stardom on stage, screen, and television, she is, in my opinion, overlooked by modern viewers and therefore my choice of a forgotten movie star.
Miss Wyatt was born on August 12, 1910 in Mahwah, New Jersey to a well-respected Wall Street investment broker and a drama critic who wrote for the publication "Catholic World". Her background was quite illustrious. Her mother's family, the Van Renssalaer's, had settled in the early American colonies and owned much of what would become New York City. For this reason, the state of New York named Renssalaer County in their honor.
A young Jane attended the elite Chapin School and became a student at Barnard College before she joined the Berkshire Playhouse for a short and productive season. She exercised her budding acting muscles playing an assortment of fascinating characters. Her time at the playhouse proved to be a very wise career move because it opened the door to Broadway. She graced the celebrated stage in a string of plays such as: "Give Me Yesterday", "Dinner at Eight", and "Conquest" and she soon became an understudy to actress Rose Hobart during the production of "Trade Winds".
Jane's success on Broadway brought her a contract with Universal Pictures and the studio soon had her working on a selection of neat films starting with One More River ( 1934 ) and as Pip's beloved Estella in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.
It was during this busy decade in Jane's life that she married Mr. Edgar Bethune Ward, an investment broker whom she met in the late 1920's when they were both houseguests at Hyde Park, the home of her distant cousin Eleanor and her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Two years later, Jane earned the coveted role of Sondra in Columbia Pictures's big budget production of James Hilton's novel The Lost Horizon alongside the dashing Ronald Colman. The film featured magnificent set design and splendid cinematography and its 1937 release came at a most trying time in world history. As the threat of war loomed throughout Europe, here was a film which spoke of global peace and hope. If only this film's message could have been taken to heart sooner thereby preventing the sorrows which millions of people would soon feel.
Jane's portrayal in Lost Horizon lifted her career to new heights and she found ample work on stage in "Save Me the Waltz"and "Night Music" and at RKO in Army Surgeon and as Aggie Hunter in the sad drama None but the Lonely Heart with Cary Grant. Two films which stand out in Jane's career include her role as Madge Harvey in Elia Kazan's 1947 triumph Boomerang! and in Gentleman's Agreement, both of which she made for 20th Century Fox.
It was during this time that actor Robert Young ( a favorite star of mine ) and his business partner Eugene Rodney were paving the way for a television show based on Young's much loved NBC radio show "Father Knows Best" which had debuted in 1949 and starred Young and Jean Vander Pyl ( who would go on to voice Wilma Flintstone on "The Flintstones". )
When Young secured a Sunday night time slot with CBS, he and Mr. Rodney decided to sign on a new female lead to play Margaret Anderson. Within a short time, they mutually agreed to cast Jane Wyatt, who not only fit the role perfectly but had previous experience on radio as well.
Surprisingly, Jane didn't immediately jump at the offer but after she agreed to join the cast in 1954 and had played in the first few episodes, CBS hastily pulled the plug on the show when the network became disappointed with its early ratings. CBS soon found their mail room flooded with letters from viewers who asked that the show be put back on television despite the studio executives's initial misgivings. So to calm these stormy seas, NBC proposed to take "Father Knows Best" off CBS's hands and aired it on Wednesday nights at 8:30 p.m. and it became one of America's favorite family sitcoms.
Jim and Margaret Anderson were the ideal couple who made every effort to help their children: Betty ( Elinor Donahue ), Robby "Bud" ( Billy Gray ), and Kathy ( Lauren Chapin ) become good Christians. Jane is lovely as Margaret and she earned a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series three years in a row. Despite her busy work schedule, Jane became a spokeswoman for "All" detergent and appeared as a guest star on several television dramas as well as a guest, alongside Robert Young, on the hit game show "What's My Line?"
Jane's popularity earned her a golden star on Hollywood's famous Walk of Fame and after "Father Knows Best" ended after its seven season run in 1960, she spread her wings and played on numerous much- loved shows throughout the 1960's and 1970's like: "The Virginian", "Wagon Train", "Star Trek", "Fantasy Island", and "Love Boat". She had a co-starring role in the 1965 Warner Brothers comedy Never Too Late about a married couple ( Paul Ford and Maureen O'Sullivan ) who get the surprise of their lives when, despite their advanced age, they find out they're going to have a baby.
Jane also had a brief but, nonetheless, important role as Johnny Doran's kindly Aunt Effie in Walt Disney's 1976 adventure Treasure of Matecumbe. It is a little known film but definitely worth seeing about a young boy and his close friend who search for riches left to him by his father in the dangerous swamps of the Florida Keys in the late 1800's.
The following year, the cast of "Father Knows Best" was reunited in a TV movie in which Margaret yearns to see her grown children who now live in different parts of the country and are raising families of their own. Complications arise when widowed Betty rekindles a romance with her former college beau and Bud admits to having marriage troubles with his wife. Thankfully, Dad and Mom are close at hand to help guide their children into the right direction.
Though Jane was now in her seventies, the 1980's proved to be a fruitful decade for her with roles on "Hotel","Baby Boom", "St. Elsewhere", and a reprisal as Spock's human mother Amanda in 1986's "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home". Her role in "Star Trek" and on "Father Knows Best" have became her signature parts, cementing her image of the perfect mother in the hearts of fans around the world.
When the 1990's rolled in, Miss Wyatt chose to step away from the camera and retired to her California home, spending her quality time with her children and grandchildren. She passed away peacefully on October 20, 2006 at the age of ninety-six.
I admire Miss Wyatt for her cheerful disposition, strong work ethic, and good morals. She was married only once, bore four beautiful children, was a tireless worker for the March of Dimes and was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
It is a shame that she doesn't receive more attention for her immense talent and goodness of heart. I am excited to watch more of her films and television performances in the near future. Though she may be forgotten by some, she is remembered and loved by many classic film fans, one of which is myself.
By Diana Metzinger
This post is our contribution to the Forgetton Stars Blogathon, being hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. To read more articles about forgotten Hollywood stars, click here.