Monday, October 20, 2014

Jane Wyatt: Lovely Inside and Out

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

16 comments:

  1. A good choice for this blogathon, and one of my favorites. Very good post that fills in the blanks for a lot of us. A smart and sophisticated woman, and a splendid actress.

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    1. Thank you very much for your comment! My sister and I love to watch Miss Wyatt in films and on television. She was a wonderfully talented woman and she possessed many admirable qualities. I would like to become alittle like her myself someday.

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  2. Lovely post. I remember as a kid being surprised to learn that Mrs. Father Knows Best was actually a movie star. She was wonderful in Lost Horizon and always a total pro. It's nice to know that she was successful off screen, as well. A lovely lady for sure.

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    1. My sister and I felt the same way! I only associated her with the show and "Lost Horizon" and since we have read more information about her, we look forward to watching the many other great films she performed in. Thank you kindly for your comment! :)

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  3. A portrait of a charming lady who graced genuine classics in movies and television. Very nice.

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    1. Thank you Caftan Woman for your lovely comment! I am sure a great deal more can be written about Miss Wyatt's life and career, so it was hard to keep my article relatively short and an interesting read for our readers. I am glad you enjoyed reading it!

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  4. Great choice to highlight for the blogathon - a beautiful lady and a fine actress. Check out Our Very Own if you haven't seen it.

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    1. We will try to search for "Our Very Own" in our local libraries and on DVD/VHS on-line. It sounds like a really good movie! Thank you for your comment Mr. Esquevin! :)

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  5. You're right – she's criminally overlooked today. A beautiful and talented woman. I didn't realize she was so busy in the 1980s! So glad you included her in the blogathon.

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    1. I thought it would be easy to find photos of Miss Wyatt in our movie star photo books and studio books at home, but I couldn't find too many, and I was surprised to find little information about her in our movie star fan magazine collection. Sadly, she does seem to be a forgotten star by modern viewers and I hope my article will help introduce her to new classic film fans. Thanks for your comment!

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  6. I love hearing about those stars who manage to tackle--and succeed--in multiple media. In her case, so much so that we sometimes forget her earlier successes! Your post makes me want to see more of her work.

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    1. I admire Miss Wyatt, too, for being a versatile actress. She gave herself numerous outlets to express her many talents and she did so well in every direction she went. Modern day workers are asked to be flexible and wear several hats in their chosen career and Miss Wyatt was already doing that years ahead of time! Thank you very much Miss Williams for your comment!

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  7. Great post! I had no idea she kept working for so many decades. Thanks for spotlighting this wonderful actress in the blogathon!

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    1. Thank you for being so kind!! I am happy, too, that Miss Wyatt kept herself busy working into her seventies! She was a true lady and we just adore her! We hope to watch more of her films soon! :)

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  8. I think most fans associate Jane Wyatt with TV sitcoms and film comedies, but she was also a fine dramatic actress. One of her best roles was in the Fritz Lang noir "House By The River," in which she movingly plays a wife threatened by her husband. She was one of those versatile talents who should be better remembered. Thanks so much.

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    1. Though Jane may have found a niche for herself on TV and in comedies, it was a wise career move for her to take on more dramatic roles which helped her express different emotions on-screen. She really did have a marvelous career, one that I think other stars would have liked to have had. Thank you for your comment! :)

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