She rolled up a long list of movie and tv credits over a career that lasted more than half a century. Character actresses were real workhorses in classic Hollywood, and Darwell certainly bears that out.
She had a broad, assertive acting style that caught your attention and befits a woman who aspired to be an opera singer before beginning her screen career acting in silent movie shorts. She appeared in such obscure films as 1939’s Gone With the Wind, 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident and (her last credit) 1964’s Mary Poppins.
She is undoubtedly best remembered for Grapes of Wrath based on the John Steinbeck novel purchased for the movies by 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck for $100,000.
The movie adaptation was the proud project of producer Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. His biographer Mel Gussow wrote: In ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ Zanuck has taken an urgent problem (as he was to do later with racial discrimination, religious prejudice, and insanity) and dramatized it, making it palatable to a wide public, not by softening it but humanizing it. In 1939 it took considerable daring and courage for Zanuck to film ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ — while it was hot — and to do it so faithfully and movingly.
It, of course, tells of an impoverished Oklahoma family migrating to California, and stars Henry Fonda in an Oscar nominated performance, and Darwell as Ma Joad, the family’s pillar-like matriarch. She won an Oscar for her unforgettable handling of the part.
Harwell didn’t always play the noble oppressed. She turns up in 1950’s Caged as a nasty prison warden. In The Ox-Bow Incident, she takes a turn as a cackling lynch mob leader. She made a half dozen films for John Ford including 1946’s My Darling Clementine and 1950’s Wagon Master. She was a commanding presence no matter her specific role.
In her long career Darwell rolled up some 210 credits including many tv outings later in her career. She had a long life. She died at age 87 in 1967.