During Hollywood’s Golden Era there were a group of supporting women sometimes called “the old ladies” — and chief among them was May Robson. (There she is above with Carole Lombard.)
Robson really was an “old lady” by the time she achieved broad recognition in Hollywood during the 1930’s. She was in her Seventies, playing marginally beloved aunts, grandmothers and other senior family members. And she played these parts, invariably, with distinction.
At her death in 1942 at age 84, The New York Times declared her “the dowager queen of American screen and stage.”
Robson came by her dowager status honestly. Born in 1858 as Mary Jeanette Robison in the Australian outback, she took a circuitous route to the American stage and to Hollywood. She was never considered a beauty, and she made the most of her roles as a comedian and character actress.
Propelling her theatrical ambitions was the brute force of economics since Robson was left a widow with three children after her first husband died in 1883. Before landing in Hollywood permanently, she cut a stalwart figure on the stage and in silent films. (An early appearance at the Brooklyn Grand Opera House stage generated a program in which her her surname was misspelled as “Robson.” May kept it for “good luck.”)
She plays a cheapskate businesswoman in 1931’s The She-Wolf. She plays the dying Queen of Hearts in 1933’s Alice in Wonderland, Countess Vronsky in 1936’s Anna Karenina, Aunt Polly in 1938’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the tart-tongued grandma in the original 1937 edition of A Star Is Born.
In Howard Hawks’ 1938 comedy Bringing Up Baby, she plays a society matron who gets to boss around Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.
Robson is also remembered for her wonderful performance as author Damon Runyon’s Apple Annie in Frank Capra’s 1933 comedy Lady For A Day. This time, Robson was firmly in a starring role (opposite Warren William and one of our favorite character actors, Guy Kibbee).
Robson was nominated for her performance in the best actress category, but lost out that year to — Katharine Hepburn (for Morning Glory). Robson was comforted to some degree by the knowledge that she was the first native Australian to be Oscar nominated, and was also the oldest performer to be so nominated (she was 75 at the time).
May Robson — supporting actress extraordinaire.