Today’s “plain Janes” were two of the screen’s most venerable supporting players, Jane Cowl and Jane Darwell (above). You’ve probably seen them so many times in various movies you’ve forgotten how good they were.
For example, Darwell rolled up a whopping 210 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 probably 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.
It 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. Darwell had a long life; she died at age 87 in 1967.
Cowl may be harder to spot and recall. (That’s her to the left with Barbara Stanwyck and John Lund in 1950’s No Man of Her Own.) She is distinctive because she was a successful playwright as well as a solid character actress.
Her screen output was much less than that of Cowell’s. And, her writing credits sometimes outshone her screen efforts. Cowl is the co-scripter of 1932’s Smilin’ Through, a weeper costarring Norman Shearer and Leslie Howard, which is based on her own play of the same title. (The movie was remade and updated in 1941 costarring Jeanette MacDonald and Brian Aherne.)
Cowl actually played the lead in a pair of silent films — 1915 The Garden of Lies and 1917’s The Spreeading Dawn — then stopped filmmaking for some three decades. She returned in the 1940’s as a supporting character actress (her movie credits encompass a total of less than 10 features). She became known as a skillful player of “lachrymose” parts.
A footnote: It is said that Cowl was the inspiration for the first name of another of our “Janes” — Jane Russell. More on her tomorrow. Stay tuned.