Jane Darwell (October 15, 1879 – August 13, 1967) was an American actress of stage, film, and television. With appearances in more than one hundred major motion pictures spanning half a century, Darwell is perhaps best-remembered for her portrayal of the matriarch and leader of the Joad family in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, for which she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and her role as the Bird Woman in Disney's musical family film, Mary Poppins. Darwell also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame which places her in a select group of fewer than a hundred female actors in Hollywood history to receive both an Academy Award and a Walk of Fame star.
Born Patti Woodard to William Robert Woodard, president of the Louisville Southern Railroad, and Ellen Booth in Palmyra in Marion County in northeastern Missouri, she originally intended to become a circus rider, then later an opera singer. Her father objected, however, and she compromised by becoming an actress but changed her name to Darwell to avoid sullying the family name.
The Jane Darwell Birthplace was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
She took up voice culture and the piano followed by a course in dramatics. At one point, she decided to enter a convent but instead changed her mind and became an actress. Darwell began acting in theater productions in Chicago and made her first film appearance in 1913. She appeared in almost twenty films over the next two years before returning to the stage. After a 15-year absence from films, she resumed her film career in 1930 with a role in Tom Sawyer, and her career as a Hollywood character actress began. Short, stout, and plain, she was quickly cast in a succession of films usually as the mother of one of the major characters. She also appeared in five Shirley Temple films, usually as the housekeeper or grandmother.
She won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as "Ma Joad" in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), a role she was given at the insistence of the film's star, Henry Fonda. A contract player with 20th Century Fox, Darwell was memorably cast in The Ox-Bow Incident, and occasionally starred in "B" movies and played featured parts in scores of major films.
Darwell had noted appearances on the stage as well; in 1944, she was popular in the stage comedy Suds in Your Eye, in which she played an Irishwoman who had inherited a junkyard.
By the end of her career she had appeared in more than 170 films, including Huckleberry Finn (1931), Jesse James (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and My Darling Clementine (1946).
Darwell was among the guest stars on an episode of Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town, a variety television series which aired on CBS from 1951 to 1952 in which hostess Faye Emerson visits a different city each week to accent the local music. In 1954, Darwell appeared with Andy Clyde in the episode "Santa's Old Suit" of the series, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse. This same episode was re-run the following Christmas 1955 on Studio 57. In 1959, she appeared with child actor Roger Mobley in the episode "Mr. Rush's Secretary" on the NBC western series, Buckskin, starring Tom Nolan and Sally Brophy. She guest starred on John Bromfield's crime drama in a modern western setting, Sheriff of Cochise.
On July 27, 1961, Darwell appeared as "Grandmother McCoy" in an episode of the ABC sitcom The Real McCoys. In the story line, the series characters played by Walter Brennan, Richard Crenna, and Kathleen Nolan return to fictitious Smokey Corners, West Virginia for Grandmother McCoy's 100th birthday gathering. Darwell was fifteen years older than "son", Walter Brennan. Pat Buttram and Henry Jones appeared in this episode as Cousin Carl and Jed McCoy, respectively.
Darwell's final role as the old woman feeding the birds in Mary Poppins (1964) was personally assigned to her by Walt Disney.
On February 8, 1960, Darwell received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to the motion-picture industry; it is located at 6735 Hollywood Boulevard.
In her last years, Darwell's health was poor. It took personal persuasion from Walt Disney for her to appear in Disney's Mary Poppins as she was, by then, tired, frail and in her middle eighties.
Darwell died August 13, 1967, at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, from a heart attack at the age of eighty-seven. She is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
- The Master Mind (1914)
- The Only Son (1914)
- The Man on the Box (1914)
- Rose of the Rancho (1914)
- The Goose Girl (1915)
- After Five (1915)
- Tom Sawyer (1930)
- Huckleberry Finn (1931)
- Back Street (1932)
- Hot Saturday (1932)
- Women Won't Tell (1932)
- Child of Manhattan (1933)
- Air Hostess (1933)
- Design for Living (1933) as Curtis' Housekeeper
- Bondage (1933)
- Heat Lightning (1934)
- Once to Every Woman (1934)
- Let's Talk It Over (1934)
- Change of Heart (1934)
- The White Parade (1934)
- Bright Eyes (1934)
- Tomorrow's Youth (1935)
- One More Spring (1935)
- Life Begins at 40 (1935)
- Curly Top (1935)
- Navy Wife (1935)
- Captain January (1936)
- The Poor Little Rich Girl (1936)
- Craig's Wife (1936)
- Ramona (1936)
- Private Number (1936)
- Slave Ship (1937)
- Nancy Steele Is Missing! (1937)
- The Singing Marine (1937)
- Wife, Doctor and Nurse (1937)
- The Jury's Secret (1938)
- Three Blind Mice (1938)
- Little Miss Broadway (1938)
- Up the River (1938)
- The Zero Hour (1939)
- The Rains Came (1939)
- Jesse James (1939)
- Gone with the Wind (1939) as Mrs. Merriwether
- The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
- Untamed (1940)
- Private Nurse (1941)
- The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
- Thieves Fall Out (1941) as Grandma Allen
- All Through the Night (1942) as Mrs. 'Ma' Donahue
- The Great Gildersleeve (1942)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
- Tender Comrade (1943)
- Reckless Age (1944) as Mrs. Connors
- The Impatient Years (1944) as Minister's Wife
- Music in Manhattan (1944) as Mrs. Pearson
- She's a Sweetheart (1944) as Mom
- Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (1944) as Mrs. Helen Dobson
- I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945) as Mrs. Patterson
- Captain Tugboat Annie (1945) as Tugboat Annie
- The Dark Horse (1946) as Aunt Hattie
- Three Wise Fools (1946) as Sister Mary Brigid
- My Darling Clementine (1946) as Kate Nelson
- Keeper of the Bees (1947) as Mrs. Ferris
- The Red Stallion (1947) as Mrs. Aggie Curtis
- Train to Alcatraz (1948) as Aunt Ella
- 3 Godfathers (1948) as Miss Florie
- Red Canyon (1949) as Aunt Jane
- The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady (1950) as Mrs. Murphy
- Wagon Master (1950) as Sister Ledyard
- Caged (1950) as Isolation Matron
- Surrender (1950) as Molly Hale
- Redwood Forest Trail (1950) as Hattie Hickory
- Three Husbands (1950) as Mrs. Wurdeman
- The Second Face (1950) as Mrs. Lockridge
- Father's Wild Game (1950) as Minverva Bobbin
- The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) as Nellie Thursday
- Excuse My Dust (1951) as Mrs. Belden
- Journey Into Light (1951) as Mack
- We're Not Married! (1952) as Mrs. Bush
- The Sun Shines Bright (1953) as Mrs. Aurora Ratchitt
- It Happens Every Thursday (1953) as Mrs. Eva Spatch
- Affair With a Stranger (1953) as Ma Stanton
- The Bigamist (1953) as Mrs. Connelley
- Hit the Deck (1955) as Jenny
- There's Always Tomorrow (1955) as Mrs. Rogers
- A Life at Stake (1955) as Landlady
- Girls in Prison (1956) as Matron Jamieson
- The Last Hurrah (1958) as Delia Boylan
- Hound-Dog Man (1959) as Granndma Wilson
- Mary Poppins (1964) as The Bird Woman