Remembering Hollywood's Favourite Grandmother
Did you realise that veteran actress May Robson was born in St Kilda, Victoria? Hollywood's perennial grandmother of the 1930s specialised in playing crotchety old ladies with hearts of gold. Remember her in the original A Star Is Born (1937) as granny to Janet Gaynor's Esther Blodgett? Or as Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and her comment to Tom: 'Land o'Goshan, your hair looks like a hornets' nest.' Or as Aunt Elizabeth questioning Cary Grant as to why he was wearing women's clothing in Bringing Up Baby (1938)? His reply and her reaction has become Hollywood history: 'Because I just went gay all of a sudden.'
Mary Jeanette Robison was born on 19 April 1858, the fourth child to Captain Henry Robison and his wife Julia. Retired to Australia for his health, Captain Henry never saw his daughter on stage – he died when she was seven. Mother Julia, now a widow, decided to pack up and return her family to London. Educated in England, Brussels and Paris, Mary met visiting US cattle baron Edward Charles Gore. A romance developed and they were married on 1 November 1875 (Mary was just 17) and soon after moved to Fort Worth in Texas to run a cattle ranch. Three children resulted from the marriage. A later move to New York city occurred sometime before Gore's sudden death in 1883.
Widowed in New York, Mary turned her hand to anything that raised much-needed family funds. Embroidery, painting lessons, tailoring, seamstress, jewellery design and interpreter were added to her resume during this period. Soon the Broadway stage came calling for her talents, but Mary had no initial intentions of becoming an actress. Tragedy came with the death of two children – only Edward Junior survived. By now familiar with 'theatricals' and the industry, Mary was prompted by friends to try her luck – and she never looked back.
May Robson appeared on stage for the first time on 17 September 1883 at the Brooklyn Grand Opera House. Her name was badly misspelt in the program; no matter, she saw the omen as a sign of good luck. As a comedienne and character actress, May flourished and found herself in continuing demand. A chance meeting with Broadway manager and producer Charles Frohman (1856-1915) led to a productive, long term collaboration. Marriage came knocking in 1889 when May wed police surgeon Dr Augustus Homer Brown on 29 May. Both busy with their prospective careers and raising a son, they remained happily married until Dr Brown's death on 1 April 1920.
May's popularity with New York theatregoers meant Frohman wasted no time in casting her in stellar productions during the 1890s. She learnt quickly, took direction well and enjoyed her new vocation. In 1893, for example, May appears in four major productions: Americans Abroad, The Family Circle, The Poet and the Puppets and Squirrel Inn. In 1895 she appeared in the first American production of The Importance of Being Earnest at age 37. Maybe too young to play Lady Bracknell, too old to play Gwendolyn or Cecily, she was the first American Miss Prism.
By 1911 May had established her own theatrical touring company as part of Frohman's New York Theatrical Syndicate. She now ventured further afield than Manhattan Island, finding other US city and provincial audiences just as enthusiastic for quality drama. But soon came the next phase in May's career – motion pictures. By 1915 the 'flickers' had matured into a serious art form and could no longer be dismissed by theatrical performers. May's first silent was titled How Molly Made Good, filmed at Long Island. It was followed by A Night Out in 1916. Details of further silent films are sketchy – May grabbed the work so long as it didn't interfere with her stage and touring company commitments.
By 1926 California was beckoning. She was a widow once more and her son Edward had long left the nest, and the movies needed her talents. So 68-year-old May headed west and entered the final stage of her life and career – Hollywood character actress. Pals in Paradise was her first Hollywood venture – a drama concerning a gold mine and a crooked lawyer. Her second, a significantly greater epic – Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings in 1927, in which she played the mother of Gestas.
Enter sound – 'talking pictures' arrived in late 1927, ruining the careers of many, but stage-trained May found herself in even greater demand. Appearing in three features in 1932, May didn't rest in 1933, with directors waiting for 'the granny with a heart of gold' to become available. An impressive ten films were made that year, culminating in Frank Capra's Lady for a Day. As Apple Annie, May delivered an Oscar-nominated performance as a mother pretending to be a society 'dame' to her daughter living in Spain. When the daughter suddenly decides to visit, some necessary social camouflage is quickly acquired. Frank Capra's film received four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (May) – she was the oldest nominee and the first Australian, Best Picture, Best Writing – Adaption (Robert Riskin) and Best Director for Capra. Sadly it didn't win any, but it did much for May, proving she could carry a picture as leading lady at age 75 and at only 5'2" (157 cm).
Her last role was as Mademoiselle Rosay in Joan of Paris in 1942. Starring Paul Henreid and Michele Morgan, it was released after May's death (natural age causes with neuritis). After a Hollywood funeral, her remains were taken east to New York and buried with her second husband at Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York. Her New York Times obituary described May as the 'dowager queen of the American screen and stage'. Two obituary notices are reproduced below – one from the Melbourne Argus and the other from the San Francisco Berkeley Daily Gazette. I shall let them sum up the amazing life and career of St Kilda's May Robson.
Melbourne: The Argus – Thursday 22 October 1942
Death of May Robson
Hollywood – Wednesday AAP
The death is announced from Beverly Hills of May Robson, the Melbourne born stage and screen character actress. Despite failing health and eyesight, May Robson had been active in moving pictures until a few months ago. Her last picture was Joan of Paris.
Since the death of Marie Dressler, May Robson (in private life the wife of Dr A.H. Brown, of New York) has been the veteran actress and gracious lady of the films. Born in St Kilda in 1865 [sic], she was the daughter of Capt Henry Robison RN. She was educated in England, France and Belgium and at an early age she went with her parents to live in New York.
Fifty-nine years ago she made her stage debut in New York, and soon became a successful actress. In 1910 she made her first stage appearance in London. She commenced her screen career in silent pictures in 1926. Her first talking picture was Mother's Millions and ever since she has played prominent parts in many talkie successes.
Berkeley Daily Gazette – 23 October 1942
FIND MAY ROBSON 84 AT DEATH – FILM FOLKS PAY TRIBUTE
Hollywood – Oct 23
Hollywood paid its last tribute today to May Robson, 'grand old lady' of stage and screen and marvelled at the announcement that she was 84 years old at death.
Previous reports had revealed her age as 78. At her last birthday the beloved actress announced her age as 72, explaining that she had decided never to get older than 75 and so she subtracted a year on each birthday.
The death certificate disclosed Miss Robson was 84, born in Melbourne, Australia, April 19, 1858.
In 1937 she announced her age as 72 and said 'there's no use fibbing about my age because my mother printed the date in red ink on the back of all my baby pictures.'
Long before the services started today in the Little Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, scores of floral pieces were placed in the chapel. The Episcopal service was conducted by the Rev Neal Dodd before a large crowd. Honorary pall-bearers were Franklin Pangborn, Allan Walker, Charles Boyer, Arthur McArthur [most likely Charles MacArthur, who wrote Lady for a Day], E.J. Mannix and Louis B. Mayer.
Cremation followed the services and arrangement s were made to return the ashes to Flushing NY to be placed beside those of Miss Robson's second husband, Dr Augustus H. Brown, former New York police surgeon.