Born April 19, 1858 in Melbourne, Australia, the fourth child of a British Naval Captain and his wife, Mary Jeanette Robison would move to her parents’ native England after the death of her father, and would be educated in London, Paris and Brussels. After emigrating to the U.S. as a young woman, she married a Texas rancher and bore thee children, two of whom would die in childhood before she turned to acting after the death of her husband in 1883. She would re-marry in 1889 and be widowed again in 1922.
On Broadway form 1888, when she appeared at the Brooklyn Grand Opera House in 1893, her name was incorrectly spelled in the billing as “May Robson” which she decided to keep as her professional name for luck. On May 14, 1894, three months to the day after its London debut, 36 year-old Robson co-starred as Miss Prism in the first Broadway production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. She would go on to appear in more than twenty Broadway productions through 1926, alternating between lead and supporting roles with ease.
On screen occasionally from 1908, she would concentrate on films from 1927 on, alternating, as she did on stage, between lead and supporting roles with the greatest of ease. She had the title role in 1927’s The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary and played Mrs. Morton, the prison matron in the same year’s first screen version of Chicago.
She had the lead in her first talkie, 1931’s The She-Wolf, as a fictionalized Hetty Green, the notorious financier-miser (1834-1916), and scored as one of the co-stars of 1932’s all-star If I Had a Million. Equally marvelous supporting other performers, she was memorable as Joan Crawford’s mother in Letty Lynton; Jean Harlow’s aunt in Red-Headed Woman; Norma Shearer’s mother-in-law in Strange Interlude and Helen Hayes’ Mother Superior in The White Sister.
She had the role of her career as Apple Annie in Frank Capra’s 1933 comedy classic, Lady for a Day, becoming the first Australian born Oscar nominee and at the age of 75, 313 days, the oldest lead actress nominee, a record she held until Edith Evans at 80, 11 days thirty-four years later and Jessica Tandy at 80 years, 292 days twelve years after that, supplanted her. Five years later, George Bernard Shaw, born two years earlier, would become the earliest born Oscar nominee (and winner) for his screenplay for Pygmalion, but she remains the earliest born acting nominee.
After losing the Oscar to Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory, she continued to alternate between lead roles in such films as Lady by Choice and Grand Old Girl and major supporting roles in such films as Anna Karenina; A Star Is Born; Bringing Up Baby; Four Daughters and Irene. She had her last lead role in 1940’s Granny Get Your Gun and ended her career with an impressive supporting performance in the posthumously released Joan of Paris.
May Robson died of cancer at 84 on October, 20, 1942 in her Beverly Hills home, and is buried in New York’s Flushing Cemetery with her second husband, Augustus Brown. The New York Times, in its obituary, called her “the dowager queen of the American screen and stage.”
THE SHE-WOLF (1931), directed by James Flood
Robson dominates the screen in her first talkie as a thinly disguised Hetty Green, the notorious financier-miser (1834-1916). The real Hetty Green was a nasty character, an unrepentant miser who despite her great wealth, lived very modestly, never owning more than one dress or one set of undergarments at a time, wearing them out before replacing them. She died haggling over the cost of a bottle of milk. Robson plays the character, renamed Harriet Breen, in the film’s first two acts as mean and nasty as can be, but does an about-face in the third act, displaying a previously unseen heart of gold.
The title, which made it sound like a horror film, was changed to The She-Wolf of Wall Street and eventually to Mother’s Millions, which makes it sound like a comedy, which it definitely is not.
STRANGE INTERLUDE (1932), directed by Robert Z. Leonard
The film version of Eugene O’Neill’s experimental play in which characters’ private thoughts are heard at odds with their spoken words was an awkward thing to get across on stage and even more-so on screen. It isn’t helped by Norma Shearer’s horrid over-acting as a woman who juggles various men. Rising star Clark Gable as the man who serves as surrogate sperm donor in place of her insane husband (Alexander Kirkland) is better but stymied by the role, while Ralph Morgan as Shearer’s boyhood friend and timid unrequited love overacts almost as unbearably as Shearer, especially in the film early scenes.
Supporting players Tad Alexander, Robert Young, Maureen O’Sullivan and especially Robson as Shearer’s tough-minded mother-in-law somehow rise above the muck. Robson has some of the film’s most memorable pre-Code dialogue in her scene with Shearer in which she urges her to find another man to father the child her husband so desperately wants but can’t have.
LADY FOR A DAY (1933), directed by Frank Capra
Robson had the role of her career in Capra’s Depression era film from Damon Runyon’s story about an elderly apple-seller who is a small-time gangster’s good luck charm.
The crux of the film centers on Robson’s transformation from old souse to fake queen of society in order to impress her European convent educated daughter and her aristocratic beau and his family. Played with just the right touch of whimsy and seriousness, Robson’s performance runs the gamut from hilarious to heartbreaking. She’s ably supported by Warren William, ostensibly the film’s lead as Dave the Dude, Glenda Farrell, Jean Parker and outstanding character players Guy Kibbee, Walter Connolly, Ned Sparks and Nat Pendleton, but it’s Robson’s superlative performance that still engages audiences nearly eighty years later.
BRINGING UP BABY (1938), directed by Howard Hawks
Hawks’ screwball comedy was such a flop when first released that Radio City Music Hall pulled it after just one week, replacing it with William Wyler’s Jezebel which audiences waited to see in lines that ran around the block in a blizzard.
The general consensus at the time was that the film was too frenzied, or as Hawks himself later said, “too madcap”. Time, however, has been kind to the now beloved film with Katharine Hepburn as the scatter-brained heiress and Cary Grant as the absent-minded college professor she pursues. Robson plays Hepburn’s aunt, who has some of the film’s funniest lines and best reaction shots.
JOAN OF PARIS (1942), directed by Robert Stevenson
One of the most affecting films about wartime Paris, with luminous performances by Michele Morgan as a member of the French Resistance and Paul Henried as the downed flyer she falls in love with. Thomas Mitchell as a sympathetic priest; Laird Cregar as the local Nazi in charge and Alan Ladd as a wounded American flyer all turn in memorable performances.
In her last film, Robson is unforgettable as a French dowager involved in the Resistance who is found out and murdered by the Nazis.
MAY ROBSON AND OSCAR
- Lady for a Day (1933) – nominated Best Actress