Born in 1888, Beulah Bondi was a seasoned stage actress who made her film debut at 43, reprising her Broadway role as the neighborhood gossip in 1931’s Street Scene. After playing several other mean-spirited characters she moved up considerably on the likability scale as Rachel Jackson, Andrew Jackson’s pipe-smoking wife in 1936’s The Gorgeous Hussy, for which she became one of the first five actresses nominated for the new category of Best Supporting Actress.
That same year she played the first of her fierce mountain women in the first outdoor color film, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. The following year, she had her signature role as the unwanted old lady in Make Way for Tomorrow, and the year after that received her second and final Oscar nomination for playing James Stewart’s mother in Of Human Hearts. She subsequently played his mother in three more films (Vivacious Lady, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life) and on his 1971 TV series.
Her biggest career disappointment came in 1939 when after being promised the part of Ma Joad by John Ford in his forthcoming film of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, her casting was overruled by Twentieth Century-Fox honcho, Darryl F. Zanuck, who insisted the role be given to loyal Fox contract player Jane Darwell instead.
Seldom off the screen, whether large, or small in later years, she won a fitting late-career Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series for an episode of The Waltons in 1977, when she was 89 years old. The character she played was not far removed from the one she played forty years earlier in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.
Beulah Bondi died from injuries suffered in a fall to avoid stepping on her cat, on New Year’s Day, 1981. She was 92.
THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE (1936), directed by Henry Hathaway
The outstanding use of color in the first outdoor film was what drove audiences to this fine film in large numbers. The Hatfield-McCoy storyline of feuding families had been done before, and would be done many more times, but what made this one so special was the casting of Sylvia Sidney, Fred MacMaurray, Henry Fonda, Spanky McFarlane, Fred Stone, and, above all, Beulah Bondi as the strong-willed mother of one the families. Having seen too many family members die for no good reasons, it is she who brings the long-running feud to an end and the film to its emotionally-charged climax.
Nominated for an Oscar for its theme song, Bondi was nominated instead for The Gorgeous Hussy that year.
MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937), directed by Leo McCarey
When Leo McCarey won the 1937 Oscar for Best Director for The Awful Truth, he said in his acceptance, “you gave it to me for the wrong film.” Although his spot-on direction of that comedy classic was certainly award-worthy, he knew, as the world has come to recognize, that Make Way for Tomorrow was not only the more important film, but the better one, though its many charms may not have been as apparent at the time.
Set in the days before Social Security, Bondi and Victor Moore play an elderly couple whose home is foreclosed upon and who must rely on family members for assistance. Moore goes to live with a daughter and Bondi with a son.
Bondi, then still in her forties, wears old age make-up to appear to be about 70, but her performance comes not from the outside, but from within. She is that old lady with all her foibles, as well as her charms. What makes the film so remarkable is that McCarey refuses to paint anyone in it as a villain. Both Bondi and Moore’s viewpoints are shown, but so are those of their put-upon children, with Thomas Mitchell as the son and Fay Bainter as his wife particularly outstanding.
Softened from the novel which ends with Bondi’s character standing over Moore’s character’s grave, the film ends on a happier, albeit equally poignant scene of its own.
THE SOUTHERNER (1945), directed by Jean Renoir
Bondi’s loss of the Ma Joad role in The Grapes of Wrath was tempered somewhat by her casting as the cantankerous great-grandmother in this well-regarded film which accounted for Renoir’s only Oscar nomination for Best Director.
Zachary Scott and Betty Field are the poor sharecroppers whose son suffers from malnutrition. J. Carroll Nash is the villain and Blanche Yurka is Scott’s mother, but Bondi steals the show as Scott’s late father’s crotchety, toothless old mother.
In addition to Renoir, the film was nominated for its Sound and Score.
TRACK OF THE CAT (1954), directed by William A. Wellman
Wellman had one of his greatest successes with the film version of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. His film of the author’s lesser known Track of the Cat was not as successful, but this tale of a venomous family in bone-chilling snowy Colorado is legendary for its casting of Robert Mitchum and Tab Hunter as mother-dominated brothers, Teresa Wright as their crippled sister and Bondi as the bible-thumping mother, possibly her best villainous role ever.
Wellman won an Oscar nomination as Best Director for his other film that year, The High and the Mighty, which also won nominations for two of the film’s supporting actresses, Jan Sterling and Claire Trevor, neither of whom was as memorable as Bondi that year.
TAMMY TELL ME TRUE (1961), directed by Harry Keller
While not exactly a “B” film, this successful follow-up to the surprise hit, Tammy and the Bachelor, gave us a new Tammy in Sandra Dee, who replaced Debbie Reynolds, and a new leading man in John Gavin, who replaced Leslie Nielsen. The heart of the film, though, is the little old lady who hides out on Tammy’s houseboat. Thought to be a poor old thing, she’s actually a wealthy woman looking for a late life adventure, and she’s played by Bondi at her most wonderful. She’s even given a romance to play off of veteran character actor Cecil Kellaway. Bondi reprised the character in yet a third Tammy film two years later called Tammy and the Doctor with Dee and Peter Fonda. It would prove to be her last theatrical film. Thereafter she was seen exclusively on TV.
BEULAH BONDI’S OSCAR AND EMMY NOMINATIONS
- The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) (Oscar nomination)
- Of Human Hearts (1938) (Oscar nomination)
- The Pony Cart – The Waltons (1977) (Emmy win)