Oscar Profile #400: Elizabeth Patterson

Born November 22, 1974 in Savannah, Tennessee, Elizabeth Patterson was the daughter of a confederate soldier who became a judge. Educated at Martin College with postgraduate work at Columbia Institute in Tennessee, Patterson’s parents sent her to Europe hoping the experience would diminish her interest in becoming an actress, but it only intensified her determination. By the turn of the century, she was appearing in Shakespearean productions in Chicago. She made her Broadway debut in a revival of the fifteenth century morality play, Everyman in 1913 and would continue to appear on Broadway off and on through 1954.

Patterson made her film debut in The Boy Friend at the age of 51 in 1926, playing the mother of the heroine. She made her talkie debut in Words and Music in 1929 playing a college dean. She would soon become a fixture in the supporting cast of such early talkies as The Smiling Lieutenant, Daddy Long Legs, Penrod and Sam, So Big! , New Morals for Old, Miss Pinkerton, Love Me Tonight and Life Begins.

The actress had her busiest year to date in 1932, appearing in thirteen films, most notably A Bill of Divorcement in which she played John Barrymore’s sister. She slowed down a bit in 1933, appearing in only eight films that year, but one of those films happened to be Dinner at Eight in which her hilarious scene with Marie Dressler still draws howls of laughter from appreciative audiences. She would make another twenty-one films before being given one of the biggest roles of her career as the mother Bing Crosby, Fred MacMurray and Donald O’Connor in 1938’s Sing You Sinners. She would reunite with MacMurray for another of her standout roles as his aunt in 1940’s Remember the Night.

The 1940s proved to be as busy a decade for Patterson with standout roles in such films as Tobacco Road, Belle Starr, My Sister Eileen, I Married a Witch, Hail the Conquering Hero, Lady on a Train, The Secret Heart, Welcome Stranger, Miss Tatlock’s Millions, Little Women and her signature role as the old lady who holds off the lynch mob in 1949’s Intruder in the Dust.

Patterson’s film work slowed down in the 1950s in which she only appeared in five films, but among them were Bright Leaf, Washington Story and Pal Joey. She was, however, kept quite busy on TV where she had several roles in made-for-TV films, live plays and comedy series in every year throughout the decade. She was in everything from The Adventures of Superman to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and quite a few things in between. She played her most famous role, that of Lucille Ball’s elderly neighbor and sometimes babysitter, Mrs. Trumball in I Love Lucy, a role she first played from the age of 77 to 80.

Patterson’s last film was 1960’s Tall Story after which she made a couple more TV appearances and retired the following year.

Elizabeth Patterson died on January 31, 1966 at the age of 91.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932), directed by George Cukor

The second of three film versions of the 1921 Broadway play featured three talked about performances. It was made to showcase John Barrymore who received sole star billing as an escapee from an insane asylum. Second billed was Billie Burke, making her talkie debut as Barrymore’s divorced wife away from real-life husband Florenz Ziegfeld who died during filming. Third billed was Katharine Hepburn making her screen debut as Barrymore and Burke’s daughter. All three turned in brilliant work, but just as brilliant was Patterson in the role of Barrymore’s stern sister, a role that could have been a turnoff in lesser hands.

DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), directed by Gorge Cukor

Although classified as a comedy-drama with the emphasis on comedy, this all-star classic is often heavy going with one major character dying and another one committing suicide, but one genuinely funny scene occurs early on in which Patterson (then pushing 60) tells Marie Dressler (born six years earlier) that she thought she was wonderful in the last play Dressler did even though she (Patterson) was just a little girl at the time. Dressler’s response and Patterson’s reaction are as unforgettable as the film’s legendary final confrontation between Dressler and Jean Harlow going into Billie Burke’s dinner.

SING YOU SINNERS (1938), directed by Wesley Ruggles

This was Bing Crosby’s first family film, the one that changed his on-screen image forever, even though his character is not very likeable. He plays a middle-aged wastrel with Fred MacMurray playing his more responsible, slightly younger brother. Donald O’Connor, 13 at the time, is more than twenty years younger than the two leads who play his older brothers. Patterson is the mother of this brood, a widow who used all the money her husband left her to provide musical lessons for the boys. Will they finally pay off? That’s the plot with these four and Ellen Drew as MacMurray’s girlfriend supplying the star wattage.

REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in this beloved holiday classic in which Stanwyck plays a shoplifter that Manhattan Assistant District Attorney MacMurray is responsible for over the Christmas break. He takes her on a road trip to spend the holidays with his mother (Beulah Bondi) and aunt (Elizabeth Paterson) in Indiana. Preston Sturges’ droll script is leavened somewhat by Mitchell Leisen’s trademark sentimental direction and the four stars plus Sterling Holloway as a handyman provide more than ample charm. Holloway, MacMurray, Bondi and Patterson sing “A Perfect Day” perfectly to Stanwyck’s piano playing.

INTRUDER IN THE DUST (1949), directed by Clarence Brown

Patterson’s first film from a William Faulkner work was 1933’s The Story of Temple Drake. The author personally requested that she be given the role of the film’s elderly leading lady in this film version of his 1948 novel which would trigger a 1949 Nobel Prize. As the old lady who joins young Claude Jarman Jr. in proving the innocence of Juano Hernandez, a black man falsely accused of murdering a white man, her biggest scene is the one in which she holds off an angry lynch mob. That scene alone was enough to earn Patterson an Oscar nomination, but, sadly, it wasn’t to be.

ELIZABETH PATTERSON AND OSCAR

  • No nominations, no wins.

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