Job Actress
Years active 1913-1964
Known for Dominating but soft-centered matrons and matriarchs
Top Roles The Bird Woman, Ma Joad, Isolation Matron, Widow Douglas, Mrs. Merriwether
Top GenresDrama, Comedy, Romance, Musical, Crime, Western
Top TopicsBook-Based, Pre-Code Cinema, Romance (Comic)
Top Collaborators (Director), (Producer), (Producer), (Director)
Shares birthday with Mervyn LeRoy, Fritz Feld, Jean Peters  see more..

Jane Darwell Overview:

Legendary character actress, Jane Darwell, was born Patti Mary Woodward on Oct 15, 1879 in Palmyra, MO. Darwell appeared in over 205 film and television roles. She is probably best remembered for her roles as Ma Joad in John Ford's classic adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath and the Bird Woman in Walt Disney's Mary Poppins. She also memorably appeared as Mrs. Merriwether in Gone with the Wind, the shrewish Ma Grier in The Ox-Bow Incident and as a prison matron in Caged. Darwell died at the age of 87 on Aug 13, 1967 in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles and was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale) Cemetery in Glendale, CA.

Early Life

Jane Darwell was born Patti Woodard on October 15th, 1879 in Palmyra, Missouri. She led a comfortable middle class childhood thanks to her father, William Woodard, who worked as the president of the Louisville Southern Railroad. Jane took an interest in performance at an early age, much to the chagrin of her traditionally minded father. Despite her father's disapproval, she spent much of her youth as a circus rider and aspiring opera singer. When she finally made the decision to become a stage actress, Woodard changed her last name to Darwell to avoid any degradation to her family's name.

Darwell then threw herself into acting, taking voice, piano, and drama lessons. Somewhere during this time she decided to become to nun and entered a convent. However, the marriage to God did not last and pretty soon after she left to continue her path in acting.

Early Career

Darnell appeared on the Broadway stage in 1909, appearing in the play The Wedding Day. She then moved to Chicago, where she made a living acting in theatrical productions. In 1913 the 33-year-old actress made her screen debut in the short The Capture of Aguinaldo. Over the next two years Darwell appeared in nearly twenty-film, mainly in non-speaking bit roles. Her final role during this two-year film blitz was in the Cecile B. DeMille directed 1914 picture Rose of the Rancho. She then took a 16-year hiatus from film and returned to her first love: the stage. Darwell returned to the Broadway in the early 1920s, appearing Merchants of Venus and Swords.  She remained exclusively on the stage until the early 1930s, with the advent of talking pictures.

Darwell made her silver screen return in 1940 as the Widow Douglas in John Cromwell's Tom Sawyer and remained in Hollywood. It wasn't long before the actress's professionalism helped her become a respected and well-known character actress.  Due her Shout features and motherly disposition, Darwell quickly became typecast of the matronly figure to the main character and appeared in six Shirley Temple films as either her trusted housekeeper or favorite grandmother.

Film Career

Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s she worked tirelessly, on average appearing in over 10 films a year between 1933 and 1939. Much of that work was in "B" pictures with a couple notable expectations such as the monumental epic Gone With the Wind, playing the town gossip, Mrs. Merriwether and 1943's The Ox-Bow Incident, where she played grizzled frontiers woman.

In 1940 Darwell played the role for which she is most remembered today, Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. The role gave her a chance to expand her typecast role of family matron into something more. She brought to the role a sense of dignity and determination despite the abject poverty of the films subject matter. She was able mix salt-of-earth sensibility with an odd sense of nobility as she kept her family together against the forces of poverty and cultural apathy. For her role, she was awarded the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor.

Darnell remained a staple on the big screen into the 1940s and 50s, remaining primarily in the "B" pictures with notable exceptions such as the before mentioned Ox-Bow Incident and My Darling Clementine, both Western starring her on frequent on screen son Henry Fonda. She also continued her stage work, where she could explore her craft more as typecasting was less common for on the state. She even returned to Broadway in 1944, playing Mrs. Feeling in the popular comedy Suds In Your Eye.

Television and Later Life

By the 1950s Darwell's health began to wane and her film appearances became less frequent. She did, however, continue to work in the growing medium of television, making her small screen debut on The Red Skelton Hour in 1950.  She then made appearances in popular series such as The Loretta Young Show, The Ford Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. She reunited with Shirley Temple, of course playing Grandma, in Shirley Temple's Story Book. In 1961 she was cast as yet another grandma, this time as Grandmother McCoy in the sitcom The Real McCoys.

By the 1960s, Her health was rapidly deteriorating and she retired to the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California. However, in 1963 she was approached by Walt Disney himself to play the Bird woman in his upcoming film Mary Poppins. The film marked her final appearance on the silver screen and afterwards she re-entered a quiet retirement after over half a century in the business.

Jane Darwell died on August 13th, 1967 in Wooldland Hills California of Myocardial infarction. She was 87 years old.

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



Jane Darwell was nominated for one Academy Award, winning for Best Supporting Actress for The Grapes of Wrath (as Ma Joad) in 1940.

Academy Awards

YearAwardFilm nameRoleResult
1940Best Supporting ActressThe Grapes of Wrath (1940)Ma JoadWon

She was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures.

BlogHub Articles:

The Many Faces of , WHAT A CHARACTER!

By Aurora on Nov 8, 2013 From Once Upon a Screen

Special guest post by Pamela Fallon Thornley. You can follow Pam on Twitter at?@fallonthornley?. ? The world of Hollywood has many artists. First there are the leading actors and actresses that are the ones that get the starring roles in movies, and have the household names. Beside those famous name... Read full article

See all articles

Jane Darwell Quotes:

Mrs. Elizabeth Higgins: It's just a bit of a Christmas gift for Shirley.
Mary Blake: You're so kind. I bought a few things for her, not very much of course. Things were different when her father was alive.
Mrs. Elizabeth Higgins: Yes, the poor young fellow. But it must be a comfort to know you're doing all you can for her. She's such a sweet child. Not like that Joy. There's a brat if ever one lived.

[both sobbing]
Mrs. Higgins: Henrietta, what are you blubbering about?
Mrs. Denham: I can't help it. I'm so happy.
Mrs. Higgins: There's no need to be sentimental.
Mrs. Denham: Well, what are *you* crying for?
Mrs. Higgins: Why shouldn't I? Why can't I be happy, too?

Stebbins: That's the third sneeze.
Collins: I'm afraid you'll have to go to bed.
Barbara Barry: But I'm not sick. I feel fine!
Woodward: Oh, Collins, she's perfectly well. A sneeze is nothing to be alarmed at.
Collins: Maybe so, But I'm responsible for the child. Come along, dear.
Woodward: The child sneezes, and you'd think the world has come to an end. Why can't they leave her alone? She's a perfectly normal, healthy child. The way they carried on here, you'd think she was made of glass! Something ought to be done.
Collins: How Mr. Barry can stand that woman is beyond me.
Woodward: You can't expect a widower and a man as busy as Mr. Barry to notice everything that goes on in the house.

read more quotes from Jane Darwell...

Share this page:
Visit the Classic Movie Hub Blog CMH
Also a Libra

See All Libras >>
Best Supporting Actress Oscar 1940

See more Best Supporting Actress awards>>
Jane Darwell on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame

See All Walk of Fame Stars >>
Jane Darwell Facts
Buried in the Whispering Pines section, lot #1817, at Forest Lawn, Glendale, California.

She had retired in 1959 and was living at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, when she was approached by Walt Disney Pictures to play the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins (1964). She at first refused, but Walt Disney was so set on having her in his film that he personally visited her at the MPCH and eventually persuaded her to take the part.

Was the daughter of a railroad president who claimed to be a direct descendant of President Andrew Jackson.

See All Related Facts >>
Related Lists
Create a list

See All Related Lists >>