Descended from an old, well-established performing family, American actress Claire McDowell was one of those weathered character players who seemed to have been born at the age of 50. Only 32 years old when she first stepped before Billy Bitzer's camera at Biograph studios in 1910, Ms. McDowell almost immediately found herself playing everyone's mother. She spent the next four years working for D.W. Griffith before retiring to raise a family; her husband was fellow Griffith player Charles Hill Mailes. Back in films in 1917, McDowell continued her celluloid maternal career. Perhaps her most celebrated matriarchal role was as John Gilbert's mother in The Big Parade (1924), in which she has an unbearably poignant scene as she embraces her amputee son, recalling in flashback when her infant boy took his first steps. Ms. McDowell also has some potent sequences as Ramon Novarro's mother in Ben-Hur; stricken with leprosy, she dares not embrace her sleeping son, but instead kisses the stones upon which he lies. Semi-retired when talkies came in, Claire McDowell occasionally emerged to play bits, often in the company of her husband (as in Murder By Television ). One of her last last notable roles, albeit unbilled, was as the ailing mother (again!) who faints on the bus in It Happened One Night (1934).
by Hal Erickson biography