Edna May Oliver

Active - 1923 - 1941  |   Born - Nov 9, 1883   |   Died - Nov 9, 1942   |   Genres - Comedy, Drama, Romance

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Biography by Hal Erickson

"Horse faced" was the usual capsule assessment given American actress Edna May Oliver - a gross disservice to her talent and accomplishments. A descendant of President John Quincy Adams, she aspired to a career in opera, and at 16 her uncle secured her a job with a light opera company. Her voice was damaged from overuse and exposure to bad weather, so Oliver turned her energies to acting. Stock company work began in 1911, and even as a teenager she lanternlike facial features assured her older character roles. Her 1916 Broadway debut led to a string of small and unsatisfying roles, until fortune smiled upon her with a supporting part as a servant in Owen Davis' Icebound. Davis' play won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize, thrusting everyone involved into the spotlight. Oliver was hired to repeat her Icebound duties for the film cameras in 1924, and though not technically her film debut, she would always list Icebound as her starting point in cinema. Solid roles in the Broadway productions The Cradle Snatchers, Strike Up the Band and the immortal Show Boat kept Oliver busy during the '20s, culminating in a contract with RKO Radio Studios. RKO thrust her into anything and everything, from Wheeler and Woolsey comedies to the Oscar-winning Cimarron (1931). The best testament to her popularity in films were the Edna May Oliver caricatures (complete with "Oh, reaaallly" voice imitation) that popped up with regularity in animated cartoons of the '30s. Oliver worked for virtually all the big studios in the '30s, at one point starring briefly in the Hildegarde Withers mystery series, a role she seemed born to play. Evidently, producers loved to put her angular frame in period costumes, as witness her marvelous roles in David Copperfield (1934), Tale of Two Cities (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). By 1940, Edna May Oliver was a law unto herself (even dictating what hours she would and wouldn't work) and filmakers wisely allowed her to use all the acting tricks at her disposal, from her famous loud sniff of distaste to her low, claxonish voice. After a long intestinal illness, Edna May Oliver died in 1942 on her 59th birthday; ironically, her last screen role had been as an infuriatingly healthy hypochondriac in Lydia (1941).

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