American actress Jane Darwell was the daughter of a Missouri railroad executive. Despite her father's disapproval, she spent most of her youth acting in circuses, opera troupes and stock companies, making her film debut in 1912. Even in her early thirties, Darwell specialized in formidable "grande dame" roles, usually society matrons or strict maiden aunts. Making an easy transition to talking pictures, Darwell worked primarily in small character parts (notably as governesses and housekeepers in the films of Shirley Temple) until 1939, when her role as the James Brothers' mother in Jesse James began a new career direction--now she was most often cast as indomitable frontierswomen, unbending in the face of hardship and adversity. It was this quality that led Darwell to be cast in her favorite role as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), for which she won an Oscar. Darwell continued to work until illness crept upon her in the late 1950s. Even so, Darwell managed to essay a handful of memorable parts on TV and in movies into the 1960s; her last film role was as the "Bird Woman" in Disney's Mary Poppins (1964).
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Father disapproved of her desire to act, which is why she changed her name.
- Made her Broadway debut in 1909 in the play The Wedding Day.
- Signed with Fox in 1933.
- Worked often with Henry Fonda, usually playing his mother, most famously in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
- Has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- Final film role was as the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins (1964).