May Whitty

Active - 1915 - 1996  |   Born - Jun 19, 1865   |   Died - May 29, 1948   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Thriller, Comedy

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The daughter of a Liverpool newspaper editor, British actress Dame May Whitty first stepped on a London stage in 1882. Shortly afterward she was engaged by the St. James Theatre, serving mostly in an understudy capacity. From there, Whitty went into a travelling stock company, finally attaining leading roles. She had been one of the leading lights of the British stage for nearly 25 years when she appeared in her first film, Enoch Arden, in 1914; caring little for the experience, she made only a smattering of silent films thereafter. In 1918, the 53-year-old May Whitty was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her above-and-beyond activities performing before the troops in World War I. After a string of 1930s Broadway successes, Whitty went to Hollywood for the same reasons that many of her British contemporaries had previously done so -- the work was easy and the money, fabulous. In keeping with the regality of her name, Whitty was usually cast in high-born roles, sometimes imperious, often warmhearted. In her first talking picture Night Must Fall (1937), she is the foolhardy invalid who falls for the charms of homicidal Robert Montgomery, and as consequence winds up literally losing her head. In Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938) she plays the title role, enduring a great deal of physical exertion while never losing her poise and dignity. Whitty was also capable of playing working-class types, such as the dowdy phony psychic in The Thirteenth Chair (1937). She was twice nominated for the Oscar, first for Night Must Fall in 1937, then for Mrs. Miniver in 1942. Despite her advanced age, Whitty became extremely active on the Hollywood social circuit in the 1940s--at least for the benefit of the newsreel photographers. Whitty died at the age of 82, shortly after completing her scenes for Columbia's The Sign of the Ram (1948). She was the wife of London producer Ben Webster, and the mother of actress/playwright Margaret Webster, who wrote a 1969 biography of Whitty, The Same Only Different.

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