Norma Varden

Active - 1932 - 1967  |   Born - Jan 20, 1898   |   Died - Jan 19, 1989   |   Genres - Comedy, Drama, Musical

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The daughter of a retired sea captain, British actress Norma Varden was a piano prodigy. After study in Paris, she played concerts into her teens, but at last decided that this was be an uncertain method of making a living--so she went to the "security" of acting. In her first stage appearance in Peter Pan, Varden, not yet twenty, portrayed the adult role of Mrs. Darling, setting the standard for her subsequent stage and film work; too tall and mature-looking for ingenues, she would enjoy a long career in character roles. Bored with dramatic assignments, Varden gave comedy a try at the famous Aldwych Theatre, where from 1929 through 1933 she was resident character comedienne in the theatre's well-received marital farces. After her talkie debut in the Aldwych comedy A Night Like This (1930), she remained busy on the British film scene for over a decade. Moving to Hollywood in 1941, she found that the typecasting system frequently precluded large roles: Though she was well served as Robert Benchley's wife in The Major and the Minor (1942), for example, her next assignment was the unbilled role of a pickpocket victim's wife in Casablanca (1942). Her work encompassed radio as well as films for the rest of the decade; in nearly all her assignments Norma played a haughty British or New York aristocrat who looked down with disdain at the "commoners." By the '50s, she was enjoying such sizeable parts as the society lady who is nearly strangled by Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951), the bejeweled wife of "sugar daddy" Charles Coburn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and George Sanders' dragonlike mother in Jupiter's Darling (1955). Norma Varden's greatest film role might have been as the mother superior in The Sound of Music (1965), but the producers decided to go with Peggy Wood, consigning Varden to the small but showy part of Frau Schmidt, the Von Trapps' housekeeper. After countless television and film assignments, Norma Varden retired in 1972, spending most of her time thereafter as a spokesperson for the Screen Actors Guild, battling for better medical benefits for older actors.

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