While writing my essay about Irene Dunne I reflected on two of her later and most memorable roles – playing mother characters in Life with Father (1947) and I Remember Mama (1948) – and recalled several other classic movie moms and the actresses who portrayed them ideally. I then thought it would be appropriate to explore further the best of Hollywood’s studio era film mothers.
Whether they were protective self-sacrificing or even a bit too smothering the most ideal and traditional of movie’s mothers had various ways of showing uncompromising love for their son(s) or daughter(s). While the studios also gave us a fair share of evil moms through the years the focus of this entry is to recognize and indeed celebrate film moms whose strength of character provided a shining example to be cherished – those that imparted wholesome values to their children enabling them to meet life’s challenges succeed and/or achieve some goal.
Beulah Bondi played the epitome of self sacrifice as James Stewart’s mother in Clarence Brown’s (Civil War) drama Of Human Hearts (1938) for which she received a Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination. In fact it takes (John Carradine as) Abraham Lincoln to make her son recognize this reality. After playing Stewart’s mom again in the George Stevens comedy Vivacious Lady (1938) opposite Ginger Rogers’s title character (with whom she gets carried away dancing) Bondi would play the role again in two of Frank Capra’s classic movies: in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) as a mother who’d clearly given her (titled) son Jefferson a real sense of honestly and love for his country the basis by which he takes on the politicians in our capitol city who had lost their way; and in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as widow Ma Bailey who reminds her son George that Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) has returned home to Bedford Falls encouraging him to go pay her a visit. She also played mom to Bette Davis Anita Louise and Jane Bryan in Anatole Litvak’s The Sisters (1938). Hopefully you’ve had a chance to catch Miss Bondi’s performance as Fred MacMurray’s loving (& protecting) mother in Mitchell Leisen’s Preston Sturges-written Christmastime comedy drama Remember the Night (1940) on TCM; later that same year she played Martha Scott’s dependable mom in Sol Lesser’s screen version of playwright Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1940) directed by Sam Wood.
Who could forget Fay Bainter’s outstanding and Best Actress Academy Award nominated portrait of ‘secret’ motherhood in the Warner Bros. drama White Banners (1938). As mysterious and homeless Hannah Bainter becomes indispensable to the financially struggling family (headed by Claude Rains’s wannabe inventor character) that takes her in. With an enduring human spirit simple philosophy and gentle guidance she helps her "adoptive" family and – unknown to the others her son – Peter (Jackie Cooper) realize their goals. Among her other mom roles Bainter appeared with Bondi in Our Town (1940) as mother to William Holden (his first top billing) and also played Mickey Rooney’s mom in both director Norman Taurog’s Young Tom Edison (1940) & later as a widow in Brown’s The Human Comedy (1943) written by William Saroyan. It seems only appropriate to mention the other Fay Holden who made a career of playing Rooney’s Andy Hardy mom Emily in MGM’s series (after Spring Byington had originated the role in A Family Affair (1937)).
A year after earning her second Best Actress Academy Award nomination playing Edna Gladney (in director Mervyn LeRoy’s Blossoms in the Dust (1941)) the mother who took in homeless orphans and initiated a day care facility in Texas before effectively lobbying the state’s legislature to remove the word illegitimate from its birth certificates (after her son and then husband had died) Greer Garson played the title role as Wyler’s brave Mrs. Miniver (1942) and won the Oscar. Ironically she was only eleven years older than the actor who played her son Richard Ney (a year later he became the actress’s second husband) whose character marries Teresa Wright’s for whom Garson’s character also provides sage motherly advice. Ms. Garson earned the fifth of her seven Best Actress nominations playing the wise matriarch Mrs. Parkington (1944) to secure her place among movie mothers.
After playing several women of questionable character in her earlier films including an Oscar winning Supporting Actress role in The Great Lie (1941) as a pregnant out-of-wedlock concert pianist who doesn’t even want her baby (by a now presumed dead pilot-adventurer played by George Brent) such that she allows Bette Davis’s character to raise it Mary Astor made a successful transition to film mother roles in two MGM family classics: as Leon Ames’s stable wife in both director Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) with movie daughters Judy Garland Margaret O’Brien Lucille Bremer & Joan Carroll; and as Marmee March to June Allyson O’Brien (again) Elizabeth Taylor & Janet Leigh in LeRoy’s remake of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (1949). Another actress that successfully made the transition from earlier sexier roles to a memorable movie mom was Claudette Colbert who played the quintessential wartime homefront wife and mother to Jennifer Jones’s and Shirley Temple’s characters in producer David O. Selznick’s World War II drama Since You Went Away (1944).
Myrna Loy played a couple of unforgettable movie mother characters: in the Samuel Goldwyn-produced William Wyler-directed Academy Award winning Best Picture The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) as the wife (and mother to Wright) with whom Fredric March’s returning World War II officer husband must reconnect; and as Jeanne Crain’s always pregnant mom in the story based on efficiency expert John Gilbreth Jr.’s life the essential version of Cheaper By the Dozen (1950) and its sequel. She also played a sturdy pioneering wife and unflappable mother of a rambunctious boy (played by Peter Miles) in director Lewis Milestone’s production of John Steinbeck’s classic story The Red Pony (1949).
Lastly Claudia McNeil reprised her Tony nominated role as another extraordinary self sacrificing mother for her son – Sidney Poitier as the dreaming "scheming for success" Walter Lee Younger – in the film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s play Raisin in the Sun (1961).
© 2006 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog