Edna May Oliver

Edna May Oliver (born Edna May Nutter, November 9, 1883 – November 9, 1942) was an American stage and film actress.[1] During the 1930s, she was one of the better-known character actresses in American films, often playing tart-tongued spinsters.

Edna May Oliver
c. 1930s
Edna May Nutter

(1883-11-09)November 9, 1883
DiedNovember 9, 1942(1942-11-09) (aged 59)
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale)
Years active1897–1941
Spouse(s)David Welford Pratt (1928–1931; divorced)

Early life

Born in Malden, Massachusetts, the daughter of Ida May and Charles Edward Nutter, Edna May Oliver was reportedly a descendant of John Quincy Adams and John Adams, the sixth and second presidents of the United States. That alleged ancestry was likely fostered by studio publicity offices when Oliver later achieved stardom in Hollywood. Her father's stepfather, Samuel Oliver, did have a mother named Julia Adams descended from a John Adams (born 1724), but not the John Adams (born 1735) who was president of the United States or his son (also president), John Quincy Adams.[2] She quit school at age fourteen in order to pursue a career on stage and achieved her first success in 1917 on Broadway in Jerome Kern's musical comedy Oh, Boy!, playing the hero's comically dour Aunt Penelope.[3]


In 1925, Oliver appeared on Broadway in The Cradle Snatchers, co-starring Mary Boland, Gene Raymond and Humphrey Bogart.[4] Oliver's most notable stage appearance was as Parthy, wife of Cap'n Andy Hawks, in the original 1927 stage production of the musical Show Boat.[5] She repeated the role in the 1932 Broadway revival,[6] but turned down the chance to play Parthy in the 1936 film version of the show to play the Nurse in that year's film version of Romeo and Juliet.

Her film debut was in 1923 in Wife in Name Only. She continued to appear in films until Lydia in 1941. Oliver first gained major notice in films for her appearances in several comedy films starring the team of Wheeler & Woolsey including Half Shot at Sunrise, her first film under her RKO Radio Pictures contract in 1930. While usually playing featured parts, she starred in ten films, including the women's stories Fanny Foley Herself and Ladies of the Jury.

Oliver's most popular star vehicles were mystery-comedies starring as spinster sleuth Hildegarde Withers from the popular Stuart Palmer novels. The series ended prematurely when Oliver left RKO to sign with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1935; the studio attempted to continue the series with Helen Broderick and then ZaSu Pitts as Withers.

While at MGM, David O. Selznick had her cast in two film versions of novels by Charles Dickens, including A Tale of Two Cities (1935), starring Ronald Colman, as the prim but acidic Miss Pross and David Copperfield (also 1935) as the eccentric Betsy Trotwood.

Oliver was also seen in two 1939 movie musicals, with Tyrone Power in the Sonja Henie skating film Second Fiddle and in a supporting role as the agent of the title characters in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. That same year, she was nominated for a Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance in Drums Along the Mohawk as an early American settler who gives shelter to Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert after their home is burned by Seneca Indians. A comic performance as Laurence Olivier's domineering aunt in Pride and Prejudice and a role as Merle Oberon's grandmother in Lydia concluded her film career.

When asked why she played predominantly comedic roles, she replied, "With a horse's face, what more can I play?"; however, she was cast in non-comedic films such as Cimarron (1931), Ann Vickers (1933), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), David Copperfield (1935), and Romeo and Juliet (1936).


Oliver died on her 59th birthday in 1942 following a short intestinal ailment that proved terminal, and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Awards and honors

Oliver received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939).

Complete filmography




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