I’m an ordinary person in an ordinary life-Mildred Dunnock
Once again my favorite blogathon has rolled around, giving me the chance to pay tribute to the great character actors who add a certain depth and extra layer to stage, film and television. Just a brief glimpse of them in a story manages to bring something quite special and undeniably memorable. Thank you so much to Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club for the opportunity to take a deep dive into the span of these two women’s careers. Leave it to the finest classic film bloggers to host one of the BEST blogathons there is!
It is with extreme pleasure that I’ll be giving attention to two extraordinary actresses who have contributed a quiet depth of character to both film and dramatic television, Patricia Collinge and Mildred Dunnock. Both actresses were also prominent leading ladies of the theatre.
And coincidentally The Nun’s Story co-starred Mildred Dunnock and Patricia Collinge. This was Collinge’s last appearance in film.
A “superb actress who didn’t find nearly the roles she deserved” and “suffered the deprivations more keenly than less sensitive artists would have.” –Elia Kazan
With the dignity of a weathered carved tree, Dunnock is spare and angular, a handsome yet fey-looking woman with a modest hairstyle and time-worn features. She is an American actress who was prolific in playing spinsters and middle-class mothers. Her weighty performances earned her two Oscar nominations and praise for her performance in Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth. But the role that would garner the most praise, both stage and screen versions, is Linda Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Dunnock was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and acted throughout her college years with the Vagabond Players and the John Hopkins University troupe in Baltimore. She later taught at the Friends School in New York and acted with the Morningside players in their show Life Begins which led her to Broadway, working with the Selwyn Theater in 1932.
Dunnock’s career spanned over four decades, and she was one of the few actresses to have created important roles in the theater by some of the leading playwrights of the twentieth century, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Her theatrical career debuting on The Great White Way at the age of thirty, lasted over 45 years including 23 shows on Broadway. Though she only appeared in 25 feature films, the quality of her work is to be celebrated.
Dunnock’s breakthrough role came eight years later, as Miss Ronberry in the original production of Emlyn Williams’ hit play The Corn is Green 1940-42.
Mildred Dunnock was cast in the supporting role of Ethel Barrymore who by that time, had a long and successful stage presence. Barrymore inhabited the role of Miss Moffat the spinster schoolteacher who is passionate about transforming the lives of uneducated, proud young Welsh Miners and giving them a chance to lift themselves out of the darkness and reach toward a better life.
Dunnock plays the prissy spinster Miss Ronberry, a reluctant assistant teacher who becomes devoted to Moffat’s endeavor. Her performance attracted the attention of Hollywood. Ironically it was Dunnock, and not Barrymore, who was asked to reprise her role on film when Warner Bros bought the rights and insisted their star Bette Davis be cast for the lead in 1945.
When we first meet Miss Ronberry she is eager to become acquainted with the new tenant whom she thinks is a rugged Colonel. She studies his sizable collection of books and includes his ‘virile’ wastepaper basket as one of the illuminating artifacts she infers as deliciously masculine. But Miss Ronberry is stunned when the “L.C.” who wrote the letter she receives turns out to be the feisty Lilly Christabel (“L.C.”) Moffat (Bette Davis).
Dunnock also created the role on stage of Lavinia Hubbard in Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest with Patricia Neal as Regina. The play was the prequel to Hellman’s The Little Foxes, which was a story that reflected the assorted lives of a cunning, bourgeois Southern family in the wake of the Civil War. Bette Davis would bring to life the treacherous Regina in the 1941 film The Little Foxes directed by William Wyler. And Patricia Collinge would be cast in the role of Birdie Hubbard, giving one of the most poignant performances of her career. Dunnock’s role playing Lavinia went to Florence Eldridge in the film version of Another Part of the Forest in 1948.
Dunnock appeared with Margaret Rutherford in the stage production of Farewell, Farewell Eugene, and co-starred with Hermione Baddley in Tennessee William’s play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Morosco Theatre. Shown below are the two actresses with playwright Tennessee Williams.
Mildred Dunnock starred in the dramatic television series, The Ford Theater Hour presentation of Night Must Fall in 1948 co-starring Fay Bainter and Cloris Leachman. Based on the play by Emlyn Williams, and adapted to the big screen in 1937 starring Rosalind Russell, Dame May Whitty, and Robert Montgomery.
She continued to turn in stellar performances on stage. In 1945 she had the supporting role of Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway in the comedy by Phillip Barry called Foolish Nation. Also on Broadway, she starred in Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt 1951 where she played John Garfield’s mother Tase. Then she appeared in Lee Strasberg’s short-lived production of Jane Bowles in The Summer House 1953-54. A ‘surreal and operatic’ and ‘darkly funny’ (Axel Nissen) work, starring Judith Anderson and Dunnock as manipulative, domineering mothers.
In February of 1949, at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway, Mildred Dunnock premiered in the role that will forever be remembered as her most iconic performance. That of Linda Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, co-starring Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman. In 1951, Dunnock went on to star in the film version directed by Laszlo Benedek, with Fredrick March stepping into the role of Willy Loman.
New York Times’ snarky film critic Bosley Crowther wrote of Dunnock’s performance that she was, “simply superb, as she was on the stage … For her portrayal of a woman who bears the agony of seeing her sons and husband turn out a failure, supports the one pretension of this drama to genuine tragedy.”
Mildred Dunnock was nominated for her first Academy Award in 1951 for Death of a Salesman but lost to Kim Hunter for Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Though Dunnock did not win the Oscar her performance in Salesman began a fruitful decade in both film and theater.
After her 1956 performance in The Wings of a Dove (the stage adaptation of Henry James’ novel Child of Fortune), Dunnock disappeared from Broadway for almost four years.
In 1957 Dunnock appeared in the dramatic television series Climax! episode ‘Don’t Touch Me’ co-starring Shelley Winters, three episodes of Kraft Theatre 1950-1957, and four episodes of Studio One 1951-1957.
One of my favorite television appearances of Mildred Dunnock is perhaps the most engrossing episode of Boris Karloff’s anthology series Thriller. The Cheaters tells the story about a pair of specs that give the wearer the ability to know ‘the truth’, to read other people’s thoughts, and to see your true self in the mirror. The episode features Dunnock as Mother Alcott, an eccentric little old-fashioned lady who is a spirited kleptomaniac. She stumbles onto the cursed odd spectacles or ‘cheaters’ when she lifts them from a junk/antique store. When she puts them on, she is able to hear her nephew and his wife’s interior machinations about Mother Alcott’s death. They plan to kill off the old biddy for her money.
Dunnock is perfectly waspish as the old gal who is convinced they are putting poison in her tea, which she spills into the flower pots next to her bed as she confesses to her family doctor/companion about her suspicions. However, her prickly neurosis does bear warning and she manages to take matters into her own hands.
Mother Olcott commits murder – death by hat pin- driven by the cheaters’ revelatory powers. which exposes the scheming of her greedy relatives.
Boris Karloff’s anthology series Thriller in the episode The Cheaters 1960.
She appeared in Roald Dahl’s warped television series Way Out episode – William and Mary 1961. Below is Dunnock blowing smoke into the tank holding the brain of her cantankerous husband, Henry Jones.
It was during these years she delivered some of her best and most beloved screen roles in films like Baby Doll 1956, Peyton Place 1957, The Nun’s Story 1959, Butterfield 8 1960, and in Jack Garfein’s Something Wild 1961. Dunnock co-stars as Carroll Baker’s judgmental mother, who goes through an emotional journey to reconnect with her traumatized daughter.
Peyton Place earned Dunnock a Golden Globe nomination, for her sensitive portrayal of the devoted school teacher, Miss Elsie Thornton who is undeservedly passed over as principal. Miss Elsie shares strong felt wisdom,” Allison a person doesn’t always get what she deserves. Remember it.” – “Allison, if there is anything in life you want, go and get it. Don’t wait for anyone to give it to you.”
In The Nuns Story (Audrey Hepburn is a strong-willed nurse who struggles with her place in the church and whether taking her vows was the best direction for her humanitarian work ) Dunnock plays Sister Margarita “Mistress of Postulates” or The Living Rule, (which means an ideal example to the novices and other nuns), where she gives a quiet yet powerful performance as the very serious acolyte to the church. Other sisters include our featured actress Patricia Collinge, the great Peggy Ashcroft, and Dame Edith Evans.
Mildred Dunnock had a creative presence on television in the 1950s and though her film appearances were relatively sparse, they were no doubt memorable. Her keen acting style earned her two Oscar nominations, not just for Death of a Salesman but for Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll 1956. Kazan’s 1956 version of his play was the one dramatization, Tennessee Williams adapted for the screen himself. In 1957, while Dunnock was nominated for an Oscar a second time, It went to Dorothy Malone for Written on the Wind.
Baby Doll, is the uncomfortably, subtly amusing, sensually charged, deviant story set in the South about an abusive blustering slob Karl Malden, anxious with explosive sexual frustration, awaiting his virginal bride (Carroll Baker) to reach the age he can consummate his marriage. (Baker should have won an Oscar for her arresting performance in Something Wild).
Dunnock’s part as Aunt Rose Comfort, a Jacobson hat-wearing, ditzy spinster who shuffles around the house like a lost mouse, suffering from far-reaching timidity is a spark of vulnerability. Malden spends the entire film using Rose as a verbal punching bag bullying her, and threatening to throw her into a home. She may have occupied a tangential piece of the story, nevertheless, her contribution is distinctive.
Tennessee Williams considered Big Mamma to be one of Dunnock’s most poignant performances in his play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1955-56, which won the Pulitzer Prize. When the story was adapted to the screen, she lost the role to Judith Anderson. While I think Anderson is a force to be reckoned with, I believe she wasn’t the right choice to play Big Momma, the Southern vacuous wife of Big Daddy Pollitt. Dunnock should have been a natural choice. Margaret “Maggie” Pollitt – He says bull when he’s disgusted. Ida “Big Momma” Pollitt – Yes, that’s right. I say bull too, like Big Daddy.
1959 Press Photo Mildred Dunnock in The Confessions of Saint Augustine
Dunnock took on a rare loathsome role as Gig Young’s emasculating mother. In the classic courtroom drama, The Story on Page One 1960 written and directed by Clifford Odets. This puts Dunnock in our view as an oppressive presence and a middle-class dragon in aloof clothing. Mrs. Ellis is a departure from her usual roles and gave her a
shot at playing a “monstrous mom”, a devouring mother.
Gig Young’s defense attorney (Anthony Franciosa), sums up Mrs. Ellis as an- ‘unmitigated monster” A film critic referred to her as “a cruel and voracious she-wolf in deceptively virtuous sheep’s clothing.”
He is on trial with his lover Rita Hayworth (who gives a fantastic performance) both accused of murdering her drunk and abusive husband played by Alfred Ryder, when Young shoots him in self-defense. Dunnock turns in a chilling performance with her taut strokes of hypocritical correctness, sanctimonious rhetoric, and unfailing selfishness that is an unnerving example of suffocating motherhood, as we watch her compressing the life out of her son.
Dressed in decorous tailored suits, hats, and gloves, Mrs. Ellis spouts banalities, “It’s one of the great lessons of life: There’s no substitute for breeding.”
Dunnocks’ role in BUtterfield 8 1960 is closer to her typified mother as she weighs in on her daughter’s (Elizabeth Taylor) life as a high-paid escort. Taylor won Best Actress for her performance.
Other films Dunnock made in the 1960s includes Sweet Bird of Youth 1962, the adaptation of Tennessee William’s play from 1959. The film stars Geraldine Page as the aging screen diva Alexandra del Lago. Dunnock worked with Page once again in the psychological thriller (underscored by Gerald Fried’s menacing soundtrack) What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? 1969. In Sweet Bird of Youth, Dunnock plays Aunt Nonnie the sister-in-law to Boss Finley (Ed Begley) and aunt to Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight). Dunnock brought to the film her signature “quiet authority and timorous tenderness.” (Axel Nissen)
Directed by John Ford, 7 Women (1966) features a dynamic cast, Anne Bancroft, Margaret Leighton, and Betty Field. Mildred Dunnock, along with Flora Robson, plays older missionaries who are seized by ruthless Mongolian bandits. The standout performance in the film is Anne Bancroft as a wildly ‘progressive’ doctor.
Dunnock and Lee J Cobb revised their exceptional roles in a television version of Death of a Salesman, for which she was nominated for an Emmy.
After What Alice Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? in 1969, she appeared in television series and made for tv movies, like Murder or Mercy 1974 with Melvyn Douglas and The Patricia Neal Story in 1981. The Pick-Up Artist 1987 was her last appearance on the big screen.
She also appeared as Mrs. Rule in the television series, Circle of Fear 1972 once again co-starring with Melvyn Douglas in the episode ‘House of Evil’. Her final show on Broadway, was in Marguerite Duras’ play, Days in the Trees in 1976.
Mildred Dunnock remained active in theater through the 1980s, participating in numerous stage productions at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven where she starred in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. She also played Amanda Wingfield as part of her collaboration with Tennessee Williams from his story The Glass Menagerie. Dunnock went on to teach at Yale Drama School. She passed away on July 5, 1991, at the age of 90.
Miss Ronberry The Corn is Green 1945
Miss Rizzo Kiss of Death 1947
Mrs. Linda Loman Death of a Salesman 1951
Celanese Theatre ‘On Borrowed Time’ 1952
Mrs. Wiggs The Trouble With Harry 1955
Aunt Rose Comfort Baby Doll 1956
Miss Elsie Thornton Peyton Place 1957
Mrs. Ellis The Story on Page On 1959
Way Out 1961 ‘William and Mary’
Minnie Briggs Alfred Hitchcock Hour ‘Beyond the Sea of Death’ 1964
Miriam Olcott Thriller The Cheaters 1960
Mrs. Wandrous BUtterfield 8 1960
Mrs. Gates Something Wild 1961
Aunt Nonnie Sweet Bird of Youth 1962
Miss Tinsley What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice 1969
Photograph by Diane Arbus: 1961
Over the years, in my journey through classic film and television, I discovered character actress Patricia Collinge, an endearingly beautiful woman, with winsome, kind eyes that glimmer when she speaks. Through her broad sweet-tempered smile, emerges her voice, with a quality that strikes me as distinct, giving the impression of spaces between her words. Like the spaces of amber honeycomb, that are drizzled with her authentically regal and splendid kindness. You will recognize her most often playing sympathetic widows, whimsical mothers, aunts or vulnerable older women. Collinge was primarily a celebrated stage actress from 1908-1952. I can only imagine what her stage presence would be like, knowing the depth of her acting integrity.
Born in London, Collinge emigrated to America in 1907 and began her acting career on Broadway in 1908 with her first New York stage appearance when she was 16 years old, as a flower girl in The Queen of the Moulin Rouge at the Circle Theatre on Broadway. Look at those beautifully expressive eyes.
She became an acclaimed actress of the theatre in many classic stage productions, penned by such playwrights as George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, and J.M. Barrie. Some notable stage appearances — She was the first actress to play the lead role of Pollyanna, which was popularized by Hayley Mills in the 1960 ‘filmitization’ which was also rendered by Mary Pickford in 1920. Collinge received rave reviews for the four-act stage adaptation of Catherine Chisholm Cushing’s novel which opened in 1916 at the Hudson Theater on Broadway and ran for 112 shows. She appeared in Hedda Gabler 1926, The Importance of Being Earnest 1926, Venus 1927, She Stoops to Conquer 1928, Becky Sharp 1929, The Lady with the Lamp 1931, The Little Foxes 1939, as Abby Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace 1941, The Heiress 1947 and her last appearance on stage was 1952 in I’ve Got Sixpence.
Patricia Collinge in the theatrical production of Tillie 1916.
From 1947-48 she starred as Lavinia Penniman in The Heiress at the Biltmore Theatre where she gave 410 performances.
Collinge originated the role of Birdie Hubbard in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes on Broadway in 1939, probably her most notable performance as well as her film debut is that of the forlorn and fragile, beguiling and heartbreaking interpretation of Aunt Birdie Hubbard in the screen version of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes 1941, which was a recreation of her role in the original Broadway production in 1939, which she co-starred with Tallulah Bankhead. While Bankhead was considered to reprise her role as Regina Giddens in the film adaptation, Bette Davis was cast instead. Collinge’s psychologically tortured, neglected, and alcoholic Aunt Birdie is perhaps the most startling performance of the picture.
Collinge’s touching performance won her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and in my opinion, should have delivered her the honor. She lost to Mary Astor for The Big Lie.
Another memorable role is Collinge’s Emmie Newton in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller, Shadow of a Doubt 1943 where she plays Teresa Wright’s humble, proud, and chatty housewife who dotes over her baby brother Charlie, The Merry Widow Killer. Collinge also rewrote the scene with Macdonald Carey confessing his love for her in the garage. The cast was reportedly dissatisfied with the dialogue and she was asked to rewrite the script, which pleased Hitchcock.
Aside from being an actress, Collinge was a playwright, author, and columnist. In 1938, her comedy, “Dame Nature”, an adaptation of a French drama by André Birabeau was published. Several of Collinge’s short stories were published in the New Yorker and she was also a contributor to the New York Times Book Review. Collinge is also uncredited for writing some of the other dialogue for Shadow of a Doubt, and having been one of several writers on Hitchcock’s Lifeboat 1944 in which she did not appear as an actress.
Collinge and Wright would appear together in two other features, The Little Foxes 1941 and as Mrs. Drury once again playing Wright’s mother in Casanova Brown 1944. The film is a seldom-credited romantic comedy about Gary Cooper and Wright who get divorced only to discover that she has given birth to their child. Collinge is a quirky eccentric who judges her daughter’s marriage by interpreting the astrological signs to decide whether Cooper is the right man for her daughter.
She later appeared in Hitchcock’s anthology mystery series, from 1955-1961. Starring in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in 1962 two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Collinge’s participation in Hitchcock’s outstanding mystery series are startling examples of her acting and should be considered some of her best work. See film clips below:
Aside from The Little Foxes and Shadow of a Doubt, major motion pictures and television credits include Tender Comrade 1943 co-starring Ginger Rogers, Ruth Hussey, and Kim Hunter as women who have moved in together while their husbands are fighting in WWII.
In Teresa 1951, after a six-year absence from film, Fred Zinnemann cast Collinge as Clara Cast, GI John Ericson’s controlling, a possessive mother who refuses to let go of her son when he brings home an Italian bride (Pier Angeli) after the war. Her performance is quite a shift from her familiarly likable characters. She appeared briefly as Sister William in The Nun’s Story 1959, Collinge also gave dramatic performances in such television series The Web 1953 “Midnight Guest” Celanese Theatre 1952 “Mornings at Seven”, Goodyear Playhouse “The Rumor” 1953, Omnibus “Lord Byron’s Love Letter”, and Studio Ones “Crime at Blossom’s”, The River Garden” and “The Hero”. She also appeared in Armstrong Circle Theater 1955-56 and East Side/West Side 1963 “Creeps Live Here”, and United Steel Hour 1962 “Scene of the Crime”.
Patricia Collinge passed away in New York City at the age of 81 on April 10, 1974.
Patricia Collinge co-stars with Ginger Rogers, Kim Hunter, and Ruth Hussey in Tender Comrade 1943.
9 FEATURED CLIPS:
*As Birdie Hubbard in The Little Foxes 1941
*The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in Bonfire as Naomi Freshwater with psychopathic Peter Falk
*Emmie in Shadow of a Doubt 1943
*East Side /West Side 1963 ‘Creeps Live Here’ as Miss Harriet Allen
*Alfred Hitchcock Presents 3 episodes
Across the Threshold S5 Ep 22 1960, The Rose Garden Season 2 1956, and The Cheney Vase 1955