“With a horse face like mine, what else can I do but play comedy?” said Edna May Oliver about her unique looks, which were often parodied in Warner Bros. cartoons of the time. In feature films (not all of them comedies), she played a series of aunts, spinsters and spinster aunts, always infused with loving spirit and sharp wit. Though she made four-dozen pictures in her time, it is often the handful of literary adaptations in which she performed—originating from the inkwells of Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Louisa May Alcott, Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens—that audiences remember.
Laugh and Get Rich (1931)
Edna May Oliver elevates a mediocre film about a man named Joe Austin (Hugh Herbert) whose get-rich-quick schemes remarkably do not get him rich, to the consternation of his beleaguered-but-devoted wife Sarah (Oliver). A scene taking place at a society dance is the high point of this Gregory La Cava-directed comedy, which sees Joe and a somewhat tipsy Sarah dance a mad Virginia Reel.
The Penguin Pool Murder (1932)
Mystery writer Stuart Palmer created the character of Hildegarde Withers, an unmarried schoolteacher and amateur sleuth who helps solve the murder of a stockbroker whose body shows up in the penguin tank at the local aquarium. This would be the first outing for Oliver as Withers—she would go on to reprise her popular role in Murder on the Blackboard (1934) and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935).
David Copperfield (1935)
The actress plays Aunt Betsey, great aunt to the title character and none too keen on the male of the species, a sentiment she makes quite clear upon David’s birth. Eventually, she comes around and sends him down the road to a brighter future.
A Tale of Two Cities (1935)
After David Copperfield, producer David O. Selznick released his second Dickens adaptation that same year, again featuring Edna May Oliver. This time, the actress plays Miss Pross, stern governess and friend to Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allen), the female at the center of Dickens’s multi-layered tale of redemption and social justice set against the French Revolution.
Romeo and Juliet (1936)
For James Whale’s all-star film version of Show Boat (1936), the role of Parthy Ann Hawks was Oliver’s to lose. But instead of repeating her stage role in the Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein musical, she opted for the part of the Nurse opposite Norma Shearer’s Juliet in the only Shakespearean role Oliver performed.
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
Oscar recognized Oliver with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress when she played Widow McKlennar alongside Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert in director John Ford’s Revolutionary War drama. The actress would go on to make only two more pictures before her death in 1942 of an intestinal disorder.