Oscar Actors: Darwell, Jane–Background, Career; Filmography

Jane Darwell Career Summary:

Occupational inheritance: No

Social Class: Upper-middle


Stage debut: age 27

Broadway debut:

Film debut: Silent; then 1930

Oscar awards: 1, Supp. Actress, Grapes of Wrath, 1940, age 61

Oscar nominations: N0

Other awards: No

Career span: half a century

Last film: Mary Poppins, 1964; age 85

Death: 1967; age 87

With appearances in more than 100 major movies spanning half a century, Jane Darwell is best-remembered for her poignant portrayal of the matriarch and leader of the Joad family in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, for which she received the Best Supporting Actress

Jane Darwell was born Patti Woodard on October 15, 1879 to William Robert Woodard, president of the Louisville Southern Railroad, and Ellen Booth Woodard in Palmyra, Missouri.

Darwell originally intended to become a circus rider, then later an opera singer. Her father, however, objected to those career plans, so she compromised by becoming an actress, changing her name to Darwell to avoid sullying the family name.

Darwell studied voice culture, piano, and dramatics. At one point, she decided to enter a convent, then changed her mind and became an actress. She began acting in theater productions in Chicago and made her first film appearance in 1913.

She appeared in almost 20 films over the next two years, then returned to the stage.

Screen Image

After a 15-year absence from films, she appeared in Tom Sawyer (1930), and her career as a Hollywood character actress began. Short, stout and plain, she was quickly cast in a succession of films, usually as the mother of one of the main characters. She also appeared in five Shirley Temple films, usually as the housekeeper or grandmother.

She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), a role she was given at the insistence of Henry Fonda, the film’s star.

A contract player with 20th Century Fox, Darwell was memorably cast in The Ox-Bow Incident, also starring Fonda, in 1943.

Darwell had noted appearances on the stage as well; in 1944, she was popular in the stage comedy Suds in Your Eye, in which she played an Irishwoman who had inherited a junkyard.

By the end of her career, she had appeared in more than 170 films, including Huckleberry Finn (1931), Jesse James (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and My Darling Clementine (1946).


Darwell was among the guest stars on an episode of Faye Emerson’s Wonderful Town, a variety series that aired on CBS from 1951 to 1952 in which host Emerson visits a different city each week to accent the local music.

In 1954, Darwell appeared with Andy Clyde in the episode “Santa’s Old Suit” of the series The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse. This same episode was re-run the following Christmas 1955 on Studio 57. In 1959, she appeared with child actor Roger Mobley in the episode “Mr. Rush’s Secretary” on Buckskin, starring Tom Nolan and Sally Brophy. She guest starred on John Bromfield’s crime drama Sheriff of Cochise.

On July 27, 1961, Darwell appeared as Grandmother McCoy in an episode of the sitcom The Real McCoys. In the story, the series characters played by Walter Brennan, Richard Crenna, and Kathleen Nolan return to fictitious Smokey Corners, West Virginia for Grandmother McCoy’s 100th birthday gathering. Darwell was 15 years older than “son” Walter Brennan. Pat Buttram and Henry Jones appeared in this episode as Cousin Carl and Jed McCoy, respectively.

Final Role:

Darwell’s final role as the old woman feeding the birds in Mary Poppins (1964), at age 85, personally was assigned to her by Walt Disney.

On February 8, 1960, Darwell received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to the motion-picture industry.

Darwell died August 13, 1967 at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital from a myocardial infarction at the age of 87.