It’s a strong, sturdy and dependable name that mirrors the actress who owned it. We saw those qualities time and again throughout her Hollywood career – see her as the stoic owner of “The Enchanted Cottage” and as the proper Widow Tillane in “The Quiet Man.”
Most important, you could depend on Mildred Natwick to give her character dimension that it didn’t necessarily have on the page.
But if you’re looking for her name in a film, read closely: It’s usually in small type at the bottom of the movie poster or after the word “with” in the opening credits. Such is the life of a character actor. They play in the shadow of the stars, while giving the movie everything it needs to shine.
Recognizing that character actors deserve their own spotlight, Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora at Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled, are hosting the “What a Character” blogathon for the sixth year.
Thelma Ritter, Charles Lane, John Alexander and the bit players of “Casablanca” are among the actors highlighted in Day One of the blogathon.
For Day Two, the blogathon includes entries about Edward Everett Horton, the wonderful Beulah Bondi, Henry Stephenson and this article on Mildred Natwick. I chose to write about her because of her great talent and because watching her in a movie is like visiting with an old friend.
Natwick was born in 1905 in Baltimore and was on the stage in amateur shows by age 21. She made her first Broadway a few years later in 1932 in “Carry Nation.” Her deep love of the theater drew her back to the stage throughout her more than 60-year acting career that also included movies and television.
To classic movie fans, though, we will always think of her on the silver screen where her roles were often small, but always memorable. In “The 3 Godfathers,” for example, she was on screen literally only a few minutes as a dying mother trying to convince a trio of outlaws – led by John Wayne – to take care of her newborn. It was all the time she needed to make her case.
In her film debut, “Long Voyage Home” (1935), she played an Irish prostitute who flirts with a naïve young sailor (played with a bad Swedish accent by John Wayne) so he can be drugged, kidnapped and forced into labor on a ship. She starts the 7-minute scene as a tipsy flirt. As the two talk, her flirtations turn nervous and she begins to convey a growing guilt over her participation in the crime. She certainly makes an impression in the small role, so it’s understandable that the film’s director, John Ford, chose her for three more movies – “3 Godfathers,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “The Quiet Man.”
It would be five years before she would make her second film, the lovely 1940 romantic fantasy “The Enchanted Cottage.” It is my favorite Mildred Natwick film role and it is one of such understated grace that I still find it difficult to believe it is only her second movie. It’s also a performance in which she shows her ability for stealing scenes – if not the movie – from the stars. Robert Young, Dorothy McGuire and Herbert Marshall get top billing, but it is Natwick as the solemn war widow who gives the movie its gravitas.
Time stopped for Mrs. Minnett when her husband was killed, but she channels that pain. Though somber, she is kindhearted and she gives a job and home to the “ugly” Laura (McGuire) and disfigured soldier Oliver (Young) who then fall in love while living at the magical cottage of the title. Without Mrs. Minnett standing tall as a beacon of kindness, the two young lovers would never heal enough to gain the strength to find each other.
Making us laugh
I love Natwick best when her comic skills were used, especially in films through the 1950s.
It was often subtle, just bubbling under the surface as it did in her portrayal of the Widow Tillane in “The Quiet Man” (1952). We are amused as the mannered wealthy land owner rebuffs the advances of the gruff Will Danaher, then we quietly laugh as she watches him out her window with opera glasses.
We see her warm up to him and finally allow a formal courtship to start. As the two take a wagon ride, the look of satisfaction on her face – this has happened on her terms after all – is delightful. John Wayne and the fiery Maureen O’Hara get deserved top billing, but “The Quiet Man” truly gains its voice through the Widow Tillane and the film’s many other delightful Irish characters including Barry Fitzgerald and Ward Bond.
Never was she more humorous than as the witch Griselda in Danny Kaye’s entertaining musical “The Court Jester” (1956), especially as she tried to get Kaye to remember which cup she poisoned. Let’s say it together: “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle.”
In “Tammy and the Bachelor” (1957) she played Leslie Nielsen’s colorful Aunt Rennie who had a cat named Picasso and dreamt of a Bohemian life in New Orleans. Like Tammy (Debbie Reynolds), Aunt Rennie was “different” and thereby an outsider in her own wealthy family. Watching her delight in Tammy’s (Debbie Reynolds) eccentricities and form a comforting kinship with the teen was sweet.
For Hitchcock’s dark comedy “The Trouble with Harry” (1955) Natwick reveled in a generous amount of screen time as one-fourth of a quartet of quirky characters who each separately find the same dead body. She’s a pure delight as a spinster of “42” who summons up the courage to ask the Captain (Edmund Gwenn) over for coffee and blueberry muffins.
When she gazes longingly at a coffee cup she finds that is big enough for his pudgy hands, we are mesmerized by her along with the characters on screen. The local artist (John Forsythe) goes as far as to give her a makeover with a pot of rouge on her face and a blue ribbon in her hair for the date.
You can’t help but smile watching her light up at feeling beautiful wearing that silly blue ribbon. Feel free to laugh when the primping goes all for naught after she digs up the body and returns all dirty and disheveled, blue ribbon in tatters.
Her final years
As she was making these movies through the 1950s, she also was performing in theater and in “filmed theater TV series” that were popular at the time like Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, Gulf Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre and Somerset Maugham TV Theatre and in multiple episodes of the esteemed Studio One in Hollywood. In 1967, she earned an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as Jane Fonda’s mom in “Barefoot in the Park.”
In the 1970s and ’80s she often guest starred on TV shows such as “McMillan & Wife,” “Family,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “The Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote.” She earned an Emmy nod for her role in the TV mini-series “The Snoop Sisters.”
Her final performance was in the 1988 drama “Dangerous Liaisons” – just six years before her death at age 89 in 1994. As Madama de Rosemonde, she gives thoughtful advice for what ails Michele Pfeiffer’s Madame de Tourvel. Though she was 83 at the time, her strength of character is still apparent. We could, right up to the end, depend on her to be the consummate character actor.