Character actress Beulah Bondi was a favorite of directors and audiences and is one of the reasons so many films from the 1930s and 1940s remain so enjoyable, as she was an integral part of many of the ensemble casts (a hallmark of the studio system) of major and/or great films, including The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Our Town (1940) and Penny Serenade (1941). Highly respected as a first-tier character actress, Bondi won two Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations, for The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) and Of Human Hearts (1938), and an Emmy Award in 1976 for her turn in the television program The Waltons (1971).
She was born Beulah Bondy on May 3, 1888, in Chicago, and established herself as a stage actress in the first phase of her career. She made her Broadway debut in Kenneth S. Webb’s “One of the Family” at the 49th Street Theatre on December 21, 1925. The show was a modest hit, racking up 238 performances. She next appeared in another hit, Maxwell Anderson’s “Saturday’s Children,” which ran for 326 performances, before appearing in her first flop, Clemence Dane’s “Mariners” in 1927. Philip Barry’s and Elmer Rice’s “Cock Robin” was an extremely modest hit in 1928, reaching the century mark (100 performances), but it was Bondi’s performance in Rice’s “Street Scene,” which opened at the Playhouse Theatre on Jamuary 10, 1929, that made her career. This famous play won Rice the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was a big hit, playing for 601 performances. Most importantly, though, it brought Bondi to the movies at the advanced age of 43. She made her motion picture debut in 1931 in the movie adaptation (Street Scene (1931)), recreating the role she had originated on the Broadway stage. The talkies were still new, and she had the talent and the voice to thrive in Hollywood.
Bondi appeared in four more Broadway plays from 1931 to 1934, only one of which, “The Late Christopher Bean”, a comedy by Sidney Howard, was a hit. Her last appearance on Broadway for a generation was in a flop staged by Melvyn Douglas, “Mother Lode” (she made two more appearances on the Great White Way, in “Hilda Crane” (1950) and “On Borrowed Time” in 1953; neither was a success). For the rest of her professional life, her career lay primarily in film and television.
She was typecast as mothers and, later, grandmothers, and played James Stewart’s mother four times, most famously as “Ma Bailey” in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Her greatest role is considered her turn in Leo McCarey’s Depression-era melodrama Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), in which she played a mother abandoned by her children.
Beulah Bondi died on January 1, 1981, from complications from an accident, when she broke her ribs after falling over her cat. She was 92 years old.
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