Edna May Oliver (November 9, 1883 – November 9, 1942) was an American stage and film actress. During the 1930s, she was one of the better-known character actresses in American films, often playing tart-tongued spinsters.
Born Edna May Nutter in Malden, Massachusetts, the daughter of Ida May and Charles Edward Nutter, Oliver was a descendant of John Quincy Adams and John Adams, the sixth and second presidents of the United States.
She quit school at age fourteen in order to pursue a career on stage and achieved her first success in 1917 on Broadway in Jerome Kern’s musical comedy Oh, Boy!, playing the hero’s comically dour Aunt Penelope.
In 1925, Oliver appeared on Broadway in The Cradle Snatchers, co-starring Mary Boland, Gene Raymond and Humphrey Bogart. Oliver’s most notable stage appearance was as Parthy, wife of Cap’n Andy Hawks, in the original 1927 stage production of the musical Show Boat.
She repeated the role in the 1932 Broadway revival, but turned down the chance to play Parthy in the 1936 film version of the show to play the Nurse in that year’s film version of Romeo and Juliet.
Her film debut was in 1923 in Wife in Name Only. She continued to appear in films until Lydia in 1941. Oliver first gained major notice in films for her appearances in several comedy films starring the team of Wheeler & Woolsey including Half Shot at Sunrise, her first film under her RKO Radio Pictures contract in 1930.
While usually playing featured parts, she starred in ten films, including the women’s stories Fanny Foley Herself and Ladies of the Jury.
Oliver’s most popular star vehicles were mystery-comedies starring Oliver as spinster sleuth Hildegarde Withers from the popular Stuart Palmer novels.
The series ended prematurely when Oliver left RKO to sign with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1935; the studio attempted to continue the series with Helen Broderick and then ZaSu Pitts as Withers, but these later films were not well received.
While at MGM, David O. Selznick had her cast in two film versions of novels by Charles Dickens, including A Tale of Two Cities as the prim but acidic Miss Pross and David Copperfield as the eccentric Betsy Trotwood.
It is often said that she was also considered to play the Wicked Witch of the West in MGM’s 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, the role which eventually went to Margaret Hamilton, but it is not true. She was briefly considered for a different conception of the role of Glinda, which eventually went to Billie Burke.
Ms. Oliver was also seen in two 1939 movie musicals, dancing and flirting with Tyrone Power in the Sonja Henie skating film Second Fiddle and in a major supporting role as the agent of the title characters in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.
That same year, she was nominated for a Supporting Actress Academy Award for her tough performance in Drums Along the Mohawk as an early American settler who faces raids on her farmhouse by Native Americans. A comic performance as Laurence Olivier’s domineering aunt in Pride and Prejudice and a scene-stealing role as Merle Oberon’s aunt in the lavish Lydia concluded her film career.
When asked why she played predominantly comedic roles, she replied, “With a horse’s face, what more can I play?”, however she was cast in such decidedly non-comedic films as Cimarron (1931), Ann Vickers (1933), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), David Copperfield (1935), and Romeo and Juliet (1936).
Oliver died on her 59th birthday in 1942 following a short intestinal ailment that proved terminal, and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Oliver received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for her appearance in Drums Along the Mohawk.
Oliver was one of the many movie stars caricatured in the 1937 cartoon Porky’s Road Race, and her notably “bottom-heavy” physique was satirized in cartoons such as Friz Freleng’s The Hardship of Miles Standish (1940)