“The Way You Walk is Thorny”
Maria Ouspenskaya was born July 29 in Tula, Russia. Her birth year has been reported as 1876 and 1887, with common sense favoring the earlier date. First training for an operatic career in Warsaw and Moscow, she switched to Moscows Adasheffs School of Drama. She was a highly motivated student, and after graduation she traveled across Russia in stock. During and after the Soviet revolution of 1917, she taught at Konstantin Stanislavskis Moscow Art Theater. Also from 1916 to the ‘20s she appeared in at least six Russian/Soviet films.
In 1923 the Moscow Art Theater toured Europe and the U.S.; in 1924, when the troupe returned, Ouspenskaya remained in the U.S., where another Stanislavski alumnus got her work teaching at the American Laboratory Theater in New York. She also acted on Broadway, and in 1929 she founded her own school, the Maria Ouspenskaya School of Dramatic Arts.
In 1936 the highly respected actress and teacherMme Ouspenskaya to her studentsdrew special attention playing the German Baroness Von Obersdorf in a stage adaptation of Sinclair Lewis novel, Dodsworth, a role she was chosen to reprise in director William Wylers 1936 film of that name. Walter Hustonalso reprising his Broadway performanceis Dodsworth, a retired American businessman being cuckolded by a youth-obsessed wife (Ruth Chatterton). The wifes plans to marry a much younger man are halted by a few devastating words from the mans elderly mother (Ouspenskaya). Her performance garnered her an Oscar nomination.
Seeing where her future lay, Ouspenskaya moved her acting school to Hollywood, where she would appear in 19 more films. In 1939s Love Affair, starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, the third-billed Ouspenskaya played the sweetest of grandmothers (French this time), giving her blessing and benediction to the uncertain couple. In that most memorable of all Hollywoods years, Ouspenskayas performance got her a second Oscar nomination. In the tragic romance Waterloo Bridge (1940), Ouspenskaya played the tyrannical ballet instructor Madame Olga Kirowa, whose harsh judgment drives a lovestruck student (Vivian Leigh) to prostitution. If an older, and awesome, European woman, nice or nasty, was needed for a film, Mme Ouspenskaya was likely to be considered.
The Wolf Man (1941) is remembered as the best Universal Horror of the ‘40s for a number of reasons: an unusually literate script by Curt Siodmak; crisp direction by George Waggner; atmospheric music and photography; another classic monster make-up by Jack P. Pierce; an authoritative performance by Claude Rains, a brief but moving appearance by Lugosi as Bela the Gypsy werewolf, and Lon Chaney, Jr.s forcefully human introduction of his keystone character, Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man. But it was the inspired decision to cast Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva the Gypsy woman, Belas mother, that raised the film from a solid programmer and gave it the mythic/fairy tale quality of Universals classics of the ‘30s.
Maleva watches over her tormented son, and speaks Siodmaks lovely lines over his body:
The way you walked was thorny
through no fault of your own.
But as the rain enters the soil
the river enters the sea
so tears run to a predestined end.
Your suffering is over, Bela, my son.
Now you will find peace.
In lesser hands this might have been silly. But Ouspenskaya plays Maleva with the same deep conviction as her superficially more “serious” roles. Its appropriate that it is for this great performance that she is best remembered.
In 1943 Chaney and Ouspenskaya returned to their roles in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Though the film is uneven, sometimes brilliant, sometimes only adequate, the chemistry between Larry and Maleva is just as solid and real as in their first outing, making F.M.t.W.M. another of the better Universals of the ‘40s. Especially memorable is the scene where another character calls Lawrence Talbot “insane” and Maleva quietly interjects, “He is not insane. He only wants to die.”
Mme Ouspenskaya also continued theater work. In 1944 she finished the Broadway run of Outrageous Fortune despite pneumonia and a high fever, insisting that a soldier wouldnt avoid going into battle because he sneezed. Other interesting film appearances include another benevolent grandmother in Ronald Reagans signature film, Kings Row (1942), the Amazon Queen(!) in Tarzan and the Amazons (1945), and parts in the ghost movie Beyond Tomorrow (1940) and the western Wyoming (1947).
In 1949 Maria Ouspenskaya, a heavy smoker, fell asleep with a lit cigarette in her mouth and died December 3 from her burns and a resulting stroke. She was probably 73.
“A Secret Grave Matter”
Una OConnor was born Agnes Teresa McGlade October 23, 1880 in Belfast, Ireland, UK (now Northern Ireland). She began acting with Dublins Abbey Players, and by the 1920s had branched out to Londons East End, where she was probably observed by young up-and-coming actor/director James Whale. From 1929-1933 OConnor appeared in six British films, notably in Alfred Hitchcocks Murder! (1933) as Mrs. Grogram, a bed-and-breakfast owner whose children bedevil the films protagonist.
In 1933 OConnor crossed the ocean to appear in the Broadway production of Noel Cowards Cavalcade, an Upstairs, Downstairs-type chronicle of the first third of the 20th century. OConnor sparkled as Ellen Bridges, a maid who aspires to enter the middle class running her own business. In the 1933 film reprise of the role, her character is easily the films most appealing and real.
Over a 28-year span OConnor would make an impressive 66 films. More often than not she played some kind of serving-woman. But the birdlike 5'2" actors serving women came in a variety of flavors, Irish, Scottish, English, valiant and petty, quiet and bold. Her two most flamboyant performancesan irritation to some, a delight to otherswere for James Whale.
Whale loved giving work to British character actors. In Journeys End (1930), Frankenstein (1931), and The Old Dark House (1932) he gave Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton and, of course, Karloff chances to shine. For Whales 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man he ended up using nine British character actors, including Claude Rains in his American film debut as the Invisible One. Whale was pleased to include Una OConnor in the major supporting role of Mrs. Hall, co-proprietor of the inn where the mysterious bandaged Rains takes up lodgings at the films beginning.
Whale, who delighted in colorful eccentrics, gave OConnor a chance to stretch her comedic talents carrying on with various bits of “business” as she tries to find out about her bandaged visitor, then running about screeching after he disrobes to reveal nothing underneath. To most viewers, it is Una OConnors appearances that remain the second most memorable, after Rains.
In The Barretts of Wimpole Street OConnors a stalwart servant helping Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) escape her creepy-tyrannical father (Charles Laughton) to find happiness with Robert Browning (Fredric March). In director George Cukors sublime David Copperfield (1935), with a cast including W.C. Fields, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Barrymore, Freddie Bartholomew, and Elsa Lanchester, OConnor adds her own memorable bit as Mrs. Gummidge, just sitting here by the fire and being no trouble.
Whale resolved to make Bride of Frankenstein (1935) an equal blend of comedy and horror. Retaining Karloff and Colin Clive from Frankenstein, Whale added another British actor, Elsa Lanchester, as Mary Shelley and the Monsters Bride. Whale insisted that his scriptwriters also create grandly comic parts for Thesiger and OConnor. Thesiger became Frankensteins prissy, megalomaniacal mentor, Dr. Pretorius. OConnor became Minnie, a servant to the House of Frankenstein, and an even more over-the-top character than The Invisible Mans Mrs. Hall.
Whale used Minnie much as Shakespeare used various comedic characters, to break the tension after grim scenes. Some have argued that OConnors performance is too over-the-top, distracting from the story. I would argue that rather than undermining the story she binds it together. “Id hate to find him under my bed at night! Hes a nightmare in the daytime, he is!” Then of course theres Dr. Pretorius telling Minnie, “Tell [Frankenstein] Dr. Pretorius is here, on a secret matter of grave importance,” which she renders as “A Dr. Pretorius is here to see you on a secret grave matter.”
OConnors the grieving mother of the man informed upon in the Irish Rebellion-based The Informer (1935), a dependable servant in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), a pub owner in Lloyds of London (1936). In the definitive swashbuckler, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), shes the salty lady-in-waiting to Maid Marian (Olivia De Haviland). When one of Robin Hood (Errol Flynn)s Merry Men shows romantic interest in OConnor she becomes delightfully coquettish; when he shyly confesses that hes never had a sweetheart, she laughs that shes “had the banns published five times.” In The Sea Hawk (1940) she plays a similarly spirited character, bravely confusing Spanish soldiers while Errol Flynn brings Queen Elizabeth evidence of a planned Spanish invasion of England. Other significant films peppered by OConnors presence include The Canterville Ghost (1944), The Bells of St. Marys (1945) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). She also appeared in a couple of teleplays in the early ‘50s.
OConnor was part of the small gathering who attended James Whales funeral in 1957. In his will she was one of several friends receiving a bequest of $10,000. OConnors final film performance came in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) as a hard-of-hearing, seemingly ditzy Irish maid whose testimony proves more honorable and astute then it at first seems. Una OConnor died in New York on February 4, 1959, of a heart ailment. She was 78.
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Sources: Christopher Bram, Father of Frankenstein, 1995; Ephraiam Katz, The Film Encyclopedia, 1979; Scott Allen Nolan, Boris Karloff: A Critical Account of His Screen, Stage, Radio, Television, and Recording Work, 1991; The Wolf Man: The Original Shooting Script, Edited & Compiled by Philip Riley, 1993; Paul M. Jensen, The Men Who Made the Monsters, 1996; James Curtis, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, 1998; The Internet Movie Database; Blockbuster Artist Biography: Maria Ouspenskaya; Yahoo! DVD & Video Shopping: Una OConnor; The Wolf Man DVD.