SPECIAL: Beulah!

My first contact with Beulah Bondi was a telephone conversation in 1957. 17 years later I met her in person, face-to-face, in producer Robert Jacks’ office on the Warner Brothers lot. We had cast her as Martha Corinne Walton in THE CONFLICT, a special two-hour episode of THE WALTONS that was to open the series’ third season. As she entered the office, I greeted her, extended my hand and said, “Hello Miss Bondi, I’m Ralph Senensky.” As she took my hand, she smiled and in her quiet forthright manner responded, “Beulah!” She was to be addressed as “Beulah.”

To further improve the script on THE WALTONS before filming would begin, a reading was held involving Richard Thomas, Will Geer, Ellen Corby, Michael Learned and Ralph Waite from the cast and series creator Earl Hamner, story editor Carol McKeand, producer Robert Jacks and the episode’s director. Since the script for THE CONFLICT was too long to squeeze into the usual lunch-hour period, it was decided to hold the reading at 6:00 in the evening, at the end of a filming day. I brought up the possibility with Jacks of including Miss Bondi in that reading. However, to book her for the reading would have meant her salary would start on that day, so I was assigned the task of calling her, telling her of the reading, and welcoming her to attend, if she so desired. She accepted the invitation most graciously.

When I had arrived at Jacks’ office earlier, Earl Hamner and CaroI McKeand were already present. Sitting on the coffee table was the large tray from the Jewish delicatessen in Toluca Lake that was always ordered for these readings, but the mood in the room was not festive. Bob Jacks told me the reading was being postponed. Only Richard Thomas and Ellen Corby were available. There had been conflicts in the schedules of Will Geer, Michael Learned and Ralph Waite. He learned of this too late to notify Beulah Bondi. She was on her way to the studio as we spoke.

Soon after Beulah’s arrival, Will Geer came in followed by Ralph Waite and Ellen Corby. Richard was still on the set filming; Michael Learned would not be stopping by. Introductions were made; Will and Beulah already knew each other. Everyone took a seat, preparing for the reading that we all knew was not going to take place. Bob Jacks explained to Beulah that there had been various conflicts in schedules and that the reading was being postponed. Will cheerfully interjected that his conflict was that he was going to the opening that evening at the Hartford Theatre of a play starring Henry Fonda in his acclaimed portrayal of Clarence Darrow. Beulah answered, yes, she knew about that. She had tickets for the opening, but she thought the reading was more important. You could have heard a marshmallow drop on the thick carpet.

To break the embarrassing silence, Will encouraged Beulah to tell us about Beulah Bondi’s famous summer gesture, so Beulah told her story. It was in 1929 and she was playing Emma Jones in Elmer Rice’s STREET SCENE. Because it was a somber drama with a large cast and heavy sets, it didn’t have the budget for a pre-Broadway tryout tour. It was opening cold in New York, with just four or five preview performances. Beulah had worked out a piece of business, which she said she would have done in her performances if they had pre-toured, but she didn’t want to do it in the preview performances. She decided to save it for the opening night.

STREET SCENE was the show that brought Beulah Bondi to Hollywood in Samuel Goldwyn’s 1931 film production of the play directed by King Vidor. That scene with Beulah and her famous summer gesture was the opening sequence for the movie, as I think it was for the play. It is also noteworthy for being the first film scene in Beulah Bondi’s long career.

…and at that opening night on Broadway there was a roar of laughter from the theatre behind her. And it went on and on and on. Beulah said she stood there frozen, her back to the audience, waiting for the laughter to subside. But it didn’t. It stopped the show. Finally, it did end, and the play continued. After the show, Elmer Rice, who had directed his own play, came backstage to her dressing room. Beulah said she was expecting to be fired, but he told her to keep the business in her performance.

Beulah’s realistic acting was years before the Actors Studio and the Method. It was even before the Group Theatre, where the seeds of Stanislavsky’s approach to realism in acting were first planted in our country. It also recalls my first telephone conversation with Beulah in 1957. I had directed a production of Andre Gide’s THE IMMORALIST at the Horseshoe Stage on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. My lead actress was Rachel Ames in the role Geraldine Page had played in the Broadway production. Rachel’s mother, the wonderful actress Dorothy Adams, brought her friend Beulah Bondi to see the production. I did not get to meet Miss Bondi that evening, so I asked “Doro” if it would be all right if I called her. After checking with Bondi, Doro gave me permission and Bondi’s telephone number. My main recollection of that call was Bondi’s saying, “True acting is being, not seeming!”

Beulah was born Beulah Bondy. It was originally thought that she changed the spelling of her name because of her father’s objection to her stage career. That was false. She changed the ‘y’ to ‘i’ because she thought the tail of the ‘y’ would create problems with her billing on marquees.

Beulah was 42 when she came to Hollywood. Unlike younger actresses coming from Broadway like Bette Davis and Joan Blondell, she did not have to sign a 7-year studio contract to appear in STREET SCENE. But also unlike them, once the film was completed, she did not have another acting assignment awaiting her and there wasn’t a weekly paycheck to cash. At one point early on MGM wanted to put her under contract, but she refused. Beulah was going to freelance. She never became a long-term studio-contract player.

Beulah arrived in Hollywood on the wave created by the movie industry’s frantic search for actors who could talk. 1931 was just 4 years after THE JAZZ SINGER finally brought sound to film. I (unfortunately) never discussed her early years in Hollywood with her, but I’ve learned from reading that in 1931 she followed STREET SCENE with a role in ARROWSMITH, another film for Samuel Goldwyn this time directed by John Ford, but it was a small role (she had one scene as Helen Hayes’ mother) and she was not listed in the onscreen credits. The following year she had a substantial role in RAIN, an at the time underrated United Artists film that was a prestigious flop.

During the following three years Beulah appeared in 9 films. She worked at 6 of the 7 major studios (she didn’t get to Columbia until later), playing supporting roles as a mother, a nurse, a teacher, a wife (some sympathetic, some unsympathetic) in both A productions and quickie programmers. In 1936 she was cast in her best role since RAIN in THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE, playing a mountain-woman mother in the first outdoor feature filmed in Technicolor. That was the role I remembered when I asked to cast her in THE CONFLICT. I was 13 years old when I saw it.

There was the occasional small but important role (later called “Cameos”) like the one she played in 1936 in HEARTS DIVIDED, a Marion Davies starrer at Warner Brothers. Again a mother, but a mother for the most important person she ever mothered.

That was Claude Rains as Napoleon Bonaparte. Beulah, playing his mother, was just 6 months older than Rains.

Beulah was fastidious in her preparations for a role. She told me that for (as I remember) SO DEAR TO MY HEART, one scene in the script had her character weaving at a loom. She immediately asked the studio to provide her with a loom and an instructor to teach her. The loom was delivered to her home, the instructor arrived daily, and Beulah mastered the art of weaving. Her disappointment came when the director did not include her weaving talents in his staging. I don’t think she asked MGM for a corncob pipe and a smoking instructor in preparing to play Rachel Jackson in THE GORGEOUS HUSSY.

THE GORGEOUS HUSSY was the third of the seven films Beulah appeared in with Lionel Barrymore. I have read that on the earlier films they made together he was difficult to get along with. She recognized that his grouchy behavior was probably caused by the drugs he took for his arthritis. But she dealt with the situation — she flung his bad humor right back at him. Later when he was off drugs, she found him to be a changed man. The two became good friends. Beulah told me she did have to watch out for his scene-stealing. One instance when they were doing a rake angle two-shot across Barrymore to Beulah, Barrymore started gesturing with his left arm so that his hand was in front of Beulah’s face, hiding her from the camera. Beulah made no fuss. As they prepared for the next take she firmly gripped his wrist and held it firmly down during the shot. His response? “Okay Beulah, I’ll be good.” Her reply: “I know you will, Lionel.”

For her performance as Rachel Jackson in THE GORGEOUS HUSSY Beulah was one of 5 actresses nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. That was the first year for that award category. She lost to Gale Sondergaard’s performance in ANTHONY ADVERSE. Two years later Beulah was again nominated for an Academy Award in the same category for her performance in OF HUMAN HEARTS. That time she lost to Fay Bainters’s performance in JEZEBEL. OF HUMAN HEARTS was the second of 5 times she played James Stewart’s mother.

Her first time mothering Stewart was VIVACIOUS LADY, also filmed in 1938. That film also starred Ginger Rogers; it was the first of the times Beulah played Charles Coburn’s wife, and it gave Beulah a chance to be modern and a rare chance to play comedy.

Beulah told me her greatest professional disappointment came the following year, 1939, when she was contacted by 20th Century Fox Studio and asked to do a screen test. By this time in her career, Beulah did not do screen tests. She had been in Hollywood since 1931, had been directed by a roster of film’s greatest directors and had twice been nominated for an Academy Award. But this was a request from John Ford; the role was Ma Joad. the film was THE GRAPES OF WRATH, John Ford would be directing the test, and Beulah was assured she was the only person being tested. She agreed to do the test. The script for the test was sent to her, and after she read it, she made a decision. She told me she called the studio and asked for a delay of a week before testing. They granted her request. A friend agreed to drive her on her planned expedition. She then dug into her personal wardrobe and put together a suitable costume for the role she was about to play. She went into her yard and dug her hands into the ground to get dirt under her fingernails. She was now prepared. Her friend drove her to northern California, where Beulah ’visited’ the Okie camps that were set up to accommodate the people who were the inspiration for John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel. She met with those people, she spoke with them, and in her ragged dress and with hands that looked worn from labor she seemed to be one of them. I asked Beulah whether she was ever recognized; after all by this time she was a screen celebrity. She said only once, and she made a hasty retreat. After visiting several camps she returned to Los Angeles. She was ready. The day of the test arrived, and Beulah reported to the studio, where Mr. Ford directed the two scenes. As she was leaving, the actor who had appeared with her in the test, in saying goodbye said, “Miss Bondi, I know my opinion doesn’t mean anything, I’m just a contract player here at the studio, but I just want you to know that I think you’re the best of all the actresses who have tested for this role.” Beulah said that she knew then she would not play Ma Joad; that the role would probably go to an actress under contract to the studio. Jane Darwell, under contract to 20th Century Fox Studio, played Ma Joad and won an Academy award for her performance. For Beulah it was the loss of the role of a lifetime. I think it was the loss to the art of film of what would have been a legendary performance.

Except for that major disappointment 1939 was a very good year for Beulah. There were fine roles in 3 major productions. Three more in 1940! Another three in 1941! Beulah had firmly established herself not only as an in demand actress, she was an actress that directors knew would bring special dimension to her role, that the character she created would be unique. Here are two scenes from 1948’s ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN with a unique Beulah coming to see her pastor (Fredric March).

Beulah is probably most recognized by today’s public for her appearance in Frank Capra’s 1946 production, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Strangely IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was not successful in its original release. Today it is considered one of the loved films in American cinema. In the film she played James Stewart’s mother for the 4th and final time in a feature film. Her fifth appearance as his mother was in his later television series.

Beulah told me about her experience in 1948 on the movie, THE SNAKE PIT, starring Olivia de Havilland and directed by Anatole Litvak. The movie was well into production by the time she reported to the studio. She was greeted with dire reports from the other character actresses who had been working. They told her that Litvak was impossible, overly demanding; nothing any of them did seemed to please him. Beulah responded she couldn’t understand that; she had worked for ‘Toley’ before (THE SISTERS with Bette Davis at Warner Brothers), and she had never had any problem with him. She was warned, just wait, you’ll see. So came time for Beulah’s first scene. She reported to the set in make-up and costume, was greeted by Mr. Litvak, did a brief rehearsal and then prepared to film. Camera rolled, action was called, and Beulah did her scene. Litvak called “Cut, let’s do it again, please.” The warning actresses on the sidelines gave Beulah nods of the head that said, “See, what did we tell you?” Beulah did take 2. Again “Cut let’s do it again please.” More nodding heads and smirks. Take 3. Take 4. Take 5 and finally “Cut, Print.”

Beulah, never a shy one (she was a Taurus) went up to Litvak. “Toley, may I ask you a question?
Litvak: “Of course, Beulah. What is it?”
Beulah: “You never said, so what was wrong with those earlier takes?”
Litvak: “Nothing, Beulah, I just like to watch you act.”

* * * * * * * * *

“When you are speaking of the most moving movie scenes of all times, certainly you’re going to choose several from Leo McCarey’s MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW.”

That’s John Springer writing in his magnificent book, THEY HAD FACES THEN. The book was published in 1974, the same year we filmed THE CONFLICT for THE WALTONS. He dedicated the book:

To our beloved Beulah Bondi

I have saved writing about MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. In 1937 Beulah Bondi played her only starring role in that film. MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW was directed by Leo McCarey, who that year also directed THE AWFUL TRUTH. He was awarded the Academy Award for Best Director for THE AWFUL TRUTH. In his acceptance speech he said, “Thank you, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.”

MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW centers on Bark and Lucy Cooper, an aging couple in their eighties with 5 adult children. The problem? None of the children are willing to take both parents into their home. 61-year old Victor Moore played Bark. Beulah was 48 years old. She was only 3 years older than Thomas Mitchell who played her oldest son. She was 4 years older than Fay Bainter who played her daughter-in-law.

And here I’m turning to John Springer’s words from his book:

“I yield to no one in admiration for Victor Moore, but the person who tore you apart … was the beloved Beulah Bondi, surely the most versatile character actress on all levels the movies have known. She wasn’t one of those darling lavender-and-old-lace ladies. Her Lucy Cooper in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW could be a cranky, cantankerous old girl. But she was so real, she was frightening.

Here is the devastating scene when Lucy (at the moment living with her oldest son) returns from a movie with her granddaughter. Bark is living across country with one of the other children. A bridge class conducted by the daughter-in-law is in session.

And here is the final scene when the old man is going away and the old lady is at the train station to see him off. He doesn’t know — but she does, she’s going into a retirement home — that they will never see each other again.

John Springer gets the next word:

“Academy Oscars ceased to have their full value the year she did not get a nomination for MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW.”

And now fast forward 37 years to 1974. You can read all about THE CONFLICT on my post for the show, but here is the final scene. Beulah was 85 years old, about the same age as Lucy Cooper.

I have brought you many of the faces of Beulah Bondi. Actually I hope I’ve brought you more. Beulah did so much more than change her make-up, her hair and her costume as she moved from character to character.

It was October, 1976. I was on the front lawn of the Walton house on the back lot of Warner Brothers studio, studying my script. It was the first day of filming THE PONY CART, the second episode of THE WALTONS I directed guest starring Beulah Bondi. A small figure in a long dress wearing a poke bonnet came around the corner of the house and waved to me. She came rushing across the lawn to greet me, a big smile on her face,. And I smiled right back. It wasn’t my friend Beulah Bondi. It was Martha Corinne Walton. And we greeted each other as two people who had not seen each other in two years.

The first clip I showed (STREET SCENE) was the first film scene in Beulah Bondi’s career. Here is the last scene in that career – from THE PONY CART filmed in 1976. Beulah was 87 years old.

The Journey Continuues



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4 Responses to SPECIAL: Beulah!

  1. Phenomenal writing Ralph. Very entertaining, educational and well researched. If you had more time I’d say publish these articles into a book. A student of film direction could surely learn a great deal from your stories. Of course they wouldn’t get the film clips but I rarely watch those anyways as I can’t see them when I read your articles on my phone. Your descriptive set-ups are enough for the mind eye anyways.

    Dave – curator at All About the Waltons

  2. Daniel Rudolf says:

    Make Way for Tomorrow is an amazing film and an all time classic. It was the inspiration for Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu for his film Tokyo Story, which is another great all time classic.

  3. Mark Lemon says:

    Hi Mr. Senensky.
    Another great post and as usual very entertaining and informative.
    Beulah Bondi really was a wonderful actress and her range and skill was always evident on screen. She played soft and gentle or hard and brittle with seeming ease. The phone scene from Make way for Tomorrow touched me even though it was just a short clip from the movie as did the scene where she is about to leave her home in the Conflict episode.
    There are great actresses around still, but Miss Bondi can and should be watched and learned from even today.
    Again, thanks for the post and here’s to many more.

  4. Elizabeth Genge says:

    Mr. Senensky,

    When I was maybe eleven or twelve years old, we were invited to watch you direct an episode of The Waltons. An old friend of yours – Ruth Sternhill – was my grandmother, and she brought us along for the ride.

    I’m not sure what made me so curious recently to look up episodes of the Waltons, but in doing so, I was reminded of that day when we watched an episode of that series being filmed. You were so gracious to allow us onto the set. I remember at one point, I was sitting on a buckboard, next to Richard Thomas and the gal who played Elizabeth. I remember this actress being so “normal”, even though she played a character so recognizable to me. Michael Lerned did not want us to get hurt, saying”careful, girls!” to us. That memory makes me smile when I think of it.

    Years later, I graduated from UC Santa Barbara, with a BFA in theatre performance. My interest was and still is in producing my own theatre projects. I live in Atlanta, GA with my husband and two daughters, and I am currently working on my Masters in Clinical Social Work. My goal is to marry my theatre work with being a psychotherapist, focusing predominantly in drama, art and play therapy and applying those modalities to work with people who, for one reason or another, are struggling emotionally. I will, in the words of actor/therapist Carol Potter, be a “theractress”. That term still delights me, years after she shared it with me.

    I hope you are well.

    Thanks for reading,

    Elizabeth A. Genge (Lipman)
    Atlanta, GA

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