Jane Darwell was an American film and stage actress. With appearances in over 100 major motion pictures, Darwell is perhaps best-remembered for her portrayal of the matriarch and leader of the Joad family in the film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, for which she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and her role as the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins.
Born Patti Woodard to William Robert Woodard, a railroad president, and Ellen Booth in Palmyra, Missouri, she originally intended to become a circus rider, then later an opera singer. Her father objected, however, and she compromised by becoming an actress, changing her name to Darwell to avoid sullying the family name.
She took up voice culture and the piano followed by a course in dramatics. At one point she decided to enter a convent but instead changed her mind and became an actress. Darwell began her acting career in theater productions in Chicago and made her first film appearance in 1913. She appeared in almost twenty films over the next two years before returning to the stage. After a 15 year absence from films, she resumed her film career in 1930 with a role in Tom Sawyer, and her career as a Hollywood character actress began. Short, stout and plain-faced she was quickly cast in a succession of films usually as the mother of one of the major characters. She was especially prevalent in Shirley Temple films; she appeared in five films with Temple, usually as the housekeeper or grandmother.
She won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as “Ma Joad” in The Grapes of Wrath, a role she was given at the insistence of the film’s star, Henry Fonda. A contract player with 20th Century Fox, Darwell was memorably cast in The Ox-Bow Incident, and occasionally starred in “B” movies and played featured parts in scores of major films.