Edna as lady Catherine de Bourgh
Just because an actor is known as a "character actor" doesn't mean they can't make a picture worth seeing in and of themselves. They've been known to literally "steal the show" once or twice . I think the first time I ever noticed my favorite scene stealer Edna May Oliver when I watched the excellent 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice where she played (with much humor and aplomb) the indomitable Lady Catherine De Bourgh. As she played most of her parts, she played what might have been a dreary snobbish upper class twit with a twinkle in her eye, and great good sense. It takes such accomplishment, not to mention superb timing, to translate to the audience that stern attitude that isn't really all that stern at all, and that she looked like an old maid school marm with such a knowing eye makes her all the more likeable to watch.
Edna May Oliver, a descendant of John Quincy Adams, was born Edna May Nutter in Massachusetts in 1883. Traditional school life was clearly not for her as she began establishing her characteristically independent nature early on by quitting school and heading to the stage. That she did continue to study voice and piano should be no surprise though and she actually had a fine singing voice (which she generally declined to use in film or on stage due to her self described "horse face" which she declared was made for comedy). She had some moderate success on Broadway before heading to film work where she played many comedic roles, but excelled in dramatic ones as well which she charmingly played with the droll Edna May ironic touch.
Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey Trotwood with Mr Dick and David
Even though you can find her frequently on TCM in lighter than air mad cap comedies (such as the lively "We're Rich Again" which aired recently) as well as serialized sleuth Hiledegarde Withers I prefer her unique touch in more "dramatic roles". She was wonderful as the "boy hating",though softhearted, Aunt Betsey Trotwood in the marvelous 1935 MGM edition of David Copperfield . No one could have been more irascibly sensible and yet loving as Aunt Betsey who not only took David in, but also harbored the decidedly daffy Mr Dick. It is my opinion that Edna May played that part with more humor, fire, and kindness than anyone else could have. Her countenance and voice commanded respect, while the kindness in her eyes provided hope. In another truly dramatic role her versatility is showcased in Ann Vickers in which she played the practical sophisticate Dr Malvina Wormser who was friend and confident to an out of wedlock pregnant Irene Dunn as Ann. But my favorite Edna May Oliver movie is A Tale of Two Cities in which she played the ever protective and fierce Miss Pross who was watchdog, nurse, and friend of Miss Lucy Manette. Starchy would be a good word to describe her in this role as she disapproves of almost everyone and everything she feels is beneath her beloved charge . Even Ronald Colman's Sydney Carton can't get her to unstiffen with his teasing and far too familiar nickname "Prossy". Her true colors and loyalty come forth as she litterally fights to save Lucy and her family from the despicably delicious Madame De Farge. That fight scene turns Miss Pross from a mere prude to a true heroine.
Edna May Oliver as the ferocious Miss Pross
All of the pictures I have referenced and so many more are worth your time. The term "character" actor means so many things to so many people, but to me is usually means turning what could be a small role into something that not only furthers the story significantly but also allows something special to shine through and make that performance memorable. Don't ever forget to read the credits to see those whose names are farther down than the "stars" of the picture. You will find yourself amazed by the scope and talent of these actors who can exhibit such extraordinary versatility as they go from demanding role to demanding role often portraying completely different personae in each picture. They are so many of them unsung celluloid heroes.
Edna May Oliver