The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
July–September 2001, Issue #4

The Grand Dames of the Horror Film: Maria Ouspenskaya and Una O’Connor  

Eric M. Heideman

“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 Moscow’s Adasheff’s 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 Stanislavski’s 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 teacher—Mme Ouspenskaya to her students—drew 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 Wyler’s 1936 film of that name. Walter Huston—also reprising his Broadway performance—is Dodsworth, a retired American businessman being cuckolded by a youth-obsessed wife (Ruth Chatterton). The wife’s plans to marry a much younger man are halted by a few devastating words from the man’s 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 1939’s 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 Hollywood’s years, Ouspenskaya’s 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, Bela’s mother, that raised the film from a solid programmer and gave it the mythic/fairy tale quality of Universal’s classics of the ‘30s.

Maleva watches over her tormented son, and speaks Siodmak’s 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. It’s 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 wouldn’t avoid going into battle because he sneezed. Other interesting film appearances include another benevolent grandmother in Ronald Reagan’s 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 O’Connor was born Agnes Teresa McGlade October 23, 1880 in Belfast, Ireland, UK (now Northern Ireland). She began acting with Dublin’s Abbey Players, and by the 1920s had branched out to London’s East End, where she was probably observed by young up-and-coming actor/director James Whale. From 1929-1933 O’Connor appeared in six British films, notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1933) as Mrs. Grogram, a bed-and-breakfast owner whose children bedevil the film’s protagonist.

In 1933 O’Connor crossed the ocean to appear in the Broadway production of Noel Coward’s Cavalcade, an Upstairs, Downstairs-type chronicle of the first third of the 20th century. O’Connor 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 film’s most appealing and real.

Over a 28-year span O’Connor would make an impressive 66 films. More often than not she played some kind of serving-woman. But the birdlike 5'2" actor’s serving women came in a variety of flavors, Irish, Scottish, English, valiant and petty, quiet and bold. Her two most flamboyant performances—an irritation to some, a delight to others—were for James Whale.

Whale loved giving work to British character actors. In Journey’s 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 Whale’s 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 O’Connor in the major supporting role of Mrs. Hall, co-proprietor of the inn where the mysterious bandaged Rains takes up lodgings at the film’s beginning.

Whale, who delighted in colorful eccentrics, gave O’Connor 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 O’Connor’s appearances that remain the second most memorable, after Rains.

In The Barretts of Wimpole Street O’Connor’s 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 Cukor’s sublime David Copperfield (1935), with a cast including W.C. Fields, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Barrymore, Freddie Bartholomew, and Elsa Lanchester, O’Connor 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 Monster’s Bride. Whale insisted that his scriptwriters also create grandly comic parts for Thesiger and O’Connor. Thesiger became Frankenstein’s prissy, megalomaniacal mentor, Dr. Pretorius. O’Connor became Minnie, a servant to the House of Frankenstein, and an even more over-the-top character than The Invisible Man’s Mrs. Hall.

Whale used Minnie much as Shakespeare used various comedic characters, to break the tension after grim scenes. Some have argued that O’Connor’s performance is too over-the-top, distracting from the story. I would argue that rather than undermining the story she binds it together. “I’d hate to find him under my bed at night! He’s a nightmare in the daytime, he is!” Then of course there’s 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.”

O’Connor’s 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 Lloyd’s of London (1936). In the definitive swashbuckler, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), she’s 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 O’Connor she becomes delightfully coquettish; when he shyly confesses that he’s never had a sweetheart, she laughs that she’s “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 O’Connor’s presence include The Canterville Ghost (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). She also appeared in a couple of teleplays in the early ‘50s.

O’Connor was part of the small gathering who attended James Whale’s funeral in 1957. In his will she was one of several friends receiving a bequest of $10,000. O’Connor’s 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 O’Connor 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 O’Connor; The Wolf Man DVD.

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Eric M. Heideman began collecting Aurora monster models (starting with the Mummy) in the fall of 1963, when he was ten, and became an official recruit to Monster Culture in January 1964 when he discovered Famous Monsters of Filmland #27, “The New Year’s New Fears.” He runs a college-neighborhood Minneapolis public library. In his spare time he edits the annual speculative fiction magazine, Tales of the Unanticipated, works on the multicultural speculative fiction convention, Diversicon, and the dark-fantastic convention, Arcana, and moderates an SF book-discussion group, Second Foundation. Each fall he hosts a classic horror films party, surveying the history of the form. He lives with his 16-year-old holstein cat-familiar, Benjamin Disraeli II, and Ben’s two-year old black tabby sidekick, Boris Karloff, in a building overlooking a park with a lake. His writing has appeared in every issue of Monsterzine.

Copyright © 2001 by the author. All rights reserved.