Maria Ouspenskaya: (Screen) Life Begins at 60

OUSPENSKAYA, MARIA 2The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the November 21-23 What a Character! Blogathon 2015, co-hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.

In 1936 director William Wyler brought the Sinclair Lewis novel Dodsworth to the screen. Among the featured cast one member was making her Hollywood debut, an actress with the exotic-sounding name of Maria Ouspenskaya. Playing the frail but still formidable Baroness Von Obersdorf, who was resolute in her refusal to let her nobleman son (Gregory Gaye) marry the older, soon-to-be divorced Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton), she was on-screen for less than five minutes, but the brief appearance was memorable enough to earn Ouspenskaya an Academy Award nomination in the inaugural Best Supporting Actress category.

One might be tempted to label this an example of “overnight success,” but for the Russian émigré, who turned 60 a few months before the film’s opening, it was simply a new phase in a storied acting career that began over three decades earlier and halfway around the globe.

Born Maria Alekseyevna Ouspenskaya in the city of Tula, to the southwest of Moscow, in July of 1876, this lawyer’s daughter began her performing life with plans to become a singer. Her soprano voice was strong enough to allow her to study at Poland’s Warsaw Conservatory, but by the time she turned 30 Maria shifted her focus from music to theater and enrolled at Adasheff’s School of Drama in Moscow for three years. After leaving Adasheff’s she toured the country with travelling theatrical companies, then returned to Moscow in 1911 and was among a select group of students to be admitted to the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre. There Ouspenskaya honed her craft under the guidance of Method acting innovator Konstantin Stanislavski. Over the next decade–and through the turmoil of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution–she would appear in dozens of stage roles, from Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters to The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky and Gorky’s The Lower Depths. She began teaching new students and soon became one of Stanislavski’s top instructors. During the late 1910s Maria also began her movie career with turns in a handful of silent short films (the first an adaptation, not of a Russian author, but of Charles Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth).

After touring extensively across Europe with the Moscow Art Theatre, Ouspenskaya accompanied the troupe to America in 1923 and made her New York stage debut that year in Tolstoys Tsar Theodor Ivanovitch. When the company came back to the U.S. the following year, the actress decided to remain behind and settle in New York, working as an instructor with the American Laboratory Theatre run by fellow Stanislavski disciple Richard Boleslavsky and learning English so she could land more Broadway and off-Broadway parts. She would also found her own acting school in 1929, but the economic strains of the Great Depression threatened to force her to close up shop.

A lucky break came in 1934, when she was cast as Baroness Von Obersdorf in the Broadway production of Dodsworth, starring Walter Huston in the title role. “While the scene is brief,” a New York Times critic wrote, “this gifted actress burns it into the memory with the flame of her extraordinary artistry.” Maria’s performance was clearly burned into the memories of producer Samuel Goldwyn and director Wyler, who brought her out west, along with Huston, to re-create the role two years later. After her Oscar nomination Ouspenskaya received contract offers from several studios but preferred to stay a free agent, moving to California and re-establishing her acting school (her students over the years on both coasts would include Anne Baxter, John Garfield and Lee Strasberg) and occasionally returning to Broadway.


After Dodsworth, moviegoers next saw Ouspenskaya as another noblewoman–sister-in-law to Greta Garbo’s Countess Marie Walewska–in MGM’s Napoleonic romance saga Conquest (1937). The film also starred Charles Boyer–who shares a memorable card-playing scene with Maria where she accuses him of cheating–as the French emperor. She was on better terms with Boyer in 1939, when she played his Madeira-based grandmother and is introduced by him to the shipmate (Irene Dunne) he’s fallen for during a transatlantic cruise in the classic melodrama Love Affair. The role earned her a second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, but she lost to Hattie McDaniel and the critical juggernaut that was Gone with the Wind. That same year she played the Maharani in 20th Century-Fox’s India-based epic The Rains Came, and was back at MGM as one half of an Italian immigrant who are saved from losing their home by none other than Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) in Judge Hardy and Son, part of the studio’s long-running series.


The next decade began with Maria’s single busiest year before the cameras. 1940 saw her portray a supporter of 19th-century medical researcher Edward G. Robinson in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet and a housekeeper and former Russian countess in the romance/fantasy Beyond Tomorrow. She appeared in two studio projects depicting the dark truths of Hitler’s Third Reich, MGM’s The Mortal Storm (as James Stewart’s mother) and The Man I Married for Fox. And another pair of 1940 films–Waterloo Bridge, with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, and Dance, Girl, Dance, starring Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball–found her cast as autocratic ballet teachers.


After a dialogue-free turn as The Amah in Josef von Sternberg’s infamous 1941 drama The Shanghai Gesture, Ouspenskaya returned to the screen that same year in the role that many Baby Boomers–horror movie fans like me, in particular–know her best for, that of the gypsy woman Maleva in Universal’s The Wolf Man. As the mother of fortune teller Bela (Bela Lugosi), who passes the curse of the werewolf onto Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) before he’s killed by Chaney with a silver-topped cane, Maleva tries to help Talbot and utters the immortal lines “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. Now you will have peace for eternity” at the film’s conclusion. She and Chaney would reprise their characters two years later, along with Lugosi in a role–the Frankenstein Monster–that he once turned down, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

By the way, Ouspenskaya may not have believed in werewolves and other supernatural entities herself, but her dedication to astrology is said to have been a source of contention on more than one movie set. It’s been reported that the actress would get personal daily horoscopes from an L.A. newspaper columnist, and would refuse to leave the dressing room or even show up for shooting if the planets told her not to!

OUSPENSKAYA, MARIA 4The hit Warner Bros. melodrama King’s Row (1942) found Maria’s Madame von Eln dispensing such pearls of grandmotherly wisdom as “I only know that you have to judge people by what you find them to be and not by what other people say they are” to her devoted grandson Parris Mitchell (Scotty Beckett, then Robert Cummings), while that same year she joined in the thrills of Universal’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Mystery of Marie Roget. Perhaps Ouspenskaya’s most offbeat movie role came in 1945, when the diminutive actress (she stood 5′ 1 1/2″ and during her time in Hollywood usually weighed in at about 90 pounds) was cast as the ruler of a hidden African valley of fierce warrior women in Tarzan and the Amazons, starring Johnny Weissmuller as the jungle king.



Maria’s only color screen appearance came in Frank Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You, a 1946 musical/romance in which she once again played a rather demanding grandmother, this time of orchestra conductor Phillip Dorn, who she tries to dissuade from falling for his latest protégé, classical piano prodigy Catherine McLeod. She had a minor role as frontier family servant in a 1947 “Wild Bill” Elliott Republic western, Wyoming, in 1947, and was among the eccentric residents of an apartment house owned by concert pianist David Niven in the 1949 comedy Kiss in the Dark, which co-starred Jane Wyman.

Sadly, Kiss in the Dark would turn out to be Ouspenskaya’s final performance. In November of 1949 she fell asleep with a lit cigarette and received severe burns. While recuperating at the Motion Picture Relief Home she suffered a stroke, and the 73-year-old actress succumbed to complications from both conditions on December 3rd.

In King’s Row, Madame von Eln’s good fiend Col. Skeffignton (Harry Davenport) says of her, “When she passes, how much passes with her! A whole way of life, a way of gentleness and honor and dignity. These things are going, Henry, and they may never come back to this world.” The same things could just as easily be for Maria Ouspenskaya, whose passion for acting took her from the remotest regions of her native Russia to the Broadway stage and the highest accolades of Hollywod.