Una O’Connor: Sharp-Tongued Screen Servant

O'CONNOR, UNA 2She was Maid Marian’s devoted lady-in-waiting. She survived encounters with the Invisible Man and the Frankenstein Monster. And she worked for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Billy Wilder. She was rubber-faced character actress Una O’Connor, once dubbed the movies’ “quintessential town biddy.”

Born Agnes Teresa McGlade in Belfast, Ireland in 1880, she began her acting career at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, changing her name at the same time. O’Connor’s diminutive frame, birdlike features and mannerisms, and cackling delivery served her well on the London stage, where Hitchcock would find her for his 1930 thriller Murder! After appearing as the servant Mrs. Bridges on Broadway in Noel Coward’s Cavalcade, she re-created the role for her Hollywood debut, in the film version that would go on to win 1933’s Best Picture Academy Award.

O’Connor’s comedic knack lightened up Universal’s horror universe, where she played the pub landlady terrorized by a bandaged Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933) and Minnie,  Dr. Frankenstein’s very flappable housekeeper, in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), while her performance later in ’35 as Wallace Ford’s mother in The Informer, directed by John Ford, showed her dramatic range. Perhaps her best-known screen turn, though, was as Bess, the faithful servant of Olivia DeHavilland (“You’re not going to harm my lamb, my honeysuckle”) in 1938’s  The Adventures of Robin Hood, standing up defiantly to Errol Flynn’s outlaw hero and getting some on-screen canoodling with Much the Miller’s Son, played by her Cavalcade co-star (and fellow Scene Stealer) Herbert Mundin.

A slew of roles as maids, washerwomen, landladies, and various viragos over the next 15 years followed, with O’Connor giving as good as she got opposite James Cagney in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945),  as Nora the housemaid with Barbara Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut (also ’45), and Flynn again in  The Sea Hawk (1940) and The Adventures of Don Juan (1948). Even though she was Irish, most of these films found her playing an Englishwoman, usually with a Cockney accent (and the ever-present high-pitched wail).

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTIONThe 1950s saw O’Connor working mostly in TV dramas and the stage, with a key role as nearly deaf maid Janet McKenzie in the Broadway production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. She would return to Hollywood to reprise the part for Wilder in his 1957 filming of the whodunit, starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. Sadly, it would prove to be O’Connor’s final screen performance, as she died from a heart condition in New York in February, 1959.