Day seven of our sleigh ride through the holidays has landed us back in 1954, with character actress Spring Byington offering us those glittering packages and her likable presence, an appealing blend of wise maturity and bubbly girlishness.
Born in Colorado in either 1886 or 1893, (some years may have been shaved off along the way in the actress' career), Spring's parents were Canadians who had emigrated to the Rocky Mountain state. After her college professor father's death, Byington's mother, a widow faced with supporting Spring and her sister Helene, went back to medical school in her home country, becoming Dr. Helene Byington, one of the first female medical doctors in North America. Sadly, overwork led to her mother's early demise, and by the time she was 18, the future character actress was already a member of a Denver stock company, supporting herself on the then fine sum of $34 a week.
Married that same year to a stage manager named Roy Chandler, the couple soon found themselves on tour in Buenos Aires, where they settled for several years, with Spring becoming a mother to her daughters, Lois and Phyllis. Following a divorce some years later, the actress returned to the United States.
From 1924 through the mid-'30s, she appeared in approximately 20 Broadway productions in parts from leading lady to walk-ons, making a particularly notable impression on audiences and critics in George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly's expressionistic comedy, Beggar on Horseback (Byington appears unrecognizable at right as a lady-in-waiting in one of the two parts she played in that production). In that exhilarating era of Broadway's busiest decade, Spring developed her gifts, becoming part of a golden generation of character actors who later enriched the movies in the decades to come. Some of the players who appeared on stage with Byington included Donald Meek, Reginald Owen, Osgood Perkins, Selena Royle, Halliwell Hobbes, and Albert Dekker (when he was still known as Albert Van Dekker).
A breakthrough part in films came her way thanks to her being cast as Marmee in Little Women (1933-George Cukor). The understanding heart and gentle manner of her character in the Louisa May Alcott story, faced with running a household of growing girls while their father was away in the Civil War, was her first feature role, (though she had appeared in a comedy short with the intriguing title Papa's Slay Ride in 1930). The part and the film could have been completely saccharine without the richness of feeling and understanding that the director drew from this actress and the rest of the cast. The work of the entire ensemble, highlighted by Katharine Hepburn's delightfully fresh Jo, brought the episodic story to life, making the darker moments of the story believable as the family faces inevitable change, loss, renewal and joy throughout the film. Leaving the stage by 1935, Spring Byington became a reliable figure in over a hundred films and television shows. The move west was based on the presence of her now married daughters in California, the appeal of the regular income, and a comfortable lifestyle that gave her the time and money to pursue her interests in reading and even to take up aviation as she approached sixty
During her years in films, Byington's work may not have garnered as much attention as it rated. Her contributions to a movie were deceptively seamless most of the time, but she was philosophical about it, enjoying being part of the whole without the burden of carrying an entire film, (though her flibbertygibbets may have saved more than a few movies from dullness). "In the theater", she explained to an interviewer in the 1940s, "you are supposed to act in a manner which draws full attention to yourself. It may seem strange for an actress to say she doesn't want people to notice her, but it's absolutely true in my case."
One notable exception to this desire to blend in was in the rarely seen Louisa (1950-Alexander Hall), in which an effervescent and chic Byington charms two expert older actors Edmund Gwenn and Charles Coburn, who compete for her favor. Explaining that the part was one of her favorites, Spring said "I liked the role because it was gay and flippant. Louisa had lots of pep, loads of charm, a wonderful sense of humor, and best of all, a universal problem to deal with in the film. She was an older woman with young ideas ... She wanted new interests in life and found them." The movie earned the actress some of her best notices, with the normally condescending reviewers at The New York Times admitting that "Miss Byington is darling...busying about with the vigor and the daintiness of a bantam hen. Her crotchetiness as a widow and then her radiance at the discovery of a new love should be more remedial than medicine in raising the spirits of people her age".
Best remembered for her sweet Moms, there were a few parts that turned these stereotypes on their head, allowing the actress to show the darker aspects of that archetype. One example was the cloying and superficial mother of battle-scarred Robert Young in The Enchanted Cottage (1945-John Cromwell) whose over-protectiveness of her son deepens his depression, causing him to withdraw more from the world. A favorite cinematic discovery for this viewer was her work as a ruthless sob sister reporter, "Mary Sunshine", in Roxie Hart (1942-William Windom). The story, based on the same source material that would be used for the musical Chicago, is a whirlwind look at crime, punishment and American vulgarity at its most amusing and tawdriest in a tabloid atmosphere in the '20s, exploiting each new sensation. With the attention span of a gnat and just about the same depth of feeling, Byington's character shifts her maudlin concentration from one inmate (Ginger Rogers) to another (Iris Adrian) with ease, as long as the lurid details attract the lowest common denominators in her paper's market read her story. In another role as a mother in the car racing drama, The Big Wheel (1949), Spring played another mother to a reckless Mickey Rooney, spoon feeding him a disastrous image of his late father, (Btw, she had also appeared as the first mother of Andy Hardy in Rooney's first film in that series, A Family Affair (1937) with Lionel Barrymore as Judge Hardy. Barrymore and Byington also played Rooney's parents in Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness (1935). One of the least known movies of her career, The Green Light (1937-Frank Borzage) gave Byington a vivid, extremely brief role as a patient facing a dangerous operation with a spiritual poise that unnerves and changes the life of a doctor, sensitively played by Errol Flynn in one of his few non-swashbuckling roles of that period.
The actress elbowed her way into this viewer's consciousness more than usual the other night as I was relishing the sight of sweet-tempered if giddy matriarch of an anarchic family in You Can't Take It With You (1938-Frank Capra). Byington's "Penny Sycamore", who began to write plays when a typewriter was delivered to her house by mistake and who uses kittens as paperweights, doesn't see herself or any of her large, extended family as eccentric, but simply as her loving brood.
The resemblance between the kind-faced Byington and her screen daughter, Jean Arthur, seemed particularly apt in that movie. The character actress later claimed that she "always feels maternal toward my screen children." Her character's non sequiturs in You Can't Take It With You, including inquiring of random visitors "Were you ever in a monastery?" bemused audiences and earned her an Oscar nomination as the Best Actress in a Supporting Role. As Spring later described it, she played lots of ditzy women in her time, but the writing in the Kauffman and Hart play that formed the basis of this movie gave her a chance to surpass herself. "There are two types of bird brains that writers create", she asserted. "There is Type A, or the bird brain who will say anything that comes into her head. That type is foreign to me. Then there is Type B, who is consistent. Everything she does or says follows logically. She's always true to herself. I love to play that type."
Frank Capra explained in his autobiography that the "part of Penny Sycamore, the pixie, moon-struck mother was difficult to cast. At first I wanted Fay Bainter. But she was unavailable. Then, as so often happens, we found the perfect Penny right under our noses - Spring Byington. Spring was so delightful in the part..." She was rarely allowed to play anything but a sweet homebody, though occasionally she played roles that had a bit more drama.
Seemingly born to play a mother hen exuding as much warmth as any burning hearth, the actress once admitted that it "may sound trite, but I'm an actress strictly because I enjoy it." After a moment's reflection, she added, "And because I can't do anything else very well."
Her maternal power might appear a little rattle-brained or too sweet to be real, but the actress could transform simplistically written and even fluffy roles into something memorable and alive with some scrap of gaiety, a ladle of serenity and and an acceptance of life's chaos. All this was enhanced by her gentle face, musical speaking voice, excellent comic timing, and a cheerfulness that she explained away by saying "It's very simple. Lady Macbeth and I aren't friends."
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