Sometimes an actress so thoroughly embodies a character that it becomes her signature role, the one for which she is mainly recognized (and sometimes at the expense of an otherwise extensive career). In many ways, I find this to be the case with Mary Nash. By the time Nash starred as Katharine Hepburn’s dithering mother in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, she had already made a name for herself as a solid character actress, amassing a number of screen credits opposite some of the most popular stars of the 1930s. Still, the character of Margaret Lord remains the one for which Nash is arguably the most recognized.
Born in 1884 in New York, Nash began her career there in vaudeville before moving to the Broadway stage, where she was a ubiquitous presence for more than twenty-five years. During her time in New York, Nash filmed roles in a couple of minor silent pictures, but her movie career did not begin in earnest until 1934, when the actress left New York for Hollywood. Her first film role came later that year in Uncertain Lady, in which she appeared with Edward Everett Horton. Two years later, Nash moved up into the “big leagues,” so to speak, with a supporting role as Edward Arnold’s neglected wife in Come and Get It.
In 1937, Nash once again took on the role of Arnold’s wife in the screwball comedy Easy Living, written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen. As Jenny, whose wealthy husband bemoans her unchecked spending habits (and in the process inadvertently sets the entire city to believing he is having an affair with Jean Arthur’s Mary Smith), Nash is delightfully daffy, going to extreme lengths early in the film to protect her brand-new, $58,000 sable coat.
Nash also appeared in two films with the biggest Hollywood star of the decade, Shirley Temple. Unlike most of her previous roles, however, in each of these films, she was not part of the comic relief, but instead Temple’s main adversary. In 1937’s Heidi, Nash plays Fräulein Rottenmeier, the evil housekeeper who makes Heidi’s life miserable and tries to sell the young girl to a band of Gypsies. Two years later, in The Little Princess, Nash once again squared off with Temple’s Sara Crewe as Miss Minchin, the spiteful head of a girls’ boarding school.
In 1940, the Broadway smash The Philadelphia Story was brought to the big screen, starring Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, Cary Grant as her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, and James Stewart as reluctant tabloid reporter Macaulay Connor. The film was a turning-point in the career of Hepburn, who had appeared in the Broadway production after being labeled “box-office poison” in the wake of a string of financially disappointing films. As the film was so vital to Hepburn’s career, she had a hand in almost every aspect of production, from the costumes to the lighting to the casting. The movie was filmed much like a play, with the dialogue and interactions between the characters taking precedence over most other elements. And Nash, a capable stage veteran, was an inspired choice for the role of Tracy’s mother, Margaret, who has left her husband at the urging of her angry daughter. As she juggles wedding planning, unexpected guests and magazine spies, and the reappearance of her estranged husband, Nash beautifully brings the frazzled–and sometimes puzzled–Margaret to life.
After The Philadelphia Story, Nash was featured in supporting roles in several more films throughout the first half of the 1940s, including The Human Comedy (1943) with Mickey Rooney and Yolanda and the Thief (1945) with Fred Astaire. Her final film appearance came in 1946, and she retired from acting at the age of sixty-two. Nash passed away thirty years later, a few months after her 92nd birthday in 1976, leaving behind a filmography comprised of more than two dozen big-screen roles that demonstrate her adept ability to slide between the worlds of comedy and drama.