What a Character – Zeffie Tilbury

This is my contribution to the What a Character blogathon. Please do visit and look at the other contributions.

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Zeffie Tilbury as Grandma in The Grapes of Wrath

Zeffie Tilbury appeared in more than 70 films, came from a famous theatrical family and had a long stage career before making her film debut at the age of 54. So I’ve been surprised to see how hard it is to find much information about this grand old lady of film and theatre. Admittedly, many of her movie parts were small and uncredited – but she also played a number of major roles.

The first time I really noticed her was in Desire (1936), directed by Frank Borzage and starring Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper.  Tilbury, who was then in her 70s, plays an elderly conwoman going under the name Aunt Olga, and urging on Dietrich’s character to press ahead with her efforts to con Cooper. She makes a memorable entrance, heading for the booze and admitting in her aristocratic English voice that she is just out of jail. There aren’t many actors who can hold their own with Dietrich on camera, let alone steal a scene, but I’d say Tilbury manages to do it on this occasion.

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Tilbury with Dietrich in Desire

That’s just one of my favourite roles by Zeffie Tilbury. Another is in the Dickens adaptation Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935), where she plays the terrifying Cockney opium woman opposite Claude  Rains. But perhaps she is best known for  her roles as Grandma in two John Ford movies,  The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road. She also starred in the Our Gang comedy Second Childhood , and appeared with everyone from Rudolph Valentino to Laurel and Hardy, Joan Crawford and William Powell. Even if her roles were often just listed as “old woman”,  she always gave the same quality and professionalism.  According to the imdb,  she was almost blind in her later career, during the 1930s, but managed to hide this from the movie-going public.

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The young Zeffie

Zeffie was the daughter of one of the legends of the British variety stage, burlesque actress Lydia Thompson, and her own full name was Zeffie Agnes Lydia Tilbury. She was born in 1863, and her father, riding master John Tilbury, died the following year in a riding accident. Zeffie was married twice, both times to fellow-theatrical professionals, and spent many years on the stage in both the UK and the US. Her first husband was Arthur Lewis, whom she married in June 1887, and while researching this piece  I found a review from the Lewiston Evening Journal  from 1894 of The Crust of Society, a play where Zeffie appeared with both her husband and her mother. She emigrated to the US permanently in 1903, according to a family history article by a descendant of her family, John Tilbury, and appeared in her first film in 1917.  There doesn’t seem to be any record of how her marriage to Arthur Lewis ended, but I’ve found a record of her second marriage, to L.E. ‘Bud’ Woodthorpe, in Toledo, from the Evening News of San Jose, California, on January 22, 1904:

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Woodthorpe might have been a fellow Brit, despite the name ‘Bud’ sounding American to English ears, since I’ve found records of him on the London stage in the 1890s. He died in 1915 and she was on her own after that. (Confusingly, John Tilbury’s article says she married Woodthorpe first, but people commenting said Lewis was her first husband and that’s also the order given at the imdb.)

Anyway, I would be very interested to learn more about Zeffie – and I will be watching out for her whenever I see a film where she is in the cast, whether her character is an unnamed “old woman” or a named part. She certainly was a character.


Claude Rains and Zeffie Tilbury in Mystery of Edwin Drood

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19 thoughts on “What a Character – Zeffie Tilbury

  1. Pingback: Last Day of the 2015 WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon – Outspoken and Freckled

  2. My personal favourites of Ms. Tilbury’s are her recurring role in the Bulldog Drummond series and her fabulous turn in “Werewolf of London” as a landlady with a most unusual border. Funny, but it seems like she was born to play these old lady parts, but just like the rest of us she grew into them. Excellent choice for the blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Patricia – I haven’t seen either of those, but will keep an eye out for her when I do. I agree she seems to have been born to play those parts – it comes as quite a surprise to see photos of her when she was young!


  3. I just recently saw DESIRE for the first time and wondered who she was; I think I’ve seen her in a few films but never really knew her name or anything else about her. Thanks for shining some light on her here!

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  4. I’m not sure I’ve seen a Zeffie Tilbury film, so thanks for bringing her to my attention. I look forward to discovering her filmography (and the limited information about her that’s available – you did a wonderful job bringing it all together!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks very much, kind of you to say so. I’d been hoping to get time to watch more of her films before posting, but things have been a bit frantic.


  5. Great posts on an actress I knew instantly by face, but not by name. She was quite the scene stealer in many of the films you mentioned. It’s interesting that several fine supporting stars got their start late in their careers…like Zeffie and Sydney Greenstreet.

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    • Thanks, Rick. I agree she was a scene stealer – and yes, interesting that quite a few excellent actors started in film late in life. A shame we can’t get a glimpse of Zeffie’s earlier stage work too!


  6. If you had asked me who Zeffie Tilbury was, I could not have answered–but I recognized her face immediately. I very much enjoyed learning more about her career and private life.

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  7. Thanks for the post. I just noticed Zeffie in a 1937 B Movie, “Rhythm in the Clouds,” where she slayed me as the Duchess de Lovely. She also plays a jailhouse drunk in “Bulldog Drummond Escapes” from the same year, both on Amazon Prime. I’ve always wondered what Grandma was smoking in that pipe in “The Grapes of Wrath.”


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