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