Beulah Bondi (1888-1981)

Beulah Bondi
Beulah Bondi

Beulah Bondi was one of Hollywood's great character actresses. Often recognised but rarely given a name, she enjoyed an acting career of over fifty years on stage, screen and television. She twice received nominations for Best Supporting Actress and she is probably best known for her role as Ma Bailey in 'It's a Wonderful Life' in 1946, one of four occasions when she played James Stewart's mother.

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She was born on May 3, 1888 in Chicago with the birth name Beulah Bondy. (She changed the letter 'y' to an 'i' at the start of her career.) When she was three her family moved to Valparaiso, Indiana where her father had started a real estate business.

Her first appearance on stage was in 'Little Lord Fauntleroy' at the Valparaiso Memorial Opera House when she was seven. She took to acting in a very natural way and at ten, won a gold medal after appearing in 'Editha's Burglar'.

Beulah attended Hyde Park High School and the Frances Shimer Academy in Chicago and, after graduating in 1907, she gained her bachelor's degree in oratory at Valparaiso University in 1916 followed by her masters degree in 1918.

Stage Actress, New Name

She had determined on an acting career and for the next year she organised and took part in local amateur dramatics, finally making her professional stage debut in 1919 with the Stuart Walker Stock Company in Indianapolis. She stayed with the Walker company for two years and continued touring the middle west with different stock companies for the following four years, gaining invaluable theatrical experience. She also gained a new name. The name "Bondi" was initially a mistake in a theater program but Beulah was advised that it looked better than Bondy and fitted better on a theater marquee, and that is how it stayed.


Beulah first played New York in 1925 off-Broadway in 'Wild Birds' and then on Broadway in the successful comedy 'One in the Family', playing a seventy-year old. She was making a name for herself as a talented, reliable performer and she appeared in a string of plays including the hit 1927 comedy-drama about married life, 'Saturday's Children' which ran for 326 performances. Her performance in Elmer Rice's 'Street Scene' in 1929 was also a major hit, running for 601 performances and would change Beulah's life forever.

After creating the role of the slovenly neighbor, Emma Jones, in the 'Street Scene' stage play, Beulah was invited by Sam Goldwyn to reprise it in the King Vidor directed movie in 1931. Her stage-trained voice was perfect for the still-new sound movies and Beulah went on to appear regularly on screen for the rest of her career.

Hollywood Actress

She had proved that she had the talent, the voice as well as the resilience to thrive in Hollywood. Between 1931 and 1934 she alternated between Broadway and Hollywood, appearing in four stage plays, including the hit comedy 'The Late Christopher Bean' in 1932 and also in eight movies, one of which, in 1933, was the film version of 'The Late Christopher Bean'. For the next part of her acting career, Beulah would concentrate on the big screen.

She made over sixty movies during her career, often in maternal roles or portraying older women, even when she herself was much younger. She was one of the first women to be nominated for an Oscar in the new category of "Best Supporting Actress" for her performance in 'The Gorgeous Hussy' in 1936 and she was nominated for the award, again unsuccessfully, for 'Of Human Hearts' in 1938.

Many critics regard her performance as an abandoned mother in ' Make Way for Tomorrow' in 1937 as her masterpiece but she will always be remembered best as the mother of James Stewart in the two Frank Capra classics, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' in 1939, and 'It's a Wonderful Life' in 1946.

Beulah continued her movie career into the late 1940's and 1950's with important supporting roles in well received films such as 'The Snake Pit' in 1948, 'The Life of Riley' the following year and, with Clark Gable, 'Lone Star' in 1952. In 1952, also, she made her first appearance on the new medium of television and for the rest of her acting career she alternated between big and small screen.

Television Career

Beulah had a twenty-six year television career with regular appearances on drama series such as 'Goodyear Television Playhouse', 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents', 'Wagon Train' and 'Perry Mason'. Her final screen appearance was in 'The Waltons' in December, 1976 for which she received an Emmy award.


Though she became known for playing loving mothers, wives and grandmothers, she never herself married. She died on January 11, 1981 in Woodland Hills, California from pulmonary complications after she broke her ribs in a fall when she tripped over her cat. She was aged 92 years.

Beulah Bondi was a character actress of great distinction who effortlessly personified the strong and dignified maternal influence in American culture. She was one of the great "recognised but unknown" faces of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Beulah Bondi Academy Awards

No Wins:
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress ... The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)
Best Supporting Actress ... Of Human Hearts (1938)

Beulah Bondi Filmography

Street Scene
Arrowsmith (uncredited)
1933The Stranger's Return
The Late Christopher Bean
Two Alone
Registered Nurse
Finishing School
The Painted Veil
Ready for Love
The Good Fairy
Bad Boy
The Invisible Ray
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
The Moon's Our Home
The Case Against Mrs. Ames
Hearts Divided
The Gorgeous Hussy
Maid of Salem
Make Way for Tomorrow
The Buccaneer
Of Human Hearts
Vivacious Lady
The Sisters
On Borrowed Time
The Under-Pup
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Remember the Night
Our Town
The Captain Is a Lady
Penny Serenade
The Shepherd of the Hills
One Foot in Heaven
Tonight We Raid Calais
Watch on the Rhine
She's a Soldier Too
I Love a Soldier
Our Hearts Were Young and Gay
The Very Thought of You
And Now Tomorrow