Spring Byington (1886-1974)

Spring Byington
Spring Byington

Spring Byington was a popular and highly skilled character actress whose career began in the silent era and who appeared in over 60 films and 19 Broadway productions during her acting career. She became a movie actress relatively late at the age of forty-four but even when she was younger she specialised in portraying middle-aged mothers, and small town gossipy women. She went on to appear in many successful, high quality movies during Hollywood's Golden Age, including 'Little Women' in 1933, 'Mutiny on the Bounty' in 1935, 'The Devil and Miss Jones' in 1941, 'Dragonwyck' in 1946 and 'Louisa' in 1950.

She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film 'You Can't Take it With You' in 1938 and she was also one of the first movie actresses to establish herself on the new medium of television in the 1950s.


She was born Spring Dell Byington on October 17, 1886 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She had one younger sister, Helene. Her father, a superintendent of schools in Colorado, died when she was five years old and her mother moved to Boston, Massachusetts to study at the University School of Medicine, leaving her younger daughter, Helene, with her grandparents in Ontario, while Spring remained with relatives in Denver. After graduating in 1896, her mother returned to Denver and started up a medical practice.

Early Acting Experience

At school Spring showed her early acting promise and aptitude. She appeared in school productions at North High School and after graduating in 1904, she acted with the Elitch Garden Stock Company and she also briefly and unsuccessfully tried her hand at newspaper reporting.

After their mother died in 1907, Spring and Helene were adopted by their aunt Margaret Eddy. However, Spring decided to take her inheritance and move to New York City to start a serious acting career in the theater.

In 1908 she joined a repertory company which was touring South America performing English language plays translated into Spanish and Portuguese. In 1909, she married the company's manager, Roy Carey Chandler, and the couple based themselves in Buenos Aires. In 1916 Spring returned to New York to give birth to her first daughter, Phyllis Helene. Her second daughter, Lois Irene, was born in 1917. The couple divorced in 1919 and Spring began to devote more time to developing her burgeoning career. She spent part of her time working in Manhattan and part with her daughters who were being taken care of by friends in Leonardsville Village, New York.

In 1919 she began touring with a production of the Hawaiian themed play, 'Birds in Paradise', and, in 1921, began work with the Stuart Walker Company, for which she played roles in a number of productions including 'Mr. Pim Passes By', 'The Ruined Lady', and 'Rollo's Wild Oats'.

She developed a reputation for both reliability and quality acting and in 1924 she played her first Broadway role in 'Beggar on Horseback' which was well received and ran for six months. She returned to the play for 2 months in March 1925 and thenceforth became a regular performer on the Broadway stage in productions such as 'Weak Sister' in 1925, 'Puppy Love' the following year, 'The Merchant of Venice' in 1927 and 'Be Your Age' in 1929.

In the early 1930's her theatrical output did not slow down and she appeared in productions such as 'Once in a Lifetime' in 1930, ' When Ladies Meet' in 1932 and 'Jig Saw' in 1934.

Film Career 1930

Spring began to work in films in 1930 in a short film titled 'Papa's Slay Ride' but it was her second film role in 1933, as Marmee in 'Little Women' which made her famous and which altered the course of the rest of her career. It was a highly successful film, still regarded by many as the best movie version of the novel. It established Spring as an accomplished movie actress and within two years she was appearing in a very healthy number of movies each year. She never went back to the stage.

She continued for two decades to appear regularly in popular films such as 'Mutiny on the Bounty' in 1935, Dodsworth' and 'Theodora Goes Wild' the following year, 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' in 1938 and 'Roxie Hart' in 1942. In addition she became nationally famous for her performances in The Jones Family series of films between 1936 and 1940, in which she played the matriarch, Mrs John Jones in seventeen low budget family comedies.

She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for 'You Can't Take it with You' in 1938. The Oscar winner that year was Fay Bainter for 'Jezebel' (in which Spring also appeared.)

During the second world war Spring appeared in a number of exceptionally good comedies, including 'The Devil and Miss Jones' in 1941, 'Rings on Her Fingers' in 1942 and 'Heaven Can Wait' in 1943.

Television Career

As Spring's movie career began to slow down in the 1950s she began to appear more and more on the new medium of television. After her first appearance as Mrs January in 'Pulitzer Prize Playhouse' in 1950, she began to appear regularly from 1953 in programmes such as 'Make Room for Daddy' and 'The Ford Television Theatre', before taking a starring role in the series 'December Bride' in 1954. The show ran for five years and was a major success.

Spring became a household name and she continued to appear in successful television shows throughout the 1960s with appearances in programmes such as 'Goodyear Theater', 'Mister Ed', 'Dr. Kildare' and 'Batman'. She also regularly appeared in the 'Laramie' Western series from 1961 to 1963.

Later Career

After the title role in 'Louisa' in 1950, Spring's movie career began to slow down. During the decade she made infrequent film appearances in relatively small roles in such films as 'Angels in the Outfield' in 1951, 'No Room for the Groom' in 1952 and 'The Rocket Man' in 1954. Her last film appearance was in 'Please Don't Eat the Daisies' in 1960 and her final television role was in 1968 as 'Mother General' on ABC's "The Flying Nun.


In 1909, Spring married Roy Chandler, the manager of the theater troupe with which she worked in Buenos Aires. They remained working in South America until 1916, when Spring returned to New York to give birth to her first daughter, Phyllis Helene. Her second daughter, Lois Irene, was born in 1917 and the couple divorced in about 1920.

In the late 1930s, Spring was once again engaged to be married, this time to an Argentine industrialist. Following an engagement of a few years and several months before they were to be married, he died unexpectedly. Following this, she chose to devote her life to her career and family.

Some Hollywood historians claim that Spring was a lesbian and that she had a long term relationship with the actress Marjorie Main. She was a very private individual off screen. During her retirement years Spring travelled a great deal and also bought a small coffee plantation in South America.

Spring Byington died from rectal cancer on September 7, 1971 at her home in the Hollywood Hills. She was 84 years old. At her request, her body was donated to medical research

Spring Byington Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Supporting Actress ... You Can't Take it With You (1938)

Spring Byington Filmography

Papa's Slay Ride (Short)
Werewolf of London
On Wings of Song
Orchids to You
Way Down East
Mutiny on the Bounty
Ah Wilderness!
Broadway Hostess
The Great Impersonation
The Voice of Bugle Ann
Every Saturday Night
Educating Father
Palm Springs Affair
Back to Nature
Stage Struck
The Girl on the Front Page
The Charge of the Light Brigade
Theodora Goes Wild
Off to the Races
Green Light
Penrod and Sam
A Family Affair
Big Business
The Road Back
Hotel Haywire
Hot Water
It's Love I'm After
The Jones Family in Borrowing Trouble
The Buccaneer Penrod and His Twin Brother
Love on a Budget
A Trip to Paris
Safety in Numbers
You Can't Take It With You
Down on the Farm
Everybody's Baby
The Story of Alexander Graham Bell
The Jones Family in Hollywood
Chicken Wagon Family
Quick Millions
Too Busy to Work
A Child Is Born
The Blue Bird
Young as You Feel
On Their Own
My Love Came Back
Lucky Partners
False Witness
Meet John Doe
The Devil and Miss Jones
The Perfect Crime
When Ladies Meet
The Vanishing Virginian
Roxie Hart
Rings on Her Fingers
The Affairs of Martha
The War Against Mrs. Hadley
Presenting Lily Mars
Heaven Can Wait
Sucker Bait (Documentary short)
The Heavenly Body
Reward Unlimited (Short)
I'll Be Seeing You
The Enchanted Cottage
Salty O'Rourke
Thrill of a Romance
Captain Eddie
Song of Broadway
A Letter for Evie
Faithful in My Fashion
My Brother Talks to Horses
Little Mister Jim
Living in a Big Way
The Rich Full Life
It Had to Be You
Polly Fulton
In the Good Old Summertime
The Big Wheel