The American actress best known for her role as “Auntie Em” in The Wizard of Oz was born today in 1880. Now WE know em

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Clara Dickey was born June 4, 1880 aboard the Willard Mudgett, an American ship captained by her father while docked in the Hong Kong harbor.

Later that year, her parents settled the family in Quincy, Massachusetts.

As a teenager, Clara became interested in acting, appearing onstage in a Boston production of the play Richard Lovelace with the famed Shakespearean actor E.H. Sothern.

At the age of 20, she moved to New York City, changed her stage-name to Clara Blandick, and began to pursue acting as a career.

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Clara’s first professional appearance came in 1901 when she was cast as Jehanneton in the play If I Were King, which ran for 56 performances at the Garden Theatre (an early component of Madison Square Garden).

Then for her next role in The Christian, she was described by New York critics as a “dainty, petite, and graceful” heroine.

Clara’s first Broadway role was opposite Kyrle Bellow in E.W. Hornung;s Raffles The Amateur Cracksman.

On December 7, 1905, Clara married mining engineer Harry Staunton Elliott.

They separated by 1910, and are said to have divorced in 1912.

In 1908, she began her motion picture career with the Old Kalem company and made a number of appearances in film such as The Maid’s Double in 1911.

Clara then headlined on Broadway in the 1912 play Widow by Proxy which ran for 88 performances through early 1913 at the George M. Cohan Theatre.

She would continue to achieve success on the Broadway stage, playing a number of starring roles, including the lead in Madame Butterfly.

By 1914, Clara was reappearing on the silver screen, this time as Emily Mason in the film Mrs. Black is Back.

During World War I, Clara performed some overseas volunteer work for the American Expeditionary Force in France. She also continued to act on stage and occasionally in silent pictures.

In 1924, she earned rave reviews for her supporting role in the Pulitzer Prize winning play Hell-Bent Fer Heaven, which ran for 122 performances at the Klaw Theatre in New York.

In 1929, Clara made the move to Hollywood.

During the 1930s, she became well known in theatrical and film circles as an established supporting actress.

Though she landed roles like Aunt Polly in the 1930 film Tom Sawyer (a role she reprised in the 1931 film Huckleberry Finn), she spent much of the decade as a character actor, often going uncredited.

At a time when many actors were permanently attached to a single studio, Clara played a wide number of bit parts for almost every major Hollywood studio (though she would later be under contract with 20th Century Fox).

In 1930 alone, she acted in nine different films. Then in 1931, Clara appeared in thirteen different films.

Today, it’s impossible to make an exact tally of the films in which Clara appeared.

A reasonable estimate would fall between 150 and 200.

The Wizard of Oz

In 1939, Clara Blandick landed her most memorable role – as Auntie Em in MGM’s classic The Wizard of Oz.

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Though it was a small part (Clara filmed all her scenes in a single week), the character was an important symbol of Dorothy’s quest to return home to her beloved aunt and uncle.

(Auntie Em and Uncle Henry are the only characters from the beginning of the movie not to have alter ego characters in the Land Of Oz).

Clara Blandick beat out May Robson, Janet Beecher, and Sarah Padden for the role, and earned $750.

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Some believed Auntie Em’s alter ego was to be the Good Witch of the North but the studio opted to use different actresses for each role rather than have a dual role for this.

The reason was they wanted someone younger looking to contrast the good witch from the bad witch. Ironically, Billie Burke, who played the Witch of the North, was only 4 years younger than Clara.

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Though the Auntie Em character proved memorable to audiences, few fans knew Clara’s name.

She is not billed in the opening credits and is listed last in the movie’s closing credits.

After The Wizard of Oz, Clara returned to her staple of character acting in supporting and bit roles. She played the spiteful Mrs. Pringle in 1940s Anne of Windy Poplars, a surprised customer in the 1941 Marx Brothers film The Big Store, a fashionable socialite in the 1944 musical Can’t Help Singing, and a cold-blooded murderer in the 1947 mystery Philo Vance Returns.

Her final two roles both came in 1950 – playing a housekeeper and a landlady in Key to the City and Love That Brute, respectively.

She retired from acting at the age of 69 and went into seclusion at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

Throughout the 1950s, Clara’s health steadily began to fail.

She started going blind and began suffering from severe arthritis.

On April 15, 1962, Clara returned home from Palm Sunday services at her church.

She began rearranging her room, placing her favorite photos and memorabilia in prominent places. She laid out her resume and a collection of press clippings from her lengthy career. She dressed immaculately, in an elegant royal blue dressing gown. Then, with her hair properly styled, she took an overdose of sleeping pills. She lay down on a couch, covered herself with a gold blanket over her shoulders, and tied a plastic bag over her head.

Clara Blandick left the following note: “I am now about to make the great adventure. I cannot endure this agonizing pain any longer. It is all over my body. Neither can I face the impending blindness. I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”

Her landlady, Helen Mason, found her body.

Clara’s ashes were interred at the Great Mausoleum, Columbarium of Security (Niche 17230) at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale. Her cremated remains lie just yards from those of The Wizard of Oz co-star, actor Charley Grapewin, who portrayed her on-screen farmer husband, Uncle Henry.

Now WE know em

 

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