Alison Skipworth

In her younger days, auburn-haired Alison Skipworth had been a celebrated patrician beauty. She was the favorite model of English artist Frank Markham Skipworth (1854-1929) who would later become her husband. A physician’s daughter, Alison did not make her professional acting debut until the age of thirty-one, having been privately tutored by academics from Oxford University. Her eventual move to stage acting was ostensibly to supplement her husband’s meagre income. Alison’s first performance was in “A Gaiety Girl” at London’s Daly Theatre (in 1894), but, before long, she forsook England for Broadway and subsequently joined Daniel Frohman’s company at the Lyceum in New York. She toured in Shakespearean roles and eventually became prolific on the ‘Great White Way’ in comedy plays. Unfortunately for her, many of these turned out to be conspicuous flops. After a string of failures (twenty-one, she claimed, between 1925 and 1930 alone!), Alison jumped at the opportunity to impose herself on the screen. Now stately and plump, ‘Skippy’ went on to carve herself a niche in Hollywood as imperious or seedy grand dames, dowagers and matrons, characters she often imbued with her own adroit sense of humour. She is most fondly remembered as a formidable foil (and, indeed, the only one to stand up to) W.C. Fields in If I Had a Million (1932), Tillie and Gus (1933), Alice in Wonderland (1933) and Six of a Kind (1934). Other memorable turns included her Mrs. Mabel Jellyman, hired to tutor a shady speakeasy proprietor (played by George Raft) in manners in Night After Night (1932), culminating in a confrontation with Mae West (both on and off the set); and Madame Barabas in Satan Met a Lady (1936), loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”, in which Alison played the female equivalent of the role later made famous by Sydney Greenstreet in the classic 1941 Warner Brothers version. Alison retired from acting in 1942 after her Broadway swansong in “Lily of the Valley” and passed away ten years later at the venerable age of 88.

Related Posts