“Some of the young players think that all that is required of them is learning lines and speaking them when their cue comes. They stand staring at you with vacant eyes, concentrating on what they have to say, instead of listening to and concentrating on what you are saying.” –Fay Bainter
American actress Fay Okell Bainter was a familiar face in many films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Typically playing motherly figures while speaking in her signature husky voice, Bainter became a frequent presence throughout various stage and screen roles.
Bainter was born in Los Angeles, California, to Charles F. Bainter of Illinois and Mary Okell of England on December 7, 1893. Thanks to her mother, who pushed her into acting, she made her stage debut in 1908 as part of the cast of The County Chairman. The show was held at Morosco’s Theater in Burbank, California, where she was part of their stock company. Her Broadway debut would come in 1912 as part of The Rose of Panama. However, this play and a subsequent play—The Bridal Path (1913)—were not successes.
Bainter would have her first hit with a dynamic performance as Ming Toy in East is West at the Astor Theater, which established her as a major theatrical star. As her stage career progressed, she alternated between several comedic and dramatic roles.
Around this time, Bainter met Lieutenant Commander Reginald Venable, who admired her from the first time he saw her on stage. They met in 1918 and were engaged for a year before getting married in 1920. They did not announce their wedding until the next year. Venable made news when he broke Navy regulations by using the destroyer of which he was in charge—the Ingram—for personal use. He redirected the destroyer’s course so he could be the first to meet Bainter’s steamer—the White Star liner, Olympic—which was returning from a voyage in Europe. The Navy secretary, however, was lenient ad said that Venable was just “a young man courting.” Venable resigned from the Navy in 1925 and managed his wife’s business affairs in addition to becoming involved with real estate work. The couple had one son, Reginald Venable, Jr., who became an actor.
Bainter continued her stage work with various plays in New York, including The Willow Tree, Dodsworth, and It Happened One Day. In 1926, she appeared alongside Walter Abel in a Broadway production of The Enemy.
At the age of 41, she was offered a role in her first film—MGM’s This Side of Heaven (1934), alongside Lionel Barrymore. This was the first of many motherly portrayals she would carry out throughout the duration of her career. Critics applauded her performances in Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and Quality Street (1937) but she would win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Jezebel (1938) thanks to her portrayal of a stern Aunt Belle against Bette Davis’s Jezebel.
In the same year, she was nominated for Best Actress for her role in White Banners (1938) but lost to Bette Davis. She was the first actress to have ever been nominated in both categories in the same year. Since then, only 11 actors have won dual nominations in a single year. In the following year, she would present the Best Supporting Actress award to Hattie McDaniel, making Academy Awards history once again.
Bainter appeared steadily in films including carrying out the roles of Mrs. Gibbs in Our Town (1940), Mrs. Elvira Wiggs in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1942), Melissa Frake in State Fair (1945), and as Mrs. Mitty in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), among many other roles.
By the 1950s, Bainter was alternating stage work with television work. However, she would secure one more Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Children’s Hour (1961).
Bainter died from pneumonia at age 74 in Los Angeles on April 16, 1968. She and her husband are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Today, there are few places of relevance to Bainter’s life and career. Morosco’s Theater, where she made her stage debut, has been demolished. The home in which she lived in 1900 at 629 Los Angeles St. is now a commercial property.
Furthermore, the home in which she lived in 1910 at 217 S. Spring St. in Los Angeles now has a parking garage in its place.
Nonetheless, there is an oil painting of Bainter that exists to this day. Painted by Robert Henry in 1918, the portrait resides at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. The museum is located at Campus Dr, Provo, UT 84602.
Bainter’s career continues to be enjoyed by fans who view the many films in which she appeared.