Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Jane Wyman and Ma Baxter

Actress Jane Wyman died in California yesterday, after a long life and celebrated career. (Her obituary in the New York Times). Back in the 1940s, she was a rising Hollywood star, married (at the time) to another rising star, Ronald Reagan. She was getting better and better roles when in 1946 she played Ma Baxter in MGM's adaptation of The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' novel of Cracker life on the Florida frontier. Ma Baxter had it hard, scratching out a living isolated in the piney woods, and burying all of her children but one.

Wyman was not the first actress chosen for the role -- that had been Anne Baxter, when the studio first tried to film The Yearling in 1941. The logistical challenges of filming on location in the Ocala National Forest with a cranky Spencer Tracy (as Penny Baxter) led to a long delay in the production. When it resumed, Gregory Peck was cast opposite Wyman. The make-up crew had some work to do making the young Wyman look like a worn-down pioneer woman, but that was only part of the effort. The rest had to come from Wyman herself, and she received an Academy Award nomination for her work.

"Fawn Bites Lion: Or, How MGM Tried to Film The Yearling in Florida," by William Stephenson. In The South and Film, edited by Warren French, pages 229-239. University Press of Mississippi, 1981.

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