Saturday, February 6, 2010

Happy Birthday, Edna May!

Part 1

Today is Edna Green's 78th birthday. Who is Edna Green? These days she is a great-grandmother who lives in Arizona, but there was a time many years ago when she was known as Edna May Wonacott and she was in the movies.

Edna May was nine years old and living with her family in Santa Rosa, California, when she caught the eye of director Alfred Hitchcock while he was in town preparing to make Shadow of a Doubt (1943). The director cast her in the role of Ann Newton, younger sister of the protagonist, Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) and niece of the villain, Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten). Edna May made quite a splash in the part and appeared in small roles in other films over the next few years. I recently caught up with her and we talked about the fascinating events of her childhood.

That Alfred Hitchcock happened upon Edna May and cast her in Shadow of a Doubt is a minor legend, but an imprecise one. In some versions of the story, Joseph Cotten was with the director when they met. Edna clearly recalls the circumstances of that fortuitous day when she and two cousins were on their way home from a shopping excursion:

"I was discovered in Santa Rosa, standing on a street corner waiting for a bus. Alfred Hitchcock and producer Jack Skirball were standing at the same corner looking over the town."

That particular corner bus stop, in front of a Karl's shoe store, had a view of several prominent downtown locations including the courthouse, a circular green and the bank (Photo above left shows Hitchcock on that corner). Hitchcock and Skirball were looking and talking and jotting down notes on a clipboard. Edna May watched them and was curious. She edged away from her cousins to be closer to Hitchcock and Skirball so she could find out what was going on. The two men noticed her observing them and began to look her over.

"My older cousin made me move away from them and next to her, and the two men kept looking at me and finally walked over to us and introduced themselves and said they were making a movie in town and wanted to know if I wanted to be in it." They asked for her address and said they would be out to talk to her parents that afternoon.

Edna May ran all the way home to tell her mother that she was going to be in a movie. Her mother, well aware of her daughter's vivid imagination, thought she'd made it up until the cousins arrived and confirmed her story.

The next day, Edna May and her mother were on the night train to Los Angeles where she would make her screen test. The following morning, they taxied from the Glendale depot to Universal Studios, where they were met at the gate and escorted to the audition. Edna May was given a script for the phone scene, the first appearance of Ann Newton in Shadow of a Doubt. Hitchcock directed her, basically instructing her on the reactions and expressions he was after. Edna May wasn't nervous and suffered no stage fright. She just followed Hitchcock's direction and aced the screen test. She said she didn't have to be coaxed into taking the part, adding: "What nine year old wouldn't want to be in a movie?"

The story goes - and it's true - that Edna May had no experience as a performer up to that point, not even in school plays or church pageants.

"I didn't have any acting experience and no interest in ever doing such a thing..."

While at Universal, Edna May and her mother ate in the commissary and were entranced as they watched actors and actresses in costume eating lunch. Edna remembers meeting Abbott and Costello, Deanna Durbin and Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame that day. In fact, she and her mother were offered an all-expenses-paid weekend in Hollywood, including a chauffeur-driven car to take them anywhere they'd like to go. Edna May wanted more than anything to visit the Disney studios, but her mother, unsettled at being away from home and on her own for the first time, didn't want to stay - and they were on the train headed back to Santa Rosa that night.

Though she was a novice, Edna May didn't receive any special training for her performance. She gives credit to the director: "I had no coaching for the part and just took direction from Alfred Hitchcock."

She worked well with him and had no trouble understanding what he wanted from her. She felt it was the same for the other actors in the cast (Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Henry Travers, Patricia Collinge, Hume Cronyn, Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford). She recalls Hitchcock as a very quiet man who kept to himself much of the time (she often saw him reading comic books on the set).

Ann Newton was a unique character, a confident, self-possessed little girl who loved books and didn't hesitate to speak up. She was an observant child, the only family member who took a dubious view of Uncle Charlie early on. I wondered if Edna May had been like Ann Newton as a child. In some ways, she doesn't think so ("I didn't like reading and would rather be outside riding my bike or playing."). On the other hand, she noted that she was "a very confident kid and never doubted I could do anything I wanted to do." And she was observant; it was her curiosity about Hitchcock and Skirball on that street corner that set her Hollywood adventure in motion.

Edna remembers filming Shadow of a Doubt fondly: "The cast and crew were just like one big happy family. No one was treated any differently than anyone else. I had no favorites on the set other than the fact that I was madly in love with Joseph Cotten and melted every time he talked to me. Everybody knew this and I got kidded a lot!"

Her crush on the handsome and chivalrous Mr. Cotten didn't get in the way of her performance, though. Hitchcock's instructions to Edna May regarding her scenes with Cotten were: "It doesn't matter how nice he is to you, always be suspicious of him and question why he's doing what he's doing."

Ann's skepticism of him surfaces the moment Uncle Charlie hands her an ill-chosen teddy bear gift (above left) and Edna May screws up her face and gives him a withering sidelong glance.

Shadow of a Doubt's exterior scenes were shot on location in Santa Rosa, which was unusual for the time. The interiors were shot in Hollywood on a soundstage.

When the time came to travel to Hollywood again, Edna May's mother and brother accompanied her. Her dad, who was a Santa Rosa grocer, stayed home and minded the store. It was her brother who helped her memorize her lines.

(Part 2 posts on Wed., Feb. 10, and tells of Edna May's friendship with young Pat Hitchcock, dinner with the Hitchcocks, a contract with Jack Skirball, mementos of Shadow of a Doubt, being a local celebrity, The Bells of St. Mary's and more details of her time in Hollywood.)


  1. Eve , Great interview. I can not wait for part 2.

  2. Eve, what a delightful interview! Edna May's recollection of how she was discovered waiting for a bus on a street corner is classic Hollywood. It's like Lana Turner being discovered at the Top Hat Cafe--only Lana wasn't spotted by Alfred Hitchcock. I love the part about Hitch telling her to always be suspicious of Uncle Charlie. One of my favorite parts of SHADOW OF A DOUBT is the fact that little Ann Newton has her doubts immediately about Uncle Charlie and lets him know it. Awesome photo of Edna and Hitch. Just bummed that I have to wait until Wednesday to read Part 2....

  3. P.S. Happy birthday, Edna Green!

  4. Eve, What an awesome interview! Do we have to wait until Wednesday to read Part 2?

  5. Paul, Rick & Dawn - I'm happy to know you've all enjoyed Edna's story (Part 2 of her tale is just as interesting). It was a joy to talk with her. I want to thank Rick and Paul especially for rearranging some scheduled posts to accommodate this one.

  6. Great review Eve and I learned things about this wonderful young actress I never knew. I agree with Dawn and cannot wait to read Part 2 on Wednesday!

  7. Dear Eve, what a wonderful interview! I have been so excited to read it and am looking very forward to the second part of it Wednesday. You did a lovely job and I believe it is a wonderful tribute to Edna May. Happy Birthday, dear Mrs. Green! How we have delighted in your performance!

  8. I am the mother of Edna May's greatgranddaughter, Jillian, who was blessed to be born on Grandma Green's birthday. She turned 6. It is amazing to watch a women I only know by email, phone, real mail and pictures due to geographic challenges. I so see my daughter in both Edna May as a young person and her character. Thank you so much for the story, can't wait for the second half...Thank you for giving a wonderful bit of spotlight to a wonderful woman!

  9. I'm very happy to report that Edna has had one of her "best birthdays" ever because of the response she's gotten related to this blog. And it's especially nice to hear from Jillian's mom (and know that Edna got quite a birthday gift 6 years ago) was a pleasure and an honor to shine a spotlight on Edna...stay tuned for Part 2...

  10. Wonderful interview. Very insightful! What a great story of a virtual unknown raising to fame in films. It could only happen in Hollywood...oops, Santa Rosa.
    Thanks. Can't wait for Part 2.


  11. Dear Eve, I too love Edna, she is a wonderful friend. She is everything that the article and the comments have said. This article captures Edna so very well, a very interesting, well written bio of her.
    Yuma is fortunate to have her as a resident. PS she has a wonderful singing voice and uses it in keeping with her faith.

  12. Hello! I am a Wonacott as well, and am watching Shadow of a Doubt right now! So pleased to learn my namesake Ms. Green is alive and well. Please pass on my email if you so wish.
    Glenn Wonacott