04 April 1868
04 February 1941|
Los Angeles, California,
United States of America
(carcinoma of bladder, age 72)
Scottish actress who is best remembered for playing elderly characters, which is not surprising really considering she was into her fifties when she started acting.
Her Scottish parents were Alexander Mann (1835-1890) and Margaret Gray (1837-1906). The Dad was a successful shoemaker with 4 employees and a servant girl in the house. They eventually had about 10 children, Margaret being the 4th born. Her older brother, Alexander (1863-1933), emigrated to South Africa in 1882. An Ancestry researcher says she married fellow Scotsman, George Wynes (1864-????) on June 01, 1888 and they emigrated to Cape Town, South Africa (without sources or further information). In a newspaper interview, Margaret said she was married at age 20 and moved to South Africa where her husband died in an accident and she struggled there for another 10 years until she met and married James F. Smythe (1867-1951). This is credible because her age 20 would be c.1888. and the 1900 Census gives her marriage year (to Smythe) as c.1897. It also says that she bore 3 children, none still alive in 1900. In one interview, she said she bore 2 children and 3 children in another, all who died. Husband James was born and reared on St. Helena Island, the exile and death place of Napoleon, not far off the coast from Cape Town.
In July 1899, they emigrated to the US and settled in Spokane, WA by 1900 and remained there until about 1914. James was a bookkeeper and in 1903 was named a trustee of the newly formed Spokane Gas Company. Margaret worked as a seamstress. They became a middle-class, socially active couple involved in community affairs and charities.
In 1909, they operated the newly built Waverly Hotel with a tea room run by Margaret. Because of mining operations, Spokane was growing at a phenomenal rate. Most of the guests were permanent residents. In 1911, James was questioned and tried by the police court and fined $10 for not keeping a guest registry. A young man, un-registered, sneaked an under-age girl into his hotel room for the night and her parents preferred charges. The police wanted the hotel register for evidence. James claimed he didn't have one nor need one, as most of his guests were permanent. The law required that all hotels maintain a daily register.
Late in 1912, Margaret was elected president of Spokane's Catholic Charities and worked extensively with "homeless girls". Also, James's application for US Citizenship was rejected on a technicality. They moved to Vancouver, B C Canada for a while, probably to "re-do" his citizenship process and in July 1913 relocated to San Diego, CA and took up permanent residence. James got a job as an accountant for a trucking company but by 1915 became too ill (don't know the cause) to work and Margaret became his caretaker and sole support. By the time of his award of US Citizenship in August of 1920, he was working in LA as an accountant for the Jones Transfer Co..
San Diego was the site for the 2 year 1915 Panama California Exposition from Jan 1, 1915 thru Jan 1, 1917 which garnered almost 4 million visitors. The State of Washington was looking for people from Washington State (paid employment) to portray historical figures in the state dioramas. Among these, they were seeking a woman to portray Martha Washington. A neighbor encouraged Margaret to apply as she looked like Martha. She applied and won the part. After her Expo "gig" was finished, friends suggested Margaret try her luck in Hollywood. This she did and made the rounds of the studios getting hired by Universal for the usual bit parts: crowd scenes, extra parts, etc..
Supposedly, Margaret was a close friend to Jessie Shirley (1866-1918) who ran a successful acting company that was based in Spokane. One source says Margaret performed with them and that Allen Holubar was their leading man in 1908 (unconfirmed). If true, they must have known each other. It was Universal director, Holubar, who cast her as the tragic Canadian mother of 5 boys who go off to war in WWI, in his highly successful, star studded feature "Heart of Humanity" . She was already in the "pool" of extra players but after interviewing many experienced actresses, Holubar said he picked her because she "looked the Mother type". Margaret received rave reviews for her touching performance. In a 1928 interview she said that she had so much sadness in her early life that it wasn't difficult to play the part of a loving Mother who loses four of her five loving sons to war.(Further explanation in the "Author's Notes.) Holubar cast her in several other successful films in her "mother role" until he died young in 1922 and Margaret's film roles as a feature player pretty much "dried up" but she kept getting small parts and extra work.
Then, in 1928 she "hit the jackpot" big time! Director John Ford at Fox cast her in the lead role in his film "Four Sons". This time, she is the Bavarian Mother of four loving, light-hearted boys. They all go off to war: three on the German side and one, who had emigrated to America years earlier, is fighting on the American side. The three "German" sons die and the "American" son lives to bring his Mom to America and "live happily ever after". Margaret goes on tour with the cast to promote the film, which becomes a huge success and again, Margaret gets rave reviews and a 2 year contract with Fox for $10,000 per year! (Actually, they "stiffed" her. After a few films, she paid a visit to her sister in Scotland, where the town welcomed her like a queen. When she returned to the US, Fox didn't pick up her option. Her 2-year contract was 6 months of options for 2 years: Fox used it as publicity and hype from Margaret's original "Cinderella" success story).
She is frugal with her money and success and buys a nice little house with a rental that she and James can live in comfortably for the rest of their lives.
Margaret's roles grew smaller and smaller.
She succumbed to bladder cancer in 1941 and strangely, James, who had been so ill years earlier, outlived her by 10 years and died of a stroke at age 83.
Author's notes on Margaret's early tribulations:
In the 1871 Scotland Census, Margaret is age 2 and living with her Mom's brother. I don't know why, as her Dad was a shoemaker with 4 employees and a family servant. In an interview, she said that she had to quit school at age 10 to take care of all the younger brothers and sisters.
1872 Aug: sister Mary Ann dies. Margaret is age 4.
1888-1900: loses first husband and 3 babies.
1890 Sep: Dad dies.
1899 Oct: sister Charlotte dies at age 16.
1902 Feb: sister Elizabeth dies.
1906 Jan: Mom dies.
1906 Sep: sis Jessie dies in childbirth: age 21: in MA, USA.
1907 Jul: brother Francis age 31 is lost at sea.
1916 Nov: sis Mary dies 10 days after childbirth: baby dies 3 mos. later.
|Films listed on this page: complete Hal Roach filmography.|