By Niall McArdle
Like her contemporary, Una O’Connor, Sara Allgood came to films by way of the Abbey. Indeed, their careers ran on similar paths and intersected several times. They both worked for Alfred Hitchcock in Britain and they were both favourites of John Ford. They both parlayed their Irishness into success. O’Connor, bone-thin and rubber-faced, was a shrieking comedienne; Allgood, with her plumpness and kind demeanour was invariablythe nice Irish mammy.
Born in Dublin in 1883, she was orphaned as a child. She was an ingenue when she made her Abbey debut in 1904 (she was also a longtime friend of Yeats). She played Juno in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock on the Abbey stage, and then repeated the role for Hitchcock. Well received; James Agate said it was “a film that completely justifies the talkies.”
Juno was her second film for Hitch; their first was also Hitch’s first sound film, Blackmail. Although she made two films for him, she didn’t think much of him, calling him “a cheap, second-rate director.” Bear in mind she’d had thirty years of experience and had appeared onstage all over the world, so it’s forgivable that she might not think much of the young director (Hitch wouldn’t find his groove in English films for several more years).
She pursued a successful stage and film career in England for most of the 1930s, and a quick glance at her roles reveals much: Mrs Donoghue, Bridget, Mrs DeHooley, Mrs Kelly, Mrs Gogarty, “Irish Woman on Boat”.
In Ealing’s Storm in a Teacup she is a nice little old lady who is fined by a local pompous magistrate for not having a dog license. She is put upon for most of the film, and at one point is called a “blooming Irish tinker“.
She finally got to play English, and high-born at that, when she was Viven Leigh’s mother in That Hamilton Woman. When she finally arrived in Hollywood she gave up the stage for good. After years of Irish mammies, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a Welsh mammy: Mrs Morgan in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley
When Ginger Rogers was sent to prison as Roxie Hart, Allgood was the prison matron. She suspected that her tenant was Jack the Ripper in The Lodger
She had roles alongside the likes of Gregory Peck (Keys of the Kingdom), and Orson Welles (Jane Eyre), and she acted alongside Una O’Connor for Lubitsch in Cluny Brown. One of her last roles was in Cheaper by the Dozen.
She was married briefly. Her husband and daughter died in the 1917 flu epidemic.
Sara Allgood died in Los Angeles in 1950.