Blanche Yurka

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Blanche Yurka
Saint Paul
Nationality United States of America
Genres opera
Instruments voice

Blanche Yurka
YURKA, BLANCH LCCN2016858196.jpg
Yurka in the 1940s
Blanch Jurka

(1887-06-19)June 19, 1887
DiedJune 6, 1974(1974-06-06) (aged 86)
Resting placeKensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York City
  • Actress
  • director
Years active1910–1967
(m. 1922; div. 1926)

Blanche Yurka (born Blanch Jurka, June 19, 1887 – June 6, 1974) was an American stage and film actress and director. She was an opera singer with minor roles at the Metropolitan Opera and later became a stage actress, making her Broadway debut in 1906 and established herself as a character actor of the classical stage, also appearing in several films of the 1930s and 1940s.

In addition to her many stage roles, which included Queen Gertrude opposite John Barrymore's Hamlet, she was an occasional director and playwright. She remained active in theater and film until the late 1960s. Her most famous film role was Madame Defarge in MGM's version of A Tale of Two Cities (1935), but she was also the compassionate aunt in The Song of Bernadette (1943). Another memorable role was as Zachary Scott's widowed mother in The Southerner (1945).

Early life[edit | edit source]

Born Blanch Jurka, apparently in St. Paul, Minnesota, she was the fourth of five children of Karolína and Antonín Jurka, ethnic Hungarian Roman Catholic emigrants from Bohemia. Her father was a teacher and librarian. She inherited her father's artistic and scholarly interests, including a love of music and acting. She finished grade school before her father lost his job teaching Czech language at the Jefferson School in St. Paul. He found a new position with the Czech Benevolent Society in New York and moved the family to the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1900.

Her parents used their modest income to provide Blanche with singing lessons in New York even before she entered high school (1901–03). Her vocal talent attracted the admiration of composer and singer Harry Burleigh, and she won a scholarship at age 15 to study voice and ballet at the Metropolitan Opera School (1903–05). She appeared in an amateur Czech-language production of Michael William Balfe's The Bohemian Girl and made her Metropolitan Opera stage debut in the Christmas 1903 production of Wagner's Parsifal - the first staged performance of the opera outside of Bayreuth - appearing as a flower girl and as the Grail-bearer. In his review of the premiere performance, New York Tribune music critic Henry Krehbiel singled out her contribution: "And while pointing out the beauty of the work of the principals, it is a pleasant privilege to lay a wreath at the feet of the little lady who carried the Grail with such reverent and touching consecration to her sacred duties." He gave her a bit part in The Rose of the Rancho (1906), and the following year, he extended her a contract, at which time she changed her surname to "Yurka", a homophone of her true surname.

In 1922-23, she was Queen Gertrude to John Barrymore's Hamlet in Arthur Hopkins' production of Hamlet at the Sam Harris Theater and Manhattan Opera House, where it ran for a combined 125 performances.

Film career[edit | edit source]

Yurka was foremost a stage actress and for a long time considered film-making an inferior art form. Her low opinion of the movies started to change when she saw John Ford's The Informer, adapted from the novel by Liam O'Flaherty. When she finally made her belated screen debut at the age of 47, it was in the role that many consider the greatest of her film career, the poisonously vindictive revolutionary Thérèse Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities. Producer David O. Selznick's first choice for the part of Madame Defarge was the Russian-born stage actress Alla Nazimova. When she turned it down, she recommended Yurka, declaring her the "only" actress for the part. The two women hadn't yet met but were well acquainted with one another's work inasmuch as they were the leading Ibsen heroines on the Broadway stage. Despite Nazimova's endorsement, Yurka was the 67th actor tested for the role.

Yurka threw herself into the part – quite literally. Her final fight scene with Edna May Oliver (who was only four years older than Yurka) showed the two actresses tumbling over tables and over the floor, offering a hint of Yurka's onstage physicality. Although not nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award (the supporting categories weren't established until the following year), her character portrayal was a model of a sinister screen villain. In close-up, she flashed a look of steely malevolence; in her speech to the revolutionary tribunal – asking for the conviction and execution of Charles Darnay – she played it large and to the rafters. The film was only nominated in the Best Film and Best Editing categories, not even its star, Ronald Colman getting an Oscar nod.[citation needed]

She sought to play O-Lan in the 1937 film The Good Earth but lost out to Luise Rainer, who won an Academy Award for her performance. She also lost the role of Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls to Greek actress Katina Paxinou, who went on to win an Oscar for best supporting actress.

Post-War years[edit | edit source]

Yurka never left the theater, but as her Hollywood roles became less satisfying after the war, the pace of both her film and stage roles fell off. During World War II, she contributed her time and talent to the war effort as a theater performer. She toured with theater troupes in Europe both before and after the war.

Yurka was active in theater causes all her life. She supported the 1919 actors' strike. She later vigorously defended the interests of American actors against a British invasion of American theaters. She aligned herself with Tallulah Bankhead's defense of the Federal Theater Project at the 1939 Senate Appropriations Committee hearings that de-funded the program in reaction to productions that were deemed sympathetic to the political left-wing. She suffered from failing health in her final years owing to arteriosclerosis and died June 6, 1974, about two weeks before her 87th birthday. She was interred in the same burial plot with her good friend, actress Florence Reed, in the Actors Fund of America section of Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.

Selected filmography[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Maltin, Leonard (2015) [First published 1969]. "Blanche Yurka". The Real Stars : Profiles and Interviews of Hollywood's Unsung Featured Players (softcover) (Sixth / eBook ed.). Great Britain: CreateSpace Independent. pp. 278–287. ISBN 978-1-5116-4485-3.

External links[edit | edit source]