Blanche Yurka



  • Birth Name: Blanche Jurka


This imposing-looking stage star of early 20th century Broadway was born Blanche Jurka to Bohemian immigrants on June 18, 1887 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Some references claim that she was brought to the United States as an infant and then raised in St. Paul. Her Czech parents saw a blossoming singing talent in their daughter and used their modest income to help pay for opera lessons. When the family moved to New York, Blanche earned a scholarship at age 15 and studied voice and ballet. She made her debut as a flower girl in the Metropolitan Opera school-sponsored production of “Parsifal”, and then at the Met itself in a Czech-language version of “The Bohemian Girl”. Within a few years, however, she experienced a different calling and found a stronger passion for legitimate acting. Initially a protégé of playwright/producer/director David Belasco, she took her first Broadway bow in a minor role in the 1907 play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and, under the careful guidance of its star-turned-friend and mentor Jane Cowl, moved to increasingly larger roles. Following appearances throughout the next decade in such Broadway productions as “An Old New Yorker” (1911), “The House of Bondage” (1914), “Our American Cousin” (the play Lincoln was watching in 1865 when he was assassinated at the Ford’s Theater) (1915) and “Enter Madame” (1920), she enjoyed her first resounding success portraying Queen Gertrude opposite John Barrymore’s Hamlet in 1922. During this time she married younger actor Ian Keith (by 12 years), but the intimidation of her star stature and celebrity eventually broke up the marriage in 1926 after only four years. She never remarried. Blanche continued in her classic vein and earned high marks for her late 20s productions of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” and “Hedda Gabler”, both of which she also directed. In the year 1932 alone she added to her Shakespearean repertoire with “Troilus and Cressida”, directed the Broadway show “Carry Nation”, and appeared in the title role of Sophocles’ “Electra”. She then wrote and appeared in the Broadway play “Spring in Autumn” (1933) and went on to play the Nurse to Katharine Cornell’s Juliet. As an established theatre tragedienne, Blanche gave lectures on the theatre and enjoyed many national tours with plays. Her reputation preceding her, she finally turned to films at age 47 and what an entrance she made! In a stunning feature film debut, she played the vengeful Madame DeFarge in the now-classic A Tale of Two Cities (1935) starring Ronald Colman. Strangely enough, she was not able to capitalize on this and did not return to films for another five years. The foreboding, strong-willed parts that eventually did come to her, however, would not live up to her early promise. Despite a flashy Ma Barker-styled title role in the “B”-level cult film Queen of the Mob (1940), she remained trapped in secondary, often inferior fare. If she wasn’t caught up in dreadful Maria Ouspenskaya gypsy attire, such as in Cry of the Werewolf (1944), she was served with small undignified parts that wasted her talents (City for Conquest (1940), Escape (1940)). Sometimes she was not even given billing (Keeper of the Flame (1943), Hitler’s Madman (1943)). Her sharp, austere looks did invite a minor gallery of domineering and/or villainous ladies to play, as testified by her scheming aunt in Lady for a Night (1942), and her shady maid paired up with Bela Lugosi’s butler in the horror comedy One Body Too Many (1944). Deglamorized for many of her roles, Blanche abandoned Hollywood in the post-war years and refocused on her first love, the theater, where she enhanced such plays as “The Carefree Tree” (1951), “Diary of a Scoundrel” (1956), “Prometheus Bound” (1957), “Jane Eyre” (1958) and “Dinner at Eight” (1966). In 1969 she scored a personal triumph as the title role in the London production of “The Madwoman of Chaillot”. The New York critics, however, were less ecstatic in their review of the 1970 off-Broadway version. Dismayed, she retired from acting not long after. Drama students took to heart Blanche’s inspiring, highly instructional book on acting technique entitled “Dear Audience” in 1959. She also penned her autobiography “Bohemian Girl” in 1970. Suffering from failing health in years to come, she was diagnosed with arteriosclerosis and retired to her Manhattan apartment, appearing only occasionally at women’s clubs and colleges in a programmed reading format. She died June 6, 1974. There were no reported survivors.