We are not amused.
The Grande Dame is the stately old woman—usually of wealth and rank, though often enough only wishing to appear so—who is very often a large woman of ample physique, uptight, humorless, and the butt of jokes. The Grande Dame is usually a spinster or widow, in which case she is likely to become an Old Maid or an Abhorrent Admirer; if she is married, it will usually be to a Henpecked Husband (very often an Uncle Pennybags), whom she will drag to operas (where she will doubtless wear Opera Gloves) and ballets because Men Are Uncultured, though she will more often be a patroness of the arts than The Prima Donna herself. She will also quite often have some sort of spoilt and pampered (and very often overweight) child or pet, a Persian or a Pomeranian or a parrot, on whom the rest of her dependents must dance attendance. In most cases, any attempt at frivolity will draw from her either a frigid stare of disapproval or sheer, blank incomprehension. Nevertheless, she will occasionally turn out to be a sympathetic character as well -- very occasionally she will turn out to have a screwball or eccentric streak herself.
As she sinks down toward the cynical end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, she will on uncommon occasions become a Deadpan Snarker, though if she goes too far, she may turn into the Rich Bitch; as she rises toward the idealistic end, she may become the more friendly Maiden Aunt—in very rare cases (like Ellen O'Hara) she may become the saintly "great lady". Both extremes are uncommon, however, as in general she preserves the status quo as a Moral Guardian -- she may well have started out as an Apron Matron -- and her watchword is "Respectability." If she loses this and begins to hit the bottle, there is a good chance she will turn into Lady Drunk.
The trope is nearly always a Comedy Trope, associated particularly with the Comedy of Manners; as such, it serves as a useful device for mocking social pretensions, and dates back to the ancient Roman plays of Plautus and Terence, where the Grande Dame appeared as the Matrona. She was not used much in the uninhibited Middle Ages, but made a comeback as the humorless, self-important dueña of the 16th and 17th century Spanish theater. The prude and bluestocking of the Restoration (such as Molière's Arsinoé and his Précieuses ridicules) and Sentimental comedies (for instance, Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's The Rivals) have some affinities with the type, insofar as they made pretensions to virtue and culture, but it was only with the Victorian age that the great era of the Grande Dame opened. Here, with her fur stole and her ancestral lorgnette in hand, the Grande Dame quashed social climbers, sought advantageous marriages for her daughters and repelled impossible matches for her sons, and maintained the natural order of Society with frigid hauteur for a good hundred years and more. In England, she was generally in Debrett and was called "Lady" something; in America, she was one of the Brahmins or the Four Hundred or the FFV and was called "Mrs. Van" Whoozis or Miss Firstname. She will still turn up occasionally, to preside over banquets and to be aghast at the excesses of Feminism or the Youth movement and to wonder why no young ladies bother to go to the cotillion any more.
Her plot function will usually be as an obstruction to the plans of the protagonist, though she will occasionally convert to his side—more rarely, she may assist from the first.
Grande Dames do not have to be useless of course. A Grande Dame can be a noblewoman or tribal elder and act as a Seer, an Iron Lady, or a Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask stoutly and cunningly defending her domain. Sometimes she's simply an aged Proper Lady.
- Mrs. Rittenhouse in Animal Crackers, Mrs. Teasdale in Duck Soup, Mrs. Claypool in A Night at the Opera and other similar rôles in various Marx Brothers films were gloriously sustained by Margaret Dumont, who may be considered the Trope Codifier and the best example of this trope.
- Especially because many reports paint her exactly this way off stage. (But see Real Life, below.)
- There is also Mrs. Claypool's spiritual successor, Lillian Oglethorpe (Nancy Marchand), in the 1992 remake of A Night at the Opera, Brain Donors.
- Nora Charles' formidable Aunt Katherine in After the Thin Man.
- In the movie Arthur, Arthur's grandmother Martha Bach demands that he marry Susan Johnson or she will cut off all his money.
- Elizabeth Random, Susan Vance's aunt, in Bringing Up Baby, who displays little tolerance for David Huxtable, but who is eccentric enough to want her own leopard.
- Lady St. Edmund in Disney's Candleshoe is the sympathetic rich widow version; her butler hides the fact that she is an Impoverished Patrician for fear it would break her heart. However she's Obfuscating Stupidity and is actually a Genre Savvy grandmotherly type who's enjoying the game.
- The eponymous Daisy Werthan of Driving Miss Daisy appears to begin the movie as a cynical version of this trope and move over towards the idealistic by the end.
- A Grande Dame appears in the "Rhapsody in Blue" section of Disney's Fantasia 2000.
- "Mother" in Disney's The Happiest Millionaire is related to the type.
- The Countess of Trentham, played toward the cynical end of the scale by Maggie Smith in Gosford Park
- "Mother" Baldwin in His Girl Friday is close to this type.
- Judi Dench's version of M in the new James Bond films (e.g., Casino Royale) is portrayed in this manner:
Bond: I always thought M was a randomly assigned initial; I had no idea it stood for--
- And Dame Judy again in the film "The Importance of Being Earnest."
- And again in "Mrs. Henderson Presents."
- Mia's grandmother in The Princess Diaries is on the more intelligent end of this trope.
- Mrs. Van Hopper, played by Florence Bates, in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a full-fledged Rich Bitch.
- Inverted in The Rebel Set by the rich, snobby woman who desperately wants to be a Beatnik.
- Very common in the Three Stooges shorts, as for instance, "Society Mugs," in which Muriel Allen needs an escort to Alice Preston's dinner party, and her maid mistakenly places a telephone call to Acme Exterminators instead of Acme Escorts; Hilarity Ensues.
- The faded actress Miss Luther in Stage Door—and, indeed, most parts played by Constance Collier.
- In Titanic Rose's mother is a tragic variation on the character, while "Molly" Brown is a subversion.
- Mrs. Van Hoskins in 1972's What's Up Doc.
- Mrs. Arness in Bringing Down the House.
- Baylene the Brachiosaurus from Dinosaur appears to act like one of these.
- PG Wodehouse (very likely under the inspiration of W.S. Gilbert, whose works he adored) and his collection of "aunts" may well claim to be the literary patron saints of this trope, on which for well over sixty years he rang the changes of every possible variation imaginable, from the lovable Aunt Dahlia in Right Ho, Jeeves! to the truly horrible Heloïse, Princess von und zu Dwornitzchek, in Summer Moonshine, a Rich Bitch who is not even funny. Perhaps the most typical is the formidable Lady Constance (she is, of course, the sister of the many-sistered Lord Emsworth in the "Blandings Castle" saga), but the most famous is probably Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha, who "chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth."
- Evelyn Waugh also enjoyed this trope, e.g., Lady Circumference in Decline and Fall.
- Mrs. Proudie, in Anthony Trollope's "Chronicles of Barsetshire," is an example of the social-climbing type.
- How wonderful to find a reference to Trollope. How about Glencora's aunts: The Countess of Midlothian and the Marchioness of Auld Reekie.
- Helen, Duchess of Denver is a humourless young woman in Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels; Lady Hermione Creethorpe, in "The Queen's Square," is a more typical elderly example.
- Hector Hugh Munro, aka Saki, was very fond of this type, both in the humourless, unintelligent version (for instance, the mothers in "Morlvera" and "The Schartz-Metterklume Method" and Hortensia, Lady Bevel, in The Watched Pot) and also in its Deadpan Snarker variant (for instance, Lady Caroline Benaresq in The Unbearable Bassington).
- Pretty much the whole female cast of The Picture of Dorian Gray, besides Sybil Vane and her mother, is portrayed in this way.
- Jane Austen features the arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, who, though she does not seem entirely unaware, is rather humorless.
- Mrs. Van Hopper in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca; du Maurier may have been inspired by her father, George du Maurier, who was fond of portraying the type in his cartoons for the English humour magazine Punch.
- The Comtesse de Tournay in The Scarlet Pimpernel (and in the film of it, too) is a stiffly dignified old lady, implacably opposed to Marguerite—but forced by the Prince Regent to acknowledge her nonetheless.
- Lady Shrapnell in Connie Wills' To Say Nothing of the Dog is a direct allusion to Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell (See Theatre, below).
- William Makepeace Thackeray displayed a number of haughty, humorless old ladies in Vanity Fair—for instance, Miss Pinkerton, Lady Bareacres, and Lady Southdown.
- Lady Alys Vorpatril is an example of the heroic Grande Dame. As chief social mover and shaker of the planet Barrayar, very insistent on Things Being Done Properly and a stickler for Protocol, but definitely on the side of the good guys.
- Graceful and gracious, she's also, in the opinion of her new daughter-in-law, "past youth and into an indeterminate age one might dub dignified, but certainly not old...." That's at 60.
- The Queen of England in World War Z is another example of the more heroic version of the character.
- As is Lady Sybil Vimes in Discworld.
- And her pampered pets are dragons!
- Uppah-uppah crust Englishwoman Lady Costanza Lorridale in Little Lord Fauntleroy is the kindlier version of this.
- The Dowager Duchess of Dovedale in The Pink Carnation series.
- Queen Victoria (Vicky), as portrayed by Flashman in the Flashman series of novels by George McDonald Frasier
- Miss Havisham from Great Expectations definitely qualifies; however, she is also completely insane, having deliberately frozen her life around the exact minute and day that her heart was broken. Astonishingly, she still receives the occasional visitor, and her upbringing of Estella certainly qualifies her for this trope.
- The Reverend Mother in Dune. Also the Fremen tribal elderwomen.
- Augusta Longbottom in the Harry Potter series, and Minerva McGonagall would qualify to an extent, if she weren't a teacher.
Live Action TV
- Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances is a glorious example of the pretentious social climbing version of this trope, complete with Henpecked Husband Richard.
- T'Pau (played by Celia Lovsky), a clan elder in Spock's family in the Star Trek the Original Series episode, "Amok Time." Compared to other examples here, T'Pau is a deeply commanding figure of respect with unquestioned authority. For instance, she makes sure Kirk does not get into trouble diverting to Vulcan to get Spock for the ceremony.
- And in the Next Generation we have Lwaxana Troi, daughter of the Fifth House of Betazed, holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed, who spent her visits to the Enterprise sticking her nose into ship's workings in a stately manner, trying to marry off her daughter and flirting with Picard, to his chagrin.
- Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, on Downton Abbey.
- On Mad Men, Mona in her appearances, and Mrs. Francis in season 4, are examples.
- Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development
- Delenn in her widowhood in Babylon 5. Notably when she is snarking at would-be revisionist historians.
- Side note: in the DVD commentary for the episode Interludes and Examinations, as Delenn descends a staircase Bruce Boxleitner says 'here's the Grande Dame'.
- Mrs. Slocombe of Are You Being Served attempted to affect this demeanor, but she almost always backslid to her working class roots in language and attitude when angry or upset.
- Shada, the mother of Mike Frank's daughter in law, is an Arab style Grande Dame who ruled her tribe after all the men had died in battle. She carries a ferocious and atavistic air to her and no one would ever want to mess with her except Mike Franks.
- Used to be a reliable comedic Stock Character in comic papers such as Punch (whence the page image).
- Mrs. Peacock in Clue(do).
- The matrona parts in the plays of the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence (possibly taken from the Greek Menander) are the Ur Example of this trope, which may ultimately have been suggested by the goddess Hera/Juno. The character as developed certainly seems more Roman than Greek.
- As a natural corollary of the previous entry, "Domina" of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a direct adaptation of the Roman original.
- Thomas William Robertson's "epoch-making" (according to George Bernard Shaw) play Caste appeared in 1867, featuring the character of the Marquise de St. Maur, who forbids the marriage of her son to the lower-class heroine.
- Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was extremely fond of this type, as, for instance Lady Sangazure in The Sorcerer, Lady Jane in Patience, Lady Blanche in Princess Ida, Katisha in The Mikado, and the Duchess of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers.
- Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the grandest—and one of the dame-dest.
- Subverted in that she has common origins and married up.
Lady Bracknell: But I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.
- Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn in The Music Man, and most other parts played by Hermione Gingold, including Mrs. Bennet in First Impressions, a musical version of Pride and Prejudice.
- Parthenia Hawks in Show Boat (played on-stage by Edna May Oliver and in film by Helen Westley and Agnes Moorehead)
- Miss Jones, Mr. Biggly's secretary in How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, has some affinities with the type.
- Baba the Turk in The Rake's Progress is one of the few Grande Dames with a beard.
- The Countess de Lage in The Women.
- Madame Pernelle in Moliere's Tartuffe, as well as Arsinoé in his Le Misanthrope, as mentioned above.
- The "Lady Smith" splicers in BioShock (series) invoke this trope: part Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, part Katharine Hepburn. There is a remarkable synergy with the horror setting. It is a credit to the voice actress that the trope is palpable even when the splicers can't be seen.
- Gertrude Dijon in The Colonel's Bequest.
- The "Elegant Lady", Emma, in Ghost Trick.
- Kebabu in The Magic of Scheherazade tests your moral fiber by asking if you'd pick up a girl in a hamburger shop.
- Cecania's mother from Sore Thumbs is well on her way to becoming Lady Drunk.
- In possibly the most hilariously entertaining subversion in all of TV Tropedom, Girl Genius presents, starring in this role ... Mamma Gkika.
- Elizabeth II was depicted in this manner once on Animaniacs:
Queen Elizabeth II: We are not amused.
- In several Classic Disney Shorts, Madame Clara Cluck (herself a parody of noted operatic contralto Dame Clara Butt (yes, we know) was able to pullet off.
- Lady Richington from Sheep in The Big City, whose Catch Phrase is "Well, I never...!" is a Grande Dame.
- A recurring character displaying most of the classic characteristics of the type appears on The Simpsons; Martha Quimby and Lady Bouvier also show similarities to this type.
(paraphrased) Krusty: So, a Wealthy Dowager shows up, the party's over, right? Wrong! Hit her in the face with a pie!
- Eleanor Sherman from The Critic
- One appeared in an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures where she was tasked to assess the performance and good behavior of students in the Acme Looniversity to determine whether or not Yosemite Sam will be promoted to Vice Principle. Babs, Buster, and Plucky try everything they can to mess up the Grande Dame's examinations beneath Yosemite Same's notice, often leading to Amusing Injuries for the unwitting mustached man. The abuses continue up until they Body Swap her with a potato, breaking her composure and causing Sam to lose the promotion he so desired.
- Mrs. Astor from Futurama. Even nitroglycerine is intimidated by her.
Zoidberg: Where's the exploding?
- Socialist Liverpudlian MP Elizabeth Margaret ("Battling Bessie") Braddock (who bore a striking resemblance to the page picture) was the heroine of a famous passage-of-arms with Deadpan Snarker Winston Churchill:
Bessie Braddock: Winston, you are drunk, and what's more, you are disgustingly drunk.
- This exchange was confirmed to Richard Langworth by Ronald Golding, a bodyguard present on the occasion as Churchill was leaving the House of Commons in 1946. (Note that in the 1934 movie It's a Gift, W.C. Fields' character, when told he is drunk, responds, "Yeah, and you're crazy. But I'll be sober tomorrow and you'll be crazy the rest of your life.")
- The actresses Florence Bates [dead link], Symona Boniface, Constance Collier, Gladys Cooper, Marie Dressler, Margaret Dumont, Edith Evans, Hermione Gingold, Edna May Oliver, and Helen Westley specialized in this sort of rôle, but in most cases the actresses themselves were noted for having a keen sense of humor.
- It was claimed by Groucho Marx throughout most of their lives that Margaret Dumont never understood what was supposed to be funny about the Marx Brothers' comedy; however, Dumont was a long-time veteran of the comedy stage herself, and well understood that the more unamused she herself seemed, the funnier the jokes would be for the audience.
- Margaret had married a millionaire, and was this in real life. She commuted to the studio by air from her mansions in Palm Springs and Paris (back when air travel was for the very rich only.
- Dame Edna Everage
- Queen Victoria is generally portrayed this way. The page quote is said (on rather slim evidence) to have been provoked by the Hon. Alexander Grantham ("Alick") Yorke, one of her grooms-in-waiting, who had a reputation as a funny man among the Queen's retainers, and, when commanded by Her Majesty to demonstrate, either told a risqué anecdote or performed an imitation of Victoria herself. Queens Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, and other queens such as Catherine the Great, are also occasionally depicted in this manner, with rather less justification.
- According to someone who was there, it was a risqué-bordering-on-crude anecdote told in a roomful of prepubescent girls. Victoria had good cause not to be amused.
- Incidentally, there are more photographs of Queen Victoria laughing than there are of all nine of her children laughing combined. She could however be a Grande Dame when necessary; her genius was knowing when that was.