Born to William Robert Woodard, president of the Louisville Southern Railroad, and Ellen Booth in Palmyra in Marion County in northeastern Missouri, she originally intended to become a circus rider, then later an opera singer. Her father objected, however, and she compromised by becoming an actress but changed her name to Darwell to avoid sullying the family name.
The Jane Darwell Birthplace was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Some sources give Darwell's birth name as Patti Woodward. They include Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the silent era to 1965, Missouri Biographical Dictionary, Screen World 1968, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, and Dictionary of Missouri Biography.
She took up voice culture and the piano followed by a course in dramatics. At one point, she decided to enter a convent but instead changed her mind and became an actress. Darwell began acting in theater productions in Chicago and made her first film appearance in 1913. She appeared in almost twenty films over the next two years before returning to the stage. After a 15-year absence from films, she resumed her film career in 1930 with a role in Tom Sawyer, and her career as a Hollywood character actress began. Short, stout, and plain, she was quickly cast in a succession of films usually as the mother of one of the major characters. She also appeared in five Shirley Temple films, usually as the housekeeper or grandmother.
She won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as "Ma Joad" in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), a role she was given at the insistence of the film's star, Henry Fonda. A contract player with 20th Century Fox, Darwell was memorably cast in The Ox-Bow Incident, and occasionally starred in "B" movies and played featured parts in scores of major films.
Darwell had noted appearances on the stage as well; in 1944, she was popular in the stage comedy Suds in Your Eye, in which she played an Irishwoman who had inherited a junkyard.
By the end of her career she had appeared in more than 170 films, including Huckleberry Finn (1931), Jesse James (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and My Darling Clementine (1946).
Darwell was among the guest stars on an episode of Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town, a variety television series which aired on CBS from 1951 to 1952 in which hostess Faye Emerson visits a different city each week to accent the local music. In 1954, Darwell appeared with Andy Clyde in the episode "Santa's Old Suit" of the series, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse. This same episode was re-run the following Christmas 1955 on Studio 57. In 1959, she appeared with child actor Roger Mobley in the episode "Mr. Rush's Secretary" on the NBC western series, Buckskin, starring Tom Nolan and Sally Brophy. She guest starred on John Bromfield's crime drama in a modern western setting, Sheriff of Cochise.
On July 27, 1961, Darwell appeared as "Grandmother McCoy" in an episode of the ABC sitcom The Real McCoys. In the story line, the series characters played by Walter Brennan, Richard Crenna, and Kathleen Nolan return to fictitious Smokey Corners, West Virginia for Grandmother McCoy's 100th birthday gathering. Darwell was fifteen years older than "son", Walter Brennan. Pat Buttram and Henry Jones appeared in this episode as Cousin Carl and Jed McCoy, respectively.
Darwell's final role as the old woman feeding the birds in Mary Poppins (1964) was personally assigned to her by Walt Disney.
On February 8, 1960, Darwell received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to the motion-picture industry; it is located at 6735 Hollywood Boulevard.
In her last years, Darwell's health was poor. It took personal persuasion from Walt Disney for her to appear in Disney's Mary Poppins as she was, by then, tired, frail and in her middle eighties.
Darwell died August 13, 1967, at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, from a myocardial infarction at the age of 87. She is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.