29 March 2009

It's Great To See You! A Celebration of Towering Figures in Small Roles

They're like an old friend who pops into town now and again. Or like a beloved Uncle who pays an occasional visit. They never hang around for long but their brief appearances are memorable. You can't wait to see them again. They're idiosyncratic, they're delightful. They are supporting players from films of the Thirties and Forties. Always a best man, never the groom.

The mere fact of their name in the opening credits can create anticipation. In addition to say Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard you're getting a wonderful bonus that may help turn a good movie into a classic. It's no coincidence that they show up in most of the great films of their era. I suppose that calling them supporting players is a misnomer, after all, there are no small parts only small actors and these men are truly giants.

So I offer to you a dozen male "supporting" players who are as much apart of Hollywood's Golden Age as Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney or Clark Gable. For each I've included seven of the films in which they appeared. To show just how much territory they covered I've been careful not to mention any movie more than once. Is this the definitive list? Absolutely not. There are others, but these 12 will do for now. Could a similar list comprised of women by made? Indeed it could. This is a gentleman's only list, though female readers are, as always most welcome. This Not At All Dirty Dozen is offered in the order I thought of them.

Guy Kibbee. Chubby, bald and bumbling and fumbling. In other words, adorable. He usually had a fair amount of dough and was always a sucker for any nice looking dame who'd coo in his ear. Kibbee featured in some films but shined as a supporting player. Great as an inept politician. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Babes in Arms (1939), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Blonde Crazy (1931), Taxi! (1932), Rain (1932).

William Demarest. Gruff but lovable. Plenty of bluster but as harmless as a kitten. One of Preston Surges' regular company of players. Demarest will be best remembered by me as Constable Kockenlocker, the father of an unwed young mother-to-be in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Demarest proved here that he was a master of the pratfall. Often a very protective right hand man as in The Lady Eve were he has the great closing line: "positively the same dame." Seven Movies He Enhanced: Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944); The Lady Eve (1941); Sullivan's Travels (1941); The Devil and Miss Jones (1941); Palm Beach Story (1942); Along Came Jones (1945); The Great Man Votes (1939).

Eric Blore. The wonderful blogger and artist Kate Gabrielle of Silents and Talkies opined to me, that the world would be a far better place if everyone liked Eric Blore (pictured above). Amen sister. He was the British sidekick to countless stars. Often a butler, often simmering with anger, often up to something. Always a delightful character. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Swing Time (1936); Joy of Living (1938); The Lady Eve (1941); The Shanghai Gesture (1941); Love Happy (1949); The Ex Mrs. Bradford (1936).

Franklin Pangborn. No one would have dared point this out back in Pangborn's heyday but he was gay and he played gay characters. It wasn't an issue one way or another as long his sexuality wasn't spoken of and it wasn't. Another regular in Sturges' films. The classic Pangborn performance was as the frustrated reception comittee organizer in Hail the Conquering hero. Usually played an officious sort trying to keep things going while all around him went kablooey. Seven Movies He Enhanced: My Man Godfrey (1936); Flying Down to Rio (1933); The Bank Dick (1940); George Washington Slept Here (1942); Hail the Conquering Hero (1944); Now Voyager (1942); Stage Door (1937).

Charles Lane. Is there anything he wasn't in? My God the guy shows up everywhere. Counting TV he had 347 acting credits to this name. That's no typo, 347. Never a big role, often a desk clark or bureacrat. There's something about his ubiquity (look it's Charles Lane!) that gives any movie he's in a seal of approval. Never a cuddly character but always a pleasure to see. Lived to be a 102 years old. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Employee's Entrance (1933); Broadway Bill (1934); Twentieth Century (1934); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); You Can't Take it With You (1938); Union Depot (1932), Ball of Fire (1941).

Sig Ruman. Thrice a foil for the Marx Brothers most notably in A Night at the Opera as the Opera Manager Herman Gottlieb. Having been born in raised in Germany (served in their army during World War I) its no surprise that he played Germans. But was wonderful as a Russian in Ninotchka. Given his girth (ample) and his voice (booming) he could feel the screen visually and an aurally, always to wonderful effect. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Ninotchka (1939); A Night at the Opera (1935); A Day at the Races (1937); Only Angles Have Wings (1939); Berlin Correspondent (1942); It Happened Tomorrow (1944); A Night in Casablanca (1946).

Thomas Mitchell. Of this 12 he was probably the finest actor and won an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor in Stagecoach) to show for it. Memorable as a drunk or doing drunk scenes and an absolute revelation as Uncle Billy in It's A Wonderful Life. He could be smart, cynical, cowardly, dim witted or brave, but he was always lovable. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Stagecoach (1939); It's A Wonderful Life (1946); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939); Theodora Goes Wild (1936); The Black Swan (1942); Bataan (1943); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

C. Aubrey Smith. If the call went in to central casting for a tall, austere, older British gent, Smith most have topped the list. The white handle bar mustache, regal bearing and posh accent made him seem the epitome of the upper crust Englishman. Often a Colonel, sometimes a vixen's plaything, always a money in the bank performance. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Trouble in Paradise (1932); Queen Christina (1933); Cleopatra (1934); The Scarlett Empress (1934); Rebecca (1940); The Prisoner of Zenda (1937); China Seas (1935).

Edward Evertt Horton. Had a notable TV career but I 'll always think of him as Professor Nick Potter, mentor and friend to Cary Grant in Holiday. Was a constant companion to Fred Astaire in the Astaire/Rogers musicals. Best as a wealthy sophisticate but one possessed less with intellectual capacity than witless charm. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Holiday (1938); Arsenic And Old Lace (1944); The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941); The Devil is a Woman (1935); Lost Horizon (1937).

Frank Morgan. To most he was the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz but I'll always think of him as Hugo Matuschek the shop owner in Shop Around the Corner. It was a most moving performance as the kind-hearted boss who wrongly suspects that his most trusted employee is having an affair with his wife. Morgan was great as the dad, the boss or the absent minded professor. Seven Movies He Enhanced: The Shop Around the Corner (1940); The Wizard of Oz (1939); The Human Comedy (1943); The Mortal Storm (1940); Boom Town (1940); Honky Tonk (1941); Bombshell (1933).

Jerome Cowan. Best known for his brief appearance as the lecherous and doomed Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon. Cowan had a long run in TV. He was perfect as the suave and wise second banana. Often the star's best friends, more often beaten out of the girl, a worthy rival but always second fiddle. Seven Movies He Enhanced: The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Hurricane (1937), You Only Live Once (1937); Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Mr. Skeffington (1944); Shall We Dance (1937); Torrid Zone (1940), City for Conquest (1940).

Asta. This plucky canine was, lamentably, typecast as a dog. But I'd be barking up the wrong tree if I made too much of that. The very fact of his being a dog cut short his career as his species don't tend to live as long as us homo sapiens. Played opposite William Powell and Myrna Loy several times and was always a scene stealer. Also noteworthy was a supporting role with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. His private life is little known as he did not grant interviews. Doggone good actor. Five Movies He Enhanced: The Thin Man (1934); After The Thin Man (1936); The Awful Truth (1937); Topper Takes a Trip (1938); The Thin Man Goes Home (1944).


R. D. Finch said...

Riku, a wonderful selection of the character greats of the studio era, some expected, some not. I would like to add a couple of movies to the ones you suggested. For Edward Everett Horton, "Trouble in Paradise," in which he had a rather large role. I've read that he played the same role in the 1930 version of "Holiday" with the wonderful Ann Harding in the Hepburn role. I'm wondering if TCM will ever show this; I'm dying to see it. For Franklin Pangborn, "International House" (1933), which TCM hasn't shown in several years. It's the largest role I've ever seen Pangborn in. The movie also has Burns & Allen (Pangborn has a great bit with them) and W. C Fields. It's the movie Cab Calloway sings "Reefer Man" in, and the whole concoction is most enjoyable. A great subject, and I hope you do get around to the distaff side soon.

Kate Gabrielle said...

You really picked great character actors for your post-- Sometimes I really think I like them better than the stars! I just watched The Good Fairy last night, and my favorite part of the whole thing was Eric Blore's and Reginald Owen's mere presence.

Jamie said...

Great selection of character actors. To your list I would add a personal favourite, Allen Jenkins. He was a perfect fit for the urban settings of Warner Bros films of the Thirties. He was also a wonderful foil for the likes of James Cagney.

VP81955 said...

Walter Connolly deserves mention, too. Whether playing a plutocrat with an eligible daughter ("No More Orchids," "It Happened One Night," "Libeled Lady"), an editor ("Nothing Sacred") or a judge ("Lady By Choice"), he always brought something distinctive to his roles.