Character Actors: The Men

The Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb) credits Edward Everett Horton with a quotation that pokes fun at his career as a character actor in films: 'I have my own little kingdom. I do the scavenger parts no one else wants and I get well paid for it.' Horton was modest. It is left to the vintage film buff to insist that Horton and his fellow character actors created their kingdoms with inimitable acting skills; that what he called parts no one else wanted were parts that very few actors could pull off. That he was well paid is one of the nicer aspects of the studio era. In the golden age of the character actor, roughly the twenties through the forties, a large number of free-lance performers built careers on bits of business. They added kick to genre films and delighted audiences. When Roscoe Ates mangled a sentence, Walter Long glowered at a victim, Edgar Kennedy mopped his brow and went into a slow burn, or Ned Sparks barked out a line like a cannon shot, mundane films came alive.

We have character actors today (Saul Rubinek, Scott Wilson, Stuart Margolin, Oliver Platt, Christopher Mintz-Plasse), but the term has gone out of fashion, and in fact, some actors resent it. In the 70s, Jessica Walters' agent corrected any mention of her as a character actress and insisted that she was a leading lady. In old Hollywood, producers realized that character actors could perk up a formula plot, and the best of these actors became audience favorites and were never out of work. If they were unpopular, it was with the stars they upstaged. It was a real test of star power and acting strategy to share the screen with Charles Coburn or Margaret Hamilton or Billie Burke and not to have the scene stolen from you. The top character actors were a rare and respected breed.

They were stage veterans, more often than not, quick on their feet and able to wrest maximum impact from a gesture, a look, or an inflection (think Eve Arden), and able to deliver line readings that killed. Although some studios had character actors under contract, notably Warner Bros, with a mid-30s lineup that included Hugh Herbert, Allen Jenkins, Guy Kibbee, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, and Aline MacMahon, many of these players preferred to free-lance, working at all the studios from the majors to poverty row. Working sometimes a single day on a picture, they compiled long filmographies. Franklin Pangborn contributed his peculiar hilarity to 26 feature films in 1937 alone. These were polished, efficient players, many of them with patented expressions and hand gestures, and they were able to get into character on cue and make the most of their sliver of run time. Screenwriters used them as a chef uses spice.

Hereupon, leaving the ladies for a future column (next month), is a subjective roster of the great male character actors of the studio era.

Louis Calhern (1895-1956) divided his career between theater and film and returned to Broadway often once he had established himself in Hollywood. Dapper, elegant of manner, with a distinctive, malty voice, he played patricians, executives, and kindly elders, but he was most memorable playing scoundrels. In Wheeler and Woolsey's musical comedy Diplomaniacs (1933), an underrated farce with surreal touches, he's a provocateur out to steal state secrets. He was in that year's second (and better) political satire, the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, as a conniving diplomat who receives the full Groucho treatment. In Notorious (1946), he's the handler of a pair of government agents (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman), providing an airy counterpoint to the stars' passionate portrayals. His dynamic Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun (1950) led to a contract at MGM and, in the last six years of his life, to some quintessential roles. He's thrillingly corrupt as the lawyer in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), who bankrolls a jewel heist while maintaining a side interest in Marilyn Monroe. Also in 1950, a great year for Calhern, was his lead role in The Magnificent Yankee, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, which he had played on Broadway. This brought him a best actor nomination at the Oscars, although he lost to Jose Ferrer's Cyrano. He had the title role in Julius Caesar (1953) opposite Marlon Brando's Marc Antony. Brando's memoirs include a touching and hilarious account of working with Calhern. In Executive Suite (1954), he's one of the backstabbing corporate officers clawing his way to the top of the company.

(Calhern [Buffalo Bill Cody] declaring Betty Hutton [Annie Oakley] winner as Howard Keel and Keenan Wynn look on in Annie Get Your Gun)

Alan Hale (1892-1950) was acting in one-reelers as early as 1911, but it took him a quarter century to fix his screen persona as a zesty, irrepressible loudmouth, always on the make, sometimes shady, and possessed of a rollicking laugh. Before finding his niche, he popped up in all kinds of roles, as the stern Prussian uncle in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), as Little John in Douglas Fairbanks' Robin Hood (1922), (a role Hale would reprise in 1938 in the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood, and in his final film, 1950's Rogues of Sherwood Forest); as the treacherous Sam Woodhull in The Covered Wagon (1923), and as the leering, middle-aged husband from whom Garbo flees in Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931). It was probably his role as the singing grifter in It Happened One Night (1934) that set up his greatest years. He's always worth seeing, but it's best to catch his work before 1945, which is about the time his health declined and his magnificent vitality faded away. He's acidly funny as the vulgar Ed Munn in Stanwyck's Stella Dallas (1937). Warner Brothers kept him busy for a decade in comedies, adventures, and war pictures, including 11 teamings with Errol Flynn, usually as sidekick, but in Gentleman Jim (1942), a picture with beautiful period flavor, as Errol's gabby father. He enjoyed himself in every role, and his punchy mannerisms made him the center of every scene he played.

Walter Long (1879-1952), the scowling brute of over 200 films, was relaxed and amiable in real life. On camera, his heavy features and shaven head created unforgettable menace. Long's heyday was the teens through the thirties, and he gave full-blooded villain performances at every stage of his career. Typically, he was a convict, thug, or waterfront rat who did not react well to a double cross. At that point, he'd want to kill his enemy with his bare hands. Long looked like he could do it. Stripped to the waist in many films, he had a stout torso; the total effect was a wild man ready to erupt. Long's early roles include his infamous portrayal of Gus, the 'renegade Negro' in The Birth of a Nation (1915), whose attempted rape of little Flora brings on the film's depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as the saving of civilization. (When the Klan rides, they are the heroes of the piece. Birth is destined to be defined for its synthesis of film grammar and its loathsome politics.) Long's villainy worked brilliantly in comedy - if he was to erupt, it might as well be in Stan Laurel's terrified face. He's at his best terrorizing Laurel and Hardy in their 1931 feature Pardon Us, as Tiger, the cellmate of your nightmares, and in two shorts, Any Old Port (1932) and Going Bye Bye (1934). Port builds to a hilarious boxing match with Stan facing Walter (as 'Mugsie') in the ring. In Bye Bye, gangster Long promises, should he ever catch up with Laurel and Hardy, to break their legs and tie them around their necks - which leads to a classic gag shot.

Franklin Pangborn (1894-1958) came to Hollywood in the late silent era after a successful career in theater. He appeared in over 150 features and dozens of shorts, usually as a flustered, effeminate office functionary who went to pieces when chaos invaded his world. Two generations before gay lib, Pangborn pushed this characterization to the limit - one can only guess how the contemporary audience sized him up. He was the perfect comic foil, a master of the body language of anxiety, which included smirks, eye-rolling, hand-wringing, on to hair pulling and shrieking when the need arose. He typically played a concierge or floor manager, always in middle management, so that he was trapped between difficult customers and the company rules. Protocol was everything to the little man he played, and it always blew up in his face. Many a Pangborn appearance is a minute or two in length, but he didn't need a long buildup to work his comedy. He tangles hilariously with W.C. Fields in three classics (International House, 1933; The Bank Dick, 1940; Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, 1941). Preston Sturges frequently included Pangborn in his casts, with some of his better moments occurring in The Palm Beach Story (1942) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).

Frank Morgan (1890-1949), our immortal Wizard of Oz, had a unique career path in Hollywood, playing leads and supports by turns, turning out sublime comic performances and searing dramatic portrayals, and picking up two Oscar nominations for a comedy (The Affairs of Cellini, 1934) and a drama (Tortilla Flat, 1942). A Broadway headliner in the teens, he had a formidable bag of tricks, and whether his role called for pathos, tenderness, or hilarity, he delivered. For his comic parts he created a dithering, stop-and-start speech pattern full of pauses and mutterings. Generations of children know this Morganese from repeated viewings of The Wizard of Oz (1939). It is given a thorough workout in his performance as Constance Bennett's henpecked husband in Affairs of Cellini. Back to back viewings of Cellini and some of Morgan's straight dramatic roles reveal the range he had. He is heartbreaking in The Mortal Storm (1940), as a professor who is denounced and sent to a Nazi concentration camp. As the dog-loving loner, The Pirate, in Tortilla Flat, he steals the film from Spencer Tracy and John Garfield, no mean feat. Morgan had an air of broken-down grandeur about him. Even in his comedies, his readings hint at a lifetime of disappointments, which he's managed to endure without losing his sweetness.

(Frank Morgan and Shirley Temple in a still from Dimples, 1936)

There are so many others. Hollywood's production teams had a broad palette (not necessarily Eugene) in character actors. An additional roll call must include Henry Armetta (always about to boil over), Roscoe Ates (b-b-best in his class), Eric Blore (elfin, peculiar), Walter Brennan (without peer as Stumpy in 1959's Rio Bravo), Walter Catlett (having a smoke with the boys), Berton Churchill (pompous, shifty-eyed), Charles Coburn (sly, avuncular), Harry Davenport (everyone's grandpa), William Demarest (he'd seen it all), Dudley Digges (hidden agendas), Stepin Fetchit (Lazy? Dull? He'd say the joke was on us), Dwight Frye (young, well-scrubbed, psychotic), Billy Gilbert (highly flammable), Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Kringle down to his toes), Gabby Hayes (as in grizzled), Hugh Herbert (Woo woo!), Edward Everett Horton ('Oh, dear!'), Allen Jenkins (your typical palooka), Roscoe Karns (immortal as Oscar Shapeley), Edgar Kennedy (slow burn), Guy Kibbee (he made playing dumb look easy), Gene Lockhart (warm and understanding or thoroughly nasty), Frank Mc Hugh (trademark: the trailing-off guffaw), Tully Marshall (gaunt and haunted), Grant Mitchell (upholding the social standard), Thomas Mitchell (master of Tara), Alan Mowbray (smooth, smooth, smooth), Lynne Overman (melodious voice), Eugene Pallette (cantankerous, and on his own schedule), Charles 'Chic' Sales (By crackee!), Ned Sparks (a field crow chomping on a cigar), Slim Summerville (twinkle-eyed farmhand), Ernest Torrence (the auld tongue and a wee bit of mayhem), Arthur Treacher (teapot in hand), Roland Young (a private joke is in that squint.)

Dedicated buffs can supply more names, perhaps in the dozens. The great character actors exert their pull on us at a remove of sixty, eighty, or a hundred years, drawing us back to the black-and-white universe.