Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Many Faces of Those Glorious Character Actors

No matter how big the star in your favorite classic film, no man (or woman) is an island. In other words, where would Humphrey Bogart be in The Maltese Falcon without Sydney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre? How would Shearer, Crawford, Russell and Goddard fare in The Women without Butterfly McQueen and Marjorie Main? Sure, they would still be terrific, but the nuanced performances that these and other character actors and supporting players add to great old films make all the difference in the world. I'd like to spotlight five of these tremendous talents and/or on-screen personas, whose lines we have repeated multiple times and whose faces we could never forget.

Florence Bates
"Wretched stuff! Give me a chocolate quick!" That was the response given by the silly, vain, wealthy dowager, Edythe Van Hopper in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), upon taking some foul tasting medicine. The self absorbed widow was played by the delightful Florence Bates (pictured above with S.K. Sakall in Lullaby of Broadway). The Hitchcock classic was her first major film role and one with which she is always associated. In the next 13 years after Rebecca, she would appear in over 60 films, some in uncredited roles, some of which her scenes would be deleted. On the other end of the decade, she would triumph with a similar grande dame role in A Letter to Three Wives (1949). As Mrs. Manleigh, radio advertising mogul supreme, she is sheer perfection. In between the two films, she was notable in Love Crazy (1941) and Portrait of Jennie (1948) among others. She died of a heart attack in 1954.

S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall
If only for his role as Uncle Felix in the perennial Yuletide favorite Christmas in Connecticut (1945), S.Z. Sakall would be remembered as a great supporting player ("Everything is hunky dunky!"), but this chubby cherub with the thick as goulash Hungarian accent hit the comedic mark in other classics of the 1940's including That Night in Rio (1941), The Dolly Sisters (1945) and Romance on the High Seas (1948). Even if you couldn't understand what he was saying, his facial reactions to the situation going on around him could crack you up, especially when unnerved or befuddled.

Gladys Cooper
Originally a British stage actress, Gladys Cooper embarked on a film career in Hollywood beginning, like Florence Bates, in 1940's Rebecca. She quickly made a name for herself playing stodgy upper crust aristocrats. In Rebecca, she shared her American film debut with master director Alfred Hitchcock. She played Maxim de Winter's tweedy, outdoorsy sister, Beatrice. No nonsense and direct, her Beatrice befriends her nervous new sister-in-law (Joan Fontaine) and tries to make her at ease in her new home. She was thrice nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, lastly as the mother of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964). Her first two nominated roles were superb and were richly deserved. The first as Bette Davis overbearing, extremely domineering mother in the classic Now Voyager (1942). Based on the strength of this performance alone, Mother's Day could be recalled as a national holiday. Her second Oscar nod came the following year in The Song of Bernadette, where she played a bitter, disbelieving nun. Finally, one of my personal favorite characters by the great Dame Gladys was that of the snobby control freak, Mrs. Hamilton in The Bishop's Wife (1947). Her hard as nails, cold as ice exterior is completely melted by the suave charms of angel Dudley (Cary Grant).

Joyce Compton
With her blond good looks and sweet-as-sugah southern accent, Joyce Compton could charm her ditzy characters out of the most insane situations. Like Florence Bates, she was uncredited for some of the films she contributed to but two of her best roles, she given credit for, on screen and off. In The Awful Truth (1937), she played Dixie Bell Lee, date to Cary Grant and dancer to ribald tunes. Her hilarious nightclub act to the tune of "My Dreams Were Gone with the Wind" is unforgettable. As a fellow co-star with "Cuddles" Sakall, she was one of the may bright spots in Christmas in Connecticut. As Nurse Mary Lee, she is the impetus for sailor Dennis Morgan ("Jeffy Boy") spending the Christmas holiday with writer Barbara Stanwyck. A treat to behold.

Beulah Bondi
Best known as Ma Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Beulah Bondi had a very long and varied career in Hollywood. I first saw Bondi, not in Wonderful Life, but as the kind adoption agent in Penny Serenade (1941) with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. She was fine as Walter Huston's prim and prudish ministers wife in Rain (1932) ~ is it no wonder that Huston's Reverend Davidson was tempted by the smouldering Joan Crawford? In The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) she was a soft hearted hillbilly and in The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) she was a black hearted one. Bondi was nominated for Oscars twice, first for The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) then Of Human Hearts (1938) and played James Stewart's mother four times. She actually made a career out of playing mothers and grandmothers, though she herself never married or had children in real life.

The five players listed above are merely a tiny smattering of the army of character actors whose presence enhanced the many films enjoyed for generations. They aren't necessarily my favorite ones, rather a representative example of the numerous talents that graced the screen throughout the years. Alan Hale, Sr., Franklin Pangborn, Eve Arden, Ward Bond, Hattie McDaniel, the list could go on endlessly. These classic personalities should be greatly appreciated for their contributions and the great enjoyment they brought to past audiences and continue to bring to audiences today.


  1. What a great post! I love it when these character actors get recognized for their work; they deserve it so much!

    I love that you pointed out "everything is hunky dunky!" That's a favorite saying in my house, Cuddles is so cute! :D

  2. I will just list a few of my favorite to add apendage to this list..Eve Arden in THE DOUGHGIRLS,as Natasha,the Russian Guerilla fighter..Beulah Bondi as Anise in WATCH ON THE RHINE.Lucille Watson in WATCH ON THE RHINE,and HARRIET CRAIG. Andy Devine as Wally in TORRID ZONE. Mary Wickes as Dora in NOW,VOYAGER,and Nurse Preen in MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER...just to think of them makes me smile!

  3. Thanks so much for reminding us of the importance of wonderful character actors. I just adore Florence Bates, especially since she appears in 2 of my favorite movies, Letter to Three Wives and Rebecca. Thanks for the great post!

  4. Gladys Cooper especially never gets recognised. Because she was never thoroughly one of the heavy weights, but she never really was one of the ignored unknowns, so she often falls through the cracks.

  5. OMG...I love ALL of those great actors, as well as many of the ones listed in the comments.
    Keep up the great Work Alistair..I love your blogs

  6. Rupert, some good choices, and also well chosen roles for the performers you picked. I especially liked the inclusion of Gladys Cooper and Beulah Bondi. Have you ever seen Bondi in Jean Renoir's "The Southerner"? Not exactly in her usual subtle vein, but as they say, once seen never forgotten.

  7. Actually I wish you would do more of these mini-profiles. So-called character actors are few & far between these days. I loved how directors like Capra, Sturges, Ford, and others appreciated character actors so much that they would become part of their "troupe". Beulah Bond will forever be known as the "ma" character in Capra films.
    Your choices here are marvelous. Even in passing I'm glad you mentioned Franklin Pangborn who epitomized the fey & frantic assistant. Oh the fun you could have with posts about people like Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr, Hank Worden, Henry Travers, and other unsung heroes of classic films who sometimes appeared in tons more movies than the stars.

  8. I absolutely adore S.K. "Cuddles" Sakall. He brightens any movie he is in. And Beulah Bondi ... sheer excellence. I hate that these actors always take a back seat to the "stars" because they are definitely stars themselves.

  9. I agree! There are too few character actors around anymore. Please give us more! I adore all of the actors profiled here.

  10. Excellent examples here! So many character actors get overlooked, so it's great to read more about them. Gladys Cooper was a gem! I know Bette Davis thought very highly of her. And I love Mary Wickes, too! Another favorite was Thelma Ritter! So great in Rear Window and All About Eve.

  11. Kate: I use 'hunky dunky' quite a bit too ;)

    Ernie: You listed some great players. Mary Wickes IS great in Now Voyager!

    Amanda: Letter to Three Wives IS my favorite film and Rebecca is in the top 15. Bates is superb in both.

    Encore: Gladys is one of my faves. Especially in The Bishops Wife. When Cary Grant plays the harp and she spills her guts to him...classic.

    Greg: I'll try my friend ;)

    R.D. Finch: I have seen Bondi in The Southerner. I think it was actually the second Bondi film I saw (I didn't even see It's a Wonderful Life until I was in college) but it's been almost 30 years.

    Antonyed: I love Franklin Pangborn and he was originally featured in this post, but I had to slice and dice a little for time sake.

    Melanie & annettealaine: I whole heartedly agree!

    A.C.: According to Bette Davis' interview with Dick Cavett, she did indeed think VERY highly of her, as do you and I ;)

  12. Great post. I love S.K. "Cuddles" Sakall and Beulah Bondi. Cuddles just make you feel good when they come on the screen. I want to pinch his cheeks.
    Thelma Ritter and Eve Arden are tied for my #1 character actors.Whoops! I forgot about Hattie McDaniel. Alan Hale Sr. and C.Aubrey Smith are my top male character actors.

  13. Joyce Compton is wonderful in the Awful Truth! I love when the "wind" blows up her dress!

  14. I'm here at kidinthefrontrow's recommendation :)

    Glorious blog ... feeling a bit icky and it's quite late here so only read your latest post so far, but already you've mentioned The Bishop's Wife which is my favourite Christmas film (the skating in the park with Sylvester scene warms my heart) and Penny Serenade which still makes me cry, no matter how many times I watch it lol ... so I'll definitely be back to read more.

  15. Some great character actors here. I think a lot of fans of old movies would agree that the character actors are the ones that make the film. They seem like familiar friends.

  16. Rupert you know how much character actors are so important to a film. I just love your reviews. I missed them so much. LOL. I forgot to tell you I know someone that looks and sounds just like cuddles. oh my! You would not believe. Love the review. Keep them coming.

  17. Rupert, a great blog on some of the best of the best character actors. I love them all, but was especially happy to see Joyce Compton, Florence Bates and Gladys Cooper getting their due. Joyce is wonderful in The Awful Truth and Christmas in Connecticut. Florence Bates made her film debut in some pretty serious company, but she holds her own with Olivier and Fontaine and is as memorable in her brief role as the great Judith Anderson is in her more prominent role as Mrs. Danvers. And Gladys's true, her role in Now, Voyager is probably her best, but she is perfect, too, as cold & haughty Mrs. Hamilton who melts like butter when Cary Grant in the form of Dudley arrives on the scene (and who wouldn't). Thanks, Rupert, great work.

  18. Two other great character actors were May Robson and Sterling Holloway.

  19. Love then all, it's a shame the industry doesn't cultivate and support the character actor. Sometimes when I am flipping thru the channels and I spot a great character actor - that's why I stop to watch the flick.

  20. Thelma Ritter is my favourite, esp in Rear Window and All About Eve

  21. Loved old Cuddles in The Good Old Summertime as Mister Ogelkugen.



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