"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.
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).
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.
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.