Monday, October 5, 2009

That Face!: More Fabulous Character Actors

A popular post on Classic Movies Digest was The Many Faces of Those Glorious Character Actors and I must say readers of the blog have good taste in their affection for the subject matter. Character actors are much loved (even the villains we love to hate) because they add so much to the films they're in. Get two or more of the real pros in a movie and you know its a good time to be had. Character roles also offer great range, covering a broad spectrum from angelic to sinister with everything in between, allowing the actor the opportunity to really sink their teeth into the part. Featured below are five further examples of superb talent whose contributions during Hollywood's golden age should never go unacknowledged.

Louise Beavers
Like her contemporary Hattie McDaniel, African-American actress Louise Beavers (pictured above) made a career of playing maids and housekeepers. She had actually been a maid before her acting career, for silent screen actress Leatrice Joy. But among the many actresses, black or white, who played such roles, she stood out from the pack, most notably in her role as Delilah Johnson in the original version of Imitation of Life (1934) with Claudette Colbert. Although still playing a maid, her Delilah, who becomes a famous pancake queen, ala Aunt Jemima, has the depth and range very rarely offered black characters of the day. Always fun and quite notable on screen, she also livened up Made for Each Other (1939), Holiday Inn (1942) and numerous other movies during the 1930's and 1940's.

Thomas Mitchell
One of the most talented and award winning supporting players of his day, Thomas Mitchell is most closely identified with two of Hollywood's most endearing and enduring classics, Gone with the Wind (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). In Frank Capra's Wonderful Life, he plays the bumbling drunken Uncle Billy and in Gone with the Wind, the versatile actor was Scarlett's pappy, Gerald O'Hara. The latter was one of five classic movies in which Mitchell appeared in 1939, the others being Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Only Angels Have Wings, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Stagecoach, for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Other top tier films featuring the Jersey born thespian of Irish roots are Lost Horizon (1937), The Hurricane (1937, his first Oscar nomination) and The Black Swan (1942) co-starring Tyrone Power.

Lynn Bari
I was first taken with the sultry Lynn Bari in a midnight showing of Sun Valley Serenade (1941) several years ago. Up until that time, my limited exposure to her consisted of a small role in Margie (1946), starring Jeanne Crain, and a few film book references. Born in Roanoke, Virginia, she began her lengthy career in the early 30's as a chorus girl and extra, first at MGM, then 20th Century-Fox, which would become her home studio. She was at her best playing alluring sirens and "other woman" roles and became known as Queen of the B's on the Fox lot though she gave solid support in numerous A pictures including Serenade and its follow-up Orchestra Wives (1942), in which she plays a band singer out to break up the marriage of a fellow band member. Her shining starring moment was as co-star to Henry Fonda and Don Ameche in the Fox comedy The Magnificent Dope (1942). Always glamorous and dependable, Bari was a favorite on the movie set.

Dan Duryea
Slimy, sleazy, slick, smarmy. No these aren't demented dwarfs in an off-beat version of Snow White, they describe the kind of roles Dan Duryea was famous for in his acting career. He was great as an instigating weasel, either stirring up trouble or landing smack dab in the middle of it or both. In William Wyler's The Little Foxes (1941) he reprised his stage role of smart aleck buffoon Leo, pawn to his uncle's financial shenanigans. Two film noir classics, Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) show Duryea in some of his best roles, as blackmailer and low-life pimp respectively. Other standouts for Duryea include Ministry of Fear (1944) and Winchester '73 (1950). The 1950's saw a shift in parts for the actor, primarily in the crime drama and western genres.

Ward Bond
As a supporting player in well over 100 films Ward Bond was one of Hollywood's busiest and most popular actors. He looked like a proverbial high school football coach and in fact was playing football at the University of Southern California, along side fellow teammate John Wayne when director John Ford cast them as extras in a film in 1929. The trio would make numerous films together over the next 30 years, including The Long Voyage Home (1940), Three Godfathers (1948) and The Quiet Man (1952). Like Thomas Mitchell, Bond was also featured in two of Hollywood's most popular, most viewed films, Gone with the Wind and It's a Wonderful Life, the latter as Burt, the gruff yet affable cop. During the 1950's, along with his continued film work, Bond also starred in the popular western TV series Wagon Train.

Although only a smattering of wonderful players are included in this and the previous post, there are so many more who merit whole volumes dedicated to their contributions. Thelma Ritter to name one. The two Unas, Merkel and O'Connor, Lee J. Cobb, Donald Crisp. They offer never ending entertainment and joy for all who love classic movies.


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  2. I love your blogs Rupert. They usually provide me with something new to discover: I need to check out Lynn Bari. I'm not familiar with her work. Thanks!! :-)

  3. I absolutely love Louise Beavers and Thomas Mitchell. I loved Mitchell in Stagecoach and, especially, IAWW. They were all amazing. The main stars are important but it is a GOOD, solid character actor that holds the movie together!

  4. Another great post, Rupert. I grew up watching Wagon Train every week with the family. And one of my favorite Ward Bond roles was as the priest in The Quiet out of type for him.

    There are so many recognizable faces (Elisha Cook Jr, Frank Faylen, Marjorie Main, to name a few) that I look forward to your introducing to us.

  5. And who can forget Henry Daniell,another character actor who comprised some of the most loathsome characters ever on screen-( Baron DeVarviel in Camille..or Von Rhami in Watch on the Rhine) to name a few..And acted so convincingly,you wonder how much of his real-life persona did he draw from. or was he just the opposite in real life.

  6. Yay! So glad you did a "sequel" on character actors. Each one of these is such a great choice & they all have so many great moments in films.

    -- Louise Beavers' chartacter actually saved the day in Mr Blandisngs Builds His Dream House with her "If you ain't eating Wham, you ain't eatin' ham!" line

    -- Thomas Mitchell was such a great & versatile actor that I can't narrow down his best moments. One of my favorites is Mr Smith Goes To Washington---the crack reporter with heart.

    --While not so versatile Kynn Bari did so much work. I especially loved her in Margie as the wry & knowing teacher.

    --I love how you referred to Dan Duryea as a weasel--that's exactly how he played it. The first thing I ever saw him in was as a ne'er do well ex-husband on the TV Peyton Place so I learned never to trust his characters when seeing his early films.

    --Ward Bond was another one whose vast career was so versatile. One of my favorite scenes was in Gone With the Wind where he plays it tough then gets easily flustered when the mere mention of sexual impropriety is hinted at.

  7. Always nice to see the great character actors receive recognition! My favorite Ward Bond performance is as boxing great John L. Sullivan opposite Errol Flynn in GENTLEMAN JIM. Bond plays Sullivan in the twilight of the former champ's career and brings the perfect amount of sympathy and dignity to the role.

  8. thelma ritter SHOULD get a whole page!!! i for duryea...I loved his performance in FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX

  9. Hey Rupert, another great review! Love the character actor. There are so many great ones. Louise Beavers was one of my all time faves and so was Mitchell.There were just too many to name. I love the fact you named the two Una's and got them in one whack. ha! they were both wonderful and in so many movies!

  10. Alot more great names (to go with those great faces) have been mentioned here. Might have to do yet another installment on this topic.

  11. I've always been a big fan of Thomas Mitchell. He was great in whatever he was. A bit of trivia is that he played Columbo before Peter Falk did, on stage in the play Prescription: Murder!

  12. A great selection of actors. I love Thomas Mitchell - as well as the parts you have mentioned, he is also great in the noir film 'Out of the Fog', where I'd say he is really the lead in terms of screen time and importance of the role, although John Garfield gets top billing and is great too. Looking forward to more instalments! Judy

  13. I love Louise Beavers. She was also in Shadow of the Thin Man. Classic.

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