HOLLYWOOD’S GOLDEN AGE: WHAT A CHARACTER (ACTOR)!

“Nobody needs a mink coat but the mink.” –S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, character actor (Feb. 2, 1883-Feb. 12, 1955)

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There have been so many great male character actors in Hollywood Golden Age history that, for this post, I’m going to narrow the field to comedic character actors….and even then, I’ll probably leave out some of your favorites. Of course, if you don’t have any old comedy film favorites, you’re probably not an old comedy film fan, so you’re excused (even though that’s no excuse….actually, you should be ashamed of yourself).

Leaving that aside, let’s move on, starting with the author of the above quote….a quote which probably didn’t go over too well with most of the Hollywood glamour girls he knew — speaking of which, did you know that Sakall was born in, and is strictly from, Hungary (btw, he was also in Casablanca). Here’s more scuttlebutt about Cuddles but…it’s not a lot:

Next, Laurel & Hardy fans will remember the trademark ‘double-take’ look of this gent, who appeared in many of their films, including here in one of their best, WAY OUT WEST:

Remember double features (two films for the price of one in movie houses of the 1930s-50s)? Here’s a double feature of two great comedic actors for the price of one in a scene from SHALL WE DANCE, one of three Astaire-Rogers movies in which they appeared together:

If you’re a fan of Charlie Chan movies, you may recall the pop-eyed comic who played Chan’s chauffeur in over a dozen films, as well as parts in Preston Sturges’ THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942), CABIN IN THE SKY (1943), CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK (1944), and many others. Here he is in a scene from THE SCARLET CLUE (1945):

In closing, I’ll mention several other great comedic character actors I could’ve/should’ve profiled here, but I have to stop somewhere: William Demarest, Edgar Kennedy, Frank Morgan, Franklin Pangborn, Erik Rhodes, Victor Moore, and many more. Thank you, one and all, for bringing character to comedy.

A MAN AND HIS ‘DOGS’

dogs, Slang. The feet: My dogs are killing me!  fantasy, n.  A play of the mind; imagination; fancy; a picture existing only in the mind. –World Book Dictionary

A footnote to the World Book definition of fantasy: it is personified, in my view, by one man — fittingly so, because beyond his pictures he still dances in the mind, as timeless as imagination….no less real than the Hollywood from which such flights of fancy emanated and stars were born. That ethe-real man is Fred Astaire, the pictures were his movies, and this day is his birthday (May 10, 1899).

Astaire’s “dogs” may have been what carried him across the dance floor with Ginger Rogers in his arms, but it was his persona that took us with him. I like to think that what Santa Claus embodied for children, Fred Astaire embodied for my parent’s generation as teenagers/young adults, epitomizing easy grace and the allure of dreams more enticing than any toy that Santa could promise.  No other hoofer in film history even comes close to capturing his magic….which is why he survives his and my parent’s generation, just as any great artist lives on in what he or she creates.

In my favorite scene from my favorite Astaire-Rogers film (SWING TIME, 1936), professional dancer Astaire comes to New York and, after a chance street encounter with Rogers doesn’t go well, he follows her to the dance studio where she is an instructor. Pretending to be a novice, he botches the dance lesson. She insults him and is fired. As she is leaving the studio….

Of course, many elements must come together to produce movie magic, and SWING TIME had the good fortune to combine the talents of the stars with those of a great director (George Stevens), a fine supporting cast (including Eric Blore, seen in the above clip), and one of the best composer/lyricist teams of the Golden Age (Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields). In addition to the ‘dance lesson’ song PICK YOURSELF UP, their outstanding score includes A FINE ROMANCE, NEVER GONNA DANCE, and this love song:

On this May 10 celebration, let’s end appropriately with this:

 

 

 

 

A PAST OF CHARACTERS

For some time, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to do a post on one-of-a-kind character actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, most of them long forgotten except to old film buffs like myself. There are familiar exceptions, of course — non-starring actors who appeared in classic films which continue to be shown today, such as Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ) and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (Ugarte/Joel Cairo and the fat man, respectively, in CASABLANCA and THE MALTESE FALCON). But today I want to focus on the rule, not the well-remembered exceptions.

It was while researching April 5th birthdays for notables born on this date (and finding the likes of Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis and Gregory Peck) that I saw among them a long forgotten character actor whose name (Grady Sutton, born 4/5/1906) rang a bell….so I decided to do such a post today and include him among those I pay tribute to. To make it a bit (player) more interesting, I’ll list six names, followed by clips (not in the same order) of scenes in which they separately appear. Can you spot one of the six in each clip?

1. Eric Blore
2. Margaret Dumont
3. James Finlayson
4. Billy Gilbert
5. Hattie McDaniel
6. Grady Sutton

a. 

b.

c.

d.

e.

f.

How many could you identify? Hint: the names match the clips in reverse order; e.g.,
1. Eric Blore is the British valet being “summoned” in “f.” For more on Blore, click here:
Eric Blore: What a Character!

2. Margaret Dumont (clip “e”) should pose no recognition problem for Marx Brothers fans. For those who aren’t Marxists, mark this: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0241669/bio

3. James Finlayson (clip “d”) should pose no recognition problem for Laurel & Hardy fans. When you can’t imagine any other actor in his L & H roles, you know he was truly unique: http://www.wayoutwest.org/finlayson/

4. Billy Gilbert is the man (Pettibone) in the middle in this clip (“c”) from HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). Like Finlayson and Dumont, another one-of-a-kinder: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0317970/

5. Hattie McDaniel (clip “b”) plays Aunt Tempy and sings “Sooner or Later” opposite James Baskett (as Uncle Remus) in this scene from Walt Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946). Best known role: Mammy, in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939): http://www.biography.com/people/hattie-mcdaniel-38433

6. Grady Sutton (clip “a”) plays new assistant (Chester) to W.C. Fields in this scene from YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939). He was also a Fields foil in MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935) and THE BANK DICK (1940).

Yes, my friends, there were great character actors in the land of make-believe in those days. If some were but “bit” players, they made their small parts singularly indispensable. We shall not see their like again.