Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 2005/ 9 Adar I, 5765
Last week, in my rant on the decline of quality movies, I mentioned how much I miss the wonderful character actors of long ago who were once the mainstays of all studio pictures. There were so many great ones that anytime you start to name one or two, five or ten others come to mind. Every movie-lover has his favorites. I've enjoyed the work of character actors ever since I was a kid watching the old movies on TV.
In the early fifties television showed Laurel and Hardy films every Saturday morning. I learned at an early age to love and appreciate them from my dad. We'd sit on the couch together and laugh out loud at the outlandish gags and subtle character comedy of Stan and Ollie. We laughed almost as hard at those wonderful ensemble character actors who popped up in their films all the time.
Anyone who really knows the Laurel and Hardy movies knows James Finlayson, Billy Gilbert, Edgar Kennedy, Mae Busch, and Charlie Hall on sight. Finlayson was the boys' constant foil, the bald, handle-bar mustached villain who would, when exasperated, look out to the camera, squint one eye, and heave his trademark Da-oooh!
Edgar Kennedy was the master of the Slow burn, a measured expression of anger and frustration which would start slowly and build as he'd slowly wipe his hand across his face. He very often played infuriated cops and other highly exasperated authority figures.
Billy Gilbert was a wonderful larger-than-life character who specialized in dialects and did a great sneeze. As a matter of fact, Gilbert did the voice for Sneezy in Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That's Billy Gilbert as the reluctant recipient of a piano in the Academy Award winning short, The Music Box one of Laurel and Hardy's very best pictures.
Charlie Hall was this short little tough guy who wouldn't take any guff from Stan and Ollie. He very often would play the jealous husband, who would take on Ollie, whom he (wrongly) assumed was playing around with his wife. The contrast of size between him and Ollie was hysterical. One of his best L&H films was Tit for Tat.
Mae Busch usually played Oliver Hardy's tough no-nonsense wife. With her constant screaming, dish-throwing, and frying pan-wielding, Ollie might easily have been the first battered husband ever portrayed on screen. Her character played perfectly against the boys in so many of their films. I really enjoy watching her.
Abbott and Costello had their own stable of reliable character actors on their 50 s television show. In the series, Bud and Lou lived in an apartment house which was loaded with characters like Sydney Fields, the browbeating landlord. Hillary Brooke was the beautiful blonde who could wrap lovesick Lou around her little finger. Then there was Mike the cop, played by Gordon Jones, Mr. Bacciagalupe played by Joe Kirk, and Joe Besser's Stinky, a forty year old nasty little kid who always got the better of Costello. There were many others, most of which were burlesque types, which was fine since Abbott and Costello themselves were burlesque comics.
How about the strong supporting characters that always showed up in Alfred Hitchcock's pictures? You can start with Dame May Whitty as Miss Fray, the title character in The Lady Vanishes. Leo G. Carroll might have been in more Hitchcock films then anyone else, beginning with Rebecca, then Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest. John Williams was another favorite of the director's (and mine) as was Hume Cronyn and Norman Lloyd.
Hitchcock knew how to use character actors and filled his movies with them. Some of the best moments in Hitchcock films came out of the supporting roles. Think of that little old guy who crawled under the out of control merry-go-round in Strangers on a Train. Or the cop wearing the dark sunglasses who approaches Janet Leigh sleeping in her car in Psycho.
There are so many more wonderful character actors I could name from each decade and from every genre. There are comedy relief types, tough guys from the gangster pictures, horror movie characters, nice guys, mean guys, gentle old ladies, nasty drunk broads, prostitutes with hearts of gold, grandpas, grandmas, and well, you name it.
There's not enough space here to list all my favorite supporting actors. I need to talk about Eric Blore, Gale Sondergaard, and Henry Stephenson. I want to remind you how great Barbara Nichols was. How George Gabby Hayes was the perfect cowboy sidekick. Don't forget about the wizard himself, Frank Morgan, or sweet Jane Darwell, or gruff Marjorie Main, or slightly ditzy Spring Byington. Then there's Gene Lockhart, Otto Kruger, Charlotte Greenwood the list never ends. Wonderful characters all.
Have I mentioned your favorite yet? I could name so many more guess I'll have to leave them for another time.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.