One things us old coots love about old coot movies is the tremendous roster of familiar character actors you had from the ’30s through, oh, the ’70s. The heyday of these fellows was the age of the Studio System, when the studios had actors under contract. Movies didn’t meander as much back in those days, and often casting was shorthand. If Eugene Pallette made an appearance, you knew it was likely his character would be a grumpy, often beleaguered sourpuss. Franklin Pangborn would be playing an officious, easily exasperated fellow, etc.
The studio systems died at the behest of the courts, but the character actor pool was kept alive for a while via TV shows, especially westerns and sitcoms that kept people like John Dehner and Jeff Corey and John McGiver, among a zillion others, busy.
The heyday of Hollywood was the character’s golden age, however. You went to the movies to see the stars, but the texture of the film was generally provided by the character actors supporting them. One of the greatest of the manifold pleasures provided by Turner Classic Movies is turning on your set, watching some flick you’ve never heard of, and seeing a parade of familiar faces file across your TV screen.
The other day I came across a flick called All Through the Night from 1941. It follows a group of Runyon-esque neighborhood wiseguys who come across some real bad guys…Nazi infiltrators. To be frank, it’s not a great film. At and hour and 47 minutes it runs a bit long. The attempts to make the hoods seem on the whole just regular, non-threatening joes results in comedy that’s a bit too broad, like you were watching the adventures of the older versions of the Bowery Boys. I mean, we’re talking about a gang made up of guys named Gloves and Sunshine and Starchy and so on.
But, man, that cast. They just kept on coming. Big stars and then unknowns and bit players and beloved character actors. Some you won’t know, probably, and there were undoubtedly folks I didn’t recognize that others would. Even so, it was pretty amazing.
As I noted, you’re always going to build a cast like this around a star or two, and here we get one of the biggest. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jimmy Stewart!
But I kid. Bogart that very year had finally really broken into heroic (not to mention romantic) leading man roles as Sam Spade in a little something called The Maltese Falcon. The year after this he would star and Casablanca, and well, there you go.
Here Bogie plays Gloves Donahue, the sharp-dressed leader of a band of crooks. He is clearly the inspiration for the gangster character played by Paul Sorvino in The Rocketeer, who when he finds he’s working for a Nazi, throws in with the hero. In each case, the head Nazi tries to talk the hood into joining forces with him, sighting a mutual contempt for American law and order. In each case, the crook sneers at the offer and affirms his bedrock love of country. “I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American,” Sorvino responds.
Oh, and in case you thought that Republican bashing was a recent Hollywood invention, Bogart here illustrates his patriotism by noting, “I’ve voted Democrat all my life.”
Before Bogie even makes his appearance, though, we get something amazing. The first shot of the film proper is a bunch of toy soldiers on a table. The camera pulls back and we get this group. Now, I’m not even talking about the whole group, just the featured trio in the middle.
Here’s a closer view of the three as they continue to carry the scene. Each went on to have very big careers in TV. The guy on the left was the one movie veteran at this point, William Demarest. Demarest had been working in film since the silent days of the mid-20s, and in the 1930s alone has about 40 listed movie credits on the IMDB. He continued working steadily, generally playing grouchy mugs, but grabbed his most famous role as Fred McMurray’s Uncle Charley on TV’s My Three Sons. Total IMDB credits: 138.
Next to Demarest is the then young comedian Phil Silvers. Silvers too worked steadily in films, although not with the regularity of Demarest. However, in 1955 he started playing the scheming Sgt. Bilko in the TV show The Phil Silvers Show, i.e, You’ll Never Get Rich. The show was a smash hit, and Silvers was thrice nominated for an Emmy as its star, winning in 1957. Although the program isn’t all that well remembered these days, it did inspired the cartoon show Top Cat, and Steve Martin starred in a typically lame Sgt. Bilko movie in 1996. Silvers remained a very well-known, old school comic actor and continued to appear on the airwaves and movie screens, including inevitably 1963′s comedian convention It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Total IMDB credits: 74.
And yep, that fat guy on the end is none other than Jackie Gleason. This was either Gleason’s first or second film appearance, but of course it was on TV that he achieved immortality. On 1952′s The Jackie Gleason Show he debuted a character named Ralph Kramden, who soon moved to his own sitcom The Honeymooners. Except for perhaps I Love Lucy, it’s probably the greatest, most venerable sitcom ever. Gleason continued to work through the ’80s, perhaps most notably was the oft-aggrieved Sheriff Buford T. Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit movies. Total IMDB credits: A paltry 51.
Less well known to modern audiences is Frank McHugh, but audiences of the time would have recognized him. Generally playing comic relief skittish types, McHugh appeared in an astounding 83 films in the 1930s alone. He even has some genre credits. He played the nosy reporter hero in 1933′s horror flick Mystery of the Wax Museum, opposite Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill. And he was the second banana sidekick in 1949′s Mighty Joe Young. IMDB credits: 154.
Not long into things we meet this lady playing Glove’s extremely Irish mother. This might be the only film where one of Bogart’s characters has a mom on display, and again was meant to signal the audience that Gloves might be slightly bent, but that he wasn’t really a bad guy. In any case, Mrs. Donahue was played by Jane Darwell. She unsurprisingly specialized in moms, and that same year played the salt of the earth mater in the fantasy classic All That Money Can Buy. Moreover, she won an Oscar and screen immortality the year before this as Ma Joad, opposite Henry Fonda in John Ford’s seminal Grapes of Wrath. All in all, she may have appeared in as many classics as anyone in the cast, short of Bogart himself. IMDB credits: a whopping 201.
I sighed with pleasure when Peter Lorre showed up. He’s got to be one of my top ten favorite actors of all time. That guy had screen presence like nobody’s business, especially considering that he wasn’t exactly a leading man type. (Although in real life it was he, and not Bogart, who ended up marrying the film’s lead actress, fellow German expatriate Kaaren
In one scene a bit later Demarest calls two guys, both of them well known actors in their own right. This one is Wallace Ford, played gangland shyster ‘Spats’ Hunter. Ford would probably be most familiar to the elite readership of this website as ‘Babe’ Hanson, the comic sidekick in 1940′s The Mummy’s Hand, the film that introduced Kharis the Mummy. Ford reprised the part of a now elderly Babe in The Mummy’s Tomb, which was made two years later but set in the 1980s (!). There Babe fatally learns that immortal menaces just don’t go away. He also was the lead actor in Tod Browning’s Freaks.
You can illustrate the lot of the character actor of the time by noting that Ford appeared, back to back, in the Karloff skid row cheapie The Ape Man and the class Hitchcock thriller Shadow of a Doubt. On the whole, Ford had a great career, though. IMDB credits: 160.
This is Barton MacLane. MacLane had a zillion credits in the 1930s and was pretty well known by this time. MacLane had also appeared in The Maltese Falcon as the thuggish bad cop who hassles Bogart’s private detective. (His good cop partner was played by character actor Ward Bond, who by dint of being part of John Ford’s stock company had the distinction of appearing in more of the AFI’s 100 Best Films than any other actor.) He appeared with Bogart in a lot of films, including The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
Like many of the actors here, Barton played a lot of cops and hoods, but he did appear in the occasional genre film, including Karloff’s The Walking Dead, the Spenser Tracy version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mummy’s Ghost, Nabonga, Cry of the Werewolf and the dinosaur flick Unknown Island. IMDB credits: 177.
The great Edward Brophy, who made a career of playing crooks, often comic ones. I’ll always remember him as the hood who threatens William Powell with a gun in The Thin Man, one of my all-time favorite movies. (And, like The Maltese Falcon, adapted from a Dashiell Hammett novel.) Triva: Brophy played characters named Rollo in both Freaks and Peter Lorre’s fantabulous horror flick Mad Love. IMDB credits: 143.
Ah, and here we get the main villain of the piece, the immortal Conrad Veidt. Veidt had an amazing career, playing the first sympathetic monster, Cesare the Somnambulist in the earliest horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Veidt later played the model for the Batman villain The Joker in The Man Who Laughed. He played Orlac in the German silent version of The Hands of Orlac, which his fellow countryman Lorre later remade as Mad Love (former Frankenstein Colin Clive played Orlac). He played the heavy in one of the greatest fantasy films ever, The Thief of Bagdad.
The film is filled with actors who fled Hitler’s Germany, and like Lorre and Verne, probably saw the movie as a double win, a good role and a chance to ready the American public to confront Nazi Germany. Many such actors played villainous Nazis for that reason alone, but Veidt seemed particularly passionate about it. He, of course, played cinema’s greatest Nazi villain, Major Strasser, opposite Bogart again in Casablanca. Sadly, Veidt died in 1943, just a few years after his appearance here. Sadly, he didn’t live to see Hitler’s vile regime fall, but his unceasing work to oppose it makes him one of the most honorable actors ever. IMDB credits: 119.
As if Veidt didn’t have enough support in henchman Lorre, his other sidekick is the far slinkier Judith Anderson, later Dame Judith Anderson. An English stage veteran, she made a gigantic splash as sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. She was nominated for an Oscar for the role; it was only her second film, and she was typecast in sinister parts for a good long stretch. She continued earning raves on stage and in such major films as Laura, And Then There Were None, The Ten Commandments, and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. She eventually played the Vulcan high priestess who reunited Spock’s consciousness with his body in Star Trek III. IMDB credits: 45.
This guy, Dick Elliot, made a career out of bit parts in tons of movies. And sure enough, he appears in this film for like twenty seconds and has no lines. (Although as you can see, he hams it up to make the most of it.) However, sometimes that sort of part is all you need to be remembered. In Elliot’s case, it was as the guy on the porch who tells Jimmy Stewart to kiss the luminescent Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life. When Stewart hesitates, Elliot disgustedly exits with “Youth is wasted on the wrong people!”
It should be noted that such bit parts allowed Eliot to appear in a bazillion films. He sports an astounding 353 film credits on the IMDB. How is that possible? Well, nearly every role he had in the 1930s was so small it was uncredited.
This is James Burke. He, as indicated here, appeared in a ton of films and specialized in playing cops of various stripes, often comic ones. IMDB credits: 216.
And finally, a young Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory.
But again, I kid. This is actually the young Martin Kosleck, yet another actor who had fled Hitler’s Germany. And sure enough, Kosleck went on to specialize in playing icy, ruthless villains, often Nazis and ex-Nazis, in a long roster of films and TV shows. Readers of this site might remember him best as the mad scientist in The Flesh Eaters. He also played the sculptor who manipulates the murderous Rondo Hatton in The House of Horrors. Other genre films films appearances include The Mad Doctor, The Mummy’s Curse (lots of Mummy movie actors here), The Frozen Ghost and She-Wolf of London. He eventually appeared in the spy drama and eventual MST3K subject, Agent for H.A.R.M.
Kosleck also guested on such TV shows as Suspense, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea, The Outer Limits (the real one), Get Smart, Batman, The Man from UNCLE, The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible and Night Gallery. among many others. IMDB credits: 88.