Of all the posts that have appeared at The Movie Projector, the hands-down favorite in terms of the number of times viewed is the one titled "Hollywood's Greatest Character Actors and Actresses" from October 2008. In that post I listed my top ten character actors and top ten character actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, the studio era, roughly from the early 1930s through the early 1960s. The post appeared on IMDb's "Hit List" and elicited a record 65 comments (the usual mix of the thoughtful and pertinent, the cranky and irrelevant). Even today it is still visited by people, many from outside the US, using search engines to find information about those great character actors and actresses of the American studio era. This is clearly a subject of enduring interest.
So I have decided to post a follow-up with 25 more of the great character actors and actresses of that time. For some reason, this area seems to be dominated by men, perhaps because the movies have always placed such an emphasis on idealized female beauty and youth, so this time I'm listing fifteen male actors and ten female: no gender discrimination is intended. As before, I have used an asterisk to indicate a signature performance for each.
I should clarify some of the criteria I considered when compiling this list, which are the same ones I used for my original post on the subject. Of course, I could only include actors with whose careers I am familiar. There are many character actors of whom I am aware, but unless I have seen them in enough pictures to have a knowledgeable overview of their careers, I could not consider them for inclusion. I considered only actors whose careers lasted a number of years and who appeared in several noteworthy roles. Like many of the character actors of the studio era, some of these people had careers that lasted for decades in movies and then continued for a number of years more on television.
The term "character actor" as I use it is in truth a pretty broad and malleable one. Generally, the people I refer to as character actors specialized in one type of character for practically their entire career. Even though I tended to choose for the signature performance one that seemed the exemplar of that character type, I sometimes chose instead a role that went against type for the simple reason that this was the performance that really stood out for me. Not everyone on the list, however, specialized in a type. Some, such as Walter Huston and Raymond Massey, paradoxically seemed worthy of inclusion precisely because they showed amazing versatility and successfully played such a range of character types.
Some of those on the list played the occasional lead, but I concentrated on performers who for the bulk of their careers worked in supporting roles. In the studio era it was not uncommon for actors to begin as leading players and in middle age shift to supporting parts. A good example of this is Herbert Marshall, whom I included.
Conversely, Clifton Webb began playing supporting parts—his debut role as Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944) is exactly the kind I had in mind when I began this post—but soon graduated to leads and played these for most of his career, so that even though his early roles made him seem a candidate for inclusion, and even though his later lead roles were also in a sense character parts, his unusual career trajectory in the end made me feel he wasn't really right for this list. The same was true of Lee Marvin, also seriously considered for inclusion. For the first ten years or so of his career—culminating with his performance as one of the meanest villains ever to appear on the screen in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)—he was exactly the kind of actor appropriate for this list. Then he won his Oscar for Cat Ballou (1965) and spent the next 20 years as a major star playing leads. Claire Trevor, on the other hand, is a good example of a performer who from time to time played the lead—in Murder, My Sweet or Born to Kill, for example—but whose forte was really playing supporting parts of a certain type.
This list, even taken in conjunction with its predecessor, is by no means intended to be inclusive. It would be possible to compile a list of character actors that numbered in the hundreds, so important were these people to the Hollywood studios that together churned out literally hundreds of movies a year in their heyday. In fact, one person who responded to the original post has done exactly that at his site King Spud's Movie & TV Pages. Finally, this is a strictly personal list. I'm sure that every reader of this post will have favorites that I haven't included in either of my two lists. Here they are, then, in alphabetical order:
FIFTEEN MORE CLASSIC CHARACTER ACTORS
- Edward Arnold. With his bulky build and deep, authoritative voice, he could bluster and be pompous like no one else. Frank Capra used that bluster for both comic effect (You Can't Take It with You) and menace (Meet John Doe). *Easy Living (1937), as the comically frustrated millionaire who in a rage throws his spendthrift wife's fur coat out the window of their penthouse.
- Charles Bickford. A serious actor who was usually an honorable man of strong character, typically the colleague, boss, or friend of the leading player. *Johnny Belinda (1948), as deaf-mute Jane Wyman's stern but ultimately understanding and supportive farmer-father.
- Eric Blore. The prim but easily flustered butler/valet with the British accent and the bemused look in his eyes in so many movies, whose skill at the double-take was the equal of Cary Grant's. He appeared in five of the Astaire-Rogers musicals. *Top Hat (1935), as—what else?—a rather impudent valet.
- Jack Carson. A 6' 2" bull of a man, he was an expert at playing the flippant but harmless and often slightly dim second lead, the tough-looking guy with a soft center. He did venture occasionally into dramatic parts, even appearing as Paul Newman's ineffectual older brother in the movie version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. *A Star Is Born (1954), one of his serious roles, as the unforgiving studio publicist who is Norman Main's nemesis.
- Henry Daniell. With his grim features and unsmiling expression, he seemed born to play the cold villain, which he did in movies and later on television for nearly 35 years. He was the villain in three of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies, including a memorable Professor Moriarty in The Woman in Green (1945). *Camille (1937), as the Baron de Varville, Greta Garbo's possessive sugar daddy, insanely jealous of her attachment to young Armand.
- James Gleason. He was the epitome of the plain-talking, salt-of-the-earth, forever middle-aged working man—a cop, a cab driver, a milkman—a sort of male version of Thelma Ritter, in countless movies and television shows. *Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), as the resurrected prize fighter's bewildered manager.
- Edmund Gwenn. He was sometimes a scoundrel—as Katharine Hepburn's criminal father in Sylvia Scarlett, for example—but more often the kindly older gent. He even got in on the science fiction craze of the early 1950s, playing an entomologist in the giant-ant movie Them! *Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in the role of a lifetime as the earnest Kris Kringle in this Christmas classic, which won him an Oscar as best supporting actor.
- Edward Everett Horton. An excitable fast-talker and another expert at the double-take. Nobody could convey flustered befuddlement or suspicion that he was the butt of the joke (which he often was) or deliver a smug wisecrack the way he could. In the 1930s he seemed ubiquitous, appearing in no fewer than 12 movies in 1934, 11 in 1935, and 10 in 1937. *Lost Horizon (1937), as the nervous wreck Alexander P. Lovett, a paleontologist who unexpectedly finds fulfillment in Shangri-La.
- Walter Huston. An actor of great range who didn't often do comedy (although his deadpan performance in And Then There Were None was hilarious) but always seemed to be having a great time whenever he was on screen. *The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), as the devil himself, Dan Scratch, a supporting performance that made such a strong impression it got him an Oscar nomination for best actor.
- Herbert Marshall. In the early 1930s he played suave leading men, most notably in Lubitsch's classic Trouble in Paradise (1932), or suffered nobly as the husband of strong leading women like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, or Norma Shearer. For the last 25 years of his career he played the same suave, gentlemanly type in supporting parts in movies or on television. *Foreign Correspondent (1940), in which his noble exterior conceals treachery, when as the head of a pacifist group he is unmasked as a Nazi spy. Even so, he ends up dying nobly!
- Raymond Massey. Educated at Oxford University, he was actually Canadian by birth and later became an American citizen. Before playing Dr. Gillespie on television's Dr. Kildare in the early 1960s, he made movies for 30 years, mostly in the US but also occasionally in England. He tended toward roles of great gravity; even his part in Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace was a serious one. His oratorical speaking voice and diction made him a favorite as lawyers, doctors, military officers, and government officials. And he played Abraham Lincoln numerous times on television and on the stage as well as in the movies, receiving an Oscar nomination for Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). *East of Eden (1955), as James Dean's rejecting father, a patriarch of Biblical scale, a subtle performance of impressive authority and restraint.
- Adolphe Menjou. Beginning in 1914, he appeared in 150 movies and television episodes, specializing in histrionic egomaniacs (he was the original Walter Burns in the 1931 version of The Front Page and the motormouthed lawyer Billy Flynn in 1942's Roxie Hart, the role Richard Gere played in its musical version, Chicago), scoundrels, and cads. *Paths of Glory (1957), as the Machiavellian World War I general who engineers the sacrificial execution of the two enlisted men in Stanley Kubrick's devastating anti-war movie, a role given extra irony by the fact that Menjou was one of the most vociferous right-wingers in McCarthy-era Hollywood.
- Thomas Mitchell. In his 25-year long career he played mostly meek nice guys with an occasional foray into darker roles. The peak year of his career was 1939, when he appeared in no less than five of that notable year's best movies: as Cary Grant's best friend in Howard Hawks's Only Angel Have Wings, Scarlett O'Hara's father in Gone With the Wind, king of the beggars in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a cynical newsman in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and one of the passengers in John Ford's Stagecoach. *Stagecoach (1939), as the kind-hearted alcoholic Doc Boone, the performance that earned him an Oscar as best supporting actor.
- Charles Ruggles. He specialized in eccentric characters in nearly 100 movies and more than 60 television episodes. He seemed to have been born funny, one of those actors who could bring a smile to your face the moment you saw him. *Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), as the nouveau riche hick from Washington state, the husband of socially ambitious Mary Boland (with whom he made 14 movies in the 1930s), who wins butler Charles Laughton in a card game in Paris and insists on treating him as a social equal.
- Roland Young. Like Eric Blore, Henry Daniell, Edmund Gwenn, and Herbert Marshall, he was British-born and never completely lost his accent. He was adept at playing rascals, usually but not always of the lovable variety, including a memorably unctuous Uriah Heep in George Cukor's David Copperfield (1935). *Topper (1937), as the staid, henpecked banker who is taught by a pair of meddlesome ghosts (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) to loosen up, defy his bossy wife, and enjoy life.
TEN MORE CLASSIC CHARACTER ACTRESSES
- Billie Burke. Most famous for being the wife of showman Florenz Ziegfeld and for playing the good witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, for two decades she specialized in dithering, unflappable upper-class matrons trying with comic tenacity to uphold social standards. *Dinner at Eight (1933), as the high society wife of a shipping magnate trying to keep up appearances and maintain her composure as she organizes a dinner party for British royalty that is beset with comical disasters.
- Jean Hagen. In the late 1940s and early 1950s she played a series of not-too-bright floozies before moving to television, where she was the wife of Danny Thomas in his first TV series and appeared in many other TV episodes, including an especially memorable episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called "Enough Rope for Two." *Singin' in the Rain (1952), the role of her career as Lina Lamont, the squeaky-voiced silent movie siren trying to make the transition to sound films with hilarious results.
- Jesse Royce Landis. Crossing her arms, pursing her lips, rolling her eyes, and delivering arch wisecracks, she played a memorable series of unmaternal mothers to stars like Susan Hayward, Grace Kelly, Anthony Perkins, and even Cary Grant (who was barely seven years younger). *To Catch a Thief (1955), as chic Grace Kelly's down-to-earth mother, who schemes to get her flirtatious daughter married to ex-cat burglar Cary Grant while helping him clear himself of false criminal charges.
- Aline MacMahon. Another expert at the arch wisecrack in her 1930s comic roles. As she aged, she continued working in carefully selected, more serious parts until 1975 and was especially good as the relief worker helping displaced children in post-World War II Europe in Fred Zinneman's The Search (1948). *Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), as Trixie, the comic one of the three showgirls of the title, who boldly uses her slyness, intelligence, and sexiness to snare a middle-aged Boston millionaire.
- Mercedes McCambridge. Like Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead, she was a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater group. Her distinctively low, raspy voice (she suffered from chronic bronchitis most of her life) made her a popular radio performer in the 1940s and got her the part of the voice of the demon in The Exorcist (which she had to sue to get credit for). She often played assertive career women or abrasive spinsters in movies and on television, but no matter what the role, she always projected forcefulness and seriousness. *Johnny Guitar (1954), unforgettable as Joan Crawford's butch nemesis, a vengeful Fury leading a vigilante mob out to get retribution for the killing of her brother.
- Hattie McDaniel. In studio-era Hollywood, African Americans were pretty much limited to playing servants, but at least Hattie McDaniel managed to do so with dignity, a genuinely warm personality, and as much independence as she could squeeze from the role. She's best remembered as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, but my favorite performance of hers is in another Selznick blockbuster. *Since You Went Away (1944), as Claudette Colbert's housekeeper. When she presents a birthday cake to Joseph Cotten, he asks how she managed to make it with rationing restrictions. "I tried something new this year," she answers with a twinkle in her eyes. "I bought it."
- Elizabeth Patterson. When I was growing up, I knew her as Mrs. Trumbull, Lucy's neighbor and occasional babysitter on I Love Lucy. Little did I suspect that the petite actress already had more than 100 movie roles to her credit dating back to 1926, when she was already 51 years old. She was the quintessential genteel but plucky elderly woman. *Intruder in the Dust (1949), in which she single-handedly holds off a Mississippi lynch mob trying to get to an African American man falsely accused of murder by sitting all night in the doorway of the local jail with a shotgun on her lap.
- May Robson. Born in Australia, she played mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and housekeepers in nearly 50 movies in her heyday decade, the 1930s, when she was in her seventies. *Lady for a Day (1933), Frank Capra's first great success, based on a story by Damon Runyon, as Apple Annie, the penniless apple seller who connives with gangster Dave the Dude and his cronies to stage a charade to convince her naive daughter that she is the society matron she has pretended to be in her letters.
- Claire Trevor. Born in Brooklyn, she used her accent to great effect playing the prostitutes, gun molls, and other hard-boiled dames with a heart of gold that made her famous. That she was so well-known for playing disreputable types added credibility to her roles as the more posh femme fatale she played in films noirs of the 1940s before returning to type and winning a supporting actress Oscar as the alcoholic mistress of a gangster in Key Largo (1948). *Stagecoach (1939), as the sensitive and pathetic prostitute Dallas, ashamed at being shunned by the rest of the passengers except for the alcoholic Doc Boone and the naive young Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who offers her redemption and hope in the form of non-judgmental love.
- Shelley Winters. She won two supporting actress Oscars for playing vulgar, shrewish frumps but was equally effective when playing against type. In The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton cast her as the credulous widow targeted by psycho Robert Mitchum, and she was unexpectedly sympathetic playing the victim for once rather than the self-centered victimizer. *Lolita (1962). Stanley Kubrick recognized in her vulgarity an unplumbed talent for broad comedy, and she was just plain hilarious as Lolita's mother, the pretentious social climber Charlotte Haze.