What a Character, Franklin Pangborn

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A nance, effeminate, fussbudget, aesthete or pansy performer. Franklin Pangborn was called many names but ‘successful and inspirational trailblazer’ of the character acting world suits much better. He possessed that readily recognizable face in films spanning across the first half of the twentieth century. Often playing a role of a man in the service industry, countless times he stole small scenes on the big screen.

The Early Years:

Born prior to the late nineteenth century in 1889 in Newark, New Jersey, much of his youth remains a mystery. He performed dramatic roles on the Broadway stage in handful of productions in the years 1911-1913 but not again until 1924, while serving in the first World War in the midst. He made his way into silent films but his career started kicking into high gear when he transitioned into talkies.

Pangborn kept busy in the 1930s, with over eighty appearances in films and shorts in the Pre-Code years alone. Some of his most notable films during the 30s include:

TOPPER TAKES A TRIP (1938) – hotel manager

JOY OF LIVING (1938) – orchestra leader

STAGE DOOR (1937) – “Harcourt”

EASY LIVING (1937) – “Van Buren”

MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936) – the tailor

MY MAN GODFREY (1936) – “Guthrie”

IMITATION OF LIFE (1934) – “Mr. Carven”

DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933) – theatrical producer, “Mr. Douglas”

FLYING DOWN TO RIO (1933) – hotel manager, “Hammerstein”

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By working with a parade of top directors like Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, Pangborn was finding himself not just in more and more films, but in roles of a very specific, and very comedic, type. He carried the look of “Droopy the dog” with his pronounced, dangly jowls, a thin mustache and the exaggerated mannerisms that just beg for comedy. He played characters of a variety of occupations but typically of the service, lower to mid management or hospitality field- but always with an air of culture, class and etiquette. The comedy kicks in when well-mannered, orderly Pangborn is interrupted with mayhem and chaos (as inevitably occurs every time). Then we see hilarity ensue as Franklin Pangborn loses his singular endeavor to maintain calm in the storm. As one would expect, this comedic skill was at its finest most especially for screwball comedies.

The 1940s brought even greater success as he perfected his craft. Audiences were delighted to see his popular, highly recognizable characterizations. Here is just a sampling of some impressive film highlights:

THE BANK DICK (1940) – “J Pinkerton Snoopington”

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941) – “Mr. Casalsis”

NOW, VOYAGER (1942) – “Mr. Thompson”

THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) – manager

LOVER COME BACK (1946) – hotel clerk

Television:

The 1950s was the ideal transition into TV for Pangborn. It was the hottest medium of the day and he was all over it. He found greater success of steady work making appearances on the small screen more than the big screen during this decade. He appeared in fifteen TV series in the 50s, usually with return appearances on each show.  Some of his television highlights included:

“The Mickey Rooney Show” (1955)

“The Colgate Comedy Hour” (1955)

“Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson” (1955)

“The Jack Paar Tonight Show” (1957)

*Franklin Panghorn was actually the original voice announcer for the premiere broadcast of The Tonight Show and he made repeated appearances on the show that year.

“The Red Skelton Hour” (1958)

In addition to all of his TV work, he also had a big screen gig as the Marquis de Varennes in the mega star-studded film THE STORY OF MANKIND (1958).

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He was in good company with similarly styled characters like Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. They say he influenced comedy greats that followed like Bert Lahr, Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, Nathan Lane, and Rowan Atkinson. Top filmmakers wanted to work with him. He was a favorite of WC Fields and top comedy directors like Gregory La Cava, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges.

It’s hard to say how far his career could’ve reached with this continual success because his life was abruptly interrupted by cancer. He worked right up to his illness and died after surgery for removal his tumor. A sad and premature loss but I’m happy his quirky comedy legacy lives on forever via the silver screen.

This was my contribution to the 4th annual WHAT A CHARACTER BLOGATHON, proudly hosted by Paula of PAULA’S CINEMA CLUB, Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN and me, Kellee of OUTSPOKEN & FRECKLED. Please explore all three day posts of the talented entries on each on theses sites.

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Comments

  1. Terrific career retrospective, Kellee of one of the most memorable faces in the movies. You describe Pangborn perfectly. I smiled all the way through this. 🙂

    Aurora

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  2. Finding Franklin Pangborn in a movie is like getting your favourite centre in a box of chocolates.

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  3. The first film I’d ever seen with him in it was MY MAN GODFREY (1936) and he TOTALLY stole his scene 😉

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  4. we love old black and whites… especially Capra and Sturges, so we know Pangborn’s work! Great article with a lot of good information. Thank you!

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  5. IIRC he also appears with WC Fields in the 1933 flick, “International House”, as the hotel manager who answers Field’s (flying an autogiro over the roof of the hotel) question…”Where Am I???”…with Woo-Hoo

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  6. Always excited to see Pangborn! It’s interesting that he seemed to pass so easily back and forth between A and B-unit worlds throughout his career. He’s a hotel manager in Honeymoon Lodge (1943) and a stockbroker in Allergic to Love (1944), true Bs. Like Edward Everett Horton, he always brings the same schtick, but the schtick is so good that it’s impossible to tire of it! And it’s one-of-a-kind.

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  7. My all-time favourite Pangborn role is Guthurie in My Man Godfrey. He’s just wonderful. Look forward to checking out some of those lesser roles, despite my love of that charcter I’ve obviously neglected his oeuvre!

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  8. It’s such a shame that Franklin P. died too young of cancer. He’s one of those fellows who is able to turn a script into pure gold. Even though he played a very similar character throughout most of his film career, each new role feels fresh. It never gets old.

    Here’s to one of the best – to Franklin! *clink!*

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  9. This is one actor whose name I certainly didn’t know, but now I do – thanks for helping me put a name with the face. His filmography is quite impressive; I do remember him in some of the movies you listed but not others. I’ll have to keep a look out for him from now on!

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    • It’s so fun to discover more about these character actors, isn’t it? I think that’s what is so fun about this blogathon, to be honest. I just love reading all of your posts. I learn so much!

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  10. Vicki Reisinger says:

    Franklin pangborn always signaled to me that it was a movie worth watching. I loved his talent and am grateful to have learned more about him. Thank you.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Outspoken & Freckled spotlights the always enjoyable Franklin Pangborn whose comedy shines when he’s confronted with mayhem and chaos. […]

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