A shy little man, with a twinkle in his eye that left a big impression on screen. If there was a classic Hollywood version of a leprechaun, Barry Fitzgerald was it. As campy and stereotypical as that depiction sounds, Fitzgerald was indeed funny, but there’s no doubt this was a supremely skilled dramatic actor. Small in stature perhaps, but his performances in minor roles left unforgettable mark in Hollywood masterpieces.
Born William Joseph Shields on March 10, 1888 in Portobello (Dublin), Ireland, he was working as a civil servant when his younger brother Arthur Shields (eight years younger) was acting on stage and he decided to join along as a side gig. His brother Arthur fought in Ireland’s Easter Rising in 1916, and even though William did not, he decided a stage name of Barry Fitzgerald might be best to keep his brother’s politics distant from his acting pursuits. While initially keeping his day job for steady income, William realized he had a true knack for comedy, moonlighting on stage.
“Barry Fitzgerald” started at the famed Abbey Theatre in 1917. Working with playwright Sean O’Casey, he found himself in England, starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s JUNO and PAYCOCK (1930), based on O’Casey’s successful play. Touring with Abbey in the 1930s, and thanks again to a story by Sean O’Casey, both Barry and his brother Arthur were discovered by John Ford and starred (along with Barbara Stanwyck) in Ford’s THE PLOUGH and the STARS (1936). Thus began their transition to Hollywood.
In the 30s, 40s, and 50s, Fitzgerald had gradually become a not-overnight, mature-aged success. With his thick Irish brogue and tiny physique, he was not a fit for every role, but audiences and Hollywood adored him. In fifty-one film credits, he lit up the silver screen in even the smallest parts, including an Oscar winning performance. I’ll share a few of my favorites here…
Fresh into his Hollywood career, one of my first memories of Barry Fitzgerald was in the minor role of the caretaker in Howard Hawks’ BRINGING UP BABY (1938). The screwball rom-com stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as they chase after and mix up a couple of leopards- one tame and one a man-eater. The comedic chaos called for a delightfully confused Fitzgerald as Mr. Gogarty who thinks he surely must be nipping at the whisky too much to see such a ‘big kitty’ in Connecticut.
Barry reunites with his brother and John Ford in the beautiful masterpiece that tells the story of a family of a Welsh mining town in Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941). It’s not easy to stand out in the powerhouse of the Ford stock company, especially in a film this beautiful. In my opinion, this film that was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won five, famously beat out CITIZEN KANE, deserves its reputation as a practically perfect film. And yes, the Shield brothers hold their own.
To me, there is no doubt that Barry Fitzgerald’s shining role was the one for which he earned his Oscar- for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, as Father Fitzgibbon in GOING MY WAY (1944). He delivers a truly heartfelt, sympathetic, and enduring performance as an aging priest. He’s set in his ways, very old school, resistant to change. But there’s a remarkable sweetness to this stubborn character. Perhaps it’s my own fondness for anything Irish, but an unforgettable scene is when Crosby’s Father Chuck O’Malley sings Fitzgerald’s Father Fitzgibbon an Irish lullaby as he reminiscences about his mother and his Erin homeland. It renders me weepy every time. The interesting thing about that film’s Oscar lineup, is that Fitzgerald was nominated for both Best Actor in a Supporting Role AND Best Actor in a Leading Role (competing against Bing Crosby who won). This was rectified by the Academy the following year when they outlawed such double noms within a single role. This Oscar win took place towards the end of World War 2, when metal rationing was still marching on. Fitzgerald’s statuette would normally be gold-plated bronze, but was made with plaster that year. As such, Barry accidentally and easily destroyed it in a golf swing mishap. Seems his line from the film about golf rang true. Barry Fitzgerald: “A golf course is nothing but a pool room moved outdoors.” Fitzgerald was known for playing Catholic priests but was, ironically, raised Protestant in real life.
I’ve made no secret that John Ford’s THE QUIET MAN (1952) is one of my favorite films of all-time. It couldn’t be as magical if it weren’t for John Ford’s passion to create a love song to Ireland, via his stock company. Fitzgerald steals every scene, especially when sharing scenes with larger-than-life presence of John Wayne and the dynamic beauty and sass of Maureen O’Hara. At my house, we often quote Fitzgerald’s Michaleen Oge Flynn from many of his witty lines. “When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey. When I drink water, I drink water,” as O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher asks if he wants water for his whiskey.
Other films of note that I recommend, to see his range in dramatic roles within his filmography, are Rene Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945), Richard Brooks’ THE CATERED AFFAIR (1956), and Jules Dassin’s THE NAKED CITY (1948). In the film noir THE NAKED CITY, Fitzgerald portrays Lt. Dan Muldoon. It’s a stark casting against type. Not exactly the gentle and cutesy character as typical from his past roles, Muldoon behaves like a real, work the work detective. The streets are gritty and the investigation is procedural. Nothing fancy or glam here. This police drama style set the tone for many crime dramas to come that spilled over into popular tv shows of the 1950s.
Barry Fitzgerald’s last feature film was George Pollock’s BROTH of a BOY (1959). Barry was a lifelong bachelor. He shared a Hollywood apartment with Gus D Taillon, his stand-in, who died in 1953. In 1959, Fitzgerald moved back to Dublin. Barry Fitzgerald died on January 14, 1961 at the age of 72 years old.
This article was my contribution to the 9th annual What A Character Blogathon. Co-hosted by friends and classic film gurus Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen and Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club. Be sure to read all the fascinating and informative contributions from fellow film bloggers!
9 thoughts on “Barry Fitzgerald”
Yes indeed. The “whiskey/water” line from The Quiet Man was a mantra to my dad!
Barry Fitzgerald played so many memorable characters. It is the kind ones that stay in my heart and the sneaky, duplicitous “Cooky” in The Sea Wolf that always climbs to the top of the list.
Well, I tried to Like the post but it wouldn’t take…but I DO like it, Fitzgerald is one of those reliables who had more range than he often got to display, but whose work as comic relief, good guy or bad, was part of the scaffolding that makes movies work. I’m lately a big Catered Affair fan. He was definitely one of the indispensables…
He is indelible as Father Fitzgibbon, that is always the first of his roles that comes to my mind. Then I remember And Then There Were None. Quite a character, he was.
“And then they say to me, Gogarty, you mustn’t drink.”
How interesting to learn of his ties to O’Casey and Ford. I had no idea. Even though I’ve watched many films with Fitzgerald, I never made/knew the connection.
I know Barry better from Going My Way, where he delivers a great performance – and I love the story about his broken Oscar! I hope to rewatch Bringing Up Baby and pay more attention to the tamer.
Thanks for co-hosting this great event!
Barry performance in None But The Lonely Heart was like watching my answered prayers Barry and Cary two of the most talented actors on screen doing what they do best great acting. My favorites The Quiet Man Barry stole the movie I laughed so hard I cried when his horse stopped short at the local pub.The best Barry’s face how he delivered his lines when he saw the broken bed in Wayne’s cottage , it was priceless no other actor could do it justice he’s one of a kind in movies, Barry Fitzgerald Carry Grant they’ll never be any two to match them.
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Yes! Agreed enthusiastically!