Announcement: 9th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON


Borrowing a catch-phrase from our favorite home of the classics, Turner Classic Movies, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled / @IrishJayHawk66), Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club / @Paula_Guthat) and Aurora, of Once Upon a Screen / @CitizenScreen) dedicate a blogathon to character actors for the ninth consecutive year. To the faces, the laughs, the drama presented by these wonderful actors whose names all too often go unrecognized we dedicate WHAT A CHARACTER! 2020.

The hosts extend this invitation to the WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon 2020, a slightly different event than in the past. We will all host the event on one day promoted across all three blogs. Please join us on December 5, 2020 as we pay tribute to the brilliance of the supporting players and the many films they made better.

Our objective with this TCM-inspired event has always been to spotlight lesser-known actors with talent to spare. We hope you are up for this challenge and are ready to have a bit of fun. All you have to do is adhere to the following guidelines and leave a comment with your choice of actor.

GUIDELINES:

  • Let at least one of the hosts know which character actor is your choice.
  • Do not take it for granted we know exactly who you are or where your blog resides – please include the title and URL of your blog and your Twitter handle if you have one.
  • We will not accept previously published posts, or duplicates, since there are so many greats worthy of attention, but your choices are not limited to classics. You can choose any character actor from any era and from the movies or television, which has featured talented regulars since the beginning
  • Publish your WHAT A CHARACTER! post on or before December 5, 2020. 
  • Please include the gorgeous event banner in your What A Character! post. It would be great if you could help us promote this event.
  • Thank you for sending any of us the direct link to your post once you have published it. Searching on social media sites can lead to missed entries.
  • HAVE FUN and happy blogging!

PARTICIPANTS:

BEULAH BONDI … Aurora/@CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen

RICHARD ERDMAN … Paula/ @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club

BARRY FITZGERALD … Kellee/ @IrishJayhawk66 of Outspoken & Freckled

EVE ARDEN … Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

GEOFFREY KEEN … Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

HARRY CORDING … Paddy/ @CaftanWoman of Caftan Woman

ANNE REVERE … May of Brizzy Mays Books And Bruschetta

HERBERT MARSHALL … Tonya/ @tonyalit of Goosepimply All Over

RAYMOND MASSEY … Rich/ @ratzo318 of Wide Screen World

MARY ASTOR … Lesley/ @zleegaspar of Second Sight Cinema

DIANA RIGG … @realweegiemidge of Real Weegie Midget Reviews

SZ “CUDDLES” SAKALL … Kayla of Whimsically Classic

ERNIE MORRISON … Le/ @startspreading of Critica Retro

CELESTE HOLM … Ruth/ @925screenings of Silver Screenings

Frank McHugh, Everybody’s Pal

Frank McHugh (1898–1981)

Frank McHugh was never destined to be the top banana in a film. He lacked any traditional leading man looks. His voice was never skilled to ever become a songbird. And other than portraying a dancing cat with simple steps while chewing a cigar, he was certainly no Fred Astaire. But he had all the right stuff to be a very popular second banana in over 170 roles from 1929 to 1969, across Broadway, film, and television.

Francis Curray McHugh was born May 23, 1898 in Homestead, Pennsylvania into the entertainment industry to his vaudevillian parents, as he and his siblings joined the family business before Frank turned double digits. As a youngster in his parents’ McHugh Stock Company (Edward and Catherine McHugh based in Braddock, PA), he was schooled in Pittsburgh then joined the Marguerite Bryant Players at the age of 17, alongside Guy Kibbee. He went on to tour stages across the country, including a stint on Broadway in 1925. He married fellow actress Dorothy Spencer in 1928. He moved to Hollywood in 1929 and a year later, he was signed on as a contract player for Warner Brothers.

While he cranked out films in Hollywood like a racehorse, he claimed he never felt like one. If anything, he said that he found acting in Hollywood to be a pretty easy gig. He suggested that he never acted, instead his approach was natural and essentially himself. “Mostly I wound up as the friend- dumb but loyal. I guess my dumb look was convincing.”*

McHugh had the knack for the easy-going sidekick. Frequently as a drunken working guy. In those early talkies, when he wasn’t playing a drunk reporter, he was the prize-fighter’s second. Frank laughed, “… for the next three or four years I did nothing else but play drunken reporters. I finally had to call a halt to it. I didn’t mind being a drunken reporter, but it was getting to that the only time they called for me was for that role.”* 

By 1950, he was in his early fifties and moved his family from Hollywood to Connecticut, just outside NYC. Like many others of his experience and age, McHugh made the transition to television at this time, mostly of the ‘live drama’ productions. But he also found work on westerns, comedy, and variety shows like “F Troop” (1966), “The Red Skelton Hour” (1959), “The Lucy Show” (1967), and as “Willie” for 27 episodes on “The Bing Crosby Show” (1964-65). On September 11, 1981, at the age of 83, he died of natural causes.

Hollywood's Irish Mafia_All Irish Americans the original members of the group were Cagney, McHugh, O'Brien & Tracy_ Ralph Bellamy and Frank Morgan joined later

In the 1930s, decades before the ‘rat pack’ of Sinatra, Dino, Sammy and the rest of the swinging Vegas cool set, Hollywood originated the concept with an Irish-American version known as the ‘Irish Mafia,’ a term coined jokingly by columnist Sidney Skolsky, although they simply called themselves ‘the boys club.’ In addition to Frank McHugh, there was James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Spencer Tracy. Later came Allen Jenkins, Lynne Overton, George Brent, Louis Calhern, William Gargan, Regis Toomey, Ralph Bellamy, Lloyd Nolan, Frank Morgan, with James Gleason and Bert Lahr tagging along.

In those early years, when he wasn’t paling around with his fellow Irish blokes off-set, he worked nearly every film Warner Brothers made….many with Cagney (11 films), O’Brien, and Jenkins. Because he often served as comic relief- with his unique laugh like a funny, wheezing squeezebox, “ha ha ha…”- he brought a good-natured ease next to some of the biggest names of classic Hollywood. Here are some stand-outs for me…

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In William A Wellman’s LILLY TURNER (1933), McHugh gives a compelling performance as a more complex alcoholic than his typical lighter fare of jovial drunk. It’s a meatier role for Frank. Co-starring Ruth Chatteron and George Brent, it’s a Pre-Code I recommend.

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During this same era of Pre-Code splendor, Busby Berkley musicals reigned supreme. Co-starring his friend James Cagney, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, and Ruby Keeler, the same year turned out Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE. McHugh gives a memorably funny spin on the exasperated dance instructor, who goes toe-to-toe with the great hoofer Cagney in a big musical production- of feline focus. Take a look as cigar-chewing Frank McHugh practices with crooning Dick Powell: CLICK HERE

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In Tay Garnett’s ONE WAY PASSAGE (1932), escaped murderer William Powell finds true love on the high seas with a terminally ill Kay Francis. McHugh is a mischievous petty thief who has some great albeit small scenes, including one where he fools a bartender. It’s a true Pre-Code so don’t expect a sunny or miraculous surprise. But you get hilarious McHugh (yes, he plays a drunk again but look for an especially funny gag with a mirror), plus Powell and Francis as the leads in a beautifully doomed romance, so who cares?

Frank McHugh (R) in Going My Way (1944)

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Leo McCary’s GOING MY WAY (1944). Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, and Frank McHugh all as Irish-American priests… be still my shamrock heart. McHugh worked on many Academy Award nominated films, and this one, which won the Best Picture Oscar, along with many awards, is certainly a prime example. It’s a beautiful film saturated in Irish culture and McHugh does his smaller role justice aplenty.

Despite being such a reliable inclusion for decades in Hollywood, he earned few awards. He did earn accolades from both the US military and servicemen for his great contributions to WW2 war efforts. McHugh supported the war efforts through star-studded USO tours including the multi-city Hollywood Victory Canteen train tour. For more information, I encourage you to read this piece from the NY Public Library, based on his archived documents, the Frank McHugh Papers.

I don’t believe Frank McHugh gets the attention he deserves for such a prolific career. Hard-working folks like Frank rarely do because they are humble regarding their contributions and their talents make it look easy (when it’s not). What are some of your favorite FM films?


This article was my contribution to the WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, Nov. 15 -17th, 2019. Hosted by Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen, Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club, and yours truly. We have enjoyed hosting this blogathon for eight years. I encourage you to read all entries and leave glowing comments on their sites. 

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*(“No Retirement For Frank McHugh,” The Blade, Toledo, Ohio, Nov. 19, 1967)

Seeing Donald Pleasence

Seeing Donald Pleasence

As a (slightly rusty) artist, I’m always people watching. I don’t sketch as much as I used to, and now it’s mostly dogs, but I still find myself looking deeply at people features, their body language, attitude, smile, and gate… but mostly I look at their eyes.

And it’s for that reason why my entry for the What A Character! Blogathon is the English Actor Donald Pleasence.

Donald had a remarkable demeanor which complemented any role he took on…with his bald, distinct look, his smile that could run the gamut from a sneer to a broad grin, and his eyes… eyes that could telegraph with equal weight and emotion… humor, madness, delight or sincerity. Couple that with his acting range and you find a memorable on screen, stage, and tv personality who will live on for generations.

Though he played a range of wonderful characters in his day, he became known as someone who could pull off the more extreme of character archetypes, from a fanatical President in Escape from New York (1981) to a double agent in Fantastic Voyage (1966) to the arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1969).

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But far and above my favorite role was an early one, that of Colin Blythe, a mild-mannered prisoner of a German POW camp in The Great Escape (1963)

He isn’t an exaggerated character in this role, but a struggling one, a gentle, quiet, intelligent, prisoner, who while playing a vital role in a choreographed escape, starts to rapidly go blind. And just as his blindness is discovered and his only hope of escape vanishes, his friend (James Garner) steps in with an offer to take care of him and to lend him his sight. It is throughout all of this I see Donald’s eyes, so expressive in humor, grief, fear, despair, and friendship.

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Beside Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (1969), and the trio of friends in Gunga Din (1939), this is my favorite buddy relationship in any film. My reasoning, the characters are heroic and sweet, charming and good-natured, burdened and generous. You feel their growing friendship and leave no man behind promise. To my mind, it’s THE most authentic of any buddy relationship I’ve had a chance to view on film.

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And throughout the film, as he experiences and expresses a range of emotion, from his early scenes forging documents for the escape, to when his realizes he would be a liability to the group, on up until the final moment when Colin meets his untimely end at the hands of a German patrol, I look at his eyes. For it’s there that I find the spirit of this character actor, time and again.


The above article and original artwork is a guest post- created by Gary Pratt. In addition to being my husband, Gary would likely describe himself as a Santa Claus wanna-be, who grew up on a pig farm, then became an artist. He has spent a majority of his adult years leading innovation in the corporate world, and loves being a dad when he’s not otherwise watching old movies and scribbling cartoons. 

This post is a contribution to the 8th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, hosted by Kellee Pratt @IrishJayhawk66 of Outspoken & Freckled, Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen, and Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club. Be sure to read all the entries from this multi-day event. 

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Announcement: It’s the 8th Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon

Edna May Oliver & James Gleason - The Penguin Pool Murder (1932)

It’s hard to believe we’ve been hosting this blogathon for eight years now. But perhaps not that shocking considering that discussing those scene-stealing character actors is a crowd-pleasing pastime amongst cinephiles.

Wise-cracking Eve Arden, nurturing Louise Beavers, sassy Thelma Ritter, double-take pro Edward Everett Horton, tart-tongued Edna May Oliver, gravelly-voiced Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, fatherly Charles Coburn, frazzled Franklin Pangborn, bull frog voiced, barrel-chested Eugene Pallette, cigar chomping Ned Sparks… these and so many more lovable character actors are who we look forward to seeing as our dearest ole chums. Couldn’t we all could use a trusted sidekick?

For the eighth consecutive year, we as the blogathon hosting trio of Aurora of Once Upon A Screen@CitizenScreen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club@Paula_Guthat, and yours truly- Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled/ @IrishJayhawk66 invite you to join us for the WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON 2019, November 15, 16, 17, as we pay tribute to the brilliance of the supporting players.

Our objective for the What A Character! Blogathon has always been to shed the spotlight on these lesser-known but equally talented thespians, whose names usually appeared below the title. If you wish salute your favorite on-screen character actor- the quirky maid, that ornery hotel manager, frustrated maître D’, sassy best friend, a hot-tempered heavy, flabbergasted father, sarcastic sidekick, grumpy boss, gobsmacked butler- then you’ve come to the right place. Please review the guidelines below first, and leave me a comment.

  • Let at least one of the hosts know which character actor is your choice.
  • Don’t take it for granted we know exactly who you are or where your blog resides – please include the title and URL of your blog, also your Twitter handle if you have one.
  • We will not accept previously published posts, or duplicates, since there are so many greats worthy of attention, but your choices are not limited to classics. You can choose any character actor from any era and from the medium of television, which has featured talented regulars since the beginning, and continues to do so.
  • Publish your WAC! post on either November 15, 16, or 17, 2019. Let us know if you have a date preference; otherwise, we’ll split publicizing duties equally among the three days.
  • Please include one of our banners (see below) within your What A Character! post.
  • Additionally, please include the WAC! 2019 event banner included in this post on your blog itself to help us promote the event.
  • Thank you for sending any of us the direct link to your post once you have published it. Searching on social media sites can lead to missed entries.
  • My contact info: prattkellee@gmail.com / twitter~ @IrishJayhawk66 ~or, simply leave a comment below
  • HAVE FUN and spread the word!

BANNER:

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Participating Bloggers/Character Actors:

Beulah Bondi / Once Upon A Screen @CitizenScreen

Frank McHugh / Outspoken & Freckled @IrishJayhawk66

Bratt Pitt / Paula’s Cinema Club @Paula_Guthat

Richard Erdman / Paulas Cinema Club @Paula_Guthat

Hedda Hopper / Carole and Co. @vp81955

Frank Faylen / A Shroud of Thoughts @mercurie80

Thelma Ritter / The Last Drive-in

Fay Bainter (in The Lady and the Mob (1939) / The Movie Night’s Group Guide to Classic Film

Barton MacLane / Silver Screen Classics Blog @PaulBee71

Charles Coburn / Second Sight Cinema @zleegaspar

Keenan Wynn / The Cinephile & Mrs. Muir

George Zucco / Caftan Woman @CaftanWoman

Una O’Connor / Wide Screen World @ratzo318

Charlie Ruggles / Nickie’s Vintage Life (Instagram)

William Powell / That William Powell site

Franklin Pangborn / Silver Screenings @925screenings

 

 

Skelton Knaggs

This following is a guest post on SKELTON KNAGGS for the 7th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON. The author is Bill Shaffer- President of the Kansas Silent Film Festival, recently retired as Director of KTWU for over 40 years, the go-to fella for anything happening in the “old movie realm” in this corner of the Sunflower State, a spaghetti western aficionado, and a helluva swell guy and personal friend…

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Skelton Knaggs is one of my favorite character actors because – wait a second! Skelton Knaggs? Who is that? Well, I often remember him as the creepy little guy in various 1940’s-era horror movies – three for Val Lewton’s unit at RKO and three more for Universal. However, the most famous bit I ever saw him in was as a menacing gunslinger hanging around Jane Russell’s hotel in Paramount’s terrific Bob Hope comedy, THE PALEFACE from 1948. One look at that face and hearing that voice like a rasping knife and he’s pretty hard to forget.

Knaggs was born in 1911 across the pond in the Hillsborough district of Sheffield, England. He moved to London where he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and became a Shakespearean actor. Aside from doing the Shakespeare plays on stage, Knaggs appeared in a few British films including 1939’s Michael Powell production, THE SPY IN BLACK where he was cast as a German orderly. He quickly found his way to Los Angeles and began appearing in Hollywood films including TORTURE SHIP (also 1939) and DIAMOND FRONTIER (1941). He was often cast in sinister parts in horror films due to his diminutive and eccentric looks, his prominent teeth and his bony, pock-marked face. He didn’t have too many lines. One look at that face and you’ll remember him.

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His first association with producer Val Lewton was not a particularly good one, although the film, THE GHOST SHIP (1943) turned out to be one of his best. Knaggs played the part of a mute sailor who narrates the story even though he never speaks. This impressively suspenseful Lewton film was directed by Mark Robson, but it became the center of a plagiarism case in which the plaintiff won and all prints of the film had to be pulled from theaters. It sadly did not see the light of a movie or TV screen until the mid-1990’s. A stunning DVD version appeared in 2006, thanks to Warner Home Video. For Lewton, there were also performances in ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) and BEDLAM (1946), both with Boris Karloff. He also supported Karloff in DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (1947) and landed another part in DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL (1946).

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For Universal, Knaggs had good bits in THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (1944) with Vincent Price, the all-star monster mash, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) and the Sherlock Holmes thriller, TERROR BY NIGHT (1946). In between all of these genre productions, Knaggs also managed appearances in some top-rated films like NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART (1943) with Cary Grant, THE LODGER (1944) with Laird Cregor, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945) with Hurd Hatfield and Donna Reed, FOREVER AMBER (1947) with Linda Darnell and the aforementioned PALEFACE (1948) with Bob Hope and Jane Russell.

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After MASTER MINDS in 1949 with the Bowery Boys, Knaggs returned to London where he married Thelma Crawshaw and then returned to Hollywood for a number of film performances. There was CAPTAIN VIDEO: MASTER OF THE STRATOSPHERE, a 1951 serial for Columbia Pictures that ran for 15-chapters in as many weeks, BLACKBEARD THE PIRATE (1952) with Robert Newton, ROGUE’S MARCH (1953) with Peter Lawford and Richard Greene, BOTANY BAY (1953) with Alan Ladd, CASANOVA’S BIG NIGHT (1954) again with Bob Hope and finally, MOONFLEET in 1955, a period adventure film with Stewart Granger and James Mason. It was the final American film to be directed by German-emigre, Fritz Lang. It would be the last film for Skelton Knaggs. He was battling alcohol addiction and died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 43 in Los Angeles.  

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This post is an entry in the 7th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, as hosted by Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen, Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club and Kellee @IrishJayhawk66 of Outspoken & Freckled. Follow up with all 3 days of this mega blogging event, Dec 14 – 16, 2018, for informative contributions!     

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Announcing the 7th Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON

Announcing the SEVENTH ANNUAL What A Character! Blogathon
December 14-16, 2018

GoldDiggersOf193324-650x493When you re-watch your favorite films, what keeps you coming back for more? A great story with sharp writing? No doubt. Beautiful costumes, swanky set designs, and stunning cinematography? Most assuredly. But the performances are key to any movie. While we all look forward to the popular leading actors, it is the stand-out, scene-stealing supporting actors that feel like “home.”

Wise-cracking Eve Arden, nurturing Louise Beavers, sassy Thelma Ritter, double-take pro Edward Everett Horton, tart-tongued Edna May Oliver, gravelly-voiced Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, fatherly Charles Coburn, frazzled Franklin Pangborn, bull frog voiced, barrel-chested Eugene Pallette, cigar chomping Ned Sparks… these and so many more lovable character actors are who we look forward to seeing as our dearest ole chums. We all could use a trusted sidekick.

For the seventh consecutive year, we as the blogathon hosting trio of Aurora of Once Upon A Screen/ @CitizenScreen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club/ @Paula_Guthat, and yours truly Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled/ @IrishJayhawk66 invite you to join us for the WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON 2018, December 14, 15, 16, as we pay tribute to the brilliance of the supporting players.

Our objective for the What A Character! Blogathon has always been to shed the spotlight on these lesser-known but equally talented thespians, whose names usually appeared below the title. If you wish salute your favorite on-screen character actor- the quirky maid, that ornery hotel manager, frustrated maître D’, sassy best friend, a hot-tempered heavy, flabbergasted father, sarcastic sidekick, grumpy boss, gobsmacked butler- then you’ve come to the right place. Please review the guidelines below first, and leave me a comment.

  • Let at least one of the hosts know which character actor is your choice.
  • Don’t take it for granted we know exactly who you are or where your blog resides – please include the title and URL of your blog, also your Twitter handle if you have one.
  • We will not accept repeats (previously published posts), or duplicates, since there are so many greats worthy of attention, but your choices are not limited to classics. You can choose any character actor from any era and from the medium of television, which has featured talented regulars since the beginning, and continues to do so.
  • Publish your WAC! post on either December 14, 15, or 16, 2018. Let us know if you have a date preference; otherwise, we’ll split publicizing duties equally among the three days.
  • Please include one of our banners (see below) within your What A Character! post.
  • Additionally, we appreciate when you include [one of] the WAC! 2018 event banner[s] included in this post on your blog itself to help us promote the event.
  • Thank you for sending any of us the direct link to your post once you have published it. Searching on social media sites can lead to missed entries.
  • My contact info: prattkellee@gmail.com / twitter~ @IrishJayhawk66 ~or, simply leave a comment below
  • HAVE FUN and spread the word!

Here are the spectacular banners Aurora has created for you to promote on your blogs…

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Participating blogs and their choice of actors:

Walter Abel ~ Another Old Movie Blog

Sara Allgood ~Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

Lionel Atwill ~ Paula’s Cinema Club

Beulah Bondi ~ Once Upon A Screen

Elisha Cook, Jr. ~ Outspoken & Freckled

Jean Dixon ~ One Gal’s Musings

Alan Hale (Sr) ~ Silver Screen Classics

Margaret Hamilton ~ Wide Screen World

Ed Harris ~ Reel Weedgie Midget Reviews

Eileen Heckart ~ The Last Drive-In

Frieda Inescort ~ Sister Celluloid

Skelton Knaggs ~ Bill Shaffer, guest blogger on Outspoken & Freckled

Jack Lambert ~ Caftan Woman

Charles McGraw ~ The Old Hollywood Garden

Stephen McNally ~ CineMaven’s Essays From The Couch

Agnes Morehead ~ In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood

Eugene Pallette ~ Carole & Co.

Elizabeth Patterson ~ Backstory: A Guide To Classic Film

Nat Pendleton ~ Sarah as guest blogger on Once Upon A Screen

Thelma Ritter ~ A Shroud Of Thoughts

Everett Sloane in LADY FROM SHANGHAI ~ Silver Screenings

Kay Thompson ~ The Lady Eve’s Reel Life

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*This WAC! Blogathon is dedicated in memory to two very fine character actors whom we lost this year. James Karen (1923 – 2018) was a hard-working actor who was a personal friend of Buster Keaton and frequent attendee of the Buster Keaton Celebration in Kansas and the TCMFF. Vanessa Marquez (1968 – 2018) was an extraordinary actress of film and TV and an even better friend. She is greatly missed and we continue to hold her close in our hearts.

Thank you to TCM for the tagline inspiration and to all you bloggers and film fans for your ongoing participation and support for seven years running! And a big ShoutOut to my fellow co-hosts who inspire me all year long for being such marvelous and lovely characters themselves!

~Kellee

 

 

 

Zasu Pitts, Funny Lady with a Funny Name

 

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First things first. Before I can gush on about this distinctively funny lady with the fluttering hands that stole every scene, one must learn how to say her name correctly. Oh sure, many of my ‘old movie weirdo’ friends may know, but it’s a common mistake. To honor her properly, let’s begin with this lesson, provided via Thelma Todd and ZaSu herself:

YouTube: ZaSu Pitts: Learn My Name!

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Now that we all know how say “Say-zoo,” a name which is a combo of her aunts Eliza and Susan, let’s explore the memorable ways this distinctive lady who began life not too far from me in Parsons, Kansas, became one of the most recognized faces in Hollywood.

Her most notable characters were the woeful worrywarts. Physically, her appearance was defined by delicate, thin lines and a frequent focus on her ever- waving, fidgeting fingers. Her tiny mouth was shaped like a kewpie doll with the corners often turned down. Her large, soft eyes were doe-like and she usually looked upward. Her voice had a distinctive mumbling of melancholic concern, often with an “oh dear…” muttering to herself. She gained the reputation of stealing every scene.

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ZaSu’s signature characterizations were such a fan favorite she was parodied in cartoons, a reflection that she was immersed in pop culture. If you’ve seen Olive Oyl from Max Fleischer’s Popeye the Sailor cartoons, you are already familiar with the signature ZaSu Pitts tone and voice. She was also featured in Looney Tunes, in Hollywood-ribbing toons like “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood.”

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Pitts often faced the challenge of looking too similar to Lillian Gish. Here, with Mary Pickford, THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1917).

Born Eliza Susan Pitts on January 3rd, 1894 (her 124th birthday is next month), the family moved to Santa Cruz, California seeking sunnier opportunities. Despite her shy demeanor and bird-like qualities, Pitts was a natural performing on stage and moved to LA by age twenty-one. Working a small part with icon Mary Pickford, A LITTLE PRINCESS (1917) was her first break on the big screen.

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Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece GREED 

Soon, she was starring in one-reelers and feature films, working with greats like directors King Vidor and Eric Von Stroheim (i.e. the silent masterpiece, GREED)- in a range of parts from tragedy to comedy to drama. Her popularity increased in the 1930s, with a demand for her in character roles in comedies. She was partnered in series with Thelma Todd (Hal Roach promoted the two as a female Laurel and Hardy) and with Slim Summerville.

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mastering comedy with Thelma Todd

The 1940s brought her success to radio, vaudeville and Broadway, working with the biggest names in entertainment. She transitioned easily to television in the 1950s, in popular roles like cruise ship beautician Elvira Nugent on “The Gale Storm Show.” But this decade also introduced ill health, with a cancer diagnosis. As a fitting tribute to her own career, her last role would be in the epic ensemble of comic legends, in IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963). Even with health battles, she continued working until her death at the age of sixty-nine on June 7, 1963.

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Pitts’ last role in IT’s A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD

ZaSu Pitts was a true wallflower success story. She proved that a shy girl from Kansas, with more matronly than cover-girl looks, could be a huge star as a character actress. She worked from the silents to the sixties, in every entertainment medium (film, radio, vaudeville, television and on Broadway), from dramatic roles to comedy, and she worked with some of the biggest stars and filmmakers in Hollywood’s heydays.

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The more ZaSu films I watch, the more I am thoroughly charmed by her. And to see her range from tragic epic dramatic roles like GREED to super silly shorts with Thelma Todd, I am also in awe of her talent. What a character!

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This article on character acting legend ZaSu Pitts is my contribution to the 6th annual WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and yours truly. You can read the other entries on character actors from this blogathon from days one, two and three:

It’s here! 6th Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon: Day One

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The anticipation is over! Today we bring you the first day of the 6th annual What A Character Blogathon, hosted by yours truly and my fellow co-hosts, the classic film loving ladies: Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club @Paula_Guthat and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen @CitizenScreenings.

As promised, this annual event celebrates the character actors. Quirky and silly roles in the service industry like the frustrated hotel manager or the reliable and sharp-witted maid, a supportive sidekick, the best friend… in so many ways, the character role is often our favorite scene-stealing performances of a film. We invite bloggers to scribe on their favorite characters. Now let’s begin!

Ruth of Silver Screenings brings us THE BEAUTIFUL REFUGEES OF CASABLANCA . She focuses on the lesser-known players in the iconic film in stunning imagery.

Real Weegie Midget Reviews talks about IAN MCSHANE whom he describes as “always been there in movies, on TV and now making his God-like presence known… from cheeky British Chappie to “Dallas” to God-like parts.”

Jack Deth, as guest blogger on Paula’s Cinema Club, describes the “wise ass to the stars” DANIEL STERN, “creating multiple personae for cinema and television, while holding on tightly to his gift of dry, wry. sarcastic and occasional wise-ass humor.”

Steve Bailey of Movie Movie Blog Blog offers a glimpse into “one of those actors whom most people probably wouldn’t recognize by name, but as soon as they see him on-screen, they say, “Yeah, I’ve seen that guy before.”  BRUCE ALTMAN, UNHERALDED SUPPORTING ACTOR.

Wolffian Classics Movies Digest explores EUGENE PALLETTE, “simply a marvelous actor in any role.”

Chris of Blog Of The Darned profiles CHARLES LANE, “Specializing in crabby authority figures, Charles Lane was the go-to guy when film or TV producers needed a mean miserly lawyer, judge, tax collector, banker, or landlord.”

Paddy of Caftan Woman hears the “full, rich baritone – a round voice, a pleasing voice – a voice in control of itself” of JOHN ALEXANDER We know that voice!

Annette of Hometowns To Hollywood road trips via Minnesota to review CLINTON SUNDBERG 

Quiggy of The Midnite Drive-In takes us on a ROAD TO MADNESS, exploring the many character roles of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

A Person In The Dark reviews “a real pro” who worked both stage and screen, from the silents to the sixties, REGINALD DENNY.

Movie Mom provides her take on THELMA RITTER For her, “Ritter is the very essence of the character actor, creating vitally real, relatable characters who made the world around the stars real and illuminate the story’s themes.”

Thoughts All Sorts shows love for A Strong Character in MARK STRONG.

More to come! Return back here throughout the day for more entries.  As our weekend of What A Character! Blogathon continues, explore Day Two with Aurora at ONCE UPON A SCREEN and Day Three with Paula at PAULA’S CINEMA CLUB.

 

Announcement: 6th Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON

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Announcing the SIXTH ANNUAL What A Character! Blogathon
December 15-17, 2017

When you think about your very favorite classic movies, what makes them your favorites? The films worth watching multiple times, endlessly discussing, or just chilling out with…what makes them the cinematic equivalent of comfort food? Sure, great writing is key, but those lines are just words without the right actors delivering them. Beautiful costumes are great, but without the right actors wearing them, they’re just clothes. Stunning, authentic art direction and set design are wonderful, but empty, without the right actors inhabiting that world. And gorgeous cinematography can only hold your eye for so long, without the right actors being lit. And so on.

Chances are, it’s not just the perfect leads that win your go-to films their place in your heart — it’s their pals and sidekicks as well. The wise-cracking best friend or fellow chorine, cranky boss, sympathetic bartender, confirmed spinster secretary, intrepid cop, jealous girlfriend, second-in-command racketeer or bomber pilot, workaholic director…faces familiar from their appearances in many films over the years, their names — not so much. To take a couple obvious examples, what would Casablanca be without Dooley Wilson, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau, John Qualen, and Leonid Kinskey? How about My Man Godfrey without Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, Gail Patrick, Jean Dixon, Alan Mowbray, and Mischa Auer? Probably pretty good films, but just not the same, not as lovable, not as classic.

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Thus the objective of the What A Character! Blogathon has always been to shed the spotlight on these lesser-known but equally talented thespians, whose names usually appeared below the title, but who always elevated any kind of material from Oscar-winning to the most tired, often without saying a word. Please join us- Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club/ @Paula_Guthat, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen/ @CitizenScreen, and yours truly Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled/ @IrishJayhawk66 – for the SIXTH year in a row of paying tribute to the versatility and depth of supporting players.
If a salute to lesser-known but essential Hollywood thespians is right up your movie alley, please review the guidelines below, then leave me a comment below.

  • Let at least one of the hosts know which character actor is your choice.
  • Don’t take it for granted we know exactly who you are or where your blog resides – please include the title and URL of your blog, also your Twitter handle if you have one.
  • We will not accept repeats (previously published posts), or duplicates, since there are so many greats worthy of attention, but your choices are not limited to classics. You can choose any character actor from any era and from the medium of television, which has featured talented regulars since the beginning, and continues to do so.
  • Publish your WAC! post on either December 15, 16, or 17, 2017. Let us know if you have a date preference; otherwise, we’ll split publicizing duties equally among the three days.
  • Please include [one of] the WAC! 2017 event banner[s] included in this post on your blog to help us promote the event. Please also include the banner in your What A Character! post.
  • Please send any of us the direct link to your post once you have published it. Searching on social media sites can lead to missed entries. My contact info: prattkellee@gmail.com / twitter~ @IrishJayhawk66 ~or, simply leave a comment below
  • HAVE FUN and spread the word!

Thank you to TCM for the tagline inspiration and to all you bloggers and film fans for your ongoing participation and support for six years running!

Participating blogs and their choice of actors:

Caftan Woman – John Alexander

Movie Movie Blog Blog – Bruce Altman

Taking Up Room – Eve Arden

The Last Drive In – Martin Balsam

Old Hollywood Films – Beulah Bondi

Wide Screen World – Alan Hale, Sr.

The Old Hollywood Garden – Edward Everett Horton

Real Weegie Midget Reviews – Ian McShane

In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood – Agnes Moorehead

Wolfian Classic Movies Digest – Eugene Pallette

Carole & Co. – Nat Pendleton

Outspoken & Freckled – ZaSu Pitts

The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog – Michael Ripper

The Dream Book Blog – Elizabeth Russell

A Shroud of Thoughts – William Schallert

Cinematic Scribblings – Haruko Sugimura

Hometowns to Hollywood – Clinton Sundberg

Once Upon a Screen – Mary Wickes

Silver Screenings – European Character Actors in Casablanca

Silver Scenes – TBA

~Kellee

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Joan Blondell, Shining Star Forced to be a Satellite

“I don’t know what the secret to longevity as an actress is… maybe it’s the audience seeing itself in you.” … Joan Blondell

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Joanie should know. Joan Blondell, born Rose Joan Blondell on August 30, 1906, in NYC, lived her entire life performing on stage and screen. She died of leukemia on December 25, 1979 in Santa Monica, CA. It is bittersweet to honor this remarkable woman so close to what will be the 37th anniversary of her death this Christmas day.

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Joan was born to entertain audiences. She cut her teeth working with her comic parents on the vaudeville stages from age three to seventeen, while educated at the Professional Children’s School. She was a seasoned pro by the time she transitioned to the Ziegfeld Follies and then onto the Broadway stage.

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It was a Broadway production that paired her with James Cagney, which lead to five more celebrated film features, starting with John G. Adolfi’s SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (1931) where they reprised their stage roles. The other Blondell/Cagney paired films that followed are:  William Wellman’s OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931), William Wellman’s THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), Howard Hawks’ THE CROWD ROARS (1932), Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), and HE WAS HER MAN (1934). The chemistry sizzle on the screen was visible between these two talents, making for memorable performances that launched both of their careers into an explosion of roles in the Pre-Code era. While they supposedly kept their romance limited to the screen, Cagney said she was the only woman other than his wife he ever loved.

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But to give you some perspective on just how much Blondell worked starting with the early talkies of the Pre-Codes and throughout the duration of the 1930s, she was in over fifty films during that decade alone. Most of this ridiculously busy schedule could be attributed to her contract with Warner Brothers. They kept her working fast and furious in roles at a time when being employed was a very good thing. And she enjoyed her WB family of co-star friends and filming crews immensely. The problem was, while she found herself in-demand and in work, she was not only typecast but stuck below the top tier of the marquee.

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While others demanded more and knew how to cause ripples within the political studio system in a persuasive way (like her good friend Bette Davis), Blondell thought of her job as a job. Joan punched the clock and went home when the job was done. She worked extremely hard, acted consistently professional, but didn’t desire to play the ambitious game.

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Working free of the studio playbook in the 1940s and 1950s, the work was less frequent and the pace less brutal; yet offered some meatier roles, such as Gail Richards in TOPPER RETURNS (1941), Aunt Sissy in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945), Zeena Krumbein in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), and Annie Rawlins in THE BLUE VEIL (1951) for which she was nominated for An Oscar, Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Even still, she struggled to garner critical acclaim in a way that moved her name up to the leading lady, mega star status.

The 1950s ushered in the television age and Joan Blondell was determined to be a player. The frequency of roles kept her busier but yet again, she found herself working harder, not smarter in struggling to move her name to the top position in billing.

The 1960s and 1970s brought memorable roles such as Jenny in SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER (1971), Lady Fingers in THE CINCINNATI KID (1965), Sarah Goode in OPENING NIGHT (1977) and Dolly in THE CHAMP (1979). Her TV work continued with roles such as Lottie Hatfield in “Here Come the Brides.” Fans unaware of her saucy and leggy days as a Pre-Code platinum blonde may know her more for her later work such as Vi in GREASE (1978) or caught her in reruns from retro TV networks such her bit parts in 50’s TV westerns, Starsky and Hutch (1976), The Love Boat (1978), Fantasy Island (1979) and so much more.

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She worked right up until the end, even while battling the Leukemia that ultimately took her life in 1979, with her last role being Aunt Coll in THE WOMAN INSIDE (1981), released posthumously. With 160 acting credits to her name, and after publishing her popular 1972 autobiographical novel “Center Door Fancy,” Joan never quit.

Married three times, divorced three times, her first husband famed cinematographer George S. Barnes (m. 1933-1936) was a decision reflecting her “naive sophisticate”(as James Cagney called her) ways of a younger Joanie, fresh in her film career. Emotionally dysfunctional, this relationship was fated for disaster. Barnes was still married to his third wife as their romance grew and he assured her the marriage was on paper only and would be ended swiftly. During this time of officially divorcing his third wife and marrying Joan (he went on to marry for a total seven times), she became pregnant and he arranged for the termination. Their son and only child from the marriage, TV producer/director Norman Scott Barnes was born in 1934 but later changed his last name to Powell in 1938 when Barnes relinquished all parental rights and he was adopted by Joan’s second husband.

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Her second marriage to actor Dick Powell (m. 1936-1944) was more stable but tepid in romance. In addition to adopting Norman, they had a child together, Ellen Powell, who is known for her makeup department work in film and tv, such as her Emmy nominated work in hair styling.

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Joan and Dick made ten musicals together. But after they both had grown weary of the incessant typecasting of formulaic musicals each began over a decade prior, just as they attempted to move their careers in more dramatic roles, their marriage also became stagnant. Right up until the time Dick left Joan for actress June Allyson. In this same pivotal year Dick Powell left one marriage for another, he left his sugary musicals and boyish charm behind with MURDER MY SWEET (1944), launching a dramatically different type in his cinematic world with film noir and never looked back.

Her last husband (m. 1947-1950), producer Michael Todd was said to be physically abusive and a financial mess, thanks to heavy gambling and repeatedly poor investments. She found this relationship to be her most passionate. Great for the bedroom initially but later his behavior revealed itself into abuse. His chaotic ways also wiped out her savings. So she continued to work for the next three decades-because financially she had to.

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She wasn’t always lucky in love or ambition, but certainly made up for it in talent, enduring work ethic and generosity of spirit. Time after time, this unforgettable performer played second-fiddle, the rapid-fire, sharp-tongued best friend, the second lead, the snarky office gal, the lingerie-clad roomie, the sharp opportunist, the frowzy, lovable saloon owner, the gangster’s girlfriend, the wise aunt, and the down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is scene-stealer. She was all these nuances of woman and more. She mastered tv and film, Pre-Codes, dramas, and comedies. But she never truly reached the well-deserved splendor of consistent top billing.

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While I admire the entire breadth of Joan Blondell’s work, I am always biased towards her early days of Pre-Codes. You couldn’t find a better pair of sexy gams in those Busby Berkley musicals and she delivered such hilariously sassy lines with the perfect punch. Take a look at her delicious delivery of “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, YOU’VE got a job!” as she proceeds to kick the woman out the door, right in the tuchus, in Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933) or her haunting “My Forgotten Man” in Mervyn LeRoy’s THE GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. There are too many to list here (because the woman was a damn work-horse during those years!) But no matter how small the role, Joan Blondell made it her own and she made it memorable. So yes, Joanie, you did know the secret to longevity as actress, and perhaps your greatest role in life was that of survivor- a role this audience member and countless other fans can relate.

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*This was my contribution to the What A Character! Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, and yours truly. Please review all three days for a recap of fantastic character actor tributes… THANK YOU & ENJOY!! 🙂

day one: kellee

day two: aurora

day three: paula

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