For a lot of motion picture fans, myself included, character actors are more fun to watch than big stars. It’s magic to see someone take a supporting role and make it sing. I’m not going to say that Warner Brothers is the All Time Greatest Studio for character actors, but it has to be close. During the Golden Age of Hollywood (you know, the 1930s and ‘40s), the studio had a stable of great bit players like no other. With the collapse of the studio system, the contract player died out, of course. But in honor of those halcyon days, here’s a sampling of some great WB character performances spanning seven decades.
1933 – Frank McHugh as Francis in Footlight Parade
Stocky, cock-eyed Frank McHugh played sidekick to James Cagney in a number of movies for Warner Brothers, most prominently The Roaring Twenties in 1939. But without singing a note, he steals this musical away from talents like Cagney and Ruby Keeler. As nervous, excitable dance director Francis, he frets and moans his way through the picture, always seeming to be on the verge of a breakdown even when things go right. You get the sense that Francis always wanted to be an accountant, but fell into choreography by mistake. The character appears for maybe twenty minutes total and, yes, I’m writing back-story for him. He’s that good.
This clip features McHugh at the beginning and at the end, the second time spouting his catchphrase from the movie.
1938 –Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood
Robin Hood is all about Errol Flynn, of course. He’s in just about every scene, and he’s amazing. But like most WB pictures from this period, it’s also full of great performances perfectly matched to its tone. If Casablanca is full of subtlety, Robin Hood allows every actor a chance to play over-the-top. And no one is broader than Pallette. He plays a Friar Tuck who is simultaneously upset and over-joyed at everything happening in front of him. He loves the spectacle, but he would rather be eating. He’s a good fighter, but a better sleeper. Somehow, the character never seems like a paradox. He’s just too big a man to have only one personality. It’s all contained perfectly in Pallette’s distinctive voice and enormous presence.
1975 – William Duell as Sefelt in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Cuckoo’s Nest is a dream for a fan of character actors – all-time greats Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, and Vincent Schiavelli, to just name a few, appear as mental hospital inmates alongside Jack Nicholson. William Duell isn’t as well-known as his castmates – he’s probably most recognizable as Johnny the Snitch on Police Squad! – but he’s no less remarkable. As little Sefelt, Duell has no big moments. His job, almost entirely, is simply to react to what other people are doing. While the others act like raving crazy people, Duell is left to act like an entertained crazy person. This scene, for example, is all about Lloyd as Taber and William Redfield as Mr. Harding. Duell does little more than giggle and repeat words (that's him saying "heh" at 00:49, for example). But that’s my point – you chuckle at him when he has funny reactions, and you don’t dwell on him when he isn’t on-screen. In a movie full of memorable performances, William Duell helps sustain the reality, and does so brilliantly.
WARNING: This scene contains dangerous words.
1985 –Carmen Filpi as Hobo Jack in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
Carmen Filpi was not a homeless man. He was an actor who worked steadily in Hollywood for decades. You may have seen him in 1990s Adam Sandler movies or in that on episode of Boy Meets World. And yet, when he sings his filthy old heart out in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, you can almost smell years and years of hobo-ing on him. No one watches this scene and thinks “Carmen Filpi is a great actor;” they just think “That’s one disgusting old man.” Bravo, Mr. Filpi.
2005 –Gary Oldman as Lt. Jim Gordon in Batman Begins
For years, the Batman supporting character Commissioner Gordon never got the respect he deserved in live-action adaptations. In the 1960s TV show, Neil Hamilton played Gordon like a friendly uncle who called on his nephew Batman for help. In 1989’s Batman and sequels, Pat Hingle started out as a buffoon and got more embarrassing as the series got worse. One of the many things that Batman Begins did right was to finally raise Gordon to his proper place in Gotham. As played by Oldman, he’s a weary-but-dedicated cop who loves his job and loves his city even more. He’s amazed at the things happening around him, but doesn’t let that stop him from carrying out his duties. You look into Oldman’s eyes and you have no doubt that this man will one day be Police Commissioner.