If there’s a name synonymous with versatility in acting that name is Thomas Mitchell. Equally adept at comedy and drama, Mitchell made memorable appearances in some of the greatest movies of the golden age. He was Gerald O’Hara in Victor Fleming’s GONE WITH THE WIND, Doc Boone in John Ford’s STAGECOACH, Diz Moore in Frank Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, Clopin in William Dieterle’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and Kid Dabb in Howard Hawks’ ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. And that was just in 1939, one year in a body of work that spanned six decades and included stage plays, television, writing, directing and producing. And he still had time to collect fine art and hang out with other Hollywood legends for drinks and merriment on a regular basis. Thomas Mitchell was a renaissance man, a good friend and a great actor. One of the best, in fact – and this is his story.
Mitchell was born on July 11, 1892. He was the youngest of seven children born to Irish immigrants James and Mary Mitchell. Tommy, as he was called his entire life, took his first job as a newspaper reporter while still in high school in his home town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a natural choice given his father and older brother John were in the newspaper business. Although his dad died while he was still a boy Tommy continued on as a reporter after high school working in several publications in Newark, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. As the writing bug grew so did Tommy’s creativity, which lead him to write comic skits for theater in his spare time. In 1913 Mitchell decided to get on stage himself and give acting a shot.
Mitchell began his acting career – learning his craft – by playing all kinds of roles as he traveled the country with a number of stock companies. He later joined the Coburn Players, a Shakespearean troupe formed by another character actor of repute, Charles Coburn. By 1916 Tommy was ready for the big time, making his Broadway debut in October of that year in “Under Sentence,” an original play written by Roi Cooper Megrue and Irvin S. Cobb. Also appearing in that production were later film legends Frank Morgan and Edward G. Robinson.
Thomas Mitchell immersed himself in the theatrical world as an actor, director and writer for the next two decades penning a few hits himself. He had a hit with “Little Accident” in 1928 and again with “Cloudy with Showers” in 1931. His Broadway star rose steadily through the years as he appeared in hit after hit. The actor had given movies a try in 1923 with an appearance in Elmer Clifton’s SIX CYLANDER LOVE, the one and only silent film he appeared in, but otherwise he steadily turned down offers from movie people. He was dedicated to the theater. It wasn’t until 1936 that Mitchell finally accepted a lucrative contract from Columbia Pictures. The Depression had by that time severely affected Broadway receipts and the money to be made in Hollywood couldn’t be ignored. Thomas Mitchell headed West – and was criticized.
“A lot of people say I’ve deserted my art because I left Broadway and the stage. Hell, I’m no artist. I’m a working man. I’ve got a trade just like any other mechanic, and I follow my trade where the work is. Just now it’s in Hollywood, but I’m not tied to Hollywood…Writing’s my work and directing’s my work and acting is my work.”
Mitchell would return to Broadway on occasion with varying degrees of success until the early 1960s. In fact, his most successful reunion with the Great White Way came in 1953 when he appeared in “Hazel Flagg,” a musical based on the film, NOTHING SCARED. Mitchell’s performance in that production (as Dr. Downer) earned him the third leg of the acting triple crown and he became the first actor to ever win the Oscar, Emmy and Tony. But for all intents and purposes, that was a relatively rare Broadway appearance for Mitchell. His career from 1936 forward would be in the movies and later television. As I assume is the case with the many others who so admire his work, I can’t say I’m sorry for it and neither were the Hollywood studios who benefitted from Mitchell’s talent at the height of the golden age. He could do anything.
Tommy Mitchell made his Hollywood debut with Dorothy Arzner’s CRAIG’S WIFE and a stellar cast that included Rosalind Russell, John Boles, Billie Burke and Jane Darwell. He’d quickly follow that with a few more Columbia A-pictures like Edward Ludwig’s ADVENTURE IN MANHATTAN starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea and Richard Boleslawski’s THEODORA GOES WILD with Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas. No doubt Mitchell’s stage reputation as a serious actor with an unparalleled work ethic preceded him. And when he was cast in the first of four pictures he would make with Frank Capra, LOST HORIZON (1937) Mitchell never looked back, delivering a performance that would cement him as one of Hollywood’s great character actors. The Mitchell we see in HORIZON is familiar in that he shows the wonderful comedic timing we’d see again and again in other films. Here Mitchell plays in tandem with the great Edward Everett Horton and each scene Mitchell appears in is memorable. Interestingly, Thomas Mitchell’s last film was another Capra-directed vehicle 24 years later, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961) in which he would again “play” with Horton.
Classics fans may often joke about Mitchell being one of those guys that is everywhere. I know I have. The man seemingly appeared in every movie ever made. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but he is in an impressive number of movies – and an impressive number of great ones at that. Aside from LOST HORIZON, Tommy made six other films in 1937, including John Ford’s THE HURRICANE for which the actor would receive the first of two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (he took home the statue for his performance in Ford’s STAGECOACH two years later). More impressively, however, is that 1937 also proved a year during which Mitchell showed that his talents stretched far beyond comedy in the movies as it had on stage when he delivered a terrific, unsympathetic performance in Leo McCarey’s MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, matching exceptional performances by Victor Moore and another favorite of mine, the great Beulah Bondi.
1937 also proved an important year for Thomas Mitchell on a personal front when he married Rachel Barnes Hartzell. Mitchell’s only child, daughter Anne was born of that union. Unfortunately, Hartzell and Mitchell divorced two years later. In 1941 Tommy married Anne Stuart Brewer Hier with whom he remained until his death.
And now for a brief moment…back to 1939. I began this post with a mention of the five films Thomas Mitchell starred in during what is widely considered THE landmark year in the movies. Whether one agrees with that or not you can hardly discount the Mitchell factor because of the obvious, he made every movie he appeared in better. Of the five films he made in 1939 three were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar: GONE WITH THE WIND (which won), MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and STAGECOACH. In addition, the two other films Mitchell appeared in that year received nominations in other categories (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS). More importantly – he’s wonderful in all five and the fact that he was cast in such promising productions alongside elite actors points to how much Mitchell was valued as an actor.
I’ll go one further – while Thomas Mitchell deservedly won his Oscar for his depiction of alcoholic Doc Boone who can do just about anything in a crisis in STAGECOACH he could just as easily received a nomination and win for his memorable performance in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. In this instance he is again flanked by an outstanding group of actors – Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Bathelmess and Rita Hayworth – but it’s Mitchell who delivers the performance that’s at the heart of the movie.
When Thomas Mitchell was presented the Academy Award by Spencer Tracy in 1940 all he could manage to say was, “I didn’t think I was that good. I don’t have a speech, I’m too incoherent.” I would imagine no one is less incoherent than Thomas Mitchell, but I won’t disagree with him. It may well be that the incoherence kept Mitchell from being pigeonholed to one genre of film and allowed him to shift gears seamlessly from adoring father to rabble-rouser and back again.
The variety in the roles offered to Mitchell continued through the equally busy decade of the 1940s during which he made well over thirty pictures. In fact, it was in this decade that he made some of my favorites. To name just a few – there’s his portrayal of Tommy Blue, the unforgettable sidekick to Tyrone Power’s Jamie Waring in Henry King’s gorgeous, Technicolor swashbuckler, THE BLACK SWAN (1942). Then there’s Mitchell’s stint as legendary Western sheriff, Pat Garrett in Howard Hughes’ controversial, THE OUTLAW (1943). A year after that he played the loving, proud father of THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS (1944) in Henry King’s tear-jerker biographical war film. And finally he delivered one of his signature performances as the exasperating, but lovable Uncle Billy in Capra’s eternal Christmas favorite, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Just a few examples, but they show a hell of a range.
Tommy Mitchell wasn’t all work and no play, however. He had a close group of friends with whom he’d share good times and imbibement on a regular basis. The group included writers and several Hollywood legends whose escapes in New York and Hollywood hotspots became legendary. The mainstays included John Barrymore who by 1940 was paying the price for the partying he’d done through the 1930s. He died in 1942. Thomas Mitchell had started out being a great admirer of Barrymore’s when the latter was a top stage actor and subsequently the two became close friends. Also part of the group were W. C. Fields, Errol Flynn, Roland Young and relative youngster Anthony Quinn. Described as an “Earthy” good friend, Mitchell valued his friends and they became as important a part of his life as were the characters he’d commit to celluloid. The exploits of Mitchell and his famous band of Hollywood drinkers and raconteurs were consistently mentioned in the press, but this never affected his career or reputation as a serious actor.
Tommy Mitchell was still in high demand to make movies throughout the 1950s, but only made nine in that decade with his energies now focused primarily on television. As far as his film work perhaps his most famous role in the 1950s is as Mayor of the panicked town in Fred Zinneman’s HIGH NOON (1952) starring Gary Cooper. As one of several supporting players in this film, Mitchell’s Mayor Jonas Henderson has one of the more interesting character arcs in the story and in usual style he delivers the acting goods with aplomb.
Another 1950s film in which Mitchell appears that I really like is Fritz Lang’s WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956), which I just saw for the first time this summer. Mitchell plays newspaper editor Jon Day Griffith in this noir based on the real-life case of the serial “Lipstick Killer” who confessed to three murders in the mid-1940s. If you haven’t seen WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS I highly recommend it. It’s a great story, has terrific crime moodiness a-la-Lang and an outstanding cast lead by Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders and Howard Duff. I imagine by now I sound like a broken record, but Thomas Mitchell makes yet another lasting impression in this one. The guy never missed a beat.
As impressive as all I’ve mentioned thus far may be as far as Mitchell’s career goes, its more astonishing to consider that during the 1950s he became an even bigger star, picking up legions of new fans through the medium of television. Mitchell’s filmography in the new medium shows he wasn’t slowing down at all, accumulating half of the approximate 100 titles on his resume during this decade by appearing in nearly all of the popular and critically acclaimed anthology series beginning in 1951. These included Robert Montgomery Presents, Playhouse 90, Zane Gray Theatre, Studio One, Tales of Tomorrow, General Electric Theater and…well, you name it, he was on it. During the 1954-1955 season he starred in his own show, filming 39 episodes of Mayor of the Town, which I MUST get my hands on. Mitchell received a total of three Emmy nominations for his television work.
By 1960 Thomas Mitchell was noticeably thinner than the stocky man millions had grown to love in so many movies. He was already suffering from the cancer that would take his life in two years’ time. Ever the workaholic, however, he didn’t take a break from what fueled him and continued his rigorous television schedule to the very end. He also appeared in two features in 1961, John Sturges’ BY LOVE POSSESSED starring Lana Turner and his final film, fittingly with Frank Capra as I mentioned above, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES starring Glenn Ford and Bette Davis. In POCKETFUL Mitchell exhibits one last time his fine comedic prowess by playing a pool-hustling judge, ending his film career as we’d first met him – stealing scenes from the best of ’em.
Thomas Mitchell died of bone cancer on December 17, 1962 at the age of seventy. His last professional role was as a guest on the Perry Como Thanksgiving Day special that November.
One more thing…
In late 1961 Thomas Mitchell went on tour in the pre-Broadway production of “Prescription Murder,” a mystery in three acts set in New York City based on an earlier television screenplay, “Enough Rope,” which had aired as an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show in the 1950s. That episode of Chevy introduced a character named Lt. Columbo. The stage production starred an incredible cast – Joseph Cotten, Patricia Medina (Cotten’s wife), Agnes Moorehead and bringing Columbo to life on stage for the first time was Thomas Mitchell.
The script of “Prescription Murder” describes Columbo as: “A rumpled police detective of indeterminate age. He seems to be bumbling and vague, with an overly apologetic, almost deferential manner. This masks an innate shrewdness, however, a foxy knowledge of human nature.”
“Prescription Murder” was intended to center on the character of Dr. Flemming, but as the play toured it was Columbo that became the audience favorite. Again, the epitome of consistency, right up to his very last role Thomas Mitchell stole the show. This was true to the point that when he became ill and could no longer perform the play ceased production…
“Tommy’s understudy was able and professional, but the play seemed to lose its spine without Tommy and we abandoned all plans to make it into New York.” – Joseph Cotten
Such a presence that halts a promising production. That was our Tommy.
The response we’ve gotten to the What A Character! Blogathon for which this post is intended shows how much the classic supporting actors are loved and admired. The fact is that without them classic films would not be as great or as memorable. And despite the many films Thomas Mitchell was a part of he wasn’t in all of them so I won’t say that he was the best. Thomas Mitchell was one of many greats. However, if there’s an iconic figure among character actors Mitchell is it. And if there’s a standard of versatility in acting Mitchell is it. Thomas Mitchell – respected, reliable, hard-working, unlimited talent – defines What A Character!