A man descends a commanding staircase with considerable ease despite his heft. He sings in a voice not made for song…
Come landlord fill the flowing bowl
Until it doth run over.
For tonight we’ll merry merry be
For tonight we’ll merry merry be
For tonight we’ll merry merry be
Tomorrow we’ll be sober.
The man, whose name is Mr. Pike crosses the foyer, picks up his morning newspaper and answers a ringing telephone. To his surprise the voice on the other end of the line is inquiring about a party that Pike is hosting that night, a party that he wasn’t told about. No worries. Pike replaces the receiver and says, “nuthouse” referring to his own home and its inhabitants. He then starts to whistle the same tune, “Landlord, Fill the Flowing Bowl” as he heads out toward the back porch of the estate to settle down to breakfast. Pike sits, places the napkin under his chin and begins to uncover the serving trays on the table all of which are empty. Frazzled and very hungry he calls out, but no one answers. It turns out every single member of the household staff is busy preparing for the party. Pike then puts all of his energy into ringing a very loud and obnoxious bell until a young maid approaches explaining they must’ve overlooked him due to the party preparations. “When do I eat?” he bellows and the young woman scurries away to attend to his breakfast. Soon, however, it’s clear she was pulled away from the breakfast task as no sign of food nears the man who grows more and more desperate for food as each second passes. In a few moments time Pike’s anger escalates until he’s left without reason and commences to have a major tantrum, creating a racket by banging the serving tray covers in a steady, annoying beat that renders anyone watching unable contain tears of laughter.
The scene I just described, for anyone who doesn’t recognize the description or images, is from Preston Sturges’ glorious The Lady Eve (1941) and features the great Eugene Pallette portraying what I believe is the kind of character he is best remembered for, the exasperated patriarch of a not-so-normal, wealthy family. If you’ve visited the other entries of the What a Character! Blogathon this weekend you’re apt to have seen the word “reliable” used often. That’s what character actors are and do, they play a “type” in a way they’ve made their own, that audiences can easily recognize and that enhance the stories and featured players’ performances. I’d argue that few actors were more reliable than Eugene Pallette whose mere presence in a movie not only anchors any scene he’s in, but elicits an immediate response – usually a laugh. Pallette may not have been the reason audiences went to the movies during filmdom’s golden age, but I guarantee you they were always happy to see him. As am I.
Eugene Pallette played another exasperated father in what is perhaps his most famous role five years before The Lady Eve in Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey. Here the actor plays father to a scatterbrained innocent and a calculating brat, played by Carole Lombard and Gail Patrick respectively. The Pallette character’s household in this movie is as snooty and nutty as its counterpart in The Lady Eve, both making for fun screwball happenings with terrific casts anchored by Pallette’s performance. Pallette could deliver a line like nobody’s business with that unmistakable gravel voice and exemplary comedic timing, but he also used his girth to his advantage adding the common touch to characters that otherwise be little more than high society snobs.
While Eugene Pallette mastered the patriarch role in such popular movies as I’ve just described, that particular “type” was far from his only contribution to the movies. Through the years he’d also master the roles of action/adventure hero, western sidekick, comic foil and a certain type of detective all stamped with the Pallette brand. Since I’m most familiar with Pallette’s work in films of the 1930s and 1940s in scenes typical of the one I opened this post with I find it nearly impossible to fathom that the same man began his professional career as a jockey.
Eugene Pallette was born to William Pallette and Elnora “Ella” Jackson in Kansas on July 8, 1889. I found little to no information detailing his early years and only a mention about his being a jockey, which no doubt gave him the skills to make a move into silent movies as a stunt rider/extra in about 1911. Pallette’s first credited role came in a one-reel short in 1913, The Fugitive directed by Wallace Reid. From then on Eugene Pallette, sometimes called and credited as “Gene” never looked back appearing in short after short throughout the rest of the 1910s, with an occasional foray into such masterworks as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), both directed by D. W. Griffith.
As I delved into Pallette’s career I was quite surprised about the extent of his work in the silent era. I was certainly aware that Pallette had made silent movies having seen his Aramis to Douglas Fairbanks’ D’Artagnan in Fred Niblo’s The Three Musketeers (1921), Griffith’s films and some of the comedy shorts he appeared in. What I didn’t realize was that about half of Eugene Pallette’s 260 (or so) screen credits are from the silent era, which I find astonishing given what would become his most memorable attribute, that voice! Throughout his silent years Pallette played everything from slapstick comedy to heroic figures to vile villains and did it all believably.
Eugene Palette appeared in many westerns thanks in part to his riding skills, but also because he was the handsome athletic type, a type that also fit perfectly in adventures and epics. Due to those talents Pallette’s transition to features was seamless and he was steadily employed in the movies for the entirety of his career. That is, except for the time in the mid-1920s when he abandoned acting to drill for oil in Texas. He made a small fortune, but soon lost it in a bad investment (findagrave.com). Hollywood welcomed him back with open arms, however, and thanks to his reliable talent and screen presence the veteran actor merited roles in films of repute like the aforementioned The Three Musketeers, a smash hit that called upon him to play a sword-yielding swashbuckler. As I’ll note in a bit, Pallette picked up skills in Musketeers that would serve him quite well in another beloved classic years later.
Pallette’s role in the movies shifted from featured player to character actor at about the time when he signed on with Hal Roach Studios in 1927. By then the former “athletic type” had put on some weight, which served him well as the comic foil in several Laurel and Hardy movies. I’ve seen a few of these through the years and it’s always fun to find him among other silent players, although it feels a bit strange watching him and not hearing his unique voice.
Unlike many silent actors who didn’t survive the transition to sound, Eugene Pallette’s status in Hollywood rose as audiences began to hear his frog-like sound. This is the Pallette that is most remembered today, the complete package of sight and sound that constitute one of the finest character actors to ever appear on the screen.
I’d love to mention every single one of Eugene Pallette’s memorable turns in the movies, but I’d be here for quite a while so I’ll mention only a few that I find particularly entertaining starting with one I saw for the first time at this year’s Capitolfest, Otto Brower’s The Border Legion from Paramount 1930. This Western is a real treat starring Jack Holt, Fay Wray, Richard Arlen and has a superb showing by Pallette as a gunslinging second banana named Bunco Davis. I believe most festival attendees chose this talkie version of the Zane Grey novel as a top choice for that entire weekend so I’m not the only one who would recommend this.
Capitolfest also served another crowd favorite worth mentioning that also features a memorable Pallette outing. That is the early Technicolor, pre-code gem Follow Thru (1930) directed by Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab and starring Nancy Carroll and Buddy Rogers. This movie features several notable supporting players including (a semi-creepy) Jack Haley plus Zelma O’Neal and Thelma Todd. Not surprisingly, however, it’s Eugene Pallette who makes this one most memorable for me. The movie has a scene in it where Pallette is in a golf outfit that in itself is worth the price of admission. Also worth noting is how gorgeous Follow Thru looked in the restoration we were shown with stars – Carroll and Rogers – the perfect specimens to feature in such a production.
Next I go to what would be Eugene Pallette’s breakout role, which preceded both of the movies I just mentioned. That is his stint as Sergeant Heath in the Philo Vance detective movie series. I absolutely adore Pallette’s inept, but hilarious Sgt. Heath and find myself laughing heartily at almost every sentence he utters in these movies, even the worst of them.
The Philo Vance series, which is based on S. S. Van Dine’s famous sleuth started with Malcolm St. Clair’s The Canary Murder Case in 1929. The best in the series is the last featuring William Powell as the genius Vance, Michael Curtiz’ The Kennel Murder Case (1933). I just watched that one again before writing this post and enjoyed it as much as I did the first couple of times I saw it. As I mentioned, the Vance series was a breakout for Pallette in the world of talking pictures and cemented another “type” that he excelled at, the comic detective in a string of B mysteries. If you’ve never seen the Philo Vance movies I guarantee a good time watching any of the films with hearty laughs spurred by Pallette’s delivery and timing in frequent intervals.
From The Kennel Murder Case:
Philo Vance: What do you think of the suicide theory now, Sergeant?
Detective Sgt. Heath: Well, it’s slightly complicated since the man shot, slugged and stabbed himself – especially in the back.
I remember seeing another similarly themed mystery, H. Bruce Humberstone’s Strangers of the Evening (1932) in which Pallette plays Detective Brubacher who is almost exactly the same character as Heath. This movie is also worth your time, by the way, despite it being one of those that merits listing on the B side of a B movie bill. Without saying too much, as it’s been years since I’ve seen this, the mystery centers around a bunch of missing dead bodies and stars ZaSu Pitts. What more can you ask for?
Enjoyable as it is to old movie buffs Strangers of the Evening is little more than a slight blip in Pallette’s career. Following the Philo Vance series he appeared in a few more memorable movies including Archie Mayo’s Bordertown (1935) starring Bette Davis and Paul Muni and René Clair’s The Ghost Goes West (1935) with Robert Donat and Jean Parker. Pallette really made it to the big time, however, with his depiction of Friar Tuck in Michael Curtiz’ The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
What can I say about The Adventures of Robin Hood in just a few words? It’s the adventure. It’s the spectacle. It’s the Technicolor. It’s the familiar story. It’s the beloved classic with the extraordinary cast. And still Pallette stands out among Robin Hood’s merry men as Friar Tuck and impresses with an agility yielding a sword a man his size should not possess. True to form and in many ways returning to his roots Pallette’s Tuck is at home in both the adventure and in the comedy, which he supplies in spades in this fantastic movie.
The year after Robin Hood Eugene Pallette made another memorable appearance, this time as corrupt newspaper man, Chick McCann, a man who’s also somehow likable (a Pallette specialty) in Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Pallette’s role in Mr. Smith is not big compared to several other character actors of note in the movie, but his scenes are – as always – memorable with his signature loveable, tough guy in evidence.
From Washington in 1939 we go to California in the 1800s and Rouben Mamoulian’s The Mark of Zorro (1940) in which Eugene Pallette who plays Fray Felipe, the town’s religious leader and life-long friend of the prominent Vega family is as entertaining as ever. In this movie Mr. Pallette looks a lot like he does as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood only in black and white and supplies the laughs even in tough situations as he did then. His only fault here, perhaps, is as a swordsman because Fray Felipe proves a poor substitute for Friar Tuck. If the going gets tough you would probably call Tuck. I want to make it clear, however, that Felipe is no coward. He serves his own brand of pain upon enemies and adds a little prayer to boot.
Skipping The Lady Eve, which I’ve already discussed I’ll go straight to Ernst Lubitsch‘s Heaven Can Wait (1943), a charming and entertaining story about a man who recounts his life to Satan – in Technicolor. The standout for me here has always been the marriage between Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main because who in all his or her right mind would ever pair these two? Yet they are perfection in hilarity playing the Kansas in-laws of the deceased man who’s telling the story. They are a scream and icing on an entertaining story starring Gene Tierney and Don Ameche who are supported by an outstanding supporting cast beyond the memorable pair.
Eugene Pallette made his last film appearance in Frank Tuttle’s Suspense in 1946. This is another movie I watched several years ago and remember it as an enjoyable crime/drama that was touted at the time as Monogram Studios’ most expensive movie to date. I say the movie is enjoyable because of its dark theme. Murder is, after all, ever entertaining. Suspense also features a cast that’s worth spending time with – Albert Dekker and Barry Sullivan in particular. But I admit to not being thrilled with the elaborate ice-skating numbers as part of the film’s story line, which feature the talents of ice-skating maven, Belita. Those sequences give the biggest clue as to the film’s touted budget and Belita is good, but there’s just too much skating for my taste. Suspense is a nice-looking production overall for sure, but not necessarily more so than many of the era’s other films noir. For me the most notable thing about this movie is that it is Eugene Pallette’s movie swan song although his appearance here, playing Harry Wheeler, a trusted employee of Albert Dekker’s character is not particularly memorable compared to the other roles I’ve mentioned in this post.
Eugene Pallette retired from acting to move into a mountain fortress in Oregon, a move that resulted from his growing paranoia of the impending doom to be caused by the atomic bomb. Pallette stocked the 3,500-acre ranch with enough amenities to survive world annihilation, which he was convinced was forthcoming. Frequently visited by actor friends like Clark Gable, Pallette enjoyed fishing and other such relaxing activity awaiting the end of the world that never happened. After two years and no bomb the former actor left his well-stocked fortress to return to Hollywood and his industry friends. Eugene Pallette died in Hollywood from cancer at the age of 65. As far as character actors go he is one of the luckier ones still remembered and appreciated for his 33-year career by fans the world over as compared to other greats whose names few even know. The admiration for Pallette is warranted as his rotund frame and gravel-voiced delivery will reliably continue to entertain for as long as we have classic movies to enjoy.
As far as the others go, the familiar faces whose names we don’t remember, they are the real reasons why we – Paula, Kellee and I – host the What a Character! Blogathon. So take this opportunity to visit Outspoken & Freckled today, the third and last day of the event to read about some of the greats who’ve ever stepped into character shoes.