Out of the blue I watched a new-to-me movie the other day about a retired Army Colonel who takes on corrupt politicians in his hometown in Georgia. The movie’s title is Colonel Effingham’s Raid, a 1946 comedy directed by Irving Pichel starring Charles Coburn as the title character. Colonel Effingham’s Raid has a lot going for it with charm high on its list of attributes thanks in large part to Coburn, the Georgia native with a talent for comedy and an English accent. It was then that I decided to dedicate an entry to him because I enjoy him so…and…lo and behold, this week would have been his birthday.
Charles Coburn (June 19, 1877 – August 30, 1961)
We have an embarrassment of riches in the character actor department of classic films. There are numerous memorable actors who deserve praise for bettering films simply by their appearance no matter how small a role. One of those is Charles Coburn who enjoyed a popularity many of the other character players did not. Indeed, thanks to Coburn’s 3-decades-long screen career during which he appeared in nearly 100 movies and television shows, his name recognition rivaled that of the stars whose names appeared above the title. Coburn was also highly regarded critically receiving three Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor, taking home Oscar once for his delightful portrayal of Benjamin Dingle in George Stevens‘ wartime comedy, The More the Merrier (1943). More important than awards, however, was Charles Coburn’s undeniable ability to delight greatly with his talent.
Charles Douville Coburn was born in Macon, Georgia on June 19, 1877 and grew up in beautiful Savannah. He was the son of Scotch-Irish Americans Emma Louise Sprigman and Moses Douville Coburn who were not entertainers, but that didn’t stop young Charles from taking odd jobs at the local Savannah Theater starting at the age of 14. He was bitten by the entertainment industry bug early and did everything from handing out programs to being the doorman to theater manager by the age of 18. Failing to make his mark in Georgia, Charles left for New York at age 19. Although Mr. Coburn didn’t hit the big time immediately, his Broadway debut in 1901 was an inevitability as was his forming The Coburn Shakespearean Players in 1905. His partner in that endeavor was another actor, Ivah Wills, who became Mrs. Coburn in 1906. The two had six children together.
In addition to managing the Coburn Players, Charles and Ivah starred in and produced many plays throughout the decades during which the troupe traveled to college campuses across the country and appeared on Broadway. The couple met when he was playing Orlando to her Rosalind in As You Like It. They continued to work together until her death in 1937 performing Shakespeare and French and Greek dramas and comedies. In her book, Greek Tragedy on the American Stage: Ancient Drama in the Commercial Theater …, Karelisa Hartigan mentions how the Coburn Players would give over 100 performances every summer mostly outdoors. The popularity of their performances created an interest in outdoor theaters with other companies following their lead. Charles Coburn played most of the male leading parts with Ivah, billed as Mrs. Coburn, playing the female leads. The productions were often called “amateurish” by critics, but the performances were always praised. These scholarly productions likely led to Charles’ English accent despite being a Southern gentleman.
I’d be remiss not to mention that although few know her name, Ivah Wills had a long list of credits in her own right both as an actor and producer in a career that spanned 35 years. Ivah garnered positive reviews along with her husband and both were highly regarded members of the acting community. To put it in perspective, consider that George M. Cohan was among the honorary pallbearers at Ivah’s funeral.
After Ivah Wills’ death, Charles Coburn moved to Hollywood to start a movie career. He’d already appeared in a 1933 short film and in The People’s Enemy, a crime drama directed by Crane Wilbur. However, the roles that would cement his legacy as a screen star began in earnest in 1938 with comedic performances far removed from his classical training, but roles in which he excelled. Coburn’s best movie roles are the ones where he perfectly balances the high-brow snootiness with a touch of bumbling fool. Roger Ebert described him as a toned down Charles Laughton and that’s exactly right. Coburn paved the road to stardom at the age of 61 and became a steadfast presence that could be counted on for his comedic timing as charming old men with affected manner and accent – always with a monocle, which he removed only to eat, and sometimes chomping on a cigar. One cannot help but smile when he appears on screen.
Clarence Brown‘s Of Human Hearts (1938) offered Coburn his first substantial role alongside a first-rate cast led by Walter Huston, James Stewart and another terrific character actor, Beulah Bondi. Although that film is a Western, Coburn played a doctor, the type of professional role along with several judges, business men, a couple of “sirs,” and rich guys that he enjoyably brought to the screen throughout his career.
Charles Coburn’s memorable big screen credits are too numerous to list, but he made important contributions to such enduring classics as John Cromwell‘s Made for Each Other (1939) and Garson Kanin‘s Bachelor Mother (1939). A personal favorite of mine, Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941) wherein Coburn plays “Colonel” Harrington, father to Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean Harrington, a duo of card sharps adept at swindling the rich, would not be the same without him. The actor followed that Sturges gem with his first Oscar-nominated performance as an irascible tycoon who goes undercover as a shoe clerk at a department store to try to uncover agitators trying to form a union in Sam Wood’s The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). Starring Jean Arthur, Robert Cummings and a slew of fantastic character actors like Spring Byington, Edmund Gwenn, S. Z. Sakall, and William Demarest, you must make time to watch The Devil and Miss Jones if you’ve not seen it. It is bewitching fun.
The 1940s served several standouts for Charles Coburn who appeared in 4 to 5 pictures a year in the early part of the decade. Of course, his Oscar-winning performance in Stevens’ World War II comedy The More the Merrier stands tall above the heap. Opposite Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, Coburn is wonderful as the retired millionaire who finagles his way into a room during the wartime housing shortage. Coburn’s blustering but endearing manner in this film typifies the greatest gift he brought to the movies, by my estimation, and it is hard to resist. Variety agreed with me as of this movie they wrote, “A sparkling and effervescing piece of entertainment, The More the Merrier, is one of the most spontaneous farce-comedies of the wartime era. Although Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea carry the romantic interest, Charles Coburn walks off with the honors.”
Another worthy 1940s turn for Coburn was Ernst Lubitsch‘s Heaven Can Wait in 1943. Here he plays another grandfather and another millionaire with usual memorable flare alongside a stupendous cast led by Gene Tierney and Don Ameche. Once again I must mention Pichel’s Colonel Effingham’s Raid in which Coburn co-starred with Joan Bennett and William Eythe and several other veteran character actors like Donald Meek and Cora Witherspoon. This was a fun discovery.
Charles Coburn received his third Academy Award nomination for what TCM’s Robert Osborne described as a “rip-roaring performance” as a gruff but loving grandfather in the coming-of-age tale told in Victor Saville‘s The Green Years (1946). Following that performance, Coburn’s big screen appearances slowed down significantly. He had signed a contract with Columbia Pictures in 1945, which required only four films in two years. This meant that the actor had more time to return to the stage and to dedicate time to television work, which he did with gusto starting in 1950 as a premiere guest on many anthology series. Still, Coburn made a few notable pictures in the 1950s delighting audiences with a comedic millionaire performance as Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman in Howard Hawks‘ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), a role that could have easily been creepy portrayed by anyone else. He also played against type in John Guillermin‘s murder mystery, Town on Trial (1957), which I must get my hands on.
Coburn’s final screen appearance was in The Best of the Post, an anthology series adapted from stories published in the Saturday Evening Post magazine. The March 1960 episode is titled “Six Months More to Live.” That seems a somber ending to a stellar career, but one to be proud of for many reasons not the least of which is that Coburn appeared in five Oscar Best Picture nominees: Kings Row (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), Heaven Can Wait (1943), Wilson (1944) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Only the last of these won, but they were all improved by the Coburn brand.
At the time of his death Charles Coburn was married to Winifred Natzka who was forty-one years his junior. The two were married in 1959 and had a daughter together. The actor’s final acting role was fittingly on stage in a production of You Can’t Take It With You in Indianapolis, Indiana a week before his death at the age of eighty-four. The previous year he had been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6268 Hollywood Boulevard. If you ever pass that address be sure to look downward at his star – it was well earned.