I had a dream the other day that Eric Blore was serving me pancakes on the deck of a ship somewhere in the Mediterranean. The ship rocked and as he reached for the pancakes on the tray he carried, orange juice spilled on them. When I asked him for a fresh order, he straightened his stiffened 5’8” frame and contorted his face while an exaggeratingly snobbish “really ma’am” escaped from under his swordfish nose, “I am no ladies maid.”
Eric Blore appeared in over eighty motion pictures. He began his acting career playing mostly military types and bluebloods, but it is portrayals of butlers, valets, and waiters that he is best remembered for. It is this memorable characterization that led to my dream and subsequently to this dedication. When the Classic Movie Blog Association announced its Laughter is the Best Medicine Blogathon, I had no choice but to honor Eric Blore and his superior domestic charms as evident in selected films. Laughter is what Blore brings to the table albeit in a specific manner and under unique circumstances.
Mr. Blore was born on December 23, 1887, in Finchley, London Borough of Barnet, Greater London, England. There is little to no information available about Blore’s childhood. Several sources state Eric Blore was bitten with the acting bug while touring Australia. Upon his return to London and after his World War I commission, Blore hit the stage with what one assumes was his usual flair and precise manner of speech and form. While his work on stage was varied, it is to no one’s surprise that he was particularly adept at musical comedies and revues.
In 1923 Blore went to New York and appeared in his first Broadway production in August of that year, the musical comedy Little Miss Bluebeard at the Lyceum Theatre. That performance led to steady work on the New York stage until his big break came when he was cast as a waiter in Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce in 1932.
Blore made his feature film debut playing Lord Digby in the now lost The Great Gatsby directed by Herbert Brenon in 1926. After a few uncredited roles he made his first movie appearance as a waiter in Thornton Freeland’s Flying Down to Rio (1933). It was Blore’s reprisal of the waiter role in Mark Sandrich’s movie adaptation of The Gay Divorcee (1934), however, that cemented his legacy as one of the screen’s most memorable character actors and the greatest possible support rich men could ever have in the 1930s and 1940s. By the way, if you have ever wondered about the difference between a butler and a valet, which are used interchangeably in many films, here it is: A butler is the chief manservant of a house and supervises other servants whereas a valet is a personal male attendant of a man responsible for his clothes and appearance. Blore excelled interpreting both though being a valet was his specialty.
The Gay Divorcee offers several scenes demonstrating Eric Blore’s talent for delivering lines in a way audiences do not soon forget. One scene shows Edward Everett Horton encountering Blore at a hotel restaurant. Horton’s character cannot decide what to eat. In his distinct, precise, snooty English accent Blore offers everything he could think of, from crumpets to gooseberry tarts, but Horton doesn’t bite. Flummoxed the waiter replies, “You know I hate to leave you like this. You torn with doubt and me with my duty undischarged.” Taking his role as server so seriously, it is no wonder Eric Blore appeared in some variation of the role in more Astaire-Rogers pictures than any other supporting player, five of ten.
1935 offered Eric Blore plenty of opportunity to buttle in hilarious style. In Edwin L. Marin’s The Casino Murder Case, the ninth feature in the Philo Vance series, Blore plays Currie the butler to Paul Lukas’ Vance. Casino Murder Case does not offer Eric Blore the same opportunity to steal a scene with his stylized wit, he makes his mark in a physical arena here. As the movie opens, we see Vance fencing with Currie and in a hilarious boxing scene later Currie gets carried away and knocks out Philo Vance.
One of the funniest scenes in The Casino Murder Case shows Blore’s excellent comedic timing. The doorbell rings annoying Vance who tells Currie to tell whoever it is that “I’m in Afghanistan shooting rhinoceros.” Currie is then heard repeating, “Afghanistan…rhinoceros…Afghanistan…rhinoceros” as he walks to the door, but when he opens it, he says “Afghanistan…hippopotamus.”
That’s the kind of lame humor delivered masterfully that makes this fan laugh out loud.
In Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat Eric Blore plays Bates, valet to Horace Hardwicke (Edward Everett Horton) with whom he does not get along. As in the scene I described from The Gay Divorcee, every scene in Top Hat between Blore and Horton is priceless.
Horace Hardwick: Mr. Travers is in trouble. He has practically put his foot right into a hornets’ nest.
Bates: But hornets’ nests grow on trees, sir.
Hardwick: Never mind that. We have to do something.
Bates: What about rubbing it with butter, sir?
Hardwick: You blasted fool; you can’t rub a girl with butter!
Bates: My sister got into a hornets’ nest, and we rubbed HER with butter, sir!
Hardwick: That’s the wrong treatment, you should’ve used mud – Never mind that!
My favorite scene of Blore’s in Top Hat, however, is the way he introduces himself to Fred Astaire as “We are Bates.” There is a lot for him to do in this one. Getting caught up in the mistaken identity plot between the main characters, Bates even acts like a gondolier and gets arrested at the end of the picture. Of course, that doesn’t match his jail exploits in Shall We Dance (1937) also directed by Sandrich.
In Shall We Dance, Eric Blore plays floor manager Cecil Flintridge. As floor manager, Cecil basically buttles for everyone on his floor. In this instance he assists Peter P. Peters aka Petrov (Fred Astaire), Petrov’s manager Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton), and Linda Keene (Ginger Rogers). As is the usual case in the Astaire-Rogers pictures, there is plenty of confusion to go around. Cecil is directly involved in the back-and-forth about whether Petrov and Linda are married. As a trustworthy and faithful employee, Cecil Flintridge spends a good amount of time in the movie ensuring that Linda’s virtue stays intact, but he does anything he is asked to do to assist hotel guests. In one instance he is asked to go outside and meet a process server there to serve Petrov with divorce papers. Annoyed by the exchange with the man, Cecil loses his temper and mistakenly pushes the man down a flight of stairs. Naturally he is immediately arrested and taken to the Susquehanna Street Jail where he uses his one phone call to contact Jeffrey Baird at the hotel.
Cecil Flintridge: I’m in jail for battery, and I want you to get me out. I’m at the Susquehanna Street Jail . . . Susquehanna! Susquehanna – S-U-S-Q-U-Q! Q! You know, the thing you play billiards with . . . Billiards! B-I-L-L…
Policeman at Jail: What is this, a spelling bee?
Cecil Flintridge: Ahem (accompanied by dirty look to policeman then back to phone) No, “L” for larynx. LARYNX! L-A-R-Y-N…No-no, not “M,” N! ”N” as in neighbor! Neighbor! N-E-I-G-H-B…B! B! Bzzzz. Bzzzz. You know, the stinging insect! INSECT! I-N-S. S! S, for symbol. S-Y…Y! Y!
Jeffrey Baird: Well, why? Don’t ask me “why.”
Cecil Flintridge: Look, Jeffrey. I’m in jail. W-wait a minute, (to the policeman) What jail did you say this was?
Policeman: Susquehanna Street Jail
Cecil Flintridge: Thank you, indeed. (back to phone) I’m at the Substi—the Subset… Jeffrey, listen closely…Do you know where the Oak Street Jail is? You do? Fine. I’ll have them transfer me there in the morning!
The scene is pure gold. It impressed me so much, in fact, that I wrote a play years ago and included a similar scene as an homage to this talented actor. Now, I realize as these exchanges are put on paper that they are just words to anyone who may never have seen Eric Blore in his element, or how difficult it is to explain to anyone just how wonderfully, naturally humorous he was. If you are one of those people, know that each word is rich with texture and wry humor with consonants heavily accentuated. Either the exasperation of annoyance or the biting edge of anger is always apparent. Each word is delivered with theatrical accuracy and a specific physicality that enhances every scene. The Eric Blore face may well have had more muscles than the ordinary human’s and he used each masterfully. If he is annoyed Blore’s face will scrunch to where his long nose seems to reach his chin. If he is angry, he huffs and puffs and blows out air in sudden bursts and makes a face as if he’s smelled something nasty. He stiffens his mouth to a degree that his lips disappear, and he is generous with the dirty looks to anyone who deserves them. If disappointed, you might even see an exaggerated pout. Despite their professionalism and absolute devotion to those he serves, Blore’s characters have inflated egos and his pure contempt for intellectual underlings is nearly always just beneath the surface demonstrated by a long, willful look down his impressive nose at the victim of his disdain. All of it done with supreme style and a manner fit for royalty. In short, Eric Blore is never idle in a scene. Therefore, he steals most of them.
Eric Blore’s talent for physical comedy is never more apparent than in Alfred Santell’s Breakfast for Two (1937). This new-to-me gem tells the story of heiress Valentine Ransom (Barbara Stanwyck) who falls for idle, newly poor playboy, Jonathan Blair (Herbert Marshall) and tries to save him from ruin and gold digger Carol Wallace (Glenda Farrell). Eric Blore plays Blair’s butler, Butch, a confidant who is fully complicit in the hilarity of the story. In one scene Blore had me in stitches.
Jonathan and Valentine are having breakfast. He is yet to find out he is broke, and she is yet to find out who he is. Thinking that she is just a girl he brought home the night before during a drunken stupor, Jonathan offers to give her money. Butch, aware that Jonathan has no money to offer, begins to pantomime exaggeratingly at the table behind the young woman, panicked that Jonathan insists on writing her a check. Imagine an over-the-top game of charades, but the face and body do not quite match. Anyhow, after that initial scare, Butch joins Valentine in elaborate efforts to save Jonathan from himself and from a money-hungry hussy (Farrell). Devoted valet that he is, Butch is central to all the deceit that results in reforming Jonathan from his days as a pub-crawling womanizer and helps him reclaim the trust of the investors in his company.
The players in Breakfast for Two, particularly Stanwyck, are entertaining at the slapstick required in this, but Blore makes the movie with his exaggerated shenanigans. The New York Times reviewer, who was not fond of Breakfast for Two, referred to Blore as a comical sphinx. To this fan it is a compliment. Blore knew what worked for his characters and there was no role too small for him to make an impact.
1937 also brings us the clever, delightful It’s Love I’m After directed by Archie Mayo and starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland. To start, it’s refreshing to see Howard and Davis star together in a comedy after their previous collaborations, John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage (1934) and Mayo’s The Petrified Forrest (1936). In It’s Love I’m After they play Shakespearean actors Basil Underwood and Joyce Arden. The two are madly in love – in between fights. Despite that, however, Basil and Joyce plan to marry until ardent Basil Underwood fan, Marcia West (de Havilland) visits the actor in his dressing room after a performance and declares her love for him. That visit leads to a complicated plan to make Marcia fall out of love with Basil, which of course leads to all sorts of trouble and many laughs thanks to the efforts of Basil’s valet, Digges (Eric Blore). In one scene Basil and Marcia are in the grand garden of her sprawling mansion. Although Basil’s intention was to treat Marcia badly, he begins to warm to her attentions and just as they are embracing Joyce arrives. The always devoted Digges had specific instructions to make bird calls whenever Basil got too close to Marcia and does a hell of a job of it too, but Basil is too enchanted by the charms of the young woman to pay attention to Digges and the bird imitations that grow increasingly wild. Suffice it to say that you have not lived until you experience Eric Blore doing bird imitations. Of him in this picture Variety write, “Eric Blore, as the star’s alter ego and valet, is capital with his antics.”
Naturally It’s Love I’m After ends well for everyone and a good time was had across the board. This cast, to include the enjoyable Spring Byington, hits the mark at every instance. Of course, Blore is the biggest blast of all. Aside from imitating birds and the all-around general zaniness he is involved in, he wears a toupee, which serves for several hilarious scenes as he lifts it and plays with it, another piece of equipment for his arsenal of humor. It’s Love I’m After is also notable for a specific line delivered by Digges, “If I were not a gentleman’s gentleman, I could be such a cad’s cad!” In 1943 Eric Blore played Jackson, Robert Benchley’s butler in Edward H. Griffith’s The Sky’s the Limit and repeated the same line.
You should know that there was a concerted effort made to find as many movies featuring Eric Blore in a comedy as a servant of some kind, but several films were unattainable. Of those the 1939 British comedy, Gentleman’s Gentleman (1939) directed by Roy William Neill is the biggest regret. Not only does the title exactly comply with the theme of this entry, Blore plays the lead in the movie. Alas, there is nothing to be done about that, so I jump to 1941 when Eric Blore makes an all-too brief appearance as Sullivan’s valet in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, one of two Sturges movies Blore made. The other, The Lady Eve also in 1941. Eric Blore does not play anything resembling a butler in The Lady Eve, but he is fantastic as Sir Alfred McGlennon Keith, a swindler friend of the Harrington family who helps Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) with her charade in the second part of the movie. In Sullivan’s Travels we see Blore helping film director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) trying on hobo clothes in preparation for researching a movie about the poverty-stricken. Part of the charm of Sullivan’s Travels, a terrific movie, is its satisfactory use of an extraordinary cast of veteran character actors. Eric Blore is just one of them, but he exhibits not only his charms as a superior domestic, but his acuity as a comedic actor and his prowess on the phone as he shows Robert Greig in one scene. One is always apt to learn something about life and its machinations whenever you hear Eric Blore on the telephone.
From 1940 to 1947, Eric Blore played his last significant butler, Jameson to (mostly) Warren William’s Michael Lanyard aka The Lone Wolf in 11 of the Lone Wolf movies based on the novels by Louis Joseph Vance. Michael Lanyard is a former jewel thief turned private detective and Jameson has been along for the entire trip. Eric Blore played Jameson beginning with The Lone Wolf Strikes (1940) and ending with The Lone Wolf in London (1947). What Blore brings to the table in the series cannot be overstated. Aside from his usual reliable buttling he can be counted on to help solve the most dangerous and involved crimes with great humor. Warren William is charming as the Lone Wolf and Gerald Mohr, who replaced William in the last three pictures co-starring Blore, is fine as the detective, but without Jameson’s penchant for adventure these movies would be dull indeed. In fact, my favorite part of every one of these stories is Jameson’s longing to return to the life of crime he so enjoyed. The Lone Wolf is reformed, but Jameson’s none too happy about it. Jameson has even been known to ask his boss for a bit of reprieve on weekends. Always followed by “Sir” of course. Occasionally Jameson steals a purse or two for good measure and has a heck of a good time doing it too. Lanyard usually responds with, “Jameson, you’re fired!” but the man is simply too valuable to dismiss.
Like any movie series, the formula that makes up The Lone Wolf movie series can drag out by the time you get to the nth installment, but Eric Blore’s humor makes all the ones he appears in enjoyable. You just never know what he’ll be up to, whether the Lone Wolf will find himself in a jam because Jameson makes a costly mistake or what will Jameson do to save the Lone Wolf from imminent danger. Either way Eric Blore is the answer.
Following his final appearance in a Lone Wolf feature, Eric Blore made only a handful of other movies. His final role was as a genie in a lamp in the Bowery Boys romp, Bowery to Bagdad in 1955 directed by Edward Bernds. Blore died in 1959 at the age of 71.
Eric Blore certainly is not the only actor whose manner elicits joy in those who admire the pictures he graced, but there is no doubt he was one of the greats. It is satisfying to know that fifty years after his death so many of us remember him fondly, that we still laugh heartily with him in numerous scenes in numerous pictures – although his biting wit would have likely wiped the rug with most of us lesser beings. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Eric Blore for this entry and am grateful to recognize the domestic charms of the characters he brought to life, characters who in their unique ways were always right about one thing. We, sir, are not worthy.