By Alan Hurst
One of the great pleasures of watching films from the thirties through the fifties was the abundance of recognizable female supporting players – the character actresses. These were people who you could expect to see in multiple films in any given year – often backing up less talented leading players. They were a familiar, welcome presence no matter the quality of the film. The truly versatile ones sometimes got a shot at a lead role and did well, but eventually, they’d move off to the side again and be the support to help the star shine.
I’m thinking specifically of actresses like Joan Blondell, Beulah Bondi, Margaret Rutherford, Eve Arden, Edna May Oliver, Dame May Whitty, Anne Revere, Gladys Cooper, and many others. All of them Oscar-nominated at some point for their film work, they each made long careers out of playing second or third leads, usually stealing every movie they were in.
There are probably dozens that really deserve to be profiled, but these are the five that come to the top for me.
Elsa Lanchester – Film audiences first took notice of Elsa Lanchester in the thirties. Her husband Charles Laughton won an Oscar for The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), but Lanchester got attention for her comical work as Anne of Cleaves, his fourth wife. And they noticed her again in a major way two years later in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) where she made a significant impression playing both the bride and author Mary Shelley. Her short screen time as the bride is iconic. But it wasn’t until the forties that Lanchester really made her mark as one of the best character actresses of the era. Lanchester had a way of being both flighty and steely, amusing and nasty, and she could deliver in both drama and comedy. For me, her career highlights include the brandy swigging maid in The Spiral Staircase (1946), a painter in Come to the Stable (1949), a comical witch in Bell, Book and Candle (1958), and her Miss Marple parody in Murder by Death (1976). Her best performance was in Witness for the Prosecution (1957), an excellent Billy Wilder courtroom drama where she played a nurse in a reteaming with her husband Charles Laughton. It’s a funny and smart performance that should have won her that year’s Oscar.
Angela Lansbury – Before Broadway made her a star (five Tony Awards to date) and before she was solving weekly murders on CBS’s Murder She Wrote (1984-96), Angela Lansbury was a consistent and versatile screen presence. She never really made it to leading lady status, but from her debut in Gaslight (1944) through to her work as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d (1980), Lansbury delivered strong work in dozens of films, very rarely getting to play her actual age but usually wiping the floor with everyone around her. She made her screen debut at 19 as the slutty, devious maid in George Cukor’s excellent adaptation of Gaslight (1944) and she followed that with a heartbreaking performance as the doomed songbird in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). Lansbury got back to back Oscar nominations for both. From then onwards she was usually playing characters 20 years older, most likely villains, and always convincingly. Her reviews were always decent, but her screen career got a substantial shot in the arm in the early sixties with her excellent work in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) and two for director John Frankenheimer – All Fall Down (1962) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The latter is one of the great performances in film history. Other strong work followed in the sixties and, after significant success on Broadway, she scored a major box office hit with Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and delivered another Oscar-worthy performance in Death on the Nile (1978).
Marjorie Main – She was a presence in many major films from the late thirties to the late fifties, both “A” level productions and programmers. She was not a pretty woman, and no one would ever accuse her of being too subtle, but Marjorie Main remains one of the most original actresses of the golden age. She could be funny, tough, sentimental and, at times, heartbreaking. Her voice could best be described as a loud combination of sandpaper and steel. But seeing her name on the credits of any film always brings a smile. Within her limited range (she played a lot of maids), you could always rely on Main’s characters to cut through the bull and be the voice of practicality and reason. Her biggest success was as one half of Ma a Pa Kettle, a bucolic pair with 15 kids. They were originally supporting characters in The Egg and I (1947), and fun comedy with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. They were such a hit, that Universal spun them off with a series of films over the next 10 years. Main got her only Oscar nomination for the original film. Other Main treats include her dramatic turn in Dead End (1937), her divorce ranch maid in The Women (1939), a feuding parent in Heaven Can Wait (1943), the family maid in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the shotgun-toting maid in Summer Stock (1950), and Lucille Ball’s trailer loving neighbour in The Long, Long Trailer (1954). One of her best performances came near the end of her film career – she had a hysterical few minutes as the widow trying to marry off her daughters in William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1956).
Agnes Moorehead – She was one of the great character actresses of all time and an actress with an incredible range. Agnes Moorehead ran the gamut from comedy to drama to thriller and musicals – on screen, stage, radio, and TV. She achieved her most popular success as the bitchy but fun mother on TVs Bewitched (1964-72), garnering multiple Emmy nominations. But her best work was on screen between 1941 and 1971. Her introduction to films was as the mother of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941) and she gave a superb, Oscar-nominated performance in Orson Welles’ follow-up film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). What I loved about Moorhead was her ability to play any type of character – genteel, aristocratic, working women, bitches, even pioneers. Other than The Magnificent Ambersons, her best performances include the French Countess in Mrs. Parkington (1944), her acidic turn in Dark Passage (1947), the sincere women’s prison warden in Caged (1950), the best friend in All That Heaven Allows (1955) and the slatternly Velma in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Her work in that film was a shock to audiences who were just getting used to the glamorous Endora she was playing on Bewitched. It showed everyone that there was no way to pigeonhole her talent.
Thelma Ritter – Ritter came to films late. She made her debut in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street when she was 45, but her ascent as one of the top character actresses of the mid-century was swift. Two years later she stole every one of her scenes in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) as Ann Sothern’s maid. The following year she got the first of her six Oscar nominations as Bette Davis’ maid in the classic All About Eve. Ritter could excel in both comedy and drama precisely because she was an incredibly natural, unmannered performer. Her matter-of-fact, no-nonsense delivery was like a breath of fresh air, enabling her to have quite the run. Among her many successes after All About Eve included Oscar nominations for The Mating Season (1951), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953), Pillow Talk (1959) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). She also did terrific work in The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951), Rear Window (1954) and The Misfits (1961). She took a break from films in the mid-fifties, winning a Tony for the Broadway musical New Girl in Town (1957).
There are some very good actresses today carrying on the tradition of the classic character actresses – Kathy Bates, Dianne Wiest, Frances Conroy, and Octavia Spencer are a few that spring to mind but primarily because of the opportunities that TV now offers. That’s where they get to stretch their talent because of the wealth of opportunity that Netflix, HBO, and Amazon are providing.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.