I was chatting with an actor friend recently and as we discussed a couple of his choicest roles in successful pictures, he remarked, “I was a pretty hot actor at that time!” His statement resonated with me. Actors, are like baseball players, gamblers and any number of other professions. They are all prone to hot streaks. Some performers begin like supernovas and remain overheated for their entire careers; Burt Lancaster’s jump start in The Killers (1946) comes to mind.These fortunate few are usually called “stars”. The vast majority of working actors, then and now, try to better their craft while making a living. I wondered though who had the hottest streak of any screen actor in terms of appearing in the best films over the shortest period of time. What was the cinematic equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game consecutive hitting streak?
Back in the days when Hollywood manufactured movies like General Motors used to roll out new cars, “hot” meant a lot more than just working steady. It meant you were a relatively fresh commodity in a town constantly looking for original faces. You were also a damn good actor and, if you were lucky enough not to be shackled by the ubiquitous seven year contract to a studio overseer, work was available all over town. You were in demand, you landed the choice parts and the movies themselves turned out to be good… if not sometimes great.
1939 is universally accepted as Hollywood’s finest year for movies. This singular epoch has been getting a lot of visibility lately. The Motion Picture Academy is screening all of their Best Picture nominees for 1939 this summer and Turner Classic Movies will be showing “39 from 39” next month, a retrospective that coincides with (surprise!) the release of a Warner Home Video DVD about this historic year of film. Bouquets to 1939 notwithstanding, this piece is about the incredible twelve month run of film roles by the great character actor, Thomas Mitchell.
Born in 1893 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Mitchell started out as a reporter and turned to acting while concurrently working as a playwright and stage producer. In addition to treading the boards in The Playboy of the Western World, Blood Money and Nightstick on Broadway, Mitchell penned Glory Hallelujah, Little Accident (1928) the basis for the Gary Cooper vehicle Casanova Brown) and Cloudy with Showers (1931).
By the time he arrived in Hollywood for good in 1936, Tommy Mitchell was the proud possessor of a face more Irish than Mr. Potato Head and a protean acting talent honed in the theatre for over two decades. He scored almost immediately as the bemused embezzler in Lost Horizon (1937) and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his sensitive turn as a compassionate doctor in John Ford’s The Hurricane released the same year. Few, if any, screen actors had a more successful pair of roles at the start of their career; Thomas Mitchell was just getting warmed up.
Originally shopped by John Ford and Merian C. Cooper as a blockbuster Technicolor opus, all of the major studios quickly passed on the project called Stage to Lordsburg. David O. Selznick expressed mild interest if the lead roles of John Wayne and Claire Trevor were switched to Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich (!) Ford eventually convinced independent producer Walter Wanger finance his picture via United Artists as a black & white film with a lower budget. When production on Stagecoach started in late 1938, Westerns had been relegated to mostly B productions. With a single film, John Ford would forever alter both the perception and position of the Western in American Cinema.
Accurately acclaimed as the archetype oater, Stagecoach remains a penetrating study of societal malcontents under heart-cracking duress. Along with an ex-convict (Wayne) and a prostitute (Trevor), Mitchell’s alcoholic Doc Boone fits neatly with John Carradine’s outwardly pious Southern cardsharp, Donald Meek’s teetotaler liquor salesman, an expectant Louise Platt and Berton Churchill’s knavish bank president who opines economic hot air as if a guest panelist on a 19th century business channel. Stagecoach was John Wayne’s breakthrough role and Ford rode him mercilessly to wring it out of him. Claire Trevor remembered that Wayne accepted the abuse because he realized Ford was trying to make him a better actor. Mitchell appreciated the greatness of John Ford as a film director, but would not be bullied and refused to be cast as a subservient member of the director’s stock company. During production on Stagecoach, Mitchell backed Ford away with a wry reminder about one of his flops: “Remember Mr. Ford, I saw Mary of Scotland…”
The character of Doc Boone plumbs deeper philosophical depths than the stereotypical Shamrock blusterer that became a staple during the studio system era. Stagecoach opens with Trevor and Mitchell being run out of town by “the Ladies Law and Order League”. As the Doc shags his shingle and climbs aboard the coach, he comments to Trevor, “We are the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice”. Mitchell also gets the last word in while observing that the wholesome whore and not-so-bad man have found happiness together. “Well, they’re saved from the blessings of civilization”, the good Doctor declares before departing for a final shot of redeye. It was a remarkable performance in one of the all-time classic films and earned Thomas Mitchell the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1940.
Only Angels Have Wings is a film that is often overlooked when assessing the cinematic year of 1939. Producer/director Howard Hawks recently embarked on the most creative segment of his career with the template screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby. The pairing of Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in Angels firmly established the Hawksian style of a world-weary, hazard loving male protagonist paired with an equally ballsy female lead with lots of smart aleck, overlapping dialogue amid a perilous situation.
The setting of Angels is a South American air station staffed by with a hard luck group of fliers who fly hazardous missions in patchwork planes over the Andes is nominally credited to Hawks’ location scouting in Mexico for Viva Villa (1934). A robust adventure that serves up ample measures of comedy, drama, tears and derring-do, Angels additionally co-stars an old timer (Richard Barthelmess) and a frisky newcomer (twenty year old Rita Hayworth) but required an effective sidekick for the hero and no one did this kind of turn better than Thomas Mitchell.His portrayal of Kid Dabb includes a climatic death scene that punctuates the story; the type of situation notoriously difficult for any actor to play. Mitchell proved again to be the perfect complement, this time in one of Howard Hawks’ most invigorating and enjoyable movies.
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) was a casting nightmare. Frank Capra had 186 speaking roles to fill and dozens more non-speaking bits and extra sequences. When it came down to Mitchell’s part, Mr. Capra explains it best:
“It took weeks to find the right actor for the part of ‘Diz’, the poet quoting reporter who wouldn’t cross the street to see Lady Godiva unless the horse had bucked her off into a cactus patch. Diz was the constant pal and faithful admirer of ‘Saunders’ (Jean Arthur). He proposed marriage twice a day when sober and twice an hour when he recovered from sobriety… I insisted that Diz be played by a left handed actor…southpaws are immediate characters-full of surprises. Joe Sistrom came up with the answer: “Best southpaw actor is the guy you always rave about-Tommy Mitchell. Bells rang. Everybody shouted his version of ‘Eureka!’ Tommy Mitchell was heaven’s answer to our prayer.”*
*Quoted from The Name Above the Title, by Frank Capra, Di Capo Press, 1971
In one of the most well crafted movies ever, Mitchell’s turn was spot-on; what the hell, the guy was a reporter! I particularly savor the scene where Mitchell is leaning against a wall, drunk, proposes marriage once again to Jean Arthur, suddenly realizes she is in love with James Stewart and good naturedly offers her a lift home. Also impressive is Mitchell giving Jimmy Stewart the what-for about the realities of the young Senator’s appointment as “…an honorary stooge”. Aspiring actors should study this last sequence. Based on current events, I believe aspiring reporters should do likewise.
I can’t add much more to the biblical quantity of words about Gone with the Wind except to aver that it wouldn’t be the most popular movie of all time without Thomas Mitchell. He simply was the Scots-Irish southern baron Gerald O’Hara whose familial roots in Tara are passed onto daughter Scarlett after he loses first his mind and then his life due to the Civil War. Thematically, Mitchell stitches together the epic when he declares, “Why the land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for and worth dying for because it’s the only thing that lasts!” (One wonders if this particular line got cribbed for John Qualen in The Grapes of Wrath who states essentially the same thing when his foreclosed farm gets bulldozed). Not portraying a sidekick, but a patriarch, GWTW proved that Mitchell could play almost any type of part.
Two weeks after GWTW had its historic debut in Atlanta, The Hunchback of Notre Dame opened on the last day of 1939 in New York City. A personal favorite, I’ve always felt that this clearly superior version of Victor Hugo’s classic tale never received its just due. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote that Laughton’s Quasimodo was too fulsome and sequences of flogging and torture too graphic (Crowther appeared to enjoy few films; a curious attribute for a professional film critic). In Hollywood’s most competitive year, Hunchback was nominated for a mere pair of Oscars: music score and sound. Alfred Newman’s pantheon score for Hunchback– a beautifully lyrical composition- lost to The Wizard of Oz and Laughton wasn’t even nominated for Best Actor. Fast forward to the present and The Hunchback of Notre Dame apparently hasn’t qualified for a full print restoration with the visual quality of the current DVD singularly disappointing.
White gloved William Dieterle directed Hunchback with darkest élan and was aided by the finest of casts; the immortal Laughton at the peak of his powers, a teenage Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda in her screen debut, Cedric Hardwicke playing Frollo as a 15th century Darth Vader, a delightfully ancient Harry Davenport as the King, youthful Edmond O’Brien sans jowls in his screen debut, the flashbulb eyes of George Zucco, George Tobias in three different bit parts and most prominently, Thomas Mitchell as Clopin, King of the Beggars. This is Mitchell’s most multi-faceted portrayal; cruel – “I’m above that sort of thing (stealing) I cut throats, not purses”- while singularly compassionate, funny, brave and,ultimately doomed. When Mitchell lies dying in front of Notre Dame with O’Brien tearfully scolding him, one has to suppress the inclination to also weep for Clopin.
No one would be shedding any authentic tears for Tommy Mitchell though. Over time, the films of Hollywood’s seminal year of 1939 have become part of us all. Thomas Mitchell lays rightful claim to the hottest streak in movie history during this greatest of years. Jolting Joe Di Maggio would surely tap his Louisville Slugger on the dugout floor of the hereafter in agreement.
Postscript on Mr. Mitchell: after 1939:
Thomas Mitchell’s career didn’t miss a beat in 1940 with The Long Voyage Home and continued unabated with superb work in a slew of films including Out of the Fog (1941), Moontide (1942) Bataan (1943) and Alias Nick Beal (1949). He was pantheon as Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and combined deceit with cowardice wonderfully in High Noon (1952). Among other social achievements, he became known as one of the roistering Bundy Street Boys.*Mitchell achieved considerable mileage out of live television and continued his stage work into the 1950’s. He was the first actor to win the Trifecta: the Oscar (Stagecoach), a Tony Award (Hazel Flagg) and an Emmy Award for most Outstanding Television Performer for 1953. Thomas Mitchell passed away in 1962.
* For more about Thomas Mitchell and the Bundy Street Boys, I heartily recommend Gregory Mank’s terrific book, Hollywood’s Hellfire Club.