In its heyday, Hollywood showcased dozens upon dozens of wonderful character actresses. As with their male counterparts, most of them fell into “types,” roles for which they were well suited and extremely competent and reliable. Looking for a ditzy dame? Call upon Joyce Compton (The Awful Truth , Christmas in Connecticut ) or Barbara Nichols (Sweet Smell of Success , Pal Joey ). Need a high-toned, fussy society woman? Get in touch with Florence Bates (Heaven Can Wait , The Devil and Miss Jones ) or Edna May Oliver (Ann Vickers , Pride and Prejudice ). Want the ultimate kind, gentle, and understanding mother? Look no further then Fay Bainter (Young Tom Edison, The Human Comedy ) or, if the child in question is Jimmy Stewart, Beulah Bondi (Stewart’s onscreen mother in a record four films: Vivacious Lady, Of Human Hearts , Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , and It’s a Wonderful Life ).
And that’s fine. It’s the way it should be. As an audience, we look to these women to fulfill a specific role with great competence and gentle dignity (yes, even the ditzy dames).
What we don’t often see is the onscreen growth from one type of character into another. And another. But that’s exactly the sort of metamorphosis that character actress Lee Patrick achieved throughout the course of her long tenure as a bona fide character actress in Tinsel Town.
The great character actors of Hollywood’s “Golden Era” (a time I’d place from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, give or take a few years on either side) filled an important niche in the films cranked out by the major studios. They were a dependable group of “types”: ditzy blondes, bombastic fatheads, loopy old maids, smart-aleck loudmouths; once their image was imprinted on the celluloid and projected on the screen, you knew what you were getting. Moreover, you could be assured that what you were getting would be good. The plot might be weak, the leading actors sub par, the direction lackadaisical, but the great character actors always delivered. Were they often typecast? Well, of course. But they portrayed, and portrayed excellently, a type that filmgoers then and today grew to love and respect.
With all the hoopla circulating around the platinum anniversary of what was arguably Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, it’s worth remembering that this entire era was rich for more than just great movies. The decades on either side of 1939 were also the golden age for the screen’s great character actors. While the stars usually managed to squeeze out two, maybe three pictures a year, it often appeared that the character actors of this time were sprinting from one sound stage to the next. The good ones were very, very busy, and one of the greatest was Thomas Mitchell.
Born in 1892 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Mitchell, the oldest son of immigrant Irish parents, got his start on stage after briefly pursuing a career in journalism. For a while, he toured with a Shakespearean theater company headed by fellow character actor Charles Coburn. He then turned his sights to Broadway and appeared in more than twenty plays between 1916 and 1960, some of which he also wrote and/or directed.