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.
Gene Lockhart was such a character actor. Born in 1891 in Ontario, Canada, Lockhart benefited from parents who were musical and artistic, especially his father who sang tenor in the 48th Highlanders’ Regimental Band. Young Gene had the opportunity to study music and theatre in London, and, upon returning to North America, he sang in concert, often on the same bill with the reknown Beatrice Lillie. In 1917, at the age of 25, he first appeared on Broadway and went on to continue his stage work, both onstage and behind the scenes as a writer and lyricist. He studied at the Juilliard School of Music and taught classes there as well. In 1924, he married British actress Kathleen Arthur and, one year later, the couple celebrated the birth of their only child, June Lockhart.
Hollywood beckoned briefly in 1922, when Lockhart made his screen debut in Smiling Through, but it wasn’t until 1934 when his career in Tinsel Town really took off. By then, he had developed physically into the jowly and pleasingly plump personage that would serve him well for the next three decades. Lockhart alternated between two “types”: insidious villains in films such as Algiers (for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and somewhat shy, bumbling characters, typified by his portrayal as Bob Cratchit in the 1938 MGM version of A Christmas Carol, in which he appeared with his wife as Mrs. Cratchit and his daughter June, making her screen debut as one of the Cratchit children.
What made Lockhart so special as a character actor was his ability to blend the two types for which he was famous, that of the overtly sinister villain and the bumbling nice guy, into a unique and compelling mix that never failed to delight. He did this again and again in numerous films such as His Girl Friday, Carousel, They Died with Their Boots On, Meet John Doe, Leave Her to Heaven, and, perhaps most memorably, the perennial Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street where, as Judge Henry X Harper, he almost single handedly saves Christmas.
OK, John Payne helped a little.
While Lockhart was known best for his work in film, he also had an impressive career on the stage, including his much-lauded performance as Willie Loman in the original Broadway production of Death of a Salesman (taking over from Lee J. Cobb). Before that, he appeared with George M. Cohan and another great character actor, Elisha Cook, Jr., in the Broadway debut of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness. All told, he had sixteen Broadway plays to his credit. Add that to his numerous television appearances and his more than a hundred film appearances, and it is clear that Lockhart rightly earned his place in the pantheon of great character actors.
Earlier, I mentioned his work as a lyricist. Think you don’t know any of his stuff? Oh yes, you do. I’ll let Les Paul and Mary Ford prove it as they perform one of Lockhart’s most famous songs…Presented by Listerine!
The song was originally published in 1919. Musical luminaries such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Django Reinhardt covered it over the years. Les Paul and Mary Ford’s version was a million seller in 1949. The classics! They endure!