Friday, July 15

Walter Pidgeon

He was the perfect gentleman.  Don't take my word for it. It would be a rare article on him that does not make mention of that fact.  He was usually nattily dressed, often with a cravat, and to me he was most distinguished.  There was a superiority about him although never displayed in such a way as to demean others. That superiority often led to roles of authority... military officers, studio heads, senators, law enforcement... all of which elegantly suited him.  He seemed steady as a rock, kind and wise and utterly likeable.

Walter Pidgeon had a very long career. From the 30s to the 50s it was difficult to not catch him in some film.  He was all over the place. To a large degree he was certainly a character actor although I elected not to showcase him in one of the pieces on character actors because he did occasionally show up as the top-billed star of several films.  He also often playing second male leads or could be found tucked away in large, glamorous casts.  

In the 40s he was often used as the leading man for that decade's big-name actresses... Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers, Hedy Lamarr, Joan Bennett and Greer Garson. He may not have always been the first choice for the male lead opposite those powerhouse actresses but they undoubtedly much preferred Pidgeon because he never tried to wrestle the spotlight away from them.

Pidge, as he was called, was born in 1897 in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, to a haberdasher and a housewife.  Known since childhood for his beautiful, reassuring voice, he discovered that he had a talent for singing and he appeared at a few musical venues around town.  He attended the University of New Brunswick to study law and once he added drama to his curriculum, he entertained a change of profession.  His education, however, was interrupted by the war.  Enlisting in the Canadian army, before he could see any action he was trapped between two rolling gun carriages in France and spent 17 months in a hospital.

After that he decided to give the States a try and moved to Boston to study voice at the New England Conservatory of Music.  At the same time he got a job in the banking business which he says he immediately knew was not for him.  He moved to New York City and told a producer that he could sing and act.  The producer not only believed him but thought that physically he had the makings of a performer.

He opened in a number of Broadway productions, most of them musicals.  One of them, Mannequin, was purchased by Paramount and Pidge was brought to California in 1926 to appear in it. From 1926 until 1937 he appeared in 32 movies, quite a number of them silents and a few musicals and I've not heard of a single one.

By 1937 he was happily ensconced at MGM and supporting Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in Saratoga.  Harlow died during the making of this film.  Despite the fact that there was a lot of singing at MGM, Pidge had decided he would not become a movie singer because he claimed that was the fastest way to sink a career.  Even though he would appear in musicals at the studio, I'm not so sure that he ever did any warbling himself.

He would be one of MGMs longest, most trusted, most reliable employees.  Best of all, he never caused a ripple of trouble.  He was obedient, perhaps to a fault.  Not that he didn't have a fine career, but he might have been more of a star had he thrown his weight around as many of the others did. His comments below are telling:

In 1938 he supported Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in one of their popular operettas, The Girl of the Golden West, and scuffled with Gable over Myrna Loy in Too Hot to Handle.  He was loaned to lowly Republic Pictures to play a rare bad guy role in Dark Command (1940).  Costarring with Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Roy Rogers, Pidgeon played real-life Civil War gun runner, William Cantrell.  It was a most unusual part for him.

The following year he was given top-billing in John Ford's acclaimed How Green Was My Valley.  Pidge played a kind and insightful minister who inspires the young son (Roddy McDowall) of a Welsh coal-mining family. The film would win Oscar's best picture and Ford copped best director.  

Also in 1941 Pidge made Fritz Lang's Man Hunt playing an English hunter who stalks Hitler.  He was then signed to play opposite Greer Garson in Blossoms in the Dust, also 1941.  She and MacDonald were studio head Louis B. Mayer's favorite actresses and the old man didn't just put anyone in movies with them.

He and the flame-haired English actress were such a success that they were teamed in seven more films.  The public couldn't get enough of them.  Their success in the 40s is certainly why I include him in my tribute to the decade.  Their second pairing is in their most popular one and the most honored, Mrs. Miniver (1942), about the struggles of a British family at the start of WWII.  It, too, would win Oscar's best picture and William Wyler best director. Pidge would get his first Oscar nomination for best actor. 

He would receive his second Oscar nomination for playing Pierre Curie in 1943s Madame Curie.  The remainder of the Garson-Pidgeon collaborations were not as critically acclaimed but the public kept filling those seats.  For the record the films were Mrs. Parkington (1944), Julia Misbehaves (1948), That Forsyte Woman (1948), The Miniver Story (1950) and Scandal at Scourie (1953).
Note those titles.  Except for the last one, they all seemed to be about HER.

With perennial costar Greer Garson

I haven't seen any of them.  I never liked Garson and almost had a physical reaction to watching her act.  And that was the problem.  I could always see her acting, going through the steps.  And she was always the Grand Dame, thanks to her drooling boss.  I found her annoying.  Pidge immensely liked her and said that through eight films they never had a problem.

He was wickedly good at comedy and maybe should have done more. Weekend at the Waldorf (1945)... really, a Grand Hotel revamp... was played more for laughs and the sparring between Pidge and Ginger Rogers sparkled.  It was super popular, too, with Lana Turner and Van Johnson to help with the youth dollars.  In the future, Pidge would make better films with both of them.

The Secret Heart (1946) is a film I was drawn to when I saw it for the first time about a year ago.  A return to drama, it concerned a woman and her former stepdaughter, who live together in a difficult relationship, who are in love with the same man.  Pidge was the stoic and proper man caught in between Claudette Colbert and an unusually nasty June Allyson.  I think he had a jacket on with patches on the elbows while smoking a pipe in front of a fireplace. Soooo Walter Pidgeon. 

I really discovered him in 1952, the year I also discovered movies in a big way.  In the first, Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), he played Esther Williams' strong father.  It was one of the better Williams' vehicles, perhaps because it was about a real-life person, Australian swimmer, Annette Kellerman. Pidgeon caught my attention because he somewhat reminded me of my grandfather in the cautious way he moved across a room and his general authoritative and slightly annoyed manner.  Regardless, I liked Grandpa and I like my new older friend, Walter, too.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) was a beautifully realized film about Hollywood.  It was not without a few flaws but it buttoned down aspects of the Hollywood machine as few have.  Right now I don't recall if Pidgeon is a studio head or a big producer but whatever the case, he brings back three people, an actress (Lana Turner), a writer (Dick Powell) and a director (Barry Sullivan) to see if they will again work with a director (Kirk Douglas), whom they despise, who is now in need of help.  Pidgeon's character was the only squared-away one.

The all-star cast of Executive Suite

A mere two years later, 1954, I saw him in four films and was majorly smitten with them all.  He played a worn-out company bigwig in Executive Suite, as part of a big cast that's as exciting as they get. Men of the Fighting Lady had Pidge as the commander (of course) of an aircraft carrier.  He was reunited with Van Johnson in a pretty good war epic.  He and Johnson were also in The Last Time I Saw Paris, a film that veered unfortunately into melodrama, and yet I liked it.  It didn't hurt that Elizabeth Taylor, as Pidge's daughter, was at her most gorgeous.  Finally, there was Deep in My Heart, one of those musical biographies so popular at the time... in this case, Viennese composer, Sigmund Romberg.  It is one of those with a gaggle of singers in cameo musical numbers.  Pidge played Broadway impresario, J. J. Shubert.  

Forbidden Planet caused a sensation in 1956.  In its day it was sci-fi at its best.  Its look was considered somewhat revolutionary.  It had a fun twist in that it was also a murder mystery.  Pidge was top-billed again and to a large degree was fortunate to head the cast of such a popular movie. Unfortunately he and most of the cast overacted and seemed a bit out of their element to me.

The Rack (1956) was back to hard drama. Paul Newman, in just his third movie, returns home from the Korean war where he was a prisoner who was brain-washed and revealed military secrets. Pidge as his hard-nosed, unforgiving father was terrific.  

He was off the big screen for awhile mainly because he returned to Broadway a couple of times in five years and also began doing television, including some early TV large-scale presentations... TV movies of their day. 

Still apparently in sci-fi mode, he returned to films in the oh-so-silly but very popular Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961).  Let's not discuss its plot.  He was top-billed over Joan Fontaine... and what was she thinking?  To attract the teens, there was Frankie Avalon and Barbara Eden. Oh yeah...

Advise and Consent (1962) was terrific in every way.  Pidge had a great role as a wily Senate majority leader sniffing out a secret before it destroys some political lives.  He looked and acted pretty senatorial and more than held his own with Charles Laughton, Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith, Gene Tierney and a very fine Don Murray.  I have always remembered this film because it opened on the day I graduated from high school and I went from cap and gown to the matinee.

Big Red (1962) is a favorite Pidge film for me.  A Disney tale about a crusty, rich Brit who raises prized Irish setters whose lives are strict and orderly and the French boy kennel assistant who dares to fall in love with one of them.  How Pidge looked in this film is how I have always remembered him.  The older this man got, the more I liked him.

As Big Red's strict owner

Pidge was increasingly doing television, something in those days that usually spelled the end of a movie career.  He returned to the screen in 1968 for Funny Girl.  His old director, Willie Wyler, doing his final film, requested Pidge to play a role he was already familiar with... the Broadway impresario.  In this case it would be Florenz Ziegfeld who is credited with giving Broadway legend Fanny Brice her big break. It was, of course, quite a famous film even before its release because of the movie debut of Barbra Streisand reprising her Broadway role.  None of the hectic press reporting of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans ever involved our perfect gentleman.

Harry in Your Pocket (1973) was Pidge's last decent film and part. He played, of all things, a pickpocket.  It was an engaging, late-in-life performance unlike anything he'd ever done. After making the dreadful, dreadful, dreadful Mae West movie, Sextette (1978), Pidge decided to pack in movie-making. 

He was married twice.  His first wife died in childbirth in 1926 and in 1931 he married his secretary and they were together until his passing. 

The great old actor, who liked to say it takes a lot of work to appear easy-going, passed away after a series of strokes in Santa Monica, California, in 1984.  He was 87 years old.

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