Walter Catlett: From Broadway to “Beau James”

Today is birthday of familiar Hollywood character actor Walter Catlett (1889-1960).

Catlett began to appear in operettas as a child in San Francisco (with a brief detour into pugilism) and graduated to vaudeville, forming a two-act with Hobart Cavanaugh. He appeared in ten Broadway shows, a good portion of them legendary productions, including So Long, Letty (1917) with Charlotte Greenwood; the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917 (a legendary edition); Sally (1922-23) with Marilyn Miller; and Lady Be Good (1924-25) with Fred and Adele Astaire.

But films are truly where Catlett made his mark — over 150 of them. Three of them were silent, the rest, talkies, which much better suited has braying, honking voice in roles like blustering local politicians and frontier thespians, all with a certain goofiness that set him apart from the pack of other character actors who played similar parts. (Although some are of the opinion that Robert Woolsey borrowed the round glasses frames, loud checked suits, lapel carnations, and gravelly glad-handy manner of speaking from Catlett).  He played supporting parts in such films as A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), On the Avenue (1937), Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) with Mae West, Bringing Up Baby (1938), Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940, he did the voice of the Fox), Li’l Abner (1940), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Maisie Gets Her Man (1942), Ghost Catchers (1944) with Olsen and Johnson, The Boy with Green Hair (1948), The Inspector General (1949), Friendly Persuasion (1956), and his last, Beau James (1957), with Bob Hope, in which he played Al Smith. 

27 of his films were comedy shorts in which he himself starred or co-starred (most of them 1933-36), and he played Mayor Colton in five Raymond Walburn “Henry” B movie comedy features (1949-51). Catlett only did television a couple of times, guesting on The Abbott and Costello Show and Make Room for Daddy.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville and vaudeville veterans like Walter Catlettconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, for more on classic comedy, don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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