No assessment of 20th century screen comedy would be complete without some mention of character actor Charles Lane (Charles Levinson, 1905-2007).
I call him the original one, because there is also a terrific film-maker by that name, who must surely encounter frequent difficulties in his career because of the name confusion.
At any rate, the original Lane remained precisely the same over the length of his 65 year career in film, radio and television, usually enlivening ensemble comedies playing irritated and officious bureaucrats, tax collectors, insurance adjusters, lawyers and the like. He just had that LOOK, and a sort of humorless, snappish attitude that was just perfect for comedians to have to tussle with.
He started out at the dawn of talking pictures in the early 1930s in musicals and screwball comedies. At times he seems to have been in everything and with everybody. He was in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. He appeared in almost everything by Frank Capra including Broadway Bill (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Arsenic and Old Lace (1942), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), State of the Union (1948),and Riding High (1950). He’s in the Howard Hawks comedy Ball of Fire (1941) with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. He’s in several of the Blondie pictures with Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake. He’s in The Milky Way (1936) and Professor Beware (1938) with Harold Lloyd; Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), with Eddie Cantor; The Cat and the Canary (1939) with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard; Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939) with Edgar Bergen; Buck Benny Rides Again (1940) with Jack Benny; and The Big Store (1941) with the Marx Brothers. In the 50s he became a frequent comic foil to Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy and her later shows. He was in the all star comedy classic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) (as the airport employee who tries to prevent Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett from bothering Jim Backus). He’s in a ton of live action Disney movies. And this is just the tip of the ice berg: hundreds of film and television roles during every decade all the way up to 1995. His last onscreen role was in a remake of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. In 2007 at the age of 102, he came back for one last voiceover, in an animated version of The Night Before Christmas.
For more on comedy film history see 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
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
Lane was a favorite of mine — when I learned that he was still alive (and mentally sharp) in the early 2000s, I could only marvel. I hoped to interview him or at least write him a fan letter, but alas, it didn’t happen. Seems as he if passed only last year; being reminded of the fact that it happened nearly seven years ago is just one more indicator of quickly time flies and how short our lives — even one as long as Lane’s — really are.
I actually had the honor of meeting and interviewing him. He was the complete opposite of the characters he was best known for. A class act!
wow, that must have been a gas!!