Tribute today to the great character actor Eugene Pallette (1889-1954). Pallette is very well known to classic film buffs for his indispensable parts in the ensembles of classic movies like the Philo Vance mysteries, My Man Godfrey (1936), Topper (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941). Imbued with the most gravelly, froggiest voice ever in pictures, he is also unmistakable in his 300 lb. girth and wide blue eyes that perpetually seem to pop and start out of his skull. With his gruffness and native Kansas accent, he had a common touch that audiences of the 30s and 40s loved.
I wanted to take a moment today and talk about Palette’s lesser known earlier career. Much slimmer as a young man, Pallette had actually started out as a jockey! His riding skills evolved into a vaudeville act her performed with three horses, and then six years with stock companies starting around 1905. In 1911 he broke into films as an extra. He thus spent nearly two decades in silent pictures — longer than he was in talkies. He appeared in dozens of westerns, had bit parts in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), and had great roles in the original Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1920), which was later remade starring Buster Keaton., and Douglas Fairbanks’ The Three Musketeers (1921), Imagine, Pallette without the girth — or the voice!
Of especial interest here, though, is Pallette’s short time spent making silent comedies for Hal Roach. One of the earliest was Should Men Walk Home? (1927), directed by Leo McCarey with Mabel Normand (her penultimate film). He is very memorable as the traffic cop in the Charley Chase short Fluttering Hearts (1927). Most significantly, he is present in some of the very earliest Laurel and Hardy pairings, including Sugar Daddies (1927), The Second 100 Years (1927), and The Battle of the Century (1927). His last short for Roach was the Our Gang comedy Barnum & Ringling, Inc. (1928). After this, he was strictly in features at the big studios.
Pallette appeared in over 250 films, the last of which was Suspense (1946), with ice skating actress Belita, Barry Sullivan, Bonita Granville, and George E. Stone. It’s not surprising to encounter testimony that Pallette turns out to have been something of a racist and a right wing lunatic in his private life. In the aftermath of the first A-bomb explosions, he bought a huge ranch in the Oregon wilderness, which he hoped would be his survival compound since the End of the World was obviously nigh. A few years later, when humanity hadn’t blown itself up, he returned to Los Angeles. At this stage he had health problems and didn’t return to acting. It may not be a shock to learn that the cause of his 1954 death was throat cancer.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out 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 To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.