Edward Arnold: A Diamond in the Smooth

Actor Edward Arnold (Gunther Edward Arnold Schneider, 1890-1956) was simultaneously owlish, shifty-looking and possessed of an excellent baritone voice, a perfect combination to play shady lawyers, Tammany Hall politicians, and self-made, plain-spoken businessmen. Born and raised in New York’s Kleine Deutschland (Little Germany) on the Lower East Side, Arnold’s first visit to a theatre was at Tony Pastor’s in 1896. Arnold was to play many a Gilded Age, well-heeled New Yorker in his day, characters like Diamond Jim Brady and Jim Fisk, and he was so authentic in the parts it seemed almost like stunt casting.

Arnold did amateur and stock theatre in his youth prior to beginning a four year stint making silent melodramas at Essanay Studios starting in 1916. He appeared in over 40 short films for the studio during that time, none of which set the world on fire. In 1919 he began his Broadway career in a play called She Would and She Did. Another dozen productions followed, notably a 1927 revival of the recent hit The Jazz Singer starring its original star George Jessel, remounted so as to take advantage of the popularity of the Al Jolson film. (The gambit didn’t work). His last Broadway show, was also the longest-running, Whistling in the Dark (1932-33). Arnold would also play his same part in the 1933 Hollywood screen version.

A memorable Hollywood career followed. 1933 was a good year for classic comedy: in that same year, Arnold was in Mae West’s I’m No Angel, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, and Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals. He was also prized in screwball comedy: was in three movies written or co-written by Preston Sturges: 30 Day Princess (1934), Diamond Jim (1935), and Easy Living (1937), and three directed by Frank Capra: You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). In Edna Ferber’s Come and Get It (1936), co-directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler, he had a rare starring role as a midwestern lumber kingpin. That same year he was the title character in Meet Nero Wolfe (1936), the first movie starring Rex Stout’s popular character. In 1939 he joined Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in Robert E. Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight. Arnold reprised his role as Diamond Jim Brady in Lillian Russell in 1940. He got to share the spotlight with Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). He had a brief turn in Ziegfeld Follies (1945). In 1950, he was in both The Yellow Can Man with Red Skelton, and the musical Annie Get Your Gun (in the role of Pawnee Bill). There were dozens more besides these, but these ones were particularly rich in Hollywood magic.

At the same time, Arnold was a constant presence on radio and television, notably as star of the radio show Mr. President (1947-53), and as host of the TV show Edward Arnold Theater (1954). His last credit was on a program called Strange Stories in 1956.