Russell Hicks (1895-1957) appeared in over 300 films, in all sorts of genres, but he’s probably best remembered by classic comedy fans in particular for his priceless turn as a flim flam man in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick (1940). He’s the guy who sells Fields shares in “Beef Steak Mines”. Hicks had a mellifluous voice, a smooth yet distinguished manner, and wore clothes well (see above) so he was always getting cast as attorneys, judges, army officers, politicians, and the like. His impersonal and somewhat “public” manner meant that he was almost always assigned minor supporting roles. He was seldom, if ever, cast as someone’s father or uncle, having heart-to-heart talks, or the like. He was much better at giving summations in crowded courtrooms.
Other comedy classics that benefited from Hicks’ polished presence included the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store (1941); the Abbott and Costello films Hold That Ghost (1941), Ride ’em Cowboy (1942), and Buck Privates Come Home (1947); the Laurel and Hardy comedies Great Guns (1941), and Air Raid Wardens (1943); Blondie for Victory (1942); Red Skelton’s remake of The Show-Off (1946), and Jiggs and Maggie in Court (1948). In 1934 he also appeared in a couple of shorts: Mushrooms, with Harry Gribbon and Cora Witherspoon; and My Mummy’s Arms, with Gribbon and Shemp Howard.
Hicks came by his authoritative manner honestly. He started out as an extra in D.W. Griffith’s two biggest films The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). But mostly he put in his time in the legit theatre during his first couple of professional decades, starting out in his hometown of Baltimore, and arriving on Broadway by 1925. He worked there for nearly a decade straight in such plays as The Wisecrackers (1925), No Trespassing (1926), Goin’ Home (1928), Torch Song (1930), Nona (1932), The Little Black Book (1932), and All the King’s Horses (1934). Later, he was in the original productions of Time for Elizabeth (1948 — written by Groucho Marx!), On Borrowed Time (1953), and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1954).
Of his 300 some odd other movies, others include Go Into Your Dance (1935) with Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler; Dante’s Inferno (1935); the Fred and Ginger musicals Follow the Fleet (1936) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939); The Big Broadcast of 1938; Little Miss Broadway (1938) with Shirley Temple; You Can’t Take It With You (1938); The Three Musketeers (1939); The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939); Swanee River (1939); Virginia City (1940); A Night at Earl Carroll’s (1940); No No Nanette (1940); Sergeant York (1941); Louisiana Hayride (1944); Flame of the Barbary Coast (1945); Scarlet Street (1945); Earl Carroll Sketchbook (1946); Til the Clouds Roll By (1946); Variety Girl (1947); and The Fountainhead (1949). In the 1950s, most of his work was in television, on shows like Racket Squad and My Little Margie.
Hicks was taken at the age of 61 by a heart attack following an auto accident in 1957.
For more on classic comedy film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.