Emory Parnell: The Big Swede

Bit player Emory Parnell (1892-1979) was nicknamed “The Big Swede” although it’s doubtful that, apart from coming from St. Paul, he actually possessed a Swedish identity. “Parnell” tends to be an Irish or Anglo surname. And truth be known, Parnell played nearly as many Rileys and Clancys as he did Olafs and Swensons.

Originally a concert violinist, Parnell toured the vaudeville, Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits for years, sometimes with a family act that included his wife and children, sometimes as a literal one-man band (he could play accordion and a drum kit at the same time). He also worked in radio, and narrated industrial films in his early years.

In 1938 Parnell moved to Hollywood where he immediately found lots of work as a supporting player, due to his highly distinctive, useful type. Over a four decade career, he amassed a mind-boggling 342 screen credits. Some notable classic comedy and vaudeville related credits included appearances in the Blondie, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Five Little Peppers series, five Preston Sturges comedies, the Marx Brothers At the Circus (1939, he’s the ringmaster), Joe Penner’s The Day the Bookies Wept (1939), A Night at Earl Carroll’s (1940), I Married a Witch (1943), Nazty Nuisance (1943), The Dancing Masters (1943),  Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944), Fred Allen’s It’s in the Bag (1945), Zombies on Broadway (1945), State Fair (1945), The Queen of Burlesque (1946), Abie’s Irish Rose (1946), The Show Off (1946), Gas House Kids Go West (1947), Jungle Gents (1954) with the Bowery Boys, Artists and Models (1955) and Pardners (1956) with Martin and Lewis, and the Jerry Lewis solo vehicle The Delicate Delinquent (1957).

Comedy shorts included All the World’s a Stooge (1941) with The Three Stooges; Love Your Landlord, Radio Rampage, The KItchen Cynic, and Feather Your Nest All (1944), and The Big Beef (1945) with Edgar Kennedy and Florence LakeTriple Trouble (1944), He Forgot to Remember (1944), and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog (1945) with Leon Errol, and several of the Joe McDoakes’ shorts with George O’Hanlon.

His numerous tv roles include a regular role on The Life of Riley (1953-58), and repeat guest shots on The Abbott and Costello Show (1953-54) and My Little Margie (1952-54). His scores of non-comical parts include numerous tv westerns. This history informs of his very last turns, as a grizzled town drunk in the Michael Crichton sci fi thriller The Andromeda Strain (1971). His very last credit was a turn as a bartender in the exploitation film Girls on the Road (1972).

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.