Walter Pidgeon: Sleep Aid

It’s rare if not unprecedented for me to use a late career photo of a classic star, but this is how I always think of Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984). Pidgeon was in plenty of movies when I was a kid in the ’70s and this was how he looked at the time. And when I later saw his younger performances, they did nothing to displace that first impression. While good looking and possessed of a resonant voice, Pidgeon is one of the most soporific stars I can think of. I know I am not alone because I just googled “Walter Pidgeon” along with “dull” and “boring” and found many other commentators who feel the same way. He is like a glass of warm milk at bedtime, laced with tranquilizers. One is not confounded to learn that A): he was Canadian, B) he was Republican, or C) he initially worked as a banker. When he’s a senior citizen on top of all that, one is reminded of the old Hindu meditation exercise of picturing an endless succession of lazy logs floating down a river. Nighty-night!

So, as I said, the stuff I knew him in first were from his last decade. His final film was Mae West’s Sextette (1978) — Mae was probably the only person older than Pidgeon in the cast. He was in the disaster movies Skyjacked! (1972), Murder on Flight 502 (1975) and Two Minute Warning (1976). Some of his late performances seem calculated to evoke nostalgia for his early work. His presence in the sci fi The Neptune Factor (1973) seems to hearken back to Forbidden Planet (1956) and Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961). And his miscasting as Flo Ziegfeld in Funny Girl (1968) seems unaccountable, until we remember that is the last film of William Wyler, who had directed him to an Oscar nom in one of his better known classic films Mrs. Miniver (1942). On rare occasions, as in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Executive Suite (1954) and Advise and Consent (1962) the entire movie was as soporific as Pidgeon was.

As this earlier photo demonstrates, young Pigeon would require only a pair of thick glasses and a grey mustache to become the old man in the top photograph. Even the jacket is nearly the same.

As a young man, Pidgeon had studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music for a time. He spent a few years on the stage culminating in the Broadway revue Puzzles of 1925. His first film was the silent Mannequin (1926) directed by James Cruze, with Alice Joyce, Zasu Pitts, and Dolores Costello. His first several films were of course silents. He was in two versions of The Gorilla, the silent in 1927 with Charlie Murray, and the talkie in 1930 with Joe Frisco and Lila Lee. He also has a small part in Going Wild (1930) with Joe E. Brown! His voice training stood him in good stead when talkies came in, and he was in several musicals like Sweet Kitty Bellairs and Viennese Nights, both in 1930. Later he would appear in The Girl of the Golden West (1938) with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, the Annette Kellerman musical bio-pic Million Dollar Mermaid (1951) with Esther Williams, and the original TV production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1956) with Julie Andrews. 

In the mid ’30s he returned to Broadway to appear in several plays, the most notable of which might be The Night of January 16 (1935) by — wait for it — Ayn Rand. It was one of her first prominent writing projects. Pidgeon’s character’s name was “Guts” Regan.

In 1939 and 1940 he played Nick Carter, Master Detective in a series of B movies; in 1951 he played the title character in Calling Bulldog Drummond. 

In Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (1940), he got to play a character loosely based on the Civil War raider Quantrille, alongside John Wayne. John Ford’s Green Was My Valley (1941), opposite Maureen O’Hara might have been his biggest prestige picture. Other notable stuff included White Cargo (1942) with Heddy Lamarr, Madame Curie (1943) with his frequent co-star Greer Garson, and That Forsyte Woman (1949) with same.

Here I am at the Walter Pidgeon movie marathon with my pandemic movie-watching friend Curious George!