Spencer Charters: Late Bloomer with an Early Check-Out

Spencer Charters (1875-1943) was a terrific character actor whom you’ve certainly seen in small supporting parts in a zillion classic films. He was usually cast as fussy clerks, local bureaucrats and the like, often in rural settings.

Indeed Charters was from rural (small town) America, Duncannon, Pennsylvania, where he worked in a nail factory until he was 25 years old. This is one reason we know him mostly as an older man — he was a late starter! Time in vaudeville and with stock comanies led him to Broadway by 1910, when he appeared in the original production of George M. Cohan’s Get Rich Quick Wallingford. In 1913, he married actress Irene Myers, who had toured with her own stock company.

Throughout the ’20s Charters alternated Broadway shows likes the original production of The Wild Man of Borneo (1927) and silent films such as Janice Meredith (1924) with Marion Davies and W.C. Fields. Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee! (1928-29) was his last Broadway show; the screen version (1930) was his first talkie. He followed that up with The Bat Whispers (1930), The Front Page (1931), Cantor’s Palmy Days (1931), The Heart of New York (1932), Harold Lloyd’s Movie Crazy (1932) and Professor Beware (1938), Hold ‘Em Jail (1932), So This is Africa (1933), and Hips Hips Hooray (1934) with Wheeler and Woolsey, Gabriel Over the White House (1933), Wonder Bar (1934) Joe’s E. Brown’s The Circus Clown (1934) and Alibi Ike (1935), It’s a Gift (1935) with W.C. Fields, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Banjo on My Knee (1936), Pick a Star (1937), In Old Chicago (1938), John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Our Town (1940), The Boys from Syracuse (1940), Tobacco Road (1941), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), among scores of thers. He also co-stars in the shorts Southern Style (1934) with Ruth Etting, and The Great American Pie Company (1935) with Chic Sale.

Irene Charters died in 1941; her husband was not to long outlive her. He was 67 when he took his own life by a combination of sleeping pills and carbon monoxide poisoning in 1943. His last film to be released (posthumously) was Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). I could make a very grim joke about that, but we’ll leave the black comedy to Capra.

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