Jerome Cowan: A Serviceable Villain

Three cheers today for hard-working character actor Jerome Cowan (1897-1972). Cowan appeared in over 200 films and TV productions; if you don’t know the name, I hope you know that face from dozens of Hollywood classics. We’ll mention several, but a prominent one, for your instant reference, was Miracle on 34th Street (1947) where he played the D.A. with the thankless task of prosecuting Santa Claus.

The son of a New York candy maker, Cowan went on the stage right after finishing school at 18, learning the ropes with stock companies, and in vaudeville and burlesque. From 1923 through 1959 he appeared in 15 Broadway plays, including As Thousands Cheer (1933-34), the original Broadway production of Paths of Glory (1935, later made into a film by Stanley Kubrick), Boy Meets Girl (1935-37), and Rumple (1957, co-produced by Paula Stone).

It was on the stage that Cowan cultivated his easily remembered persona, so right for playing shifty mouthpieces, out and out crooks, untrustworthy suitors and the like, with his sharp clothes (often with a carnation in the lapel of his pin striped suit), his emaculate though very greasy hair, and the ultimate harbinger of ill motives: a pencil thin moustache. He absoluteky hit the ground running when he got to Hollywood. I’ll give just a few credits that will be of special interest to the vaudeville lover and some of my pet favorites: Shall We Dance (1937), New Faces of 1937, Vogues of 1938, John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937), The Goldwyn Follies (1938), St. Louis Blues (1939), The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), Ma He’s Making Eyes at Me (1940), Melody Ranch (1940), Too Many Blondes (1941, with Rudy Vallee), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Frisco Lil (1942), Minstrel Man (1944), Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), Murder in the Music Hall (1946), several of the Blondie movies (as Dagwood’s boss), The Fountainhead (1947), Milton Berle’s Always Leave Them Laughing (1949), The Girl from Jones Beach (1949), Joe Palooka Meets Humphrey (1950), Young Man with a Horn (1950), and Lucille Ball’s The Fuller Brush Girl (1950). In the ’50s he was a regular on several TV shows including Not for Publication (1952), Valiant Lady (1953-57), Modern Romances (1956), and The Tab Hunter Show (1960-61), and guested on dozens of other programs. Later films include Jerry Lewis’s Visit to a Small Planet (1960) and The Patsy (1964), Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Critic’s Choice (1963) with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, Frankie and Johnny (1966) with Elvis and Donna Douglas of The Beverly Hillbillies, Disney’s The Gnome-Mobile (1967), and Carl Reiner’s The Comic (1969). His last screen credit was a 1971 episode of Alias Smith and Jones.

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