To really see bit actors en masse, you have to go back to the days of two-reel comedies. Here we find the likes of James Finlayson, Edgar Kennedy, Billy Gilbert, Charlie Hall, Tiny Sandford, and of course, Franklin Pangborn.
Pangborn was born in 1889 and lived until 1958. He started acting in plays and went on to silent films. It takes years to develop a persona for an acting career (if you want one) and he started out doing some very serious parts in dramas. No one will remember them because he so effectively became a comedian.
Think about almost all of the Pangborn films. He mostly played a man in some type of authoritarian position who gets flustered with the situation. In his frustration to keep everything going on his terms, he lets his comic genius escape. He usually is cast as the hotel manager, store clerk, butler, salesman, and as the bank examiner, J. Pinkerton Snoopington in The Bank Dick. I loved watching him drink with Fields in that movie.
He started in films after WWI in 1926 and made over 200 movies. He worked with most of the greats including Bing Crosby, Mack Sennett, Fred Astaire, Our Gang (where he played Otto Phocus, a photographer), with William Powell and Carol Lombard in My Man Godfrey, and so many others. He was in quite a few films with his friend Edward Everett Horton.
There is a lengthy biography of Pangborn found on IMDb. Of course, anything you read on the web could be less than accurate (including my blog, but I try to check things out) so check the details if you need to. This one is worth it.
Watch for him in a more dramatic role in Now, Voyager with Bette Davis. I have seen that film, but it was a while ago. I will watch it again and pay more attention to the bit parts! Later Franklin played a few small cameos on TV. I guess his character worked well for quite a while, but audiences got more sophisticated and he got older. It is sad to think about how that happens, and it probably happens to most of us. Franklin Pangborn will be remembered.