Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Bit Actors of Wrath

In 1940, the big movie was The Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda.  It won Oscars for Best Actress and Best Director, and had five other nominations including Best Picture.  Everyone knows Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell in the lead roles, with John Caradine, Charley Grapewin, and Zeffie Tilbury bringing in the supporting cast perfectly.

Actually, Zeffie Tilbury is probably not a household word.  I can't remember her name coming up around the dinner table lately, but she was in 74 films.  The first ten, starting in 1917, were silent.  She lived from 1863 (the year of the Battle of Gettysburg) to 1950 (the year I was born). 

She played Aunt Lucy in After the Thin Man in 1936, and worked twice with Laurel and Hardy, but her scenes in Block Heads in 1938 were deleted.  She also made a few other films at the Hal Roach Studios, including Second Childhood in 1936 with Our Gang.  Her last film of note was Sheriff of Tombstone with Roy Rogers in 1941, and one movie after that with no great stars and her role going uncredited.

Way down at the other end of the cast list, under the uncredited parts, we find Bill Wolfe who played a square dance caller.  Here is a bit actor who worked with many great stars.  He made six films with Roy Rogers, five with W. C. Fields, five with John Wayne, and worked with Laurel and Hardy in Way Out West in 1937.  According to IMDb, of Bill Wolfe's 83 films, he never received screen credit. 

I like looking at the careers of child actors as well.  One of the kids in the film was Wally Albright.  Born in 1925, he would have been 15 in Grapes.  He started acting when he was only four years old.  He appeared as Wally in six Our Gang shorts at Hal Roach, including one of my favorites, Hi, Neighbor! in 1934 where he played the rich kid with a toy fire engine.  The gang has to build their own fire engine out of a junk pile, and then they race!

He made 61 films by the time he was 17 years old, and two more in his twenties.  Other than Our Gang, his big film would have been Captains Courageous in 1937, but he was way down on the cast list.  I guess he made a living at the time, but early actors (especially child actors) didn't really make enough to plan for retirement.

I don't pretend to be a film scholar, but I hope my notes create interest in some of the lesser known actors and actresses who made the movies what they are.  Like I have said before, there are a lot of Bit Actors to write about!  Do me a about Zeffie at dinner tonight.

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