Wednesday, February 2, 2011

J. Farrell MacDonald

Here's a name that you may not know, but most likely you have seen him in several classic films.  J. Farrell MacDonald (1875 - 1952) worked in 327 movies from 1911 to 1951, and he also directed 43 silent films.

MacDonald was a favorite of John Ford and also Frank Capra.  Good company to be in.  He made about 25 films with Ford as director or writer, including some 18 silents when he was still being billed as Jack Ford.  He worked in three Capra films.

In his silent films, he worked with some of the greats such as Mary Pickford, Tom Mix and Harold Lloyd.  MacDonald successfully made the transition to talkies through the evolutionary period of 1927 to 1928.  The early sound films had music and sound effects played on a record during the movie, with hit or miss synchronization. 

Just a few years after sound was invented, or at least added to film with some success, he was cast as a detective in The Maltese Falcon (1931).  This is, of course, the earlier, pre-Hayes Code version, long before Humphrey Bogart played Sam Spade in 1941.  Ricardo Cortex (1900 - 1977) had that honor, and we also see film greats Una Merkel (1903 - 1986) and Thelma Todd (1906 - 1935) in it.

MacDonald also worked in three Spencer Tracy films in the 1930s.  Me and My Gal (1932), The Power and the Glory (1933) and Riffraff (1936).  He is in two of the Shirley Temple films in her earlier years and one of her last films, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer in 1947.

I hesitate to say any of his films were better than others.  Back in the 1930s and 1940s, movies were turned out at a phenomenal rate because it was inexpensive entertainment and the demand was so high.  Character actors like J. Farrell MacDonald were in needed, hence the reason he made so many films.  They can't be all great, and the certainly aren't all bad.

In 1940 he is in Dark Command with another great cast.  John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, Walter Pidgeon and Marjorie Main.  Over the years he made seven films with William 'Hopalong Cassidy' Boyd, and four with The Duke.

Meet John Doe (1941) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946) were two of his Capra films.  He played the man whose grandfather planted the tree in Wonderful Life.  It was a role that you didn't think about twice, but he played it well, and I bet you remember it.

The last movie he made where he received screen credit was Superman and the Mole People in 1951, starring George Reeves (1914 - 1959).  I suppose there were a few films where MacDonald had top billing, but he mostly used his talent to make the stars look good.  That's what a Bit Actor does best.

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