Hollywood once teemed with formidable character actors to which studio heads bowed, if not scraped. If a director needed a bumbling society matron, he thought of Alma Kruger. If he needed a lovable grandfather type, he hired Charles Grapewin or Edmund Gwenn.
They were actors who rarely made the A-list, but they nonetheless made a good living in front of the camera.
“The studios had contract lists for all kinds of talent in those days,” says veteran director Robert Wise. “But then each studio was putting out maybe 60 features a year. We made so many more films then that there were plenty of parts to keep the actors working.”
The standard contract at the time was for seven years and, when a character actor became famous enough, they were often loaned out to other studios for particular roles. On average, support players usually made four to seven pictures a year.
“The studios would guarantee you so many weeks of work out of a year and then there would be weeks where they could lay you off without pay,” Wise says.
Salaries ranged from $250 to $1,500 a week, extremely good pay at the time. (In 1940, top film editors made $165 a week; dinner at the Trocadero cost $2.)
Warner Bros, probably employed the largest number of on-lot actors, including Alan Hale, Mary Astor, Frank McHugh, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet and Una Merkel. “Casablanca” is probably the best known film to exploit the studio’s stable, with Peter Lorre, Greenstreet and Rains all making famous secondary turns onscreen.
WB also had a coffer full of gangster players, whose ominous mugs peppered the ranks of several mobster movies. They included Eduardo Cianelli, Lionel Stander, Guinn Williams, George E. Stone, Edward Brophy, Claire Dodd, Aline McMahon and Rosemary DeCamp.
Humphrey Bogart was one of the most famous cases of a gangster character player who did a number of supporting roles until he got two fortuitous breaks. The first was to star opposite Ida Lupino in “High Sierra.” The second, that same year, was the starring role in John Huston’s directorial debut, “The Maltese Falcon.”
On the MGM roster were such names as Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle), Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Connie Gilchrist and Margaret Hamilton, who parlayed her nosy neighbor persona into a star turn as the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Universal had its own list of notable characters, including Henry Armetta (who often played a landlord in Deanna Durbin films), Eugene Pallette, Alma Kruger, Mischa Auer, Adolphe Menjou, Alice Brady, Charles Winninger, Billy Gilbert and Frank Jenks.
Actors such as Jed Prouty, a rotund man with cherubic features and twinkling eyes, made his daily nut on the 20th Century Fox lot. The contract actors there also included Spring Byington, Jane Darwell, Charles Grapewin, George Barbier and Edmund Gwenn, who broke ranks with the B-list to do a star turn as Kris Kringle in Fox’s “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Prior to his star rising as Fred Mertz on “I Love Lucy,” William Frawley was one of the contract players on the Paramount lot. Included in those ranks were Cass Daley, Ben Blue (whose popping Adam’s apple helped get him roles), Lynne Overman, Charles Ruggles and Martha Raye, who was cast in a number of loud, ugly duckling roles.
A number of factors led to the breakdown of the character actor ranks, including the steadily declining number of films made annually since then, the disappearance of the standard seven-year contract and the rise of cost-conscious independent film producers. Work in television also helped bring such a tradition to a close.