Wednesday, August 01, 2007

1. Thomas Mitchell, the character actor's character actor

THOMAS MITCHELL, 1892-1962. Triple crown achieved at age 60 in 1953 with a Tony for best actor in a musical for "Hazel Flagg." Preceding it were a best supporting actor Oscar for Stagecoach (1939) and a best actor Emmy (1953) for his work on several programs, including "Robert Montgomery Presents," "Tales of Tomorrow," "Lights Out," and "Studio One."

Nineteen hundred thirty-nine was a banner year for film and a banner year for Mitchell. In that one year, he was featured in Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (above right), Only Angels Have Wings, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Stagecoach (above left), for which he won the Oscar over his Mr. Smith castmates Harry Carey and Claude Rains. It was a nice convergence: Mitchell deserved it for Stagecoach and deserved it for his cumulative work that year.

There's something very familiar and modern about Mitchell in Stagecoach. He plays the drunkard-physician Doc Boone, an affectionate man who provides the heart, soul and comic relief for this otherwise melodramatic -- I'm looking at you, Claire Trevor -- wagon picture. Mitchell was 46 while filming Stagecoach. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who shares Mitchell's gift for balancing comedy and gravity on a scale of frumpiness, just turned 40. When Hoffman hits 50, the resemblance will be even stronger. These men do not fit the mold of the matinee idol, but they are still leading men and fine actors. It's a function of charisma and commitment. One's appearance is molded to fit the part.

In Stagecoach, Mitchell is whiskered and phlegmy, always taking pulls from a bottle of whiskey. A top hat, bushy eyebrows and coattails are part of the ensemble. He enters the picture as comic relief, stumbling and bumbling in a drunken stupor. "I'm not only a philsopher, sir, I'm a fatalist," Boone says at one point. "Somewhere sometime there may be the right bullet or the wrong bottle waiting for Josiah Boone. Why worry when or where."

His role deepens as the plot advances. Notice the kind bedside manner he affects after delivering Mrs. Mallory's baby, and his grandfatherly tone as he advises Trevor how to proceed romantically with the Ringo Kid (played by John Wayne). It's the prototypical supporting Oscar performance: a funny sideshowman has the chance to shine dramatically.

Mitchell won his Emmy like he won his Oscar: by dint of his ubiquity. Mitchell was a featured player or guest star on no less than half a dozen programs leading up to the 1953 Emmys, and I was able to get my hands on a DVD of "Tales of Tomorrow," a forerunner to "The Twilight Zone." In an episode called "The Crystal Egg," Mitchell plays a professor who is able to see the Martian landscape in, well, a crystal egg. It's based on a silly H.G. Wells story. What matters, again, is Mitchell's commitment to the material. He's not coasting on his looks (he can't), and he's not phoning it in, even though it's a silly TV show. He plays this crazy professor for all he's worth, but stops short of caricature. It's really quite striking -- the restraint and the energy.

The Tony came shortly after. Mitchell played one of the leads in the Jule Styne musical "Hazel Flagg," which was based on the Carole Lombard movie Nothing Sacred and opened in the Mark Hellinger Theater (now the Times Square Church) six days after he won his Emmy. His onscreen persona seems like it would translate gloriously to the stage, though I do wonder about his singing voice...

The is part one of The Triple Crowners, an 18-part series celebrating the actors who have won an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony. Check back soon for part two, featuring one of the first ladies of American theatre.

12 comments:

StinkyLulu said...

Yum.

I just love this series already.

Good work.

J.J. said...

I meant to cite Mitchell's competition for the Emmy that year. It was steep: Jack Webb, John Forsythe and Charlton Heston.

Anna said...

So that's his name - Mitchell! One of those oh so familiar faces that we take for granted and never "know."

J.J. said...

Yeah, he really was everywhere for a while. Ol' reliable.

cattleworks said...

Wow, what an ambitious series! And how cool! Looking forward to reading it.
On a jerky note (because it's really trivial): are you sure that photo reference is from MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and not IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE? It looks like George Bailey is meeting his brother at the train station there...

J.J. said...

Accuracy and truth are rarely trivial. You are correct, TK, it is It's a Wonderful Life on the right.

Middento said...

This is a great series idea. Thank you.

But I will be drooling non-stop until Rita. (Rita! RITA!! Sigh...)

J.J. said...

Oh, don't spoil it! (Although I think Rita might be everyone's first thought when they think of a Triple Crowner -- go figure.)

Middento said...

Hey, come on. She's a quadruple crowner. One of nine still living, if I'm not mistaken.

J.J. said...

Grammys count for shit. There is no such thing as a quadruple crowner.

Middento said...

You're right. I forget that the Grammys are usually trumped by the VMAs.

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