What A Character! 2014 – Ned Sparks

Brusque and grouchy, Ned Sparks’ lovable curmudgeons can usually be found as the still center of a storm of dizzy dancers, temperamental producers, and gangsters in crisis. His onscreen persona was so deadpan that he was reportedly insured with Lloyd’s of London for $100,000 against any photographs taken of him actually smiling. Yet there’s more to this primo supporting player than just a grouchy face…he got his start in show biz as a singer during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and was blacklisted on Broadway for his role in starting the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).

Edward Arthur Sparkman was born this day in 1883 in clean, friendly, and polite Canada, specifically Guelph, Ontario. He left home at 16 to try gold prospecting in Alaska. When that failed, he joined a musical company in Dawson Creek, and per The New York Times, “knocked around in tent theatricals, medicine shows, and carnivals.” Wouldn’t this be a great movie? Can’t you just hear him complaining? But wait…it gets better… Back in Canada by age 19, he attended a seminary. Briefly. But still. He also worked on a railroad before finally landing in a Toronto theater. Ned-Sparks-470wBy 1907, he was appearing on Broadway, and the Ned Sparks persona we all now know and love made its first appearance as a “cynical desk clerk” in a play called Little Miss Brown. His stage success earned him a six-picture deal with Louis B. Mayer, and, in his screen debut, a re-make of the play in 1915, he played this same role.

Thus the mid-teens saw Sparks working in both New York and Hollywood. Around this time, he was involved with organizing AEA, which sought to protect stage actors. At the time, producers set working conditions and pay scale; could fire anyone, at any time, for any reason; and there was no compensation for the unlimited rehearsal time. In the late teens, Equity went on strike, which led to improved working conditions. However, many members were blacklisted, and as Sparks was one of the founding members, his Broadway career seems to have been severely curtailed. After working pretty much continuously from his arrival in New York through 1918, he didn’t work onstage again until 1920, appearing in his final production in 1921.

He was still working in silent films though, three or four a year, until his first talkie in 1928, The Big Noise. I won’t lie and tell you I’ve seen any of Sparks’ silents. I’m sure he was good. But his monotone foghorn of a voice and his irritable attitude are so instantly recognizable, and add so much to any picture he’s in, that I can’t imagine he could have affected the audience as much without them. Sound proved a godsend to Sparks’ career, and to us as classic movie fans.

I recommend anything he’s in, but my favorite Sparks year is 1933, and here are three from that year you shouldn’t miss.

42nd Street

Lady for a Day

Gold Diggers of 1933

In 1936, Sparks admitted that the $100K Lloyd’s of London insurance policy story was a publicity stunt. He was “only” insured against smiling for $10,000. Though his personal life included a messy divorce and he lost touch with many of his friends after his retirement, his voice and unflappable cantankerousness pretty much guaranteed his immortality, not only in his films, but as a frequently-caricatured figure in the cartoons we can still enjoy.

Sparks as portrayed in the 1936 Warner Brothers' cartoon, THE COOCOO NUT GROVE
Sparks as portrayed in the 1936 Warner Brothers’ cartoon, THE COOCOO NUT GROVE

Bonus video that won’t embed: Cranky Ned in “Malibu Beach Party”

Third Annual What A Character! Blogathon 2014 Schedule

The 2014 What a Character Blogathon schedule has been set, and the blogathon is underway. There’s still plenty of time to join though. If you want to participate, check out the announcement immediately following, and contact one of us ASAP.

Sunday, November 16 – Hosted by Kellee

Ann Doran and Lurene Tuttle – Theresa on Once Upon a Screen

Billie Burke – Girls Do Film

Burgess Meredith – The Last Drive-In

Charles Durning – Movie Movie Blog Blog

Chris Cooper – Jack Deth on Paula’s Cinema Club

Christopher Lloyd – The Movie Rat

Dame Edith Evans – Margaret Perry

Edna May Oliver – Portraits by Jenni

Elsa Lanchester – Blog of the Damned

Frank McHugh – (This) Girl Friday

Leo Carrillo – Phantom Empires

Richard Widmark – Danny’s Reviews

Thomas Mitchell – Once Upon a Screen

Tony Randall – A Shroud of Thoughts

 

Monday, November 17 – Hosted by Paula

Agnes Moorehead – Tales of the Easily Distracted

Arthur Housman – Silent-ology

Charles Coburn – Amy’s Rib

Charles Lane & Friz Feld – Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

Chester Clute – Grand Old Movies

Dennis Hoey – Silver Scenes

Esther Dale – Caftan Woman

Harry Dean Stanton – Joel’s Classic Film Passion

John Ridgely – Comet Over Hollywood

Kathleen Howard – Sister Celluloid

Mae Busch – Movies, Silently

Peter Lorre – Second Sight Cinema

Rochelle Hudson – Bunnybun’s Classic Movie Blog

 

Tuesday, November 18 – Hosted by Aurora

Ann Dvorak – A Person in the Dark

Beulah Bondi – A Thousand Words

C. Aubrey Smith – Critica Retro

Cecil Kellaway – The Lady Eve’s Reel Life

C. Aubrey Smith – Critica Retro

Don Beddoe – Christy’s Inkwells

Edward Everett Horton – Outspoken & Freckled

Eric Blore – The Blonde at the Film

Grant Mitchell – Immortal Ephemera

Henry Travers – Movie Fan Fare

Iris Adrian – Speakeasy

Karl Malden – Oh Rachel Leigh

Melville Cooper – Classic Movie Hub

Ned Sparks – Paula’s Cinema Club

Raymond Burr – Shadows and Satin

Thelma Ritter – Cinephiled

Wallace Shawn – Moon in Gemini


Original announcement:

I was only a leading man for a minute; now I’m a character actor. — Robin Williams

In 2012, we – by that I mean myself, Aurora, and Kellee – borrowed a catchphrase from our beloved Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in order to host a blogathon dedicated to those amazing actors whose faces are familiar but whose names few remember.

The phrase is WHAT A CHARACTER, and the individuals concerned rarely got leading parts, exhibiting instead a versatility and depth many star players wished they had. We never tire of seeing them or paying them tribute, and if the previous two installments of this event are any indication, neither do you.

What-A-Character-2014-03

So, here we are with the Third Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon.

To say we’re thrilled is an understatement. We hope you’ll join us in spotlighting the Edward Arnolds, Alan Mowbrays, and Alice Bradys of the world, oft-forgotten names that never appeared above the title.

What-A-Character-2014-01

If this is right up your movie alley, then give us a shoutout…

Me (leave a comment below) — Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club or tweet (@Paula_Guthat)

Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled | (@IrishJayHawk66)

Aurora at Once Upon a Screen | (@CitizenScreen)

What-A-Character-2014-02

We ask that you adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Let one of the hosts know which character actor is your choice.  Since there are so many greats worthy of mention, we won’t take any repeats and we’re not limiting these to “classic” actors.  Great character actors have made their mark both before and since the end of the classic era and contemporary talents deserve some attention as well, so the field is wide open.
  • Please include your twitter and/or FB tag, email address and blog name & URL.
  • Publish the post for either November 16, 17 or 18.  Let us know if you have a date preference, otherwise we’ll split publicizing duties equally among the three days.
  • Please include one of the blogathon graphics in this post on your blog to help us publicize the event.
  • Include the graphic and link to the host sites in your WHAT A CHARACTER! post
  • If possible, please send any of the hosts the direct link to your WHAT A CHARACTER! post by the day before your due date. Otherwise we’ll simply link to your site’s home page.
  • HAVE FUN and spread the word!  There are so many great characters worthy of attention, we would like to honor as many as possible.

Check out some of the 2012 and 2013 posts. Also find out who’s who with this Key to the WHAT A CHARACTER! graphic.

Announcing the Third Annual What A Character! Blogathon (2014)

I was only a leading man for a minute; now I’m a character actor. — Robin Williams

In 2012, we – by that I mean myself, Aurora, and Kellee – borrowed a catchphrase from our beloved Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in order to host a blogathon dedicated to those amazing actors whose faces are familiar but whose names few remember.

The phrase is WHAT A CHARACTER, and the individuals concerned rarely got leading parts, exhibiting instead a versatility and depth many star players wished they had. We never tire of seeing them or paying them tribute, and if the previous two installments of this event are any indication, neither do you.

What-A-Character-2014-03

So, here we are with the Third Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon.

To say we’re thrilled is an understatement. We hope you’ll join us in spotlighting the Edward Arnolds, Alan Mowbrays, and Alice Bradys of the world, oft-forgotten names that never appeared above the title.

What-A-Character-2014-01

If this is right up your movie alley, then give us a shoutout…

Me (leave a comment below) — Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club or tweet (@Paula_Guthat)

Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled | (@IrishJayHawk66)

Aurora at Once Upon a Screen | (@CitizenScreen)

What-A-Character-2014-02

We ask that you adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Let one of the hosts know which character actor is your choice.  Since there are so many greats worthy of mention, we won’t take any repeats and we’re not limiting these to “classic” actors.  Great character actors have made their mark both before and since the end of the classic era and contemporary talents deserve some attention as well, so the field is wide open.
  • Please include your twitter and/or FB tag, email address and blog name & URL.
  • Publish the post for either November 16, 17 or 18.  Let us know if you have a date preference, otherwise we’ll split publicizing duties equally among the three days.
  • Please include one of the blogathon graphics in this post on your blog to help us publicize the event.
  • Include the graphic and link to the host sites in your WHAT A CHARACTER! post
  • If possible, please send any of the hosts the direct link to your WHAT A CHARACTER! post by the day before your due date. Otherwise we’ll simply link to your site’s home page.
  • HAVE FUN and spread the word!  There are so many great characters worthy of attention, we would like to honor as many as possible.

Check out some of the 2012 and 2013 posts. Also find out who’s who with this Key to the WHAT A CHARACTER! graphic.

Character actors and participating blogs:

Agnes Moorehead – Tales of the Easily Distracted

Ann Doran and Lurene Tuttle – Theresa on Once Upon a Screen

Ann Dvorak – A Person in the Dark

Arthur Housman – Silent-ology

Beulah Bondi – A Thousand Words

Billie Burke – Girls Do Film

Burgess Meredith – The Last Drive-In

C. Aubrey Smith – Critica Retro

Cecil Kellaway – The Lady Eve’s Reel Life

Charles Coburn – Amy’s Rib

Charles Durning – Movie Movie Blog Blog

Charles Lane & Friz Feld – Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

Chris Cooper – Jack Deth on Paula’s Cinema Club

Christopher Lloyd – The Movie Rat

Dennis Hoey – Silver Scenes

Don Beddoe – Christy’s Inkwells

Dame Edith Evans – Margaret Perry

Edna May Oliver – Portraits by Jenni

Edward Everett Horton – Outspoken & Freckled

Elsa Lanchester – Blog of the Damned

Eric Blore – The Blonde at the Film

Esther Dale – Caftan Woman

Frank McHugh – (This) Girl Friday

Grant Mitchell – Immortal Ephemera

Harry Dean Stanton – Joel’s Classic Film Passion

Henry Travers – Movie Fan Fare

Iris Adrian – Speakeasy

John Ridgely – Comet Over Hollywood

Karl Malden – Oh Rachel Leigh

Kathleen Howard – Sister Celluloid

Leo Carrillo – Phantom Empires

Melville Cooper – Classic Movie Hub

Peter Lorre – Second Sight Cinema

Richard Widmark – Danny’s Reviews

Rochelle Hudson – Bunnybun’s Classic Movie Blog

Thelma Ritter – Cinephiled

Thomas Mitchell – Once Upon a Screen

Tony Randall – A Shroud of Thoughts

Wallace Shawn – Moon in Gemini

Frank McHugh’s Most Important Role

Frank McHugh was perhaps the epitome of a reliable supporting player. You know this guy — you might not know his name, but you know his face.

frank-mchugh-headshotAs a Warner Brother contract player in the ‘30s and ‘40s, no one backstopped stars like Bing Crosby, William Powell, and James Cagney better than McHugh. He was an expert at sheepish expressions, jittery laughs, and screwball action, usually serving as comic relief and providing larcenous or romantic complications when required.

McHugh was born into a stage family on May 23, 1898, and appeared in vaudeville with his siblings Matt and Kitty by the age of 10. Drawn from his stage career by the arrival of talkies, he arrived in Hollywood in 1930, signed with Warner Brothers almost immediately, and appeared in nearly 90 films in his first 10 years with the studio.

He was also known as a central member of the Irish Mafia, the tight-knit group of Irish-American actors that included Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Spencer Tracy, Allen Jenkins, Frank Morgan, and Ralph Bellamy. They preferred to be known as the “Boys’ Club,” and Morgan and Bellamy were actually of German and English/French descent respectively, but these real-life ties translated well onscreen. McHugh and Cagney, for instance, appeared together in 12 pictures; McHugh and O’Brien in 11.

Frank McHugh and James Cagney bottle a little fun in THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939).
Frank McHugh and James Cagney bottle a little fun in THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939).

What you may not know about McHugh is the valuable real-life part he played during World War II.

Like many in Hollywood, he enthusiastically supported the war effort, and joined the Hollywood Victory Caravan in May 1942. This show traveled the United States, featuring performances by the biggest stars, with the ticket proceeds going the Army and Navy Relief Fund.

The star-studded Hollywood Caravan
The star-studded Hollywood Victory Caravan at a stop in Minnesota

Mark Sandrich, director of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, and Alfred Newman, Twentieth Century Fox’s musical director, organized the Caravan as a musical revue. It featured, at various times, Crosby, Cagney, O’Brien, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Claudette Colbert, Charles Coburn, Joan Blondell, Joan Bennett, Eleanor Powell, Desi Arnaz, Bert Lahr, and Groucho Marx, along with McHugh (leaning forward in the top row above). In August and September of the same year, he went to England with a USO tour, the American Variety Show.

After those tours, McHugh continued his war efforts, producing his own show and taking it to the troops in Europe two years later. In November and December 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, “McHugh’s Revue” toured the front lines in Belgium, France, Holland, and Germany.

McHugh loved meeting and chatting with the servicemen, and the feeling was mutual. He received a citation from the Army, in which General Raymond S. McLain referred to the Revue as “an oasis in this desert of hardship and suffering….Your show was sparkling, and left a refreshing atmosphere in the spirit of many battle weary soldiers.” This certainly was McHugh’s most important, and possibly most loved, supporting role.

Many materials related to McHugh’s wartime activities, including his own account of McHugh’s Revue, are preserved in the Frank McHugh Papers at the New York Public Library, which I hope to see someday.

WAC-banner-2013-green

This post is part of the 2013 What A Character! blogathon, co-hosted by myself, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. Be sure and check out all the Saturday posts.

Announcing the What a Character! Blogathon 2013

No role is too small for the great actors who appear in the periphery of our beloved classic films.  For the second year in a row, we’re putting them front and center.  Hosted by Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled,  me (@Paula_Guthat) of this-here blog, and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen…it’s the WHAT A CHARACTER! blogathon 2013!

This event was conceived from the phrase used by our beloved home of the classics, Turner Classic Movies, and it proved to be a smash hit with bloggers and readers alike last year.  The enthusiasm and appreciation for the great character actors overwhelmed us, so we’re back to lend praise to the many more we love or love to hate, those who make us laugh, or who cause us to simply smile in recognition.

WAC-banner-2013-green

  • Can you count how many scenes Walter Brennan stole from the likes of Duke Wayne or Humphrey Bogart?
  • Or the number stolen by Beulah Bondi as she portrayed lovable, meddling moms?
  • Would Gone with the Wind be as memorable without the talents of Hattie McDaniel or Harry Davenport?

To those and the many others whose work we admire we dedicate WHAT A CHARACTER!

If you’re interested in participating, and we certainly hope you are, please adhere to the following:

  •  Let one of the hosts know which character actor is your choice via email [mine is paula.guthat[at]gmail.com] or blog comment [below].
  • Although we’re inclined to limit these to those considered “traditional” classic actors – or before 1970 just to choose a point of reference – if you have an actor in mind after that time, that’s fine.
  • Please include your twitter or FB tag, email address and blog name & URL.
  • If you do not have a blog, one will be provided for you. By that I mean, I will gladly publish your post for you. Leave me a comment or send me an email.
  • Publish the post for either November 9, 10 or 11.  Let us know if you have a date preference, otherwise we’ll split publicizing duties equally among the three days.
  • Please post the blogathon graphic on your blog to help us publicize the event.
  • Include the graphic and link to one of the host sites in your WHAT A CHARACTER! post.
  • If possible, please send any of the hosts the direct link to your WHAT A CHARACTER! post by the day before your due date. Otherwise we’ll link to your site’s home page.

WAC-banner-2013-rust

HAVE FUN and spread the word!  There are many great characters worthy of attention.

A big thank you – HAPPY BLOGGING!