Why Character Actors for Christmas?

One of the delights we take in repeatedly watching classic movies is recognizing character actors who appear again and again in our favorite films. The studio system in the golden age of Hollywood churned out hundreds of films every year, enabling minor actors to make a good living by appearing in a dozen or more movies each year. One of my favorites, Pat Flaherty, appeared in more than 200 films during his active professional career from 1934 to 1955. In 1939 alone he appeared in 16 different movies. Directors such as Preston Sturges and Frank Capra were known for using the same character actors film after film creating a repertory company of sorts.

Even though these character actors might appear for only a minute or two in a movie, they flesh out the film’s story and add layers of interest behind the stars. Unnamed extras might fill out a crowd scene, but an accomplished character actor brings much more. Their wonderful faces, distinctive voices and intriguing manners contributes essential elements to the world created by the film. Otherwise it’s all just three or four leading actors performing in front of scenery. Canadian writer Robertson Davies calls such characters “fifth business” (in his novel by the same name):

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.

There is perhaps an incarnational aspect to the importance of character actors in creating a successful film. Only when a film is filled with interesting characters, in close-ups and in deep focus, does it create a fully realized and captivating story. In this season when we tell again the story of how God began transforming the world by becoming a child born in a stable, we remember that the story includes many more people than Jesus, Mary and Joseph. There are shepherds, angels, magi, and more. Let us honor the character actors.

Astaire Connections

Since my retirement in 2013 and substantial renovations to the basement of our home, I have been researching and writing a book on the life of Fred Astaire in New York City to be called Young Man of Manhattan.  In the book, I will be exploring how Astaire and the city changed from 1905, when the five-year-old Fred came to the city by train with his mother and sister, until 1933, when he and his wife went to Hollywood by airplane to begin his film career.  In the years between, Astaire learned how to dance, toured vaudeville in a juvenile act with his sister, grew into prominent jazz dancers, and eventually big-time Broadway stars.  At the same time, New York was transforming itself with new transportation technologies (subways and Hudson River tunnels), new skyscrapers, new publications (Variety and The New Yorker), and new music (ragtime, jazz).

Among the things I’m exploring are the many different actors, musicians and others with whom Astaire worked in New York: there were literally thousands of people he performed with in vaudeville and on Broadway before he began his third career in the movies.

As a sort of holiday sidebar to my Young Man of Manhattan research and writing, if I see an Astaire connection in any of the films on our Christmas watch-list, I will point them out. Fred himself appears in only one of the films, the classic Holiday Inn (1942), but many of the character actors I will be highlighting appeared with Astaire on Broadway or in vaudeville and still others appeared in the 31 films he made.

After the holidays, I will continue to post my progress on the Astaire book.

Earlier this year The Passing Show, the newsletter of the Shubert Archives, published my article “Steps in Shubert Time: Fred Astaire in the Archives.”