The Great Characters: Walter Brennan
I've been a big fan of movies ever since I can remember.
Especially the old movies. Cagney, Bogart, Stanwyck, Garfield, Hepburn, Gable, Cooper, Tracy … they have been the headliners in some of the great entertainment experiences of my life. But as much as I love the old stars, there was an even larger group of men and women who added the texture and depth to some of the greatest movies from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
They were the character actors.
Over the years, the term has come to be known as a sort of actor's actor. You hear the multi-million dollar faces on the big screen claim to be more like character actors than stars. Sometimes that's true and sometimes it's not. But these handful (and many, many more) were the real deal.
They were the best friends, the flunkies, the befuddled policemen, the judges, the clerks, the henchmen, the drunks, the mobsters – and one time the Wizard of Oz.
I've always wanted to find out more about these familiar faces, so I thought, “Why not do a some some simple Internet research on them?” Since no good reason not to occurred to me, I'll begin with probably the best one ever.
Walter Brennan was one of my grandmother Reilly's favorites. Not quite in her Grand Trio of Red Skelton, Ed (“The Perfect Fool”) Wynn and Lawrence Welk, he was still must-see TV for her before that term even existed. The show was The Real McCoys, and she never missed it.
I could not quite understand how such a sweet woman could be so attached to a character like Amos McCoy, who I saw as loud, cranky, mean, intolerant and almost always wrong. Of course, this is a good example of why people seldom ask the advice of 9-year-olds.
What I discovered in later years is that Walter Brennan was the King of Character Actors. I'm not alone in that opinion. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar three times. (But maybe that wasn't such a great percentage when you think about it, since he was in over 130 movies total – including at least four silent ones.)
He was comical as Humphrey Bogart's drunken partner in To Have and Have Not, and comical AND scary (no easy feat) as Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner. He teamed up with Cooper to play his down-and-out, harmonica-playing traveling companion in Frank Capra's classic Meet John Doe, a part that inspired a song just a few decades later by a group called Floyd's Big Gun.
And he added a touch of quality to dozens of lesser-known movies that sorely lacked it.
The irony about my discovering Brennan playing a crotchety old man on television is that he had been playing old men on stage and in films since he was in his 20s. I recently saw him playing a bit part as a limousine driver in a fairly forgettable movie from the early 1930s (one of my great pleasures in life is Turner Classic Movies). I calculate that he would have been around 35 at the time, but he looked every day of 50.
It was a glimpse of what was to come.
Thanks to Google and Wikipedia I have discovered that he was pretty much the opposite of me politically. They characterize him (no pun intended) as ultra conservative in his personal life, supporting Barry Goldwater and eventually George Wallace in their presidential runs.
But that doesn't diminish my enjoyment of his work at all. I will look in on any movie that shows him in the credits, and prepare myself for the next little jewel of a performance, no matter what the quality of the rest of the film.
Yes, Grandmom Reilly was definitely onto something.