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12 February 2016

Tower of Strength: An Appreciation of Walter Pidgeon

An early portrait
Walter Pidgeon was such a ubiquitous actor during his prime years at MGM that his value is easily underrated. He was equally at home in comedy or drama, musicals, biopics, or adventures. He was a useful second lead -- you could actually believe that Myrna Loy might prefer him to Clark Gable, as in Too Hot to Handle; he was usually a stalwart good-guy, but could show a leader corrupted by power, as in Dark Command. John Ford found a quality of integrity in him that was perfect for the minister Mr. Griffith in How Green Was My Valley; he could also be the loud, impatient studio head in The Bad and the Beautiful. And he was an acceptable romantic lead, as the dashing war-correspondent in Weekend At the Waldorf, or a bluff, un-glamorous businessman so very charming that you could believe both Kay Francis and her daughter (Deanna Durbin) would fall for him in It's A Date.
Born and raised in New Brunswick, Canada, his speech was accentless and could pass for American or British, as required. He didn't stay in Canada long; he left New Brunswick to join the Canadian army during World War One, and was seriously injured in a training accident which required more than a year of hospitalization. Upon his discharge, he made for Boston, Massachusetts, where he studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music while working in a bank. His real aim was the stage, and he soon hit New York, quickly finding work in musical comedy and working steadily throughout the twenties. (It should be noted that there were many more stage productions in those days; actors, musicians, and all of the supporting workers like stagehands had many more opportunities to perfect their crafts.)
With Donald Crisp and Roddy McDowall in How Green Was My Valley

He was swept to theWest Coast with the early talkie musical craze. He always maintained an interest in live performance, and at he quite frequently returned to his stage work when he wasn't satisfied with the available film roles. Most of his film career was spent at MGM; he is probably best known today for his partnership at that studio with Greer Garson, which lasted through eight movies, ranging from light comedy (Julia Misbehaves) to historical biography (Madame Curie) to classic novel adaptation (That Forsyte Woman). They were uniquely suited to one another; both were distinctive but versatile, able to be funny or serious, and each could project an aura of sincerity and strength. Among their films together are at least two of the real greats, Mrs. Miniver and Madame Curie. But each of them was capable of pairing very successfully with another co-star, as Garson did with Robert Donat and Ronald Colman, and Pidgeon with Kay Francis and Myrna Loy. 
With Kay Francis and Deanna Durbin in It's a Date
I always have a lot of respect for actors who bring their commitment and talent to projects that might discourage others. Walter Pidgeon had some great roles, from the early years of his career right through to the 1970s; but he also added a touch of class to some B-pictures. Among my favorites is the above-mentioned It's a Date, 1940, one of Kay Francis' few post-Warner Bros. films, though of surprisingly high quality. It's quite a charming story about a great stage star (Francis) and her grown daughter, also a budding stage actress (Deanna Durbin), who meet and fall in love with a completely non-showbiz businessman (Pidgeon). Both the glamorous ladies assume that he has fallen for the younger girl, and there's a climactic scene between Francis and Pidgeon where he fumblingly asserts his love for her instead of her daughter; the glorious smile that lights up her face is a wonderful thing. 
With Ginger Rogers in Weekend at the Waldorf

Pidgeon's deep voice, height, and air of strength made him an attractively masculine figure for ladies to contend over; he was manly but also gentlemanly (nearly always). Over the years, he moved gracefully from supporting player to leading man to, eventually, father-figure roles. He is the heroine's high-living father in The Last Time I Saw Paris, the starchy Admiral who is the father of Jane Powell in Hit the Deck, and, of course, most famously, the arrogant genius Doctor Morbius in Forbidden Planet, the father of Ann Francis' Altaira. 
Clem and Kay Miniver in their home bomb shelter
This last role points up something else I find admirable about Walter Pidgeon; despite his quite recognizable looks and speech, he was remarkably versatile. He could adapt to different film styles with apparent ease, from frothy early musicals like Viennese Nights to the screwball action comedy Too Hot to Handle to the clarity and truth of Ford's How Green Was My Valley to the everyday fortitude of Clem Miniver and the deep commitment of Pierre Curie. 
I think my favorite of Pidgeon's later roles is his Senate Majority Leader in Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent; in fact, I think his loyal, reliable, hard-working character supports the entire film. He's there at the beginning, and he's there in the very last scene. I have to say that this is one of my favorite sixties movies all around. I love the cool concrete and marble neo-noir settings, the clash between progressive and reactionary forces (which sure hasn't changed much), the touches of sophisticated exoticism in the Greenwich Village scenes, and the adult love affair between grown-up people like the widowed majority leader and the hostess with the mostest, soignee Gene Tierney. And of course there are the wonderful performances, from every single actor, capped by Charles Laughton's fabulous Southern conservative (and I do mean fabulous!)
With Charles Laughton in Advise and Consent
Just because an actor was able to maintain a career that lasted a good 45 years of high-quality filmmaking is no reason to assume that he was no artist; every creative person doesn't have to be a trouble-maker, after all! In a business full of drama queens, it's actually refreshing to come across one who preferred a quiet life. But that doesn't mean he should be overlooked, either.

With Charles Laughton in Advise and Consent

1 comment:

  1. In a business full of drama queens…

    That gave me a good laugh. He certainly wasn't exactly a drama queen, especially compared to Laughton, but he was, shall we say, 'family', like Mr. Laughton. Just more discreet about it.


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