To me, Raymond Walburn is it. He is the last word in comedic supporting players. He's good at accents, has a great range and dominates every scene he is in (at least in his Preston Sturges films). I just rewatched Sturges' "Christmas in July" and was struck by how he subverts the usual screwball formula in this film. Normally, screwball comedies focus on the wacky adventures of a suitably wacky man and woman (see "Bringing Up Baby," "The Awful Truth," or Sturges' own "The Lady Eve"). But here, his leads (Dick Powell and Ellen Drew) are the dullest people alive, while the rest of the supporting casts crackles with electricity and eccentricity. And Raymond Walburn is at the center of it all, bellowing "Juuuuuumping Jehosaphat!" at the top of his lungs.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Walburn was an old theater hand, not unlike his good friend Walter Catlett. Indeed, his career on the boards is just as exciting as his roles on the silver screen. Born in 1887 in Indiana to a show-biz family, Walburn made his stage debut when he was 18 for $5 a week playing a witch in a touring company production of "Macbeth." He also claimed that he was acting on stage in San Francisco in 1906 during the great earthquake, although there's no proof of this.
After working tirelessly he made his debut on the Great White Way in 1912 with "The Greyhound," a show that was on its way to becoming a big hit, but had its run cut short in the wake of the Titanic disaster. Walburn was called up to serve in World War I, having to abandon is role in "Come Out of the Kitchen" on Broadway to do so. After serving in France in the artillery corps, he returned to New York and acted in a series of successful plays, where, like so many actors, he was lured to Hollywood. After a few small appearances in silent films, he finally made the move for good in 1934.
He immediately was cast in a variety of roles. There is the perception that Walburn only played a big, obnoxious goof in most films, but this is quite untrue. In later years he adapted the loud, bullheaded persona but in his early films he played in everything from musicals to romances to dramas. In 1934's "The Count of Monte Cristo" he plays the villainous Danglars. In the clip below (at 3:41 in), Walburn arrives as part of the conspiracy to help send the Count (Robert Donat) to prison.
1934 was also the year that Walburn first worked with Frank Capra, in Capra's lackluster "Broadway Bill." He would later go on to work for Capra three times, including playing the bemused valet in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," and the judge in "State of the Union." In this clip from "Mr. Deeds," Walburn is playing alongside a murderer's row of character actors, including Franklin Pangborn, Charles Lane, and Lionel Stander:
As you can see from the clip above, studios hadn't quite figured out what to do with Walburn yet. This didn't hurt his career any, as he appeared in numerous films, usually playing a judge, professor, or some kind of authority figure. By the late 30s he was full established in this mode, and excelled at playing somewhat benevolent yet blustery blowhards, as in "Broadway Melody of 1938":
It is this template that Preston Sturges would build on to transform Walburn into the fast-talking, stuffy, blowhard, corruptible figure that he would become famous for. "Christmas in July" (1940) is not a great film but the performances in it are. Walburn plays Dr. Maxford, the head of a coffee company who is holding a contest for a new slogan. Based on Sturges own play "A Cup of Coffee," the movie never escapes its theatrical roots, which helps Walburn, particularly in a stunning set of comedic timing where he is forced to listen to Dick Powell's rambling in his office. He has an amazing gift for raising his voice on specific words in a sentence, or building within a sentence and then exploding at the end or beginning of the next one. Simply put, his performance in "Christmas in July" is a masterpiece, a standout from the rest of the film, and something that made me want to start this blog in the first place. Unfortunately I can't find clips of it online but it's on Netflix...get it now!
Walburn would take this performance even further in his next collaboration with Sturges, playing a self-important corrupt mayor in "Hail the Conquering Hero" (again, no clips online but watch it and thank me later). Here he is at the center of a hurricane of comedy, and proves up to the task of anchoring difficult screwball scenes with impeccable timing.
With his profile going up in the 1940s, Walburn put his Broadway background to good use in films like 1943's Bing Crosby vehicle "Dixie", where he receives a grand entrance and billing in the trailer (admittedly, the film looks pretty despicable now with its blackface):
After working continuously through the 1940s, Walburn finally got a starring role in Monogram's 1949 "Henry, the Rainmaker" a B picture that was so successful it was quickly spun off into a series of five films centered on the misadventures of Walburn and his family in a small town. The films paired Walburn with Walter Catlett and I haven't had the chance to see them...if anyone knows where to find them, please let me know!
Walburn retired from the screen in 1955 after acting in over eighty films. Yet his story has one final, amusing coda: in 1962 producer Harold Prince persuaded Walburn to return to Broadway for a role in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Walburn ended up playing 18 months as "Erronius" in the show, a great way for a great actor to go out. Bizarrely, when the movie version of the show was made, Erronius was played by silent legend Buster Keaton, in his last role. Sadly, he's not as good as Walburn would have been:
I leave you now with some parting words from Walburn himself:
"I am here to state that I have appeared in some of the most flagrantly putrid films of this or any other era but they have been in the minority, I believe, and it's only once in a while that I have to cringe while watching the Late, Late Show. I think that's pretty good for a fellow who's made eighty-seven pictures in twenty-one years."
-Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
-The Count of Monte Cristo
-Christmas in July
-Hail the Conquering Hero
-State of the Union