Thomas Mitchell

June 04, 2009

by Richard Hourula
Guest Blogger

Imagine Thomas Mitchell, right now, in blissful residence in Hollywood heaven. Someone asks him, so how was 1939 for you, Thomas?

“Well,” he’d reply while rubbing his chin, eyes glazed a bit. “Let me see, I believe that was the year when I was a quite a few fine films.”

No foolin. Now hopefully Mr. Mitchell wont be too modest, I mean all he’d have to do is name those films and anybody would be impressed: Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, Gone With the Wind, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In one year. He had a great career that year.

He won a most deserved Best Supporting Actor for Stagecoach and could have garnered another nomination or two, at least.

Of course there was more to come. Perhaps his signature role was as Uncle Billy in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). He was an at times bumbling, fumbling old fool but always a lovable one. Whether he’d a few too many or forgot what the strings on his finger were there to help him not forget, he was the quintessential dear old Uncle.

As Doc Boone in his Oscar winning performance, Mitchell was a disgraced doctor who’d been run out of town. He took advantage of a meek whiskey salesman (played, fittingly by Donald Meek) and kept hoodwinking the poor sap out of his wares. But when it came to delivering a baby he was equal to the task. When Injuns attacked his hand was steady on a pistol. Even at his worst Doc Boone, as played by Mitchell, was an amiable sort.

Indeed it seems Mitchell couldn’t have played disagreeable if he tried. First there was that face. Round and friendly with a twinkle in the eyes. Then his voice, which had its own warm timbre. Mitchell's persona was a kind of grizzled cuddliness. No wonder he played doctors so often.

Yeah but the man could act. Whether as Scarlett O'Hara's poppa, or a pirate in The Black Swan (1942) or the mayor in High Noon (1952), Mitchell took on a character and never slipped into a caricature of himself.

As Diz Moore, the cynical hard drinking reporter in Mr. Smith, he gave a nuanced performance as a man whose hard heart melts even as he loses the woman he loves.

There's a film I very much admire called The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). Mitchell started filming in the role of Webster only to suffer a broken leg. As good as Edward Arnold was filling in, I’m sure I’m not the only film buff who would love to have seen Mitchell in the role. Maybe he’s gotten the casting call in Hollywood Heaven.

Like many actors of his time, Mitchell made the switch to TV in the 1950’s, making only a handful of films during the last ten years of his life. Hollywood’s loss was TV’s gain.

Somehow to call Mitchell a character actor doesn't seem right. (Anyway, since all actors play characters, aren’t they all character actors?). It suggests an actor in a series of small parts in which he plays variations on the same guy (see Franklin Pangborn). Nothing wrong with it but it’s not Mitchell. He may have never been a leading man but he was too integral to too many films doing too much with a role to be thus pigeon holed. He played a lot of drunks, a lot of doctors and a lot of rascals, but fit them to the film he was in.

Yeah, Mitchell is doubtless glad to discuss his amazing 1939. But truth to tell, that was just one year in a most distinguished career.


Lolita of the Classics said...

Wonderful, Kate Gabrielle! This was a lovely, amusing and interesting post. Thank you for putting the Thomas Mitchell name into a little corner in my brain - it will stay there!

Speaking about bananas, me and my boyfriend discussed you today ;) Haha, well, we just talked about your lovely pictures coming in the mail, how happy I was with winning an original painting, and that brilliant René Magritte joke in your flapperdoodle painting! Just wanted you to know :)

Take care!

Paul D Brazill said...

Fab post and pic!