He was around for decades. In A movies, in B movies, in Classic Movies.
Our man pictured above is none other than Edward Arnold, another great character actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
He wasn’t always thought of as such. A 1937 poll of movie exhibitors, for example, named Arnold among other stars as “box office poison.” His compatriots in that misbegotten category included Katheraine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire and Joan Crawford. So much for theater owner polls.
Fact is that Arnold enjoyed an extraordinarily long acting career beginning in the silent period (from 1915 to 1919 at Essanay Studio) right up until the year he died in 1956. In all more than 150 movie and tv acting credits.
His professional calling cards were several including a burly, take-charge physical style and a resonant, commanding baritone voice, one of the classic movie period’s best rivaling the vocal power of Orson Welles.
He was made for authoritarian roles — kings (Louis XIII in 1935’s Cardinal Richelieu), high-level foreign envoys (1956’s The Ambassador’s Daughter), Grand Viziers (1944’s Kismet), tycoons of all stripes and even (on ABC radio from 1947 to 1953) the U.S. president.
His popularity lasted for decades, despite the results of that misinformed 1937 poll. Arnold was elastic enough to MC a late Thirties radio program featuring Edgar Bergen and his popular dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Arnold’s “voice of God” stood him in good stead.
He is perhaps best remembered for his role as the corrupt political power broker (aren’t they all?) in director Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, with James Stewart.
Arnold was also effective in Capra’s 1938 comedy, You Can’t Take It With You. That’s Arnold to the left below.)
Arnold’s authoritative presence on and offscreen led to a flirtation with politics. After serving from 1940 to 1942 as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he ran for a seat on the Los Angeles city council. He lost. Trivia: can you name another actor who served as SAG president and then ran (successfully) for public office?
Born as Gunther Edward Arnold Schneider in New York City’ Lower East Side in 1890 — the actor’s parents were German immigrants — he began making movies at Essanay by his mid-Twenties. In 1916, a Moving Picture World poll extolled his potential as “one of the most popular leading men on the screen.” That poll got it right.