Who could forget that growly frog voice? And the jowly face. And that voluminous front porch and double chin?
Kansas-born Eugene Pallette didn’t always look that way. One of the busiest character actors in classic Hollywood history, he began his movie career early in the silent era (1913 to be exact) as a handsome, athletic principal player sometimes turning up epics directed by D. W Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.
By the late Twenties, though, Pallette took on the rotund form that shaped his career as a distinctive supporting actor. One of his best known movies was 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland. He played the role of Friar Tuck, a part that supposedly had been slated for fellow character actor, Guy Kibbee.
Pallette also had parts in six Oscar-nominated best picture outings: 1929’s The Love Parade; 1932’s Shanghai Express, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich; 1937’s One Hundred Men and a Girl with Deanna Durbin and Adolphe Menjou; Robin Hood; 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington from director Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur; and Ernst Libitsch’s 1943 version of Heaven Can Wait with Gene Tierney and Don Ameche.
Pallette can also be seen to advantage in the 1936 comedy with a message, My Man Godfrey, starring William Powell and a delightful Carole Lombard.
To appreciate Pallette at his growly best, why not check out Suspense, a 1946 noirish drama about shenanigans behind the scenes at a big-time ice-skating revue. The picture co-stars Barry Sullivan, Albert Dekker and a surprisingly seductive Bonita Granville as a spurned gangster’s mistress bent on revenge. Palette plays a figure-skating impresario’s deep-voiced managerial assistant.
The figure skater-star of the picture is Belita (yes, just one name), otherwise known as “Belita, the Ice Maiden.” A helleva skater, she performs several big production numbers (staged by Nick Castle), notably one involving a jump through a circle of knives (See below. Ouch!) . Of course, the bad guy would attempt to slice and dice her to death by rigging the prop.
The director of photography of Suspense, Karl Struss, gives the movie a first-class look, moodily appropriate to its tough subject matter — adultery, revenge, murder. Belita’s performance is surprisingly saucy, and she looks in tip-top shape. But the movie’s big bonus is the amusingly gruff presence of Pallette (yes, that’s him below).
Suspense was his movie swan song. Pallette died at the age of 65 of throat cancer in 1954, after logging appearances in more than 250 movies (his career predated tv) over some 30 years.