A New Sybil's "WHO'Z DAT?"... FRANKLIN PANGBORN (January 23, 1889 – July 20, 1958)

Collage Franklin Pangborn.jpg

Darlings! Mummy has made a decision! After reading dozens of posts and having hundreds of conversations with well-meaning folks who just don't know about the great CHARACTER actors who gave films the depth and genius that surrounded and supported the so-called "stars", I am going to post a regular, special entry called SYBIL'S "WHO'Z DAT??"....there'll be photos and a mini-bio, and the next time you see one of those familiar, fabulous faces that you just "can't quite place".......well, maybe these posts will help. Some of these actors worked more, had longer and broader careers, and ended up happier, more loved, and even wealthier than the "stars" that the public "worships"......I think there may be a metaphor in that! What do you think??? Well, a few weeks ago, we reviewed the wonderful talent and character of Eric Blore, an actor who was thought of as one of the best butler, floorwalker, hotel manager-types Hollywood ever produced. And if he had a rival, it would be our next guest, Mr. Franklin Pangborn (January 23, 1889 – July 20, 1958)

Although most people believed that he was British, he was actually born in Newark, New Jersey (!) Very little is known of his early years, education, or career. He first appears in Broadway theatre in 1911 and appeared in an additional five plays through to 1913. Again, nothing seems to be known about him until he served in the Army during World War I in 1917, and he doesn’t reappear in the records until his role in a 1924 play again on Broadway. Interestingly, for someone later identified mainly with comedy, Pangborn's theatrical roles were mostly dramatic and included Armand Duval in CAMILLE, another role in a play adaptation of BEN HUR, and two parts in JOSEPH AND HIS BRETHERN. But Hollywood saw things differently. From his debut film in the silent EXIT SMILING (1926) to his final appearance in THE STORY OF MANKIND (1957), Pangborn was cast in almost nothing but comedy roles. With his prissy voice and floor-walker demeanor, Pangborn became the perfect desk clerk, dressmaker, society secretary, or all-around busybody in well over 100 films. As a matter of fact, both he AND Eric Blore were cast as comic hotel managers in FLYING DOWN TO RIO (1933), the film that officially announced the pairing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire for the first time.

Pangborn was a favorite of Mack Sennett who cast him repeatedly in short subjects. Most of Pangborn's pre-1936 appearances were in bits or minor roles, but a brief turn as a snotty society scavenger-hunt scorekeeper opposite Carole Lombard and William Powell in MY MAN GODFREY (1936) cemented his reputation as a surefire laugh-getter. The actor was a particular favorite of W.C. Fields, who saw to it that Pangborn was prominently cast in Fields' THE BANK DICK (1940) as hapless bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington and again in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941). He was a constant in smart comedy from Frank Capra and Gregory La Cava to the more extreme screwball comedies of Preston Sturges, though frequently upstaged with such a company of funny men as Sturges gathered around him. His appearance in Sturges’ HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1942) is perhaps his most riotous performance and his defining moment as celebrity comedian. Playing the chairman of the welcoming-home committee to the false-hero of Eddie Bracken, he is trying to coordinate all the festivities and caught in a literal battle of bands at the beginning of the film. Converged upon by various hokey town bands who all want to play the featured pieces, Pangborn attempts order but is methodically carried away as crowds of people arrive to suggest other songs and to assail him with arguments while the bands continue to play all the songs at once! It is musical chaos with Pangborn finally reduced to desperate blasts on a whistle and jumping up and down yelling "Not yet! Not yet!" It is one of the actor's finest pieces.

Yet Pangborn's usual stock of characters could fit drama as well. Actually, in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, his coordinator also has some dramatic scenes as well. He is used in dramas as a source of amusement as in NOW VOYAGER (1942) where he plays the cruise tourist director, waiting on deck for Bette Davis to join the tour of Rio De Janeiro. As an accomplished stage actor, he did miss the boards, and his friend Edward Everett Horton cast him in Horton's Los Angeles-based Majestic Theatre productions. During the 30s and 40s, he appeared in over fifty films including classics like STAGE DOOR (1937), CAREFREE (1938), REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (1938), SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941), and THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942). Because of his brilliant ability at drawing a vivid character in just a few moments of screen time, he worked with and was admired by the greatest movie stars and directors of the golden age of Hollywood.

But times changed for Pangborn's specialties. Movies were more diverse and updated as the 1950s ensued. He immediately adapted to the ‘small screen’ which re-introduced him as a guest star on TV comedy shows, playing his beloved characters as cameo celebrations of his matter-of-fact stardom. Pangborn thrived on television, guesting both on sit-coms and variety shows, including an appearance as a giggling serial-killer in a "Red Skelton Show" comedy sketch. Pangborn was very briefly the announcer on Jack Paar’s “The Tonight Show”, but was fired after the first few weeks for a lack of "spontaneous enthusiasm" and replaced by Hugh Downs. The first episode is practically the only one that survives completely intact since the others were wiped by the network (except for selected clips!) to save money on videotape, the network's policy through the early 1970s, and the show begins with Pangborn (enthusiastically!) reading the introduction with the coda "...and it's all live!".

Pangborn lived in Laguna Beach, California in a house with his mother and his "occasional boyfriend", according to William Mann in Behind the Screen. He died on July 20, 1958 just a few months after his Jack Parr appearance and following cancer surgery. He is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. The 1940 census lists his age as 40, ten years younger than birth records show. For all of his fine work in film, Franklin Pangborn has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street.

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