Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Eugene Pallette

Most of Eugene Pallette’s film career occurred before 1930, in the days of silent films. He was young, he was slim, he was silent. We probably wouldn’t recognize him, since he has become known to us as the boisterous, frog-voiced, and overweight family patriarch in such films as “The Lady Eve” (1941) and “My Man Godfrey” (1936).

In “The Lady Eve” he makes his memorable appearance striding down the enormous staircase of his mansion, laconically singing the bawdy tavern song:

Landlord, fill the flowing bowl
Until it doth run over.
For tonight, we’ll merry, merry be,
For tonight, we’ll merry, merry be,
For tonight, we’ll merry, merry be,
Tomorrow we’ll be sober.

It is a magnificent entrance for a man who used his physical attributes with a sense of dash and pride, and a sensible studio which let him act the lord of the manor with all the dignity he deserved. Though there is sometimes much comedy in dignity, and Pallette played many comic roles, there is also a fine line that creates poignancy and respect. Most overweight actors were displayed as buffoons, but Pallette was allowed to be intelligent and shrewd. Despite his occasional roles as millionaires, they tended to be self-made men. Horace Pike, the wealthy brewer whom he plays in “The Lady Eve” seems just as likely to lift one of his kegs of beer onto a delivery truck as to discuss commercial trends in the boardroom.

His Alexander Bullock, head of the whacky family which takes on William Powell as their butler in “My Man Godfrey” is the only one sane and sensible, and not to be taken in by sycophants and sharpsters.

His Friar Tuck in “Robin Hood” can fight just as well with a sword as the much more athletically-appearing Errol Flynn. Pallette uses his enormous girth, and his impossibly low voice (which I think is the reason why they invented tea with lemon), not as comic foils but as heaven-sent attributes. He displays them proudly, as well he should.

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