Thursday, July 5, 2007

Henry Travers

Henry Travers is one of the film industry’s most beloved character actors, a veteran of the stage in the UK and in New York before he ever came out to Hollywood to play a variety of kindly doctors and papas, and the perhaps the most well-known angel of all.

When he appeared in “Shadow of a Doubt,” Travers was by then 69 years old, his hair obviously dyed to appear as the middle-aged father of small children. His trace accent made him as convincing an American Dad as he could be playing the English railroad station master Mr. Ballard in “Mrs. Miniver.” In both these films he exudes not only kindliness, but a flare for subtle comedy common to the best character actors who must have all these tools at hand, just like a variety of makeup devices, to go from one character to the next.

As Clarence the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one of the last films Mr. Travers was to make before his retirement, he has left us with the quintessential bumbling guardian with best intentions if somewhat cockeyed methods. He makes the angel guiding James Stewart through his personal crisis appear less angelic and more human, trying to do the right thing and, if sometimes failing, never failing to try again. He was by then in his 70s.

One of the great things about the studio system, for all its negative aspects, was presenting to the public a range of ages in the actors it employed. Character actors were able to earn a living for nearly their entire lives, and the audience reaped the benefits of seeing elderly characters as a natural part of everyday life on the screen. There are less opportunities for aging actors in the film industry of today. Were “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be filmed today (for the first time, not one of it’s many parodies), Clarence would probably be played by a young man in his 20s or 30s, still bumbling, but we would miss out on the qualities someone with the experience of Henry Travers effortlessly gives to the role.

One wonders if the Baby Boomers, who apparently do not intend to go gently into that good night, will be depicted on screen one day as elders who contribute to our society, and belong in the family. Or, will they be left out of the family and the film, dismissed and forgotten in the excitement of showcasing ever younger talent?

That’s it for this week. See you Monday.

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