Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jerome Cowan

Jerome Cowan died in January 1972 at 74 years of age -- right at the beginning of the so-called nostalgia craze of the 1970s.  But this isn't an obituary, it's about what happened after.  One wonders what Cowan, and so many other character actors would have thought about our present-day familiarity with them and their work, and how beloved they are now to old movie fans.

This post is part of the What a Character Blogathon hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula at Paula's Cinema Club

Without that 1970s sudden sentimental interest in movies and pop culture of the first half of the 20th century, principally the 1930s through the 1950s, we might not have so many classic films released on VHS and DVD, nor the experiment of the cable channel American Movie Classics, or the enduring magic that is Turner Classic Movies.  It has preserved our society’s longtime reverence for the great stars, of course, where Clark Gable and Judy Garland, James Cagney and Greta Garbo, et. al., still share a crowded pedestal.

But the real achievement in this fad-turned-big business of classic movie nostalgia is the celebrating of so many wonderful character actors.  So many years after their careers ended -- most of them, like Cowan, worked until they died -- have reached parity with the stars they supported.  We pay them homage they never received by anyone in the heyday of their careers.   What would Jerome Cowan and the others feted in this single blogathon think of that?

Mr. Cowan played a variety of roles, but still had his specialty of stuffy lawyers, like in Miracle on 34th Street where he—now famous for it—plays John Payne’s courtroom adversary. 

He also played the prosecuting attorney in The Unfaithful (1947), which we covered here.  He could be silly, like the fake psychic he played in Claudia and David (1946), covered here.  Or even smarmy, like the creepy married man who makes a play for Barbara Stanwyck in My Reputation (1946) here.  He was the dead partner Humphrey Bogart avenged in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

But he started in films with a really different role, an angry young man, a fanatic, an outsider, a killer.  In Beloved Enemy (1936), discussed here, set in Ireland during The Troubles, he plays Brian Aherne’s comrade, a man of action and few words.  He is young here, rugged, and somewhat mysterious.  There is pain and mistrust in his eyes.  When Aherne is viewed by their gang as being a turncoat, Jerome Cowan gets the job of assassin, and aims for his friend from a rooftop, and pulls the trigger.

In that mysterious caste system created in Hollywood, he would likely never have gotten to play a lead, yet there is promise in this first performance of something dark and exciting, something more than just the stuffy lawyer or pompous businessman he would play so many times in decades to come.  But there were twists on the man with the pencil-thin mustache and the glint in his eye.  He was smart, or befuddled.  He was a phony, or helplessly sincere.  Only the suit was the same.

Like most character actors, he endured because he had achieved that strange combination of being familiar, and yet able to play many nuances, from sinister, to comic and still be recognizable.  Cowan was not a “man of a thousand faces.”  He was a man in a crowd of a thousand faces.  But we could always pick him out.

He worked almost up until the end of his life, having appeared in a couple TV show guest spots, a western and a sitcom, only months before his death in the previous year of 1971.  Maybe they were fun to do, and maybe they paid the bills.  

But if he were with us today, how amazed he would be at how famous he's become.

Please have a look at more of the great blogs participating in the What A Character Blogathon.

"Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.

My new syndicated column SILVER SCREEN, GOLDEN YEARS, on classic film is up at Go60  or check with your local paper.


Caftan Woman said...

I can imagine many bemused smiles from the character actor alumni at their current reverence with which they are held.

It was during my teen years when I finally put together the name and face of Jerome Cowan when I realized Miles Archer was Ida Lupino's co-star of old in their "Twilight Zone" episode.

I have for you a Jerome Cowan lead! It is a B mystery called "Crime by Night" from 1941. I wonder if he was the planned lead or a fill-in. Of course, he does his usual sterling job.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Ah, CW, leave it to you to ferret out more info. Thanks for supplying his lead role in CRIME BY NIGHT. I never saw it, but I hope I can just for him.

grandoldmovies said...

Terrific post on this hardiest of character actors. I like how Cowan could work nuances on what was basically the same persona he was given in film after film: he could play it cocky, serious, comic, or hard-boiled, given the plot circumstances and the scene. But he always stood out. I think that's the quality that defines the great character actor, and why we still celebrate his like today. It may start with nostalgia, but it ends with admiration and love!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

GOM, thanks for your terrific assessment of Cowan's talent. You've put it very well, as usual.

Michaela said...

Love Jerome Cowan! I adored him in Shall We Dance with Fred and Ginger, and it made me go "Who is this guy?" Then I looked up his movies and was totally ashamed that I had seen him a dozen times and never took notice of him before. Now every time I see his name in the opening credits, I do a little happy dance.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

That's so neat, Michaela. Welcome to the blog.

Silver Screenings said...

Loved your description of the mysterious Hollywood caste system. I think Jerome Cowan would have been a great leading man, but fortunately we can still enjoy his talent as an extremely talented character actor. Comedy or drama – he's your man.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Ruth. You're right, Cowan was good at all of it.

Caftan Woman said...

I was checking out the TCM January schedule (for my monthly choice) when you'll never guess what came up for January 4th - "Crime by Night"!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Yowza! I'm putting it on my calendar. Thanks a heap, CW!

Yvette said...

I'm joining your Jerome Cowan fan club too, Jacqueline. :) I've always loved this actor - he could play just about anything and anyone and always do a splendid job. And he could always make me smile with just a lift of an eyebrow. He had a bit of the sleaze quotient, but never too much ingrained to make him unavailable. On screen he was an accessible wiseguy, or smart-mouth or sidekick or whatnot.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"Sleaze quotient" - I love it. Exactly. He was superb. Accessible wiseguy. You put it very well, Yvette.

ClassicBecky said...

I'm sure these men and women must be thrilled at their new-found fans -- they deserve to be feted as much as the stars. Many movies are dear to me because of them -- I always perk up at the wonderful character actors when watching a movie!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I know what you mean. I'm the same way, and smile at the opening credits when I see names I know, and then spot so many uncredited actors whose names I've also come to know.

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