1939 has long been regarded as an amazing year for movies…the gold standard against which all other years of Hollywood's output are compared. 1939 also happened to be a banner year for the great character actor Thomas Mitchell (1892-1962). Perhaps best known today for playing the lovable yet absent-minded Uncle Billy in the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), Mitchell featured in meaty roles in five - count ‘em, five! - all-time classics in 1939. It’s a marvelous string of performances, working for a virtual "Who’s Who" gallery of great directors, each made in a quick, sustained succession that few actors could ever dream of matching.
Mitchell started out the year playing the alcoholic Doc Boone, one of the assorted passengers aboard John Ford’s Stagecoach. Among his many other facets, Mitchell played drunks very well. His Doc Boone is a man fallen into disillusion and disarray, the prototypical philosophical drunkard. Yet he is redeemed when he is forced by emergency circumstances to sober up and help deliver Lucy Mallory’s baby. Mitchell gives a typically warm, wry performance, nicely complementing the two upright leads (John Wayne and Claire Trevor). Ford’s archetypal western has a simple story yet is rich in character and action, and is peppered with those scenes of poetic beauty so characteristic of the director.
Next, Mitchell moved on to Howard Hawks’ hard-boiled aviation adventure, Only Angels Have Wings. Here he played Kid Dabb, right-hand man to daredevil cargo pilot Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). This was Mitchell’s beefiest part in this stellar year, and he makes the most of it, giving some real depth and shading to his crusty sidekick role. He shares many fine scenes with Grant, establishing a tough yet tender friendship in a series of finely-observed touches, such as the Kid's inability to light a cigarette without Geoff's help. Like most of these 1939 classics, the supporting cast here is fantastic all the way down the line: Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Sig Ruman, Noah Beery, Jr. and many others.
Only Angles Have Wings is packed with great dialogue, suspenseful, death-defying flying scenes and tropical atmosphere (defiantly palpable despite the studio-bound sets), and is one of Hawks' best cinematic explorations of his code of male professionalism, of strong. silent types doing a dangerous job with maximum skill and minimal fuss, and the tough women who learn to live and even thrive in their world. It’s a well-regarded movie that isn’t quite as famous as it deserves to be. Mitchell’s performance, more edgy and less cuddly than his usual (the same could be said of Grant’s atypical performance), is one of the main reasons the film is so effective.
Mitchell continued his winning streak by next appearing in Frank Capra’s political satire-cum-fable, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He plays cynical Capitol Hill press reporter Diz Moore, friend of equally-jaded Senatorial aide Clarissa Saunders, who sniffs a story in the surprise naming of political noob Jefferson Smith (James Stewart, in one of his finest early-career moments). Mitchell proves his mastery of the breezy, rapid-fire patter so common to reporter speak in early Hollywood films. He has many amusing scenes with Arthur, but his true moment to shine comes when he confronts an enraged Mr. Smith with the bitter truth of his puppet position.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington expertly mixes dewy-eyed idealism and patriotic flag-waving with a world-weary, sarcastic acceptance of an American political system riddled with corruption and greed. Mitchell sits easily alongside such heavyweight scene-stealers as William Demerast, Eugene Pallette and Claude Rains. The film's message still rings out clear and undimmed today, over 70 years later.
Next came an appearance in one of those rare classic movies that nearly everyone, even those who don’t give a hoot for old movies, knows well. I’m talking about Gone With the Wind, easily one of the most beloved movies of all time. Mitchell played Gerald O’Hara, master of Tara, papa to spoiled brat extraordinaire Scarlet O’Hara. Mitchell is but one of many fine supporting players that populate producer David O. Selznick’s epic. He gives a very fine, at times even touching, performance, but it, like most everything else, gets steam-rolled under the film’s massive (and admittedly impressive) scale, and fixation on the tiresome (if flawlessly played) Scarlet character.
Mitchell got to work with not just one, but three talented directors during the making of this huge hit: George Cukor, Sam Wood and Victor Fleming. Gone With the Wind is a film that I admire very much as an amazing technical achievement, but can’t muster much personal enthusiasm for. It certainly deserves to be seen in the best possible conditions (I recommend the beautiful Blu-Ray version), and Thomas Mitchell’s contribution is high on the list of the movie’s worthy points.
Mitchell finished up 1939 with his role as Clopin, King of the Beggars and friend to Esmerelda (Maureen o’Hara) in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Another pivotal performance in yet another famous and well-loved classic, yet again overshadowed by a showboating lead actor…this time, Charles Laughton, in an amazing turn as Quasimodo. As good as the supporting cast members are in this picture, they can’t help but be blown off the screen by Laughton’s riveting portrayal. Nevertheless, it was another feather in the cap of the hard-working Mitchell, and a worthy way to finish out his incredible year.
Mitchell as Columbo.
Besides the aforementioned It’s a Wonderful Life, Mitchell would continue to deliver reliably memorable work in a variety of film and TV appearances over the next 23 years of his life, notably as Tommy Blue in the rousing Technicolor swashbuckler The Black Swan (1942), Pat Garrett in Howard Hughes’ notorious The Outlaw (1943), the proud father of The Fighting Sullivans (1944), and the mayor in High Noon (1952). He also was the first to bring the famous role of Lt. Columbo to life on stage, before that part was enshrined forever on TV by Peter Falk. As hard as it is now to imagine anyone else but Falk in the part, I can certainly see Mitchell nailing the slovenly and wily side of Columbo, at any rate.
As it happened, Mitchell wasn’t around to be in the running for the part when it came time for it to move to the small screen. He died of bone cancer at age 70 in 1962, leaving behind a rich legacy of over a hundred film and TV appearances. Thanks especially to his energetic performances in these five masterful films of 1939, plus the holiday perennial It’s a Wonderful Life, Mitchell will go on charming new fans long into the forseeable future.
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