Let’s play “Find Erville Alderson”!

Last month in Columbus I saw a minor little B-picture from 1940 called Queen of the Mob, part of a series of four which were based on a book credited to  J. Edgar Hoover.  It was a competent and entertaining film, but not anything especially noteworthy – nor was it intended to be.  What made it remarkable, however, was that EVERYONE was in it.  Every other scene had me saying, “Oh, look, it’s (fill in the name here)!”  Credited cast members included Blanch Yurka, Ralph Bellamy, Jack Carson, J. Carrol Naish, Jeanne Cagney, Hedda Hopper and Billy Gilbert, while the uncredited cast included people like Brooks Benedict, Lloyd Corrigan, Paul Fix, Edward Gargan, Raymond Hatton, Charles Lane, John Miljan and Robert Ryan.  You know all of those people, right?  Well, maybe not by name, since most of them were never major stars (though some were).  If you watch enough films from the Classical Studio Era though, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have seen most of them at one time or another (many of them also have a lot of credits in early television).  My favorite example of this phenomenon is character actor Erville Alderson (205 films to his credit) seen here in one of his biggest roles in D.W. Griffith’s America (1924):


That’s him on the right, as the father of Carol Dempster (in the middle) a paramour of D.W. Griffith who starred in many of the director’s less successful films, and along with then-rising talent Neil Hamilton (who would have a solid starring career from the mid-Twenties to the mid-Thirties, before being reduced to non-credited roles in films like…Queen of the Mob!).  Dempster disappears from film history along with Griffith, but Hamilton is perhaps more familiar to later audiences as Police Commissioner Gordon on the Batman television series.  Erville, however, builds a thriving career as a character actor in studio films over the next thirty years.  He pops up all over the place, in all sorts of roles, sometimes with a speaking part and other times just as a walk-on.  Here’s pretty much his entire performance in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) (that’s him whispering into the judge’s ear):


Here he is as a displaced shopkeeper encountering the Joad family in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940):


And here’s basically his entire role as one of several handwriting experts in Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939):

Erville MR. SMITH

His characters weren’t always so anonymous, of course.  In Raoul Walsh’s Objective, Burma! (1945) he plays General Stilwell (to whom he bore a resemblance):


And playing Jefferson Davis in Michael Curtiz’ Santa Fe Trail (1940) he got to intimidate cadet George Armstrong Custer as portrayed by Ronald Reagan:


Perhaps his finest hour, is as the underhanded Nate Tomkins in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941):


Under the studio system there are lots of people like Erville, of course.  It was a benefit of the way things worked that in-house loyalties sometimes allowed actors to continue as employees beyond their prime years.  Cecil B. DeMille was famous for keeping people on the payroll, and many actors who worked with him in the silent era can be glimpsed as extras throughout his later films.  Of course, for some performers this was a major comedown, but it kept them fed.  Robert Warwick, for example, was a stage idol and early film star who made the mistake of leaving Hollywood for a few years just as Talkies were introduced.  When he got back he was anathema, so the majority of his 244 credits are for playing parts like “Board Member” in Female (1933).  For others, stardom was never on the radar.  Charles Lane is perhaps the leading light of the dedicated character actors, with 361 credits.  He also lived to be 102 (dying in 2007), so he had longevity working in his favor.  John Qualen, H.B. Warner, Russell Simpson….trust me, you know these people.

What prompted me to ruminate on these unsung actors, however, isn’t just Queen of the Mob, but a viewing of The Longest Day (1962) the following week.  For those who don’t know it, the latter film is a recounting of the events of D-Day from both the German and American perspectives.  Producer Darryl F. Zanuck pulled out all the stops, which included hiring every major star he could lay his hands on to play some sort of role (no matter how minor).  It’s a common enough tactic when there’s a lot of money on the line, and it can be seen in plenty of other instances, like the Cinerama opus How the West Was Won (1962) and George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).  But here’s the interesting thing.  On their release, each of these films was faulted for being “spot the star” epics that distractingly crammed a galaxy of well-known faces into their running times.  After all, how can you take it seriously when every other person on the screen is someone you’ve seen in a hundred other films, fan magazines, radio shows, etc., etc.?

Well, you tell me.  We’ll start small.  Here are a couple of fairly random images from The Longest Day:


Any luck?  The first one is a bit harder for those not up on their French films, but the woman is Arletty and the priest (on the right) is Jean-Louis Barrault – arguably two of the most well-known faces in the history of French cinema.  How about the G.I.’s?  On the left is singing sensation Paul Anka, and on the right heartthrob Robert Wagner (now perhaps best known for his role as “Number Two” in the Austin Powers films).  Keep in mind that none of these people is on-screen for more than about two minutes total.

Maybe How the West Was Won will be easier:


Yes, no?  The major stars here (from left to right across the two images) are Karl Malden (in the black hat), Agnes Moorehead, Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, Gregory Peck, Thelma Ritter, Robert Preston and Debbie Reynolds (again).  O.K., one more, from The Greatest Story Ever Told:


It’s a little hard to pick him out, but we start with Roddy McDowell on the far left, then Gary Raymond (with the walking stick), Van Heflin (wearing white in the middle), Dorothy McGuire and Sal Mineo.

Now, the point of this is not that I watch way too many movies, so I know most of these people (I’m already aware that my mind is filled with lots of….umm….esoteric information).  The point isn’t even that time is a great leveler that makes everyone equivalently anonymous (eventually) – though film is certainly a constant, concrete reminder of that fact.  The increasing anonymity of once popular stars actually benefits “spot the star” films because it removes the distraction of constantly recognizing people from other contexts.

To my mind, though, there’s something even more interesting going on here, and it involves asking one more question.  Which of the above mentioned movies have you seen?  The Longest Day, How the West Was Won and The Greatest Story Ever Told all have their boosters, but none is considered a masterpiece.  They don’t necessarily appear on popular “top ten” lists, and certainly aren’t well-regarded by serious film scholars.  But guess what?  The Grapes of Wrath, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Sergeant York actually are taken seriously, both in a scholarly context and (at least as far as the first two are concerned) in the popular canon.  So guess who has the last laugh?  Erville’s on-screen life may be reducible to a sort of parlor game, but his years of plugging away make him at least as recognizable as people who were showered with much more attention during their careers, and the results of that fortitude should be a little lesson for all of us.  So keep in mind that someday (sooner than you think) the entire cast of The Avengers will be reduced to background players while a few fanatical students of 21st century culture will be playing “Find Henry Cavill.”  If those actors are anywhere near as lucky as Erville…


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