Focus Friday #2 – Thomas Mitchell

September 3, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Features with 0 Comments

My continuing series celebrating my unsung heroes of the movies…

1939: by common consent, one of the greatest years for movies in Hollywood history.  Gone With The Wind. Stagecoach. Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Only Angels Have Wings. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

And one man starred in all five.

You’ll know the face.  Probably from It’s a Wonderful Life (he was George Bailey’s hapless Uncle Billy).  Perhaps from Gone With The Wind (where he played Scarlett O’Hara’s father).  Maybe High Noon (where he was the mayor)…

…but the name is worth remembering: Thomas Mitchell.  He was one of those guys: the dependable, stalwart character actor who made the stars look good by forcing them to raise their game.

Arguably, a second-tier performer like Mitchell had to be better than the stars, who could coast on established personas.  Although Mitchell specialised in likeable, avuncular bumblers, there’s startling range, too. Drunk in Stagecoach, near-blind in Only Angels Have Wings, a cynical reporter in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Three very different performances, for three revered directors (Ford, Hawks, Capra), alongside three Hollywood legends (John Wayne, Cary Grant, James Stewart)…and all in the same year. Amazing.

It was Stagecoach that bagged him his Oscar, and he later followed it up with a Tony and an Emmy – the first person to achieve the “triple crown” of American acting.  On accepting the first of those awards, he said, “I didn’t know I was that good.”  Oh yes you were, and it’s criminal that most folks today don’t know it, too.

I’ll leave you with my favourite ever Mitchell moment, as Cary Grant’s air mail manager Geoff Carter confronts his best friend and most trusted pilot ‘Kid’ Dabb (Mitchell) over his eyesight.  It’s a gorgeously written and performed scene, with palpable warmth and friendship between the two men.  But underneath the low-key, relaxed tone, a man’s career is at stake, and Mitchell is witty, wise and thoroughly decent as Dabb mans up to the realisation that he can’t fool Carter – or himself – forever.

(Scene begins at 6:33 on first video – frustrating it’s split over two files, so you’ll need to watch the first three minutes of the second vid.)

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