The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the Nov. 16-18 What a Character! Blogathon 2014 co-hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
Over the past century some of Hollywood’s biggest names–Jack Benny, Cary Grant, John Travolta, and Denzel Washington, to name but a few–have played angels on the big screen. One of the best-loved and most fondly remembered of these cinematic seraphim, however, is a performer whom few can name and who played an angel who had yet to earn his wings. The heavenly helper in question is Clarence Oddbody, the “angel second class” who demonstrates to a suicidal George Bailey (James Stewart) the impact his existence has had on those around him, in the Yuletide classic It’s a Wonderful Life, and the actor behind Clarence was a 40-plus-year veteran of the stage and movies, Henry Travers.
As befits his usual quiet and unassuming screen persona, the details of Henry’s early life are sketchy. We know that he was born Travers John Heagerty in early 1874, but while some sources list his birthplace as the northeastern English town of Berwick-Upon-Tweed, others state it was actually to the south, in Prudhoe, Northumberland. Still others say he was born in Ireland and came to Berwick as a child when his physician father moved the family there.
Attending school in Berwick, young Travers is said to have begun training for a career as an architect, but gave in to the call of the stage and joined with a local troupe, the Tweedside Minstrels. He later became part of another company, the James Wallace Quintet, and by the early 1910s was a familiar face in music halls and theaters across the U.K. Following in the footsteps of such British-born performers as Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, the actor emigrated to America in 1917. Over the next 15 years he made a name for himself (and took on the new name of Henry Travers) on Broadway, working with the Theatre Guild and appearing alongside Lillian Roth, Edward G. Robinson, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
With his Broadway bona fides well established, Travers caught the eyes of Hollywood filmmakers who brought the seasoned performer to California. His screen debut came in 1933, when he reprised his role of the elderly Herr Krug, father of psychiatrist Anton Krug (Frank Morgan), in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Reunion in Vienna, a lush romantic drama starring John Barrymore. He must have seemed the fatherly type, because Henry was a dad two more times that same year: first to Robert Montgomery in the MGM drawing room drama Another Language, co-starring Helen Hayes; then as Gloria Stuart’s pop and employer of the unseen Claude Rains in Universal’s hit adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. He finished up his freshman film year over at Fox in an oddball musical-comedy, My Weakness, playing a bra manufacturer who makes a wager with wastrel nephew Lew Ayres that Ayres can’t make over cleaning woman Lilian Harvey into a sophisticated lady.
Two key roles in 1934 found Travers portraying one of the aristocratic dinner guests who crosses paths with Death–in the form of Fredric March–in the fantasy Death Takes a Holiday, and as a bookseller who takes in a pregnant and unwed Loretta Young in the tearjerker Born to Be Bad. Henry joined with James Barton and Gene Lockhart as a trio of crusty Cape Cod fishermen who become caretakers of orphan Helen Mack in 1935’s Captain Hurricane, while that same year the romantic comedy Maybe It’s Love had him once again cast as Gloria Stuart’s father. Another, more offbeat turn came in another ’35 picture, Pursuit. In this minor MGM effort, Travers played a travelling paperhanger who, along with his beloved dog Perfume, winds up…well, pursuing a couple (Chester Morris and Sally Eilers) hired to bring a little boy (Scotty Beckett) at the center of a custody battle across the U.S./Mexico border to the child’s mother. The film’s ending featured Morris and Eilers eluding capture by disguising themselves and Beckett in blackface!
The remainder of the ’30s found Travers dividing his time between movies and the stage. On Broadway he played Wang Lung’s father in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth in 1932 and Grandpa Vanderhof in Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It with You in ’36. Back on the big screen, Henry was busy in 1939: as the elderly inmate/prison librarian who takes new arrival Billy Halop under his wing in the Warner Bros. crime drama You Can’t Get Away with Murder and as terminally ill socialite Bette Davis’ family doctor in the two-hankie classic Dark Victory. Additionally, his 1939 resumé included roles as an ailing African missionary in the biodrama Stanley and Livingstone, and as a doctor who tries to talk Lionel Barrymore into freeing Death (Cedric Hardwicke) from captivity in his backyard apple tree in the fantasy On Borrowed Time. And let’s not forget small but memorable turns in the Errol Flynn western Dodge City and the India-set adventure saga The Rains Came, with Tyrone Power.
Henry was 65 when the 1940s began, but retirement was far from his mind. He was an employer of would-be inventor Thomas A. Edison (Spencer Tracy) in Edison, the Man (1940); the good-natured Pa Goodhue, whose handicapped granddaughter (Velma) catches the eye of fugitive gangster Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (Humphrey Bogart) in High Sierra (1941); and Professor Jerome, one of the encyclopedia-compiling “seven dwarfs” who play matchmaker for colleague Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) and brassy showgirl “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) in Howard Hawks’ screwball romp Ball of Fire (also ’41). Travers’ Ball of Fire compatriots were a “Who’s Who” of character actor contemporaries, Richard Hayden, Oscar Homolka, Leonid Kisnky, and former Screen Stealer S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall among them.
Travers’ sole Academy Award nomination came in 1942. The nod, for Best Supporting Actor, was for his moving turn as Mr. Ballard–the WWII English village stationmaster and rose fancier who wins a prize for the “Miniver Rose” he grew in honor of neighbor Kay Miniver (Greer Garson)–in the year’s Best Picture winner, MGM’s Mrs. Miniver. He was on-screen with Garson later that same year in the melodrama Random Harvest, with Ronald Colman, and in 1943 he played her father-in-law in the biodrama Madame Curie. 1943 also gave Henry the chance to work with countryman Alfred Hitchcock, playing the family patriarch whose obsession with “true crime” magazines and stories doesn’t help him recognize when he has a real-life murderer–beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten)–living under his roof, in Shadow of a Doubt, which the Master of Suspense himself called his favorite of his films. Later in ’43 the actor co-starred with another fellow Brit, On Borrowed Time’s Cedric Hardwicke in The Moon Is Down. Based on a John Steinbeck novel, the 20th Century-Fox drama cast Travers as the mayor of an Nazi-occupied Norwegian town who tries to organize a resistance movement and engages in a battle of wits against German officer Hardwicke.
A less serious part came in 1945, when he was the jolly Mississippi riverboat captain who needs the help of entertainers Abbott and Costello after he loses his ship to crooks in The Naughty Nineties, a comedy best known for being the only film to feature Bud and Lou’s complete “Who’s on First” routine. It was a decidedly unjolly Travers–at first, anyway–who appeared as curmudgeonly (but wonderfully-named) Horace P. Bogardus, the Scrooge-like businessman who owns a building that priest Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) and nun Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) want him to donate for a parish school, in the sentimental favorite The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). The following year gave him small roles in The Yearling and Gallant Journey, but 1946 also offered Henry the part that audiences around the world would remember him for: that of George Bailey’s befuddled, Mark Twain-reading guardian angel out to earn his wings in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s Henry as Clarence–who is described as having “the faith of a child” and “the IQ of a rabbit”–who sums up the film’s message when he says to Jimmy Stewart’s George, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” and in his farewell inscription to his charge in a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “Dear George – Remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings!” By the way, did you ever notice that when George is running down the streets of Bedford Falls near the end of the film, he passes a movie theater marquee advertising The Bells of St. Mary’s?
By the end of 1946, Travers’ Hollywood career was winding down. Following small roles in the Republic crime drama The Flame (1947) and Beyond Glory (1948)–the latter with Alan Ladd and his It’s a Wonderful Life co-star Donna Reed, he made his final screen appearance as a judge in The Girl from Jones Beach, a Warner Bros. comedy starring Ronald Reagan and Virginia Mayo. Henry spent his final decade-and-a-half in quiet retirement in Southern California (there’s little written about his personal life, except that his first wife passed away in 1954 and he apparently later remarried) before he died from arteriosclerosis in October of 1965, at the ripe old age of 91. Movie fans can only hope that, when Henry got to the Pearly Gates, there was a brand new pair of wings waiting for him.