Edward Arnold: The Big Screen’s Toughest Tycoon

One of the most imposing character players of Hollywood’s golden age, this ursine, accomplished thespian played his share of cold-hearted businessmen, crooked politcos and legendary historical figures in the course of a quarter-century on the screen. Born to the slums of New York’s Lower East Side in 1890, Gunther Edward Arnold Schneider was orphaned at the age of 11 and had to turn to manual labor to survive. He had his first theatrical experience in an amateur production of “The Merchant Of Venice,” and his career path was set by the time he was 15, shortening his name to Edward Arnold.

Arnold’s travels found him in touring companies with notables like Ethel Barrymore, and he sojourned to Chicago in 1916, where he appeared in over three dozen silent shorts for Essanay Studios. He returned to the stage and Broadway full-time in 1920 and made his pilgrimage to California in 1932.

That year saw his first Hollywood assignment opposite Lew Ayres and Maureen O’Sullivan in the drama Okay, America!, and while his scenes as a lawyer in the Oscar-nominee I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang wound up on the cutting room floor, he would land key parts in the pre-Code crime drama Three on a Match–starring Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and a young Bette Davis–and in Rasputin and the Empress, the only movie to star all three Barrymore siblings (Ethel, John and Lionel).

In 1933, his resonant baritone voice helped him get cast in such  films as the costume drama The Barbarian, in which co-star Myrna Loy donned a very revealing pre-Code outfit; with screen sex idol Mae West and a young Cary Grant in I’m No Angel; and, in 1934, Sadie McKee with Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone.

By the mid-to-late ’30s, Edward was even finding his name above the title in signature efforts like Crime and Punishment, top billed with Peter Lorre; Easy Living with frequent co-star Jean Arthur; and paired with doomed Hollywood star Frances Farmer in two films, Come and Get It and The Toast of New York. He would also land the title role of 19th-century railroad businessman and bon vivant Diamond Jim Brady (Ironically. Arnold met the real-life Brady while working on the Broadway stage in the 1910s). As leading man roles became more difficult to get, he realized that keeping his weight intact was increasingly a losing battle. His talent never held him back and he pursued character roles. About being so sought-after an actor, Arnold said, “The bigger I got, the better character roles I received.”

His stardom in films spilled over to his radio appearances as well, and in 1938, served as master of ceremonies for “The Chase and Sanborn Hour,” popular for attracting entertainment luminaries of the day, like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and singer Nelson Eddy.

Other memorable films of the period include his starring role alongside Robert Taylor in The Crowd Roars as a crime boss (the type of role in which he so often excelled) and a trio of appearances for Frank Capra:  as an unfeeling mogul who learns the meaning of friendship thanks to son James Stewart and an eccentric family in the Academy Award-winning  You Can’t Take It With You; as the head of a statewide graft ring in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with both Stewart and Jean Arthur; and in Meet John Doe with screen favorites Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper — his rotten D.B. Norton still causes viewers to sneer.

His star continued to rise in Idiot’s Delight, along with MGM giants Clark Gable and Norma Shearer. In 1940, Edwards reprised his earlier role as Diamond Jim Brady opposite Alice Faye in 1940′s Lillian Russell, as well as playing a  delightful Daniel Webster in The Devil and Daniel Webster. After his acclaimed 1941 performance as the New England orator, he “flipped sides” the following year to portray “The Devil” in the WWII propaganda short Inflation.

In 1942, Arnold was Duncan Maclain, the crime-solving blind detective in Eyes in the Night, whose cunning German Shepherd, “Friday,” makes this movie very popular with canine lovers (he would return to play Maclain three years later in The Hidden Eye). More Hollywood parts that kept his name in lights in Johnny Apollo as Tyrone Power’s no-good embezzling dad, ending up in the same prison with his gangster son, and in Johnny Eager as Lana Turner’s lawyer father, opposed to her relationship with mobster Robert Taylor.

In the 1940s, Arnold had a two-year stint as president of the Screen Actors Guild; he later gave the freest reins to his own political ambitions when he ran for, and narrowly lost, the seat of Los Angeles Alderman, after which he said that entertainment and politics don’t mix. Since his observation back then, Arnold was proven wrong many times over. Although he was a well-known conservative Republican his whole life, along with being a vocal anti-communist, he was one of the first to come out against the blacklisting of suspected communists during the McCarthy years.

With co-stars Pat O’Brien and Broderick Crawford, he was anything but Slightly Honorable; was a welcome addition to Bobe Hope’s Nothing But the Truth (1941); his girth was an asset as the “Grand Vizier” in MGM’s lavish Technicolor spectacular Kismet with Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich in 1944; appeared in the dramatic Mrs. Parkington with Walter Pigeon and Greer Garson; and was one of the hotel guests in Week-End at the Waldorf (1945) in which MGM claimed “When Strangers Meet — and Love — Things Are Bound to Happen!”

Always in demand, he remained active onscreen over the last decade of his life with the musical Ziegfeld Follies, in a comic sketch with Victor Moore: in MGM’s The Hucksters with stars Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr; in another MGM musical Take Me Out to the Ball Game with Esther Williams as the owner of a baseball team; he played opposite friend Ronald Reagan as a US senator in John Loves Mary (1949) and was “Shawnee Bill” in 1950′s Annie Get Your Gun with Betty Hutton; and in 1952, Belles on Their Toes, the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, were among his projects of note.

Edward Arnold stood before the cameras more than 150 times including an early start in television in 1950, and made many appearances in that medium, including his turn in the original Studio One production of Twelve Angry Men in 1954. He concluded his career with his final role as host of the TV series “Strange Stories,” halted by his death in 1956, at age 66.

Here’s Edward Arnold in the theatrical trailer for The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941):

  • Jim Vollkommer

    Interesting piece on Edward Arnold. I’ve always considered his role as Daniel Webster his best. BTW, the original title was “All That Money Can Buy.”

  • kent gravett

    One thing not mentioned was a radio show on Sunday nights called Mr. President in which he starred each episode. The premise was portraying an unknown or not well publicized incident in the life of a president with the audience not knowing which one he was portraying until the close of the show when he revealed the name. It became a kind of game to try and guess. I was very young but enjoyed it greatly, and the stories were historically accurate. This ties in well with his political beliefs. It was a good show. And his voice made it shine.

  • JUanita Curtis

    Enjoyable article on Edward Arnold – always very interesting to watch. He certainly had a varied career in Hollywood.

  • Ed Ferrall

    Edward Arnold was the actor I loved to hate. I always thought behind that “acting bad” personna was a very gentle, kind soul that knew how to act. A true professional in an era filled with professionals. I’ll bet he was fun on the set, too?! Thanks for the article.

  • EUGENE ANDRUCCI

    Thank you,I agree with ED FERRALL.Always a good performance.
    You should tell us about Eugene Pallette another good actor in that era.

  • David Ecklein

    It is somewhat ironic that Edward Arnold, a rock-ribbed Republican, played quite well the unscrupulous financier in many movies. My favorite of these, not mentioned in Steinberg’s article, is the 1939 gem “Let Freedom Ring” starring Nelson Eddy. This Ben Hecht story, dramatizing quite real but sometimes forgotten 19th century struggles between western farmers and grasping railroads, is entertaining and inspiring at the same time. Sometimes still available on VHS, it should be remastered on DVD for younger generations to appreciate.

  • James Sedares

    One of the great Hollywood character actors with a range that led him occasionally into lead roles. I loved him in the Hucksters where he is blackmailed by Clark Gable. It’s hard to find the modern equilvalent to him. The closest might be John Goodman.

  • Eddie Quillen

    Mr. Arnold was also excellent, and a natural, as a congressman in 1948′s “Command Decision,” one of the great ensemble movies of that era; well, IMHO, one of the great ensemble movies of any era.

  • RES

    It is regrettable that his Nero Wolfe (opposite Lionel Stander’s Archie Goodwin) isn’t available, as Arnold surely had the heft to play the part and was capable of playing the character appropriately unsympathetically.

  • BRIAN

    The Glass Key(1935)with George Raft
    Main Street After Dark(1945)

  • Chuck Neumann

    Great recap of Edward Arnold’s excellent career. A great character actor who was able to have leading roles in many films despite his non leading man appearence. I always think of Mr. Arnold as an M-G-M actor, but he had many great roles with other studios as well, a little unusual for that time. His role as Daniel Webster is hard to beat, but he came very close many times.

  • Raif D’Amico

    A truly excellent character actor,I liked him in any movie he was in. He was always believeable in his role. Best when he was BAD!!!

  • michael j.

    Edward Arnold was one of my 3 favorite character actors of all time, up there with Thomas Mitchell & Walter Brennan. I guess my favorite movie with him starring was the 1938 hit “You Can’t Take It With You”; and each time I see it, it seems I learn to appreciate him even more.

  • Anita Challinor

    I met him in the Harris Co. store when I worked there and he was a very lovable and polite gentleman,as well as a good actor, had a wonderful sense of humor. You could hear his laughter and booming voice all over the department.

  • CLangille

    Very good as a villain but underrated a bit as a comedy actor – my favourite Arnold role is as the banker in “Easy Living”. He managed to make a 30′s financier sympathetic and likeable – not an easy task in the 1930′s.

  • greeneyes

    Diamond Jim Brady in ‘Diamond Jim’ 1935

  • Richard Finn

    I too always enjoyed performances by Edward Arnold. I was once priviliged to see him perfom on stage in a theater-in-the-round at the old Santa Rita Hotel in Tucson, AZ in the 1950′s.

  • Steven Wells

    Happy to see “Sadie McKee” mentioned; I consider it among his best. So many remember him most for his more villainous roles, but he made a great “nice guy,” too (as in the Duncan Maclain films). In “McKee,” he runs the gamut: from genial when drunk, to violent when denied liquor, and finally kindly and caring when “rehabbed.”

    And in “The Toast Of New York,” he begins as a lovable – if ambitious – rogue who becomes corrupted by riches and power.

    He elevated any film in which he appeared and, villain, nice guy or anything between, was always a delight.

  • jmarm

    I agree with K.G that the radio series “Mr. President” in the 40′s and early 50′s was the best. Mr. Arnold made it so. I recently ordered the series on CD and am revisiting those stories now in my 70′s.

  • Bob VanDerClock

    I’m reaching way back here..but I think he was also in the old 1933 whodunit thriller “The Secret Of the Blue Room” (a staple of all those Universal-type horror/mystery movies that came en masse to TV in the late 50s) and also a film about he and his son BOTH being in love with the same woman (God was that woman a ‘looker’ too!), a battle he inevitably loses.. but can’t remember the title…..Arnold was an unforgettable bad-ass character actor.

  • Tlynette

    “Raif D’Amico says: A truly excellent character actor,I liked him in any movie he was in. He was always believeable in his role. Best when he was BAD!!!” Yes, indeed!

    DB Norton in “Meet John Doe,” was as badass as they come! He’s one of the reasons why I’m such a fan of good ACTORS vs ‘movie STARS.’ There were so many good actors that didn’t get all the press the ‘stars’ got, but made whatever movie they were in that much better.

  • Jeff Silver

    I enjoyed reading your article on Edward Arnold. I had the privilege of working with him on his radio series, “Mr. President”, whenever the show called for a part portraying a president’s young son. He would always have early morning coffee and sandwiches brought in from the famed Brown Derby restaurant with milk for me at our script readings. No matter how many questions I asked him he always took the time to pay attention to me. The last time I worked with him was shortly before his death on TV in the series “Climax”, the show being “Deal a Blow”, which was later made into a movie “The Young Stranger”, James MacArthur’s first movie. Mr. Arnold was really one of the nicest individuals I ever acted with. A gentleman first class!

  • Charles

    A fine actor and scene stealer. He was funny as the father in DEAR RUTH with Joan Caulfield, William Holden and Mona Freeman.

  • Tlynette

    As oily and smarmy as he was in Meet John Doe, it’s sure hard not to like him in every role he’s ever played. Scene stealer, extra-ordinaire!