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):