Eugene Pallette: Underrated Performer of the Week

Eugene Pallette: One of the most reliable character actors of the 1930s and 1940s

Eugene Pallette (1889-1954)

One of the most reliable character actors of the 1930s and 1940s, Eugene Pallette was instantly recognizable by his signature deep, hoarse voice. He made almost 250 films, dating from the silent film era to 1946, and starred in a wide array of classic films. His impressive resume includes: My Man Godfrey (1936), Topper (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Lady Eve (1942).

Pallette was born in Winfield, Kansas, in 1889. He worked in theatrical touring companies as a young man and made his film debut in 1910. Slender and handsome, he worked his way up to leading man status by 1916. His most significant role was as the groom-to-be in the “French Story” segment in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Despite his screen success, he put his acting career on hold to serve in the military during World War I.

When Pallette returned to acting after the war, he had gained significant weight. He shifted his focus to supporting parts and worked steadily through the 1920s. When the sound era was ushered in, Pallette’s distinctive voice could be heard for the first time and he found himself in great demand.

He played Sergeant Health, a police detective in S.S. Van’s Philo Vance mystery novels in screen adaptations of The Greene Murder Case (1929), The Canary Murder Case (1929), The Benson Murder Case (1930), The Kennel Murder Case (1933), and The Dragon Murder Case (1934). William Powell played Philo opposite Pallette in the first four films, with Warren William taking over for the last one. Even though Pallette’s Sergeant Heath was often the comic relief (unlike in the bestselling books), audiences didn’t seem to mind at all–they enjoyed the Powell-Pallette bantering.

Pallette experienced much success during the 1930s, often playing exasperated heads of families or gruff bosses. His most well-known role came in 1938 when Warner Bros. cast him alongside one of the greatest ensemble casts of all time in The Adventures of Robin Hood. As Friar Tuck, Pallette got to swordfight Errol Flynn and trade insults with Alan Hale. He was the ideal choice for the rotund holy man who was tougher than he looked.

Eugene Pallette 1940

Eugene Pallette as Fray Felipe in The Mark of Zorro (1940)

In the late 1930s, Pallette built a large fortress-like ranch in Oregon, where he stockpiled large quantities of supplies allegedly out of concern that the U.S. might be attacked one day. He retired to his ranch in 1946 at the age of 57 and died eight years later.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and TwitterHe’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

  • http://www.facebook.com/charles.berger.96995 Charles Berger

    A really good actor who stole many a scene from the “star.”

  • Wayne P.

    Yes, he was a great scene stealer. He had quite a part, along with Marjorie Main, in the Don Ameche/Gene Tierney romantic comedy classic “Heaven Can Wait” where hes not speaking to her at breakfast but just wants to read the funny paper to see what happened next on the Katzenjammer Kids comic and she spoils the suspense for him by spilling the beans while the butler goes from one end of the table to the other talking for both of them while they argue about it! In the early silent era he even played a lead part with a great like Lon Chaney Sr. having the supporting role…he was the type of fine character actor that made the Studio Age golden. I also loved him as the dazed and confused father to Carole Lombard, who is helped out by butler William Powell in “My Man Godfrey”.

  • AGB

    As great as Carol Lombard and William Powell were in MY MAN GODFREY, Eugene Pallette and Alice Brady walked away with that film!

  • ChicagoGary

    A great, great character actor.