The Bit Actors of Double Indemnity

Guest blogger Allen Hefner recently contacted MovieFanFare with this article he wrote about the various actors of Double Indemnity:

No one can argue that Double Indemnity (1944) is not a wonderful film noir classic. It is the very definition of the genre. The only thing I didn’t like about the film is Barbara Stanwyck as a blonde, and I don’t think I’m alone. According to legend, director Billy Wilder realized his mistake in assigning her the wig, but it was too late in production to go back and reshoot. A story was later brought forward to say that he wanted that look to underline the sleaziness of the character. I doubt that story. Stanwyck’s portrayal was much more intelligent than that.

But I don’t want to discuss the stars here. Leads Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson don’t need any of my words. Who else was part of making this film so good? Let’s look at the Bit Parts.

Tom Powers (1890 – 1955) was in over 130 other titles. His career spanned work at the Vitagraph Company, starting in 1911, all the way into the television era. Powers made over 40 silent films, including an uncredited part in Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), an early live-action/animated short. He worked in silent films until 1917, and then went to the theater, becoming a playwright and actor. 

In 1944 he was asked to be Mr. Dietrichson, Stanwyck’s husband and eventual murder victim, in Double Indemnity. That started another film career for him. He made 26 films in the 1940s alone. Look for Powers in The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Angel and the Badman and The Farmer’s Daughter, both from 1947. 

Powers worked with James Cagney and William Bendix in The Time of Your Life (1948), an unusual film for Cagney. Other great stars were in many of his films (or was it the other way ’round?) but for some reason, almost all of his films just missed the mark and never became big box office hits, including Destination Moon in 1950.

He had a small part in We’re Not Married (1952) starring Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe, and worked with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Scared Stiff (1953). His television work was never regular, but he had gigs on The Lone Ranger and The Adventures of Superman, among several others. Tom Powers’ last movie role of note was in Double Jeopardy (1955) opposite Rod Cameron.

Porter Hall (1888 – 1953) played the witness, Mr. Jackson, who saw Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff on the train. It is interesting that Hall was in Going My Way the same year as Double Indemnity. Going My Way won seven Oscars while Double Indemnity didn’t take home any, and both pictures were made by Paramount.

Hall was an actor on the stage and gave movies a try late in his career. He usually played a villain, or at least just a grump. His first two movies starred Claudette Colbert and then Tallulah Bankhead. His third was MGM’s The Thin Man (1934), an early pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Off to a good start, I would say.

Many westerns and many prison films followed. He played a senator in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 and appeared in the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday and a western with John Wayne, Dark Command, both in 1940. In Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Hall is another bad guy, the twitchy Macy’s store psychologist trying to put Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle in a mental hospital.

It comes to mind that it would be a good thing to search out the lesser known films of some of these great Bit Actors.  In 1949 Porter was in Chicken Every Sunday with Celeste Holm, Dan Dailey and Alan Young (from Mister Ed).  His next film the same year was The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend starring (listen to THIS cast) Betty Grable, Cesar Romero, Rudy Vallee, Hugh Herbert and Sterling Holloway.  That has to be a good movie, but neither of those titles is available on DVD.

Some TV time started for Hall in 1950, and another Edward G. Robinson film, Vice Squad, came in 1953.  Porter Hall had 79 roles on the screen and in TV.  The people he worked with were truly incredible.

Back to Double Indemnity and Jean Heather (1921 – 1995) who played Phyllis Dietrichson’s step-daughter Lola, much more loved by her father than by Stanwyck’s Phyllis. Jean only made eight films, and her next role was in, you guessed it, Going My Way.  The following year she re-teamed with MacMurray and Hall, plus Marjorie Main, in the comedy Murder, He Says. The rest of her pictures weren’t much to write about, but she did get to act with some great stars. including Dorothy GishBeulah BondiCharles RugglesOlivia de HavillandGene Autry and others, all in a five-year acting career.

Byron Barr (1917 – 1966) played Nino, Lola’s boyfriend.  He didn’t play much else, with only 19 titles listed to his credit. 

Richard Gaines (1904 – 1975) played Edward Norton, Jr. Gaines is the real father of Virginia Holden, who was later adopted by William Holden. With almost 70 titles on TV and in movies, Richard always seemed to appear in less-than-top-notch films. Again, in the era of large production studios controlling their stars, he was able to work with some great actors and actresses. In the 1960s he frequently appeared as a judge on TV’s Perry Mason.

Another Going My Way and Double Indemnity alumnus is Fortunio Bonanova (1895 – 1969). He has over 90 titles on his resumé, and may be best known as the vocal coach to would-be opera singer Dorothy Comingore in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). In 1957 he appears in An Affair to Remember, but his is a name you probably won’t.

Don’t forget to look for Raymond Chandler (1888 – 1959) sitting in the hallway at the insurance office as Neff walks past. It was the only cameo filmed for Chandler, who is renowned as a novelist (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) and wrote the screenplay for Double Indemnity. He’s the one reading a paperback.

And finally, there is the Dictaphone. It plays a key role in this movie, and as our younger generation starts watching film noir, we can only hope they learn something about history and how things worked in the early half of the 20th Century. Neff uses multiple cylinders to record his story, and these can be seen in the final few shots when Keyes (played by E. G. Robinson) confronts him in his office. If some youngster asks what that thing is, please fill them in. A Dictaphone is way cooler than an iPhone, just not quite as versatile.

I have spoken before about how Bit Actors help to make great movies. In the case of Double Indemnity, it appears that the Bit Actors played second fiddle to the incredible story. I just watched the film a few weeks ago, and while writing this I was struggling to remember who played which part.

This movie belongs in the 100 Best Movies list, and I am glad it was selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry. 

Allen Hefner has been interested in movies since an early age, attending the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA for every Saturday Matinee during his youth, when 50 cents bought you a two-reeler (usually The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy), a few cartoons, and a feature film. As a member of The Sons of the Desert,he was privileged to enjoy the company of many film buffs, and to meet many stars of the past. Write to him anytime at bitactors@gmail.com and visit Bit Part Actors.

 

  • JIM RICK

    THANKS FOR THE INFO ON “DOUBLE INDEMNITY”….I WOULD SAY THE WORST ACTOR IN THIS FILM WAS STANWYCK’S BLONDE WIG….YOU WOULD THINK A BIG STUDIO LIKE PARAMOUNT COULD HAVE INVESTED IN A MORE REALISTIC WIG…OR MAYBE ASK BABS TO DYE HER OWN HAIR FOR THIS FILM, AS SHE HAD MANY TIMES BEFORE…..AND AFTER…..

  • Joel

    Babs is fabulous with or without a wig….

  • Juanita Curtis

    Love Double Indemnity and Barbara Stanwyck’s bad blonde wig. This is one of the few films I really enjoyed of Fred MacMurray’s – maybe he lifted his game working with actors of the calibre of Robinson and Stanwyck. Very interesting reading about the bit actors and how their careers panned out.

  • Richard

    Porter Hall’s best performance was probably in Intruder In The Dust, 1949.

  • eddie quillen

    A good movie with Fortunio Bonanova, where he has a decent part, is another Wilder movie, “Five Graves To Cairo.”

    Richard Gaines and Porter Hall both appear in another truly great Wilder film, “Ace in the Hole.”

  • DIRK

    okay its probably not worth posting here, but Steve Martin borrows Heavily the grocery store scenes for his ‘somewhat’ homage to the era in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID comedy.

  • Allen Hefner

    Great comments, one and all. Bit Actors can bring out the best in a movie, and there is always something to talk about. Thanks.

  • Veronica McDaniel

    I am 73 years young and I love the old black and whites. I have Netflix and it is wonderful all the noir films they have. I wish they made them as well today. We did not have to see them having sex, they left it to your imagination, and that was wonderful.

    • Allen Hefner

      Thanks, Veronica. Make sure you get to a theater to see The Artist on the big screen. Netflix just signed a deal to offer it, but silent films should be seen in a crowd, and this one is no exception. I have seen it twice, and the audience reaction at several points in the movie is worth the price of admission.

  • Stan

    Eddie Robinson’s character was my favorite in this movie. I agree though that the bit characters really add to the flavor of the film.

  • jim

    It’s a great movie.

  • John Stanaway

    Barbara Stanwyck was a favorite of several co-stars such as Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper and Fred MacMurray. One of the last – if memory serves – films Stanwyck and MacMurray appeared in was 1953′s MOONLIGHTER.

    • Allen Hefner

      Yes, The Moonlighter was their second to last pairing. They also made There’s Always Tomorrow in 1956 with Joan Bennett.

  • Rufnek

    When Stanwyck was on screen, I never looked at her wig but I sure remember the anklet she wore!

  • agb

    Many thanks for a fine article. I have always admired the lesser-known bit players in films….Almira Sessions, Milton Parsons, Esther Dale, Ned Sparks, Donald Meek and so many others who helped propel a movie from “good” to “great”. Without their presence, contributions, and characterizations, watching film would be like looking at an unadorned holiday tree.

  • Mary

    One of the best film noir. I think the bad blonde wig fits her character. Love the “bit actors” and it’s fun to recognize them in movie after movie even if you don’t know their names. Beulah Bondi, mentioned, is a favorite. She was a perfect mother to Fred MacMurray in Remember the Night and who could forget her tender adoption agency lady in Penny Serenade.

  • tlynette

    Yea, verily, YEA! You can’t beat the leads in this favorite of mine, but the supporting cast is great –and they get such great lines. Porter Hall was a riot in “His Girl Friday” and his lines in “Double Indemnity” were so funny: I can’t hear “Medford, Oregon” without laughing! It seems these unsung character actors/bit players/supporting casts/cameos, etc, know they’ll be onscreen for just a few minutes, so they make the most of it, and usually end up making a good movie that much better. They deserve a lotta love!

  • Allen Hefner

    I have always thought that Bit Actors are under much less pressure to bring in the performance of a lifetime, so they can relax in their parts. Plus, they get more parts to play so they can keep working.

    Extras, on the other hand, try their darnedest to NOT be recognized on screen. They want to be invisible so they can work more. Once they are given a line to read or their face comes into a closeup, they are less valuable as scenery.

  • gloee

    I grew up watching movies from the 30′s & 40′s because of my mom & dad knowing all that stuff of WWII generation, my sister would sometimes wake me in the middle of the night to watch a Bette Davis movie or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” on her very small B&W tv in her room really low in her room..the first time I ever heard of this movie was in high school in the late 60′s in a business class our teacher used it as an example of “double indemnity” insurance policy coverage..& saw it for the 1st time in 1990′s on TCM & have loved it ever since…thanks for info..& I agree with Rufnek..the anklet makes you forget about the wig..

  • Chimesfreedom – Pophistory

    Thanks for the interesting post about a great movie. Among other things, I didn’t realize Raymond Chandler had a cameo. Now I’ll have to go home tonight and pop in the DVD.

  • Stan

    Eddie Robinson’s character was my favorite in that movie. He brought the perfect energy to offset Fred McMurray’s character.

    • T L Miller

      His “Barton Keyes,” is one of my favorite EGR characters. He was great in this movie!

  • William Sommerwerck

    As for Miss Barbara Stanwyck’s sleazy/cheesy wig… It appears to have been recycled during the first season of “The Big Valley”. It looks absolutely ridiculous. (The series itself is strongly recommended — if you like laughing /at/ something, rather than /with/ it.)

  • tenther1

    A quiz question: (sorry, no prizes!) What character actor was the brother of a famous composer known for one work (hint: He didn’t look like his brother)

  • jrw

    Both Chicken Every Sunday and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend have now been released on DVD.

  • T L Miller

    Richard Gaines popped up as a judge in a lot of “Perry Mason” episodes, too. Jean Heather tickled me in “Going My Way,” and Porter Hall seems to be a riot in whatever he was in!

    • Bruce Reber

      I remember that Porter Hall played Bette Davis’ father in “The Petrified Forest” (1936), and Kirk Douglas’ editor in Billy Wilder’s “Ace In The Hole”/”The Big Carnival” (1953).

      • Wayne P.

        Porter Hall also is excellent, as a bad guy (his usual typecasted role), in “Murder He Says” 1945 with Fred MacMurray. Youve heard of the Gallup poll? Well, this one starts with a search for a missing “Trotter’ poll taker…they dont move quite as fast so theyre harder to find…its a gas! ;)

  • Roger Lynn

    Ms Stanwyck was great in this.. her best performance was SORRY WRONG NUMBER,,she should of won Oscars for both….she was beautiful in blonde,redhead, or even bald she was the best