Henry Stephenson: A Lovable Old Gent

What would classics such as Gone with the Wind be without the likes of Thomas Mitchell or Hattie McDaniel? What would It’s a Wonderful Life be like without character actors Beulah Bondi, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore, or Samuel S. Hinds? It is the character actors who give a film that extra special touch, and recognizing these same actors appearing in similar parts in various films gives the audience a feeling of familiarity, making them all seem like dear old friends.

Henry Stephenson is an especially lovable character actor. This kindly gentleman graced the stages of London and New York and the silver screen for nearly thirty years, often portraying genial men of distinction. His presence lent a touch of class to every film he appeared in. He played opposite Errol Flynn in five films at Warner Brothers, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 20th Century Fox studios kept Stephenson especially busy in historic period productions throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Henry Stephenson Garroway was born on April 16, 1871, in Granada (British West Indies) and was educated in England, where he also played rugby… but not professionally like that other famous British character actor C. Aubrey Smith. He made his Broadway debut around the turn of the century in “A Message from Mars” and, with the advent of motion pictures, Stephenson ventured into the new medium in 1917. Unfortunately, like many character actors, he did not make a name for himself until he settled into supporting roles, both on stage and in film.

At MGM and RKO, Stephenson found his niche portraying both imposing and benevolent gentlemen in such classics as Red-Headed Woman (1932), A Bill of Divorcement (1932), Cynara (1932), What Every Woman Knows (1934), The Night Is Young (1935) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1936). One of his most well-remembered films during this period was the classic Little Women (1933) starring Katharine Hepburn. Stephenson portrayed dear old Mr. Laurence, the March girls’ neighbor, who although having a face that “may frighten some people, his eyes are kind and I like him!”. C. Aubrey Smith would later portray Mr. Laurence in the 1949 MGM remake.

In 1935, Stephenson appeared opposite Errol Flynn as Lord Willoughby in the classic swashbuckler Captain Blood. He would also perform with Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) portraying either lords or dukes. Stephenson simply had that regal bearing that befitted one born of royal blood. He was a count in Conquest (1937), Marie Antionette (1938), and Suez (1938), and in the Deanna Durbin vehicle Spring Parade (1940) he was promoted to an emperor, none other than Emperor Franz Joseph.

But it was tender-hearted paternal roles that suited Henry Stephenson best. In the 20th Century Fox musical Down Argentine Way, Stephenson played Don Diego Quintana, a proud Argentinian who learned to quench the fire of an old family rivalry to see his son (Don Ameche) happily wed. Although he often portrayed wealthy and illustrious gentlemen, his characters were rarely arrogant, and never ever villainous. Quite the contrary. It was Sir Ronald Ramsgate (Stephenson) who enlisted the aid of the great Sherlock Holmes to protect the crown jewels in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), and it was Mr. Brownlow who helps rescue little Oliver from the clutches of Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948).

When World War II broke out in 1939, Stephenson found himself cast as military men in a number of morale-boosting films. Once again, he played men who had to carry responsibility and make judicial decisions that would impact a great many lives. He was General Cathaway in the romantic This Above All (1942), Colonel Blimpton in the B-film mystery Halfway to Shanghai (1942), and General Hetherton in The Hour Before the Dawn (1944). Stephenson was also memorable as General Fitzgerald in the enchanting Enchantment (1948) where he portrayed the sympathetic father who adopts the young orphan Lark (Gigi Perreau) to raise as his own.

Stephenson’s last film was made just a year later in Challenge to Lassie, the final installment of the popular Lassie film series. He would make a handful of television appearances before retiring. Stephenson passed away at the age of 85 in 1956. He was survived by his daughter and his wife of many years, Ann Shoemaker, who was herself an excellent character actress (Alice Adams, Stella Dallas, My Favorite Wife).

Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”

This article originally ran last year and is being reprinted as part of our ongoing tenth anniversary celebrations.