Sunday, December 13, 2009

Underrated Performer of the Week: Eugene Pallette

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: Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, The Ten Commandments (1923), My Man Godfrey (1936), Topper, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, and The Lady Eve.

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.

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. He died eight years later from cancer.


  1. What a great choice, Rick! I love this rotund little man. Of course my favorite is Robin Hood too. What an interesting story about his later life. Rather sad, really, to think of him being so fearful of attack that he made his own fortress. He certainly gave a lot of pleasure to movie lovers.

  2. Rick , just think Eugene got to "cross awords" with both Errol , Tyrone Power, and Basil Rathbone. He's great as a preist in The Mark Of Zorro.

  3. Very interesting and well written biography of this actor, Rick. And for anyone wanting to know what I look like... there you go.

  4. I've loved Eugene Pallette as long as I can remember - had to have been started with 'Zorro' and 'Robin Hood'...what kid didn't love him, with his froggy voice, gruff-but-good-guy comic relief persona...later on loved him again in "My Man Godfrey" and later still got to adore him as hilarious Horace Pike in "The Lady Eve." A perfect choice as underrated performer this week, Rick, thanks!

  5. Rick, this is an excellent write-up about an unforgettable actor. I loved him as Sargeant Heath, opposite Philo Vance, even with the comic relief that Van Dine did not incorporate in his character (kind of like the bumbling Watson that was not part of Doyle's character).

    I, too, love "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and agree that the cast is impeccable. And I truly need to revisit "The Lady Eve" again. Maybe over the Christmas break.

    I really appreciate your research, Rick. I have seen some of Pallette's earliest works but without being aware of Pallette's roles. One day it will be interesting to revisit some of those, looking specifically for him. Thank you for a remarkable look at this dear actor who truly is an underrated performer.

  6. Wonderful review Rick, on a actor that i do not know that much about.

    and Sark, now we know what you look like..let me see.. who do i look like...Goldie Hawn.. ;D