Family & Companions
With the transition in Hollywood from silent to talking pictures, audiences most often heard rather than saw Eugene Pallette coming. His once athletic build blown out to rotund proportions and his voice registering an octave lower than a bullfrog's, Pallette was a singular presence among the ranks of studio players during the Great Depression. He found his niche playing irascible big city cops, most famously in five whodunits starring William Powell as debonair sleuth Philo Vance, beginning with "The Canary Murder Case" (1929). Comfortable in the sackcloth of a country cleric, as in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) opposite Errol Flynn and "The Mark of Zorro" (1940) with Tyrone Power, Pallette was most widely seen in business attire, playing a Beltway fixer stumped by Senate do-gooder James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), and the patriarch of a wacky Depression-era family in the screwball classic "My Man Godfrey" (1936). Larger than life on the big screen, Pallette was no less outsized in his private life, where he allegedly opposed racial integration and was an early champion of Adolf Hitler. Growing fearful of an impending atomic Armageddon, Pallette stockpiled supplies on an Oregon compound but died of cancer in Hollywood in 1954. The memory of his unpalatable politics lost to time, Pallette lived on in the hearts of moviegoers as an indispensable element of Hollywood's Golden Age, a versatile character actor who could speak for the masses or drown out its voice with his own.
Eugene William Pallette was born on July 8, 1889, in Winfield, KS. Though his parents had been actors in their younger years (his mother, Ella Jackson, had once posed in costume for Matthew Brady), his father, William Baird Pallette, pursued a career in the insurance business. Educated at Illinois' Culver Military Academy, Pallette relocated with his family to Los Angeles, where his father assumed the position of general manager for the International Indemnity Company. Restless to make his fortune, Pallette joined a number of stock companies and served his apprenticeship in repertory before gravitating to extra work in films. He made his feature film debut for the American Film Manufacturing Company in Santa Barbara in 1910, but by 1913 was based in Hollywood. In 1914, Pallette appeared in 30 films as both a stuntman and actor. During World War I, he served with the flying corps. Trim in his twenties, Pallette brought an athletic presence to roles for D. W. Griffith, playing both a Union soldier and a Negro brawler in "Birth of a Nation" (1915) and waxing his mustache as doomed Huguenot Prosper Latour in "Intolerance" (1916).
Pallette appeared in three early films for director Tod Browning, among them "The Highbinders" (1915), which found him cast as Seena Owen's brutish Chinese husband. He had a small role in Scott Sidney's "Tarzan of the Apes" (1918), the first of many film adaptations of the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but had more to do playing Aramis to Douglas Fairbanks' D'Artagnan in Fred Niblo's "The Three Musketeers" (1922). Gaining weight and gravitas as he approached middle age, Pallette transitioned from romantic leads to figures of authority at home on either side of the law and order equation. An investment in a Texas oil field netted Pallette a small fortune that he lost in less than a year. Returning to films, Pallette signed with Hal Roach Studios and appeared in several shorts in support of Laurel and Hardy, among them "Sugar Daddies" (1927) and "The Battle of the Century" (1927), in which he played an insurance agent. Though he had made a living for himself in silent films, it was the advent of talking pictures that assured Pallette's fame.
Possessing a speaking voice two octaves below that of a bullfrog, Pallette distinguished himself with ease from the pack of contract players at Paramount. In "The Canary Murder Case" (1929), he played blustery police sergeant Ernest Heath to William Powell's unflappable sleuth Philo Vance, a role he reprised for four sequels. He was the draggletail Duke of Bilgewater in "Huckleberry Finn" (1931), the first sound adaptation of the Mark Twain novel. In Josef von Sternberg's "Shanghai Express" (1932), Pallette's garrulous American gambler was offered in comedic contrast to poker-faced lovers Marlene Dietrich and Clive Brook. He was a loquacious Louisiana sheriff in John Ford's "Steamboat Round the Bend" (1935), a busted Manhattan businessman in charge of a seemingly insane family in Gregory La Cava's classic comedy "My Man Godfrey" (1936), and an apoplectic hotel detective spooked by blithe spirits Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in "Topper" (1937). His weight having ballooned to near 300 lbs., Pallette was the perfect fit for the robe and tonsure of Friar Tuck in the swashbuckling classic, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), opposite Errol Flynn.
For Frank Capra, Pallette played a Washington fixer exasperated by honest senator James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) and for Rouben Mamoulian, a comic cleric in "The Mark of Zorro" (1940), starring Tyrone Power. He was back in pinstripes as Damon Runyon's Nicely Nicely Johnson in "The Big Street" (1942) and played the fall guy for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in "It Ain't Hay" (1943). Pallette was paired to good effect with Marjorie Main as Gene Tierney's bickering parents in the Ernst Lubitsch fantasy "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) and played another Beltway insider in the Fibber McGee and Molly vehicle "Heavenly Days" (1944). That same year, Pallette was cast as the father of British actress Jeanne Crain in Otto Preminger's "In the Meantime, Darling" (1944). In interviews, Crain alleged that Pallette was not only a bigot, who refused to share a table with black cast member Clarence Muse, but an admirer of Adolf Hitler as well. Due to the controversy, Pallette was fired from the production, with his character downsized to accommodate scenes already completed.
Pallette retired from acting after contributing a character role to the skating rink noir "Suspense" (1946), starring Barry Sullivan and Belita the Ice Maiden, a former Olympic contender making her film debut. That same year, growing concerned over atomic proliferation, he purchased a 3,500 acre plot of land in northeast Oregon for the purposes of constructing a fallout shelter, where he intended to sit out World War III. His health deteriorating more rapidly than world peace, Pallette was diagnosed with cancer, forcing him to sell off his Oregon compound and resign himself to ending his days in Hollywood. He died in his Wilshire Boulevard apartment on Sept. 3, 1954, at the age of 65, leaving behind a rich legacy of character actor work in all genres of Golden Age film classics.
by Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Short)
Made stage acting debut
Became leading man with the American Film Manufacturing Company
Appeared in D W Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation"
Interrupted film career for military service
Supported Douglas Fairbanks in "The Three Musketeers"
Made last silent film. "His Private Life"
Co-starred as the father in "My Man Godfrey"
Played Friar Tuck in "The Adventures of Robin Hood", starring Errol Flynn
Appeared in "The Lady Eve"
Final film "Silver River"