Family & Companions
"Maybe it was better never to become red hot. I'd seen performers like that, and they never lasted long. Maybe a long glow is the best way. At Metro I was never considered big enough to squire around Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford or Greta Garbo. Well, I outlasted them all at MGM, didn't I? It takes a lot of work to appear easy going, and I tried to avoid being stuffy."
--Walter Pidgeon, quoted by James Edward Bawden, "Walter Pidgeon: Team Player," Films of the Golden Age
If there was one constant in Walter Pidgeon's career it was the easy going charm that carried him through a variety of images: operetta star, "the other man," Mr. Greer Garson, elder statesman. That may not have been enough to propel him to the top rank of stars, but it kept him working for half a century and kept him at MGM, where he and studio head Louis B. Mayer shared a conservative approach to politics and a home town, St. John, New Brunswick, Canada.
Pidgeon was born in 1917, the son of a men's clothing store proprietor who died when he was only six. He had always dreamed of being a performer, so when his childhood sweetheart, Edna Pickles, moved to Boston in 1919 to study art, he followed, enrolling at the New England Conservatory of Music. He then won a spot in E.E. Clive's theatre company, making his stage debut in George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell. He and Edna married in 1922, and he gave up acting to support them with a job in a brokerage firm. When Edna died in childbirth, he named their daughter Edna Verne Pidgeon but asked his mother to care for her so he could return to acting.
Fred Astaire heard Pidgeon singing at a party and gave him references to two New York producers. Although neither had anything for him, singing star Elsie Janis also gave him an audition and signed him to tour with her in vaudeville. At the time, he was using Walter Verne as his professional name, but Janis insisted he keep his own name, arguing that "Pidgeon" was so funny it would stick in people's minds. Pidgeon toured the vaudeville circuit with her, introducing two Irving Berlin standards: "What'll I Do" and "All Alone." Janis then included him in her act in the revue Puzzles of 1925, which marked his Broadway debut.
His first Broadway engagement won Pidgeon a screen test for First National Studios, which hired him to co-star with Constance Talmadge. That film never happened, so he made his screen debut in the first of many "other man" parts in Mannequin (1926), starring Alice Joyce and Warner Baxter. With a Hollywood contract, Pidgeon sent for his mother and daughter.
When sound arrived, Pidgeon was a natural for the new medium, appearing in a series of operettas that showcased his light baritone voice. He chased Claudia Dell through 18th century England in Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930) and played a French Foreign Legion officer in love with cabaret singer June Collyer in Kiss Me Again (1931). By that point, however, musicals, and particularly operettas, were box-office poison. One of his films was even advertised with the line "Mr. Pidgeon will only sing once in this picture." At the same time, his personal life took a positive turn when he married his secretary, Ruth Walker. They would remain together for the rest of their lives.
Pidgeon tried to switch his career to straight dramatic roles. Although there were three songs in The Hot Heiress (1931), in which he's the society type who loses heiress Ona Munson to riveter Ben Lyon, he didn't sing any of them. With few decent roles available at the time, he returned to Broadway to take over Melvyn Douglas's role in No More Ladies. Then he got to create the role of gangster "Guts" Regan in Ayn Rand's sole Broadway hit, Night of January 16. The popular melodrama ran for seven months and revived Hollywood's interest in Pidgeon, though he turned down the role of Gaylord Ravenal in the 1936 version of Show Boat for fear of once again being type-cast as a musical star.
Independent producer Walter Wanger signed him to play second leads in glittery productions like Big Brown Eyes (1936), in which manicurist Joan Bennett helps police detective boyfriend Cary Grant break up a ring of jewel thieves (guess who turns out to be the ringleader?). From there he moved to Universal, which didn't do much with him. Good luck hit again, however, when MGM head Louis B. Mayer bought up his contract. Years earlier, Pidgeon had approached the movie mogul for a job. They had bonded over memories of St. John, and Mayer promised to call him when he had the right role. The right role was, as usual, a second lead, but this time he got to lose Jean Harlow to Clark Gable in Saratoga (1937), the blonde bombshell's last film.
Even as a supporting player, Pidgeon was treated like royalty at MGM. The studio had such an extensive production line-up, he even got to play leads in less expensive films like 6000 Enemies (1939), in which he's a no-nonsense DA sent up the river himself when he's framed for bribery. Pidgeon also had a sympathetic ear in Mayer. When he asked for the chance to prove he could do action leads, Mayer cast him as private eye Nick Carter in three fast-moving crime thrillers, starting with Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939). Those films kept him in leads, even as he was supporting top box office stars like Robert Taylor in Flight Command (1940), in which green flyer Taylor is suspected of seducing Pidgeon's wife (Ruth Hussey).
Pidgeon's move to more action-oriented roles must have made an impression on somebody at 20th Century-Fox, which asked to borrow him to play an American hunter who tries to assassinate Hitler then goes into hiding in Man Hunt (1941). The Fritz Lang film was one of Pidgeon's favorites, and also brought him his next major role. William Wyler was originally signed to direct How Green Was My Valley (1941) and got the studio to sign Pidgeon for a central role, as the Reverend Mr. Griffud. When John Ford took over the project, Pidgeon stayed in the cast, with MGM negotiating top-billing for him in one of the year's most prestigious films and the Oscar®-winner for Best Picture.
Back at MGM, Mayer decided to cast Pidgeon opposite his new protégée, a young Irish-born actress named Greer Garson. Their first teaming, in Blossoms in the Dust (1941), clicked with fans, leading to their making eight films together, playing married couples in seven of them (and in the eighth, That Forsyte Woman (1949), anybody familiar with the source material, John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, would know they were fated to be mated after the final titles). They were the perfect couple for the World War II era -- dignified, classy and quietly heroic. Yet that image, and the assumption that Garson did most of the heavy lifting in their films, blinds even their fans today to the amazing range Pidgeon displayed in the films. He may have been stoic in Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Madame Curie (1943), both of which brought him Oscar® nominations for Best Actor, but he got to show a more playful side in Blossoms in the Dust and Mrs. Parkington (1944). His role as an inveterate scamp in the latter moved him into Clark Gable territory, only with more sophistication.
By the end of the war years, however, the aging actor (now in his fifties) was too old for action or even much in the way of romance, leading to his move into elder statesman roles. Given MGM's extensive production slate, that still meant some leads. He played a crusading defense attorney taking on government corruption in The Unknown Man (1951), with an appropriately mature Ann Harding as his wife, and stepped into the shoes vacated by Ronald Colman, Ralph Richardson, Ray Milland, Tom Conway and many others as the famed British sleuth, now retired, in Calling Bulldog Drummond (1951). But he also was moving comfortably into character roles in MGM's bigger films. He had one of his best roles ever as an Air Force general questioning Gable's Command Decision (1949) during World War II and was part of the strong ensembles in the Hollywood roman a clef The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), with Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas, and the searing business drama Executive Suite (1954), co-starring William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck and Fredric March. But the days of quiet stoicism were over. An attempt at a sequel to Mrs. Miniver, The Miniver Story (1950), failed badly at the box office. And his final teaming with Garson, Scandal at Scourie (1953), which cast them as a Protestant couple who adopts a Catholic orphan, didn't do much better. Garson would leave the studio within a year.
Pidgeon continued with strong supporting roles, developing a cult following as the interstellar scientist Dr. Morbius in the science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet (1956). Co-star Anne Francis was so fond of him she named her poodle "Walter Smidgeon," which triggered gossip when a columnist got the dog's name wrong and reported Francis had run off to Palm Springs with the very married actor. By the mid-fifties, Mayer was gone from MGM, and the studio was not the house of glamour Pidgeon had loved. He left after playing Paul Newman's strict military father in The Rack (1956), one of the few actors to stay with MGM long enough to draw a studio pension. The only one of their classic stars to stay longer than he was Robert Taylor.
Instead of staying in Hollywood, however, Pidgeon returned to Broadway, first as eccentric Philadelphia millionaire Drexel Biddle in The Happiest Millionaire, then winning a Tony nomination as one of the stars of the musical Take Me Along. He lost the Tony to co-star Jackie Gleason and also lost the chance to play Biddle in the earlier play's film version, a musical produced by Walt Disney. The role went, instead, to Fred MacMurray, with Garson as his wife.
Pidgeon returned to the big screen as the rebellious admiral in Irving Allen's science fiction feature Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), taking star billing over such names as Joan Fontaine and Peter Lorre. It was more elder statesman roles that sustained him, including the Senate majority leader in Otto Preminger's political drama Advise and Consent (1962) and Flo Ziegfeld in Funny Girl (1968). While shooting a scene in the former with Franchot Tone and Lew Ayres, the former quipped, "Look, it's the MGM Newcomers of 1938!" (quoted in Bawden) Pidgeon even returned to the MGM lot, by then a far cry from its former glory, to play a U.S. Senator in Skyjacked (1972). He finished his career with a small role as the chairman of an international business conference disrupted by Mae West, also in her last role, in Sextette (1978).
At that point, Pidgeon retired from acting, mainly for health reasons. Several strokes affected his speech and mobility and eventually killed him in 1984. He was truly mourned in Hollywood, where he was not only well liked but was also one of the last survivors of the studios' golden years. Many obituaries referred to him as "Mr. Miniver," something he had predicted jokingly in later interviews.
TCM's Summer Under the Stars pays tribute to Walter Pidgeon with 13 films -- Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), Kiss Me Again (1931), The Hot Heiress (1931), 6000 Enemies (1939), Flight Command (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Mrs. Parkington (1944), The Unknown Man (1951), Calling Bulldog Drummond (1951), Scandal at Scourie (1953), Forbidden Planet (1956), Advise & Consent (1962) and Funny Girl (1968).
Cast (Feature Film)
Dropped out of college and enlisted in the Canadian Field Artillery
Toured with the Boston Light Opera Company; spotted by singer Elsie Janis who hired him
Appeared in support of Janis on Broadway in "Puzzles of 1925"
Feature acting debut in silent film, "Mannequin"
First acting role in a musical talkie, where he used his baritone singing voice, "Viennese Nights"
Distinguished himself with starring roles in John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley" and Fritz Lang's "Man Hunt", both released in the same year
First film starring opposite Greer Garson, "Blossoms in the Dust"
Earned first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his co-starring role opposite Garson in "Mrs. Miniver"
Starred as Pierre Curie to Garson's "Madame Curie"; received second Best Actor Academy Award nomination
Last of eight co-starring vehicles opposite Garson, "Scandal at Scourie"
Co-starred in the all-star production of "Executive Suite"
Hosted MGM's first TV series, "M-G-M Parade", an ABC variety series
Appeared as Dr. Morbius in "Forbidden Planet"
Starred as the father in "The Swiss Family Robinson", an NBC adventure special
Cast as the submarine's admiral in "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea"
Had role as the US Senate Majority Leader in "Advise and Consent"
Played the King in the CBS TV remake of "Cinderella", with a score by Rodgers and Hammerstein
Portrayed Florenz Ziegfeld in the movie musical "Funny Girl"
Last TV-movie, "The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case"; portrayed the judge
Made final feature appearance in "Sextette"