Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Doomsday Watch with Eugene Pallette

I see by the Mayan calendar on the wall that I better get cracking on a long contemplated new feature here on Calliope Street. That would be a series of brief profiles from my personal Pantheon of great Hollywood character actors. So let's begin -- while we can, ye pathetic short-timers of Planet Earth, while we can! -- with the corpulent and froggy-voiced Eugene Pallette.

The Big Street movie Henry Fonda Lucille Ball Agnes Moorehead
You all recognize the face on that hamburger flipper, don't you? It's Eugene at his lovably comic best as Nicely Nicely Johnson (opposite Agnes Moorehead as Violette Shumberg) in the 1942 classic The Big Street. As kids, my sisters and I must have watched this flick 7,000 times or more on WOR-TV's "Millon Dollar Movie" so that we knew every line of snazzy Runyonesque dialogue. And we adored Eugene Palette. Ever since, I have devoutly scanned the opening credits of old movies on TCM hoping for the pleasure of seeing him again. You might want to catch him as the forever flummoxed tycoon Alexander Bullock in My Man Godfrey.

Now to the fascinating details of the actor as uber-survivalist. In 1946, after a busy film career dating back to the Silent Era as a formerly svelte and handsome leading man, Eugene retired to his 3,000-acre ranch in Imnaha, Oregon to await imminent nuclear war with the Russians. Eugene was a ferocious anti-Communist. He developed the ranch as a fortress and stockpiled vast quantities of food. A man must eat, after all, even during Armageddon with hordes of godless Reds banging down the door.

A man with Eugene's views would be a pariah in today's Hollywood, of course. There is talk on many fan blogs that he was a racist and an anti-Semite too, mostly recycled references to a nasty run-in with Otto Preminger from the director's biography. Sadly, character actors like Eugene Pallette rarely get full biographies so we may never know the unbiased truth. Meanwhile, there is ample evidence that Eugene was exceptionally sociable and well-liked. He had many pals in the movie business. Clark Gable, for example, was a regular ranch guest and trout fishing buddy on the Imnaha River. And the industry thought enough of him to give him a star on Hollywood Boulevard in company with big-name right-wing Tinseltowners like Adolphe Menjou, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Those were the days, my friends.

So perhaps it was loneliness that prompted Eugene to leave the hidey-hole. Or maybe he just got tired of waiting for the Cold War to turn radioactive. Whatever the reason, he moved back to Hollywood after a few years and died of cancer at his Wilshire Boulevard apartment in 1954. Eugene is buried in his native Kansas, beside his mother and father. Rest in peace you big, beautiful bullfrog. If things pan out as predicted, you were a man ahead of your time.