Cult Comedies and Charismatic old Charmers – Charles Coburn (1877 – 1961)

Posted in Rewind by - June 19, 2014
Cult Comedies and Charismatic old Charmers – Charles Coburn (1877 – 1961)

Charles Coburn was another one of those wonderful actors who always brought a smile to the face. A big-bellied charmer, with a monocle and a cigar, he was a delightful character who always had time for his fans. A noted stage performer, he was well into his fifties before he began in movies, but in the following two decades he would create some truly memorable characters in some of Hollywood’s greatest productions.

Born on June 19th, 1877, in Savannah Georgia, Charles began working solely in theatre and, later with his wife, formed a stage company; The Coburn Players, and would appear on Broadway many times over the years. It was not until his wife’s death in 1937 that he started his distinguished Hollywood career, aged 60. Though, after a steady run of films in the thirties, it would be in the 1940’s that would see his movie career really take off.

After playing a delicious old rogue in Preston Sturges’ cult comedy ‘The Lady Eve’ (’41), Coburn was Oscar-nominated for the mistaken-identity comedy ‘The Devil and Miss Jones’ (’41), playing a tycoon who poses as a clerk in his own department store, in order to sniff out his trouble-making employees. Dramatic roles followed with the superior ‘Kings Row’, starring Ronald Reagan, and ‘In This Our Life’ (both ’42), as Bette Davis’ doting uncle. Back in comedy territory, Coburn won a Supporting Oscar for his scene-stealing role in George Stevens ‘The More the Merrier’ (’43), as a retired millionaire sharing a hectic apartment with two youngsters. Also that year, I loved his brief but funny turn as Don Ameche’s millionaire grandfather in Ernst Lubitsch’s wonderful ‘Heaven Can Wait’, and it was nice seeing Charles share scenes with Joan Fontaine in the superb melodrama ‘The Constant Nymph’ (’43).

After playing songwriter Max Dreyfus in Irvin Rapper’s George Gershwin biopic ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (’45), Charles received another Oscar nomination for the popular coming-of-age picture ‘The Green years’ (’46), playing an Irish orphan’s inspirational great-grandfather. A couple of decent thrillers followed, with the Lucille Ball noir ‘Lured’, and Alfred Hitchcock’s slick courtroom drama ‘The Paradine Case’ (both ’47), proving popular with both audiences and critics alike. Another noir came next, with the cult B-movie ‘Impact’, where his caring detective comes to the aide of a wrongfully arrested Brian Donlevy. A couple of lighter movies followed with ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’ (’49), a college comedy-musical with Donald O’Connor and Gloria DeHaven, and ‘Mr Music’, a Bing Crosby musical which had Charles as a theatre producer, and cameos from the likes of Peggy Lee and Groucho Marx.

One of Coburn’s best later performances came in Douglas Sirk’s 1952 comedy ‘Has Anybody Seen My Gal?’. Once again he played a millionaire, only this time he plans to leave his fortune to the family of his long lost love. The movie starred Rock Hudson and Piper Laurie, and is notable for its brief shot of James Dean in one scene. Staying with comedy, Charles was Marilyn Monroe’s boss in the fun screwball comedy ‘Monkey Business’ (’52), which had him experiencing a second childhood after drinking a rejuvenating formula. He was soon with Monroe again, in the feel-good musical-comedy ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (’53). In it, his irrational diamond-mine owner; Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman, is flirted with by Monroe’s diamond-living showgirl; Lorelei Lee. It was a fun role and remains one of Coburn’s most memorable performances.

After co-starring with Anthony Quinn in the memory-loss noir ‘The Long Wait’ (’54), Charles was in the UK for a serious role as the local doctor, in the rather good mystery ‘A Town on Trial’ (’57), with John Mills and Barbara Bates. After a cameo in ‘Around the World in Eighty days’ (’58), Charles’ final film role was as ‘founding father’ Benjamin Franklin, in the 1959 biopic ‘John Paul Jones’, about the famed Scottish sailor and revolutionary.

Married twice, with seven children, the friendly and approachable Charles Coburn died aged 84, on 30th August 1961, in New York. A larger than life personality, and one who brought warmth and humour to a whole host of unforgettable characters.

Favourite Movie: ‘Heaven Can Wait’
Favourite Performance: ‘The More the Merrier’

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