There are very few character actors from the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s who rose to the rank of stardom. Only a rare man or woman reached the level of renown and admiration, and had enough audience appeal, to be the first name in a cast’s billing, a name that got marquee posting. Charles Coburn comes to mind, but there aren’t many others. However, one who made it was Edmund Gwenn.
Gwenn was born Edmund Kellaway in Wandsworth, London, on September 26, 1877. He was the oldest boy in the family, which at that time meant he was the only one who really mattered. His father was a British civil servant, and he groomed Edmund to take a position of power in the Empire. However, early on, the boy had a mind of his own. For a while, his inclination was to go to sea, but that ended when one of his forebear’s in the Queen’s Navy was court-martialed for exceeding his “wine bill”. In addition to that, Edmund had poor eyesight and perhaps most importantly, he was his mother’s darling, and she kept having visions of shipwrecks and desert island strandings. As for the civil service, to the boy it seemed like a “continent of unexplored boredom”.
He attended St. Olaf’s College and would attend King’s College in London as well. Surprisingly, he excelled at rugby and amateur boxing. Meanwhile, he developed a strong inclination to the stage, partly because of his admiration for the great English actor, Henry Irving. A major roadblock to that ambition, however, was his father, who, at that time, was stationed in Ireland. When Edmund broke the news to his father that he had chosen acting as a career, there followed “a scene without parallel in Victorian melodrama.” His father called the theatre “that sink of iniquity.” He predicted that, if Edmund went into theatre, he would end up in the gutter, and then literally “showed him the door.” Years later his father would admit he had been wrong, but that didn’t help the young man during an all-night crossing from Dublin to England during which he had time to reflect. He was penniless. His experience consisted of a few performances in amateur productions, and he knew that if he failed, there was no going back home.
However, in 1895, at the age of eighteen, he made his first appearance on the English stage with a group of amateurs just turned professional, playing two roles, “Dodo Twinkle” and “Damper”, in “Rogue and Vagabond”. For a long time afterward, he refused to go on stage without a false beard or some other disguise, fearing someone would recognize him and tell his father (it’s a bit ironic, by the way, that Edmund’s younger brother Arthur would also become an actor using the name of Arthur Chesney). During the next few years, roles were hard to come by but, by 1899, he made his first appearance on the West End in London in “A Jealous Mistake”. This was followed by ten years in the hinterlands acting with stock and touring companies, gradually working his way up from small parts to juicier roles. While with Edmund Tearle’s Repertory Company, which toured the provinces, he played a different role each night. It was excellent training, in that he acted in everything from William Shakespeare to old melodrama.
About this time, he married Minnie Terry, niece of the more famous actress Ellen Terry, a marriage that evidently was short-lived. Most sources list it as beginning and ending in 1901, perhaps only for a matter of days or even hours. From that point, Gwenn would remain a bachelor for the rest of his life. He seems to have preferred not going into any details about the marriage and divorce, and Minnie Terry, who outlived Gwenn, apparently never mentioned what happened, at least not publicly. That same year, however, he went to Australia and acted there for three years, not returning to London until 1904. There, he took a small part in “In the Hospital”, which led to his receiving a postcard from George Bernard Shaw, offering him a leading role as “Straker”, the Cockney chauffeur, in “Man and Superman”. Gwenn accepted (by this time he was Edmund Gwenn) and the play was a success. Shaw became a sort of professional godfather for him. He appeared in “John Bull’s Island”, “Major Barbara”, “You Never Can Tell”, “Captain Brassbound’s Conversion” and “The Devil’s Disciple”, all by Shaw. He spent three years in Shaw’s company, years which he called “the happiest I’ve ever had in the theatre”.
From 1908 until 1915, he performed in new plays by noted playwrights of the time, including John Masefield’s “The Campden Wonder”, ‘John Galsworthy”s “Justice” and “The Skin Game”, J.M. Barrie’s “What Every Woman Knows” and “The Twelve Pound Look”, as well as Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” and Harley Granville-Barker’s “The Voysey Inheritance”. By this time, World War I had started and Gwenn, despite his poor eyesight, was inducted into the British Army. Most of his time during “The Great War” was spent drawing supplies up to the front lines, while under fire. He was so successful at this task that, after a year as a private, he received a steady stream of promotions until eventually becoming a captain.
After the War, he returned to the stage and, in 1921, made his first appearance in the US in “A Voice from the Minaret” and “Fedora”. He would return to America in 1928 to replace his friend, Dennis Eadie, who had died while in rehearsal for “The House of Arrows”, but for most of this time, he was in England doing more stage roles and two dozen British films.
His first appearance on screen was in a British short, The Real Thing at Last (1916) in 1916, while he was still in the army. His next film roles were in Shaw’s How He Lied to Her Husband (1931) and J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions (1933). He was also in Unmarried (1920) in 1920 and a silent version of “The Skin Game” (The Skin Game (1921)) as “Hornblower”, a role he would reprise in 1931 for a talking version (The Skin Game (1931)) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. From then on, Gwenn was to work steadily until the end of his life. He appeared in English stage plays and films, eventually doing more and more on Broadway and in Hollywood. For example, he played the amiable counterfeiter in “Laburnum Grove” in 1933 (later to become the film Laburnum Grove (1936) in which he would star) and then with the entire British company brought it to New York. He was also a huge success in “The Wookey” in 1942, playing a Cockney tugboat captain. That same year, he appeared as “Chebutykin” in Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters”, with Katharine Cornell, Ruth Gordon and Judith Anderson. In such illustrious company, Gwenn was hailed by critics as “magnificent” and “superlatively good”.
In 1935, RKO summoned him to Hollywood to portray Katharine Hepburn’s father in Sylvia Scarlett (1935). From then on, he was much in demand, appearing in Anthony Adverse (1936), The Country Bumpkin (1936), Parnell (1937), and A Yank at Oxford (1938). In 1940, he was the delightful “Mr. Bennet” in Pride and Prejudice (1940), then made a 180-degree turn by playing a folksy assassin in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940). The year 1941 brought Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941), One Night in Lisbon (1941), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) and Scotland Yard (1941). Then came Charley’s American Aunt (1941), in which he romanced Jack Benny, masquerading as a woman. Other important films included A Yank at Eton (1942), The Meanest Man in the World (1943), The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) and Between Two Worlds (1944).
In 1945, he played villain “Albert Richard Kingby” in Dangerous Partners (1945). There is a peculiar scene in this film, which makes one wonder what director Edward L. Cahn was thinking. James Craig and Signe Hasso, the hero and heroine, are being held by the villainous Gwenn in a room, when Gwenn comes in to interrogate them. In the midst of this, the 33-year-old, 6’2″ Craig punches the 68-year-old, 5’5″ Gwenn in the belly and then forces the doubled-over Gwenn to release them. Admittedly, Craig and Hasso must escape, and Gwenn’s character is pretty evil, but knocking the wind out of the old man makes Craig seem like a bully and far less sympathetic.
After “Dangerous Partners”, Gwenn was in Bewitched (1945), She Went to the Races (1945), Of Human Bondage (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Life with Father (1947), Green Dolphin Street (1947) and Apartment for Peggy (1948). In Bob, Son of Battle (1947), he played one of his most unlikable characters, a father who beats his son, smashes his violin and shoots his dog.
Then in 1947, he struck it rich. Twentieth Century-Fox was planning Miracle on 34th Street (1947). It had offered the role of “Kris Kringle” to Gwenn’s cousin, the well-known character actor Cecil Kellaway, but he had turned it down with the observation that “Americans don’t like whimsy”. Fox then offered it to Gwenn, who pounced on it. His performance was to earn him an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor (at age 71) and, because it is rerun every Christmas season, he would become for many their all-time favorite screen Santa. Accepting the award, Gwenn said, “Now I know there is a Santa Claus”. He beat out some stiff competition: Charles Bickford (The Farmer’s Daughter (1947)), Thomas Gomez (Ride the Pink Horse (1947)), Robert Ryan (Crossfire (1947)) and Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death (1947)). As soon as he got the part, Gwenn went to work turning himself into Santa Claus. Though rotund, Gwenn didn’t feel he was rotund enough to look like the jolly old elf most people expected after having read Clement Moore’s “The Night before Christmas”, in which Santa “had a broad face and a little round belly / That shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.” He could of course wear padding, but he resisted that as too artificial. So he put on almost 30 pounds for the role, a fair amount for a man of his short stature, and added nearly five inches to his waistline. The problem was that after the film was finished, Gwenn found it hard to lose the extra weight. “I’ve been stocky all my adult life,” he said, “but now I must accept the fact that I’m fat.” As was his nature, he didn’t get upset, and instead was able to laugh about it. Six years later, when playing an elderly professor in The Student Prince (1954), he had a scene in which he entered the Prince’s chamber, struggling with the buttons of a ceremonial uniform. The line he was given was, “I’m too old to wear a uniform,” but Gwenn suggested a change which stayed in the finished film, “I’m too old and fat to wear a uniform.”
Gwenn had lost his hair early on, and had no more concern about it than he did about his portliness. In a fair number of films, such as Pride and Prejudice (1940), he appears bald, but he also played many roles with a toupee if he felt that worked better for the character. He would select a hairpiece that helped achieve the look he was after for the role. As regards the rest of his appearance, Gwenn is commonly listed as 5’6″ tall, which may have been accurate when he was a younger man, but by the time he was a Hollywood regular he appears to be at least two inches shorter. Plagued by weak eyesight since his youth, Gwenn wore a pince-nez for a while, and then glasses, off-screen and sometimes on. Though he enjoyed fine clothes, he does not seem to have been in the least bit vain about any physical shortcomings he may have had. He looked a bit like a benign clergyman, perhaps of the Anglican faith, an image enhanced by his soft, almost soothing voice. He once said he was “always short and stocky, and not a particularly handsome thing. I could never play romantic leads.” After “Miracle on 34th Street,” however, Gwenn was a star and constantly in demand, especially when the role called for a kindly eccentric.
Gwenn remained a British subject all his life. When he first moved to Hollywood, he lived at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. His home in London had been reduced to rubble during the bombings by the Luftwaffe in World War II. Only the fireplace survived. What Gwenn regretted most was the loss of the memorabilia he had collected of the famous actor Henry Irving. Eventually Gwenn bought a house at 617 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, which he was to share with his secretary and “confidential man”, Ernest C. Bach, and later with former Olympic athlete Rodney Soher.
The year 1950 brought a pair of interesting films. In Louisa (1950) he and Charles Coburn were romantic rivals for the hand of Spring Byington. In one scene Gwenn socks Coburn in the jaw, though Coburn later bests him in arm wrestling. Gwenn wins Byington’s hand in the end. He was also delightful in Mister 880 (1950) as a kindly counterfeiter. Gwenn received his second Oscar nomination for his performance, though this time he lost out to George Sanders in All About Eve (1950) He did, however, win the Golden Globe Award.
In 1952 he appeared in Sally and Saint Anne (1952) as Grandpa Patrick Ryan, affecting an Irish brogue for the role. He played football coach Pop Doyle, teamed up with a chimpanzee, in Bonzo Goes to College (1952). “The Student Prince” followed in 1954, as did the science-fiction classic Them! (1954). This film raises an interesting observation. The year before, Cecil Kellaway had appeared in another sci-fi classic, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Watch the two films together and you’ll see that the two cousins are playing essentially the same role, that of an elderly scientist with a lovely daughter who is able to provide the hero, and the audience, with some scholarly background on the dangers they face. The two actors could easily have switched roles. “Them!” is noteworthy, too, in that it was a particularly physically painful part for Gwenn. By this time he was 77 and suffering from advanced arthritis. Several scenes in the movie were filmed in the desert, where the temperature often reached 110 degrees. The costumer had outfitted him in a wool suit for some of the early scenes. Joan Weldon, who played his daughter, has noted that Gwenn was in great discomfort and almost certainly could not have continued without the help of his valet, Ernest.
The next year Gwenn was in It’s a Dog’s Life (1955) and The Trouble with Harry (1955). His film work has some interesting patterns. “Dog’s Life” was at least the third time Gwenn made a film centered on a dog. He had already co-starred with Pal as Lassie in Lassie Come Home (1943) and Challenge to Lassie (1949). “Harry” was Gwenn’s fourth picture directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the others being “The Skin Game”, Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and “Foreign Correspondent”. Gwenn’s last feature film was Calabuch (1956), shot in Spain and released in 1958, when he was 81. As for TV, his most memorable role may have been as a snowman that comes to life in a Christmas night telecast on The Ford Television Theatre (1952) from a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Heart of Gold”.
Gwenn’s final days were spent at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, California. Having endured terrible arthritis for many years, he had suffered a stroke, and then contracted pneumonia, from which he died at age 81 on September 6, 1959. His body was cremated, and his ashes are buried in a vault at The Chapel of the Pines in Los Angeles.
Gwenn had appointed Rodney Soher as the executor of his will, in which he had left Minnie Terry one-third of his estate, his sister Elsie Kellaway a third, and Ernest Bach a third, in addition to his clothes, shoes, linens, ties and luggage. However, for some reason, while he was spending his last days at the Motion Picture Home, Gwenn signed a codicil to his will, in which he said he had given Bach the lump sum of $5000, and that was all he was to receive. After Gwenn’s death, Bach challenged the codicil, claiming that Gwenn was not of sound mind while in the Home and that some unnamed person–possibly referring to Soher–had unduly influenced Gwenn to change his will. The outcome is not known. There is a story that has been around for years that shortly before he died a visitor observed, “It must be hard [to die]”, to which Gwenn replied, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”. The story and the wording vary somewhat from teller to teller. Gwenn may indeed have said it, but he may have been repeating someone else. The quotation has also been ascribed to several earlier wits, including his mentor George Bernard Shaw and the famous actor Edward Keane. Gwenn’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame can be found at 1751 Vine Street.