• 23 January 1889
  •  Newark, New Jersey, USA

Franklin Pangborn


Franklin Pangborn - a name more befitting a fictionalized bank president rather than a great comedic actor - was a singular character actor but little is known of his early years. He spent some time in developing acting talent prior to appearing on Broadway by March of 1911, and would do six plays until mid-1913. He was noticeably absent afterward and corresponding with the early years of World War I. He was in the US Army after America entered the war in 1917. Pangborn did one more play on Broadway in 1924. Interestingly, for someone immediately identified with comedy, Pangborn's roles were for the most part dramatic and included Armand Duval in "Camille", a role in a play adaptation of "Ben Hur", and two parts in "Joseph and His Brethren". Two years later, Pangborn turned to silent films. And although he would play some villains and romantic leads, that droopy pudding-face of his was bound for comedy. In all these early roles from his debut in 1926, his first talkie (On Trial (1928)), and on through most of 1932 (when he made 24 appearances on film), Pangborn was playing comedic roles, many of which were for short films (many by Mack Sennett) where the players usually had no on-screen persona and no billing credit. His many appearances in shorts tapered off and ended through 1935. These roles were quite varied and continued as such into the later 1930s. He played the compromised husband in two Bing Crosby vehicles (1933); no fewer than three photographers, reporters, radio announcers, bartenders, and much more, including a character meant to parody his own name: 'Mr. Pingboom' (Turnabout (1940)). But through the same period he was piling up a lot of clerk, floorwalker, and, perhaps most of all, hotel manager roles. These latter were the basis for Pangborn typed as the straight-laced, nervous minor official or service provider or manager of whatever whose smug self-assurance in his orderly world is sorely tested. The term 'sissy' (so prominent a condemnation from childhood memories) was used in early film (and still used today by some film historians) as a catchall name for a spectrum of rather gentle and nebulous male personalities; a simpering voice of any kind would be an instant label that also implied the taboo of homosexuality. Pangborn is often first on the list of actors noted as typed in this general category with Edward Everett Horton with his dignified but slightly simpering New England drawl a close second. Animator Robert Clampett at Warner Bros. in the late 1940s patterned his Goofy Gophers, Mac and Tosh, with their polite and flowery speech after both men. Pangborn had a mellow, lyrical voice which he could ramp up to a staccato, rapid-fire rhythm when perturbed. Indeed, the face and the voice fit well with characters of convention and control, as well as the fastidious to the point of being another slang term of many faces: 'prissy'. And maybe that does not include effeminate - he was not quite that - though the term is indelibly tagged to the character type. His characters were the sort of proper and snobby figures who the easygoing American public would find suspicious - and thus all the funnier on screen when they get their comeuppance. Yet Pangborn never implied 'gay' in his portrayals despite all the gender revisionism of today that might reinterpret his work as such. In real life, people are more complex; on the mainstream screen - as opposed to the shadowy blue one - of the 1930s and 40s, characters were more generally defined within usual convention. By the later 1930s, Pangborn had perfected a wonderful sense of timing of demeanor, manner, and voice to fit the control freak who is gradually dragged into his worst nightmare of relative chaos by hapless situation. By this time his characterizations were such a fixture of guaranteed laughs that the movie-going public expected to see him. Pangborn was in great demand to do what he did best. And having already worked from the silent era with great stars and directors, he continued to do so. W.C. Fields was a great fan of him and used him in several movies. He was a constant in smart comedy from Frank Capra and Gregory La Cava to the more extreme screwball comedies of Preston Sturges, though frequently upstaged with such a company of funny men as Sturges gathered around him. The Pangborn progression from very funny to uproarious is seen evolved, for example, from De Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936) to Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). In the first he is the volunteer swell who coordinates store-keeping for the scavenger hunt of his fellow - if downright silly - affluent crust of New York society. As the flow of items brought to him for registering turns into a flood (including a live goat kid), his demeanor, mannerisms, and vocal speed display increasing irritation. Head spinning, he is in defensive mode as he fends off shouting, grabbing participants. The role perhaps was his defining moment as established celebrity comedian. In Sturges's movie, and Pangborn appeared in most of his best efforts, he is the committee chairman of the reception for false hero Eddie Bracken, trying to coordinate festivities and caught in a literal battle of bands at the beginning of the film. Converged upon by various hokey town bands who all want to play the featured pieces, Pangborn attempts order but is methodically carried away as people out of the blue arrive to suggest other songs, and the bands continue to assail him with arguments, and finally all play all the songs - and all at once - to prove the most deserving. It is musical chaos with Pangborn finally reduced to desperate blasts on a whistle and jumping up and down, yelling "Not yet! Not yet!" It is one of the actor's finest pieces. Yet Pangborn's usual stock of characters could fit drama as well. Actually, in "Hero", his coordinator also has some straight scenes as well. In Now, Voyager (1942) as the cruise tourist director, his only problem is that Bette Davis has not arrived on deck to be partnered for the land touring of Rio. As an accomplished stage actor, he did miss the boards. Friend of Edward Horton, he was able to exchange his quirky screen characters for dramatic ones, participating in Horton's Los Angeles-based Majestic Theatre productions. But times changed for Pangborn's specialties. Movies were more diverse and updated as the 1950s ensued. But he was immediately adaptable to the small screen which would re-introduce him. He was right at home as a guest star on TV comedy shows, playing his beloved characters as cameo celebrations of his matter-of-fact stardom. There were a handful of film roles in his last decade with perhaps the overambitious and black-and-white dull but star-studded The Story of Mankind (1957) a bit of a showcase. Also in 1957 he had the singular distinction of being honored as guest announcer - a familiar enough role - and first guest star on the premiere of the "Tonight Show" with its first host Jack Paar. To pass away after surgery seems such a disordered way to go for one such as Franklin Pangborn whose on-screen characters struggled for order above all else. There is no order in the frailty of life by definition, but Pangborn's legacy, rich in comedic gems, has and surely will continue to endure.